Cruz de Ferro: A Spiritual Experience

People who’ve already walked the Camino know that there’s one thing that should absolutely not be missed — Cruz de Ferro. Also known as the Iron Cross, it is set on a gently sloping hill that also happens to be the highest point of the Camino Frances.

The views offered from up top are incredible indeed, and the legends behind it are enough to spark the imagination of any history buff who’s looking for their next adventure. But most of all, the respectful peace of this spot is spiritually uplifting even for the non-religious, and travelers who long to see something unique that reflects much of the Camino spirit should definitely make a stop here.

If you’ll be walking the Camino de Santiago soon, here’s what you can expect from Cruz de Ferro.

Cruz de Ferro

The Legend

Located between Rabanal del Camino and Ponferrada, this cross is a bit of a mystery even for historians. Erected atop a five-meter wooden pole, most people believed that it was built for a very practical purpose — marking the way for pilgrims who walked the Camino Frances during the winter when everything is covered in a thick layer of snow. The landmark would rise high enough for anyone walking along the road to notice it and serve as a welcoming beacon that would guide the pilgrim to their destination. Whether this was its original purpose or not, most people today do use it to help them mark their way.

Some historians believe that it was a place used by the Celts even in pre-Christian times and that it was a part of an unknown ritual, while others believe that the ancient Romans used it to mark a border between two territories.

Speculations abound, but the most popular belief is that the cross was put there by Apostle James himself. As the tale goes, St. James was passing through the land on one of his evangelical missions, when he encountered pagan priests who were performing a ritual that involved human sacrifice. Full of righteous anger, he grabbed a stone from his pocket and threw it at the pagan altar. Guided by the Lord, the stone shattered the altar into a thousand tiny pieces, and St. James erected a large cross in its place to mark the power of the Almighty.

Regardless of what the actual truth is, Cruz de Ferro is beautiful to behold and climbing to the top of the hill will allow you to take in your surroundings from a different perspective.

Today’s Traditions

One of the best things about the Iron Cross is that it allows you to partake in a very old, freeing tradition. When you approach it, you’ll see that it’s surrounded by small rocks of all shapes and sizes and that most pilgrims who walk past tend to say a prayer and place a rock of their own near the cross. According to custom, if you bring a small piece of your own home town along with you, you may place it at the foot of the hill and symbolically “leave your burdens behind.” If you like, you may say a prayer and enjoy the profound peacefulness that envelops both hill and cross.

Cruz de Ferro

Getting There

While the climb to the Iron Cross is one of the most difficult parts of the Camino de Santiago, it can easily be managed as long as you’ve got a good pair of hiking shoes on your feet. You begin the climb just after Astorga, where you won’t even notice you’re going uphill for several kilometers. Even if you’re on a bike and need to be a little more careful, it’s still a very safe road that can be conquered with no issues whatsoever if you take an occasional break.

The cross itself is located in the León Mountains in the north of Spain, and you’ll come upon a few interesting places before you even reach it. Astorga itself is worth a visit because of its Episcopal Palace designed by Antoni Gaudí, and after you continue past Cruz de Ferro you’ll see a little town called Ponferrada. In it, you can find the imposing Knights Templar Castle that overlooks the river, and a big old town square full of excellent shops and restaurants.

Once you finally reach the cross, we recommend that you take some time to simply take in the scenery because it’s truly magnificent. The whole area is very soothing and breathtakingly beautiful, so make sure to snap a mental picture or two before you continue your journey.

Continuing Along Your Path

It’s worth noting that the descent can be a tiny bit more difficult than the actual climb in some spots, but it’s generally still safe and easy to cross. You’ll be able to see the El Bierzo province and its many wonders, and we recommend that you stop in a few villages and taste the delicious wines of this region before you continue ahead. With the memory of Cruz de Ferro in your mind, what better way to celebrate than with a glass of fine red?

Regardless of whether you’re a Christian or not, the Iron Cross is worth a visit due to the simple fact that it’s a part of the history of the Camino and that it is shrouded in a lot of interesting mysteries. Visit it, take your time to enjoy it, and you’ll surely find the experience to be very soothing.

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14 Comments

  1. Alastair Wilson on October 22, 2018 at 7:18 pm

    I walked the entire 500 mile Camino Frances in 2015. The whole journey was a fantastic experience which I enjoyed in wonderful weather. At that time I had four grandchildren and placed a stone on the Cruz de Ferro for each one of them. I now have six grandchildren so I am hatching a plan to re-visit the Camino starting in Astorga to place a further two stones on the Cruz de Ferro for the two additions to our family. Alastair (Author of Santiago On Two Feet).

    • Carmen Aquilina on October 23, 2018 at 5:07 am

      Well done Alistair. I’m planning to continue walking from Burgos to Santiago. Can’t wait! Waiting and hoping to become a grandmother…a thought I will be carrying and depositing at the Cruz de Feiro!!

  2. Cheryl Klampe Van Hess on October 22, 2018 at 7:45 pm

    If you walk the Portuguese Camino,do you pass the iron cross on the way to Santiago?

    • Leslie on October 24, 2018 at 11:04 am

      No, they are both far apart at this point.

  3. James on October 22, 2018 at 11:28 pm

    Cruz de Ferro was the most emotional day of my Camino

  4. Marc Beaudry on October 22, 2018 at 11:36 pm

    The only one major setback to fully enjoying a visit to la Cruz de Ferro as a pilgrim walking the Camino is your arrival there coinciding with the arrival of a bus full of tourists…. makes your experience much less interesting. And the buses arrive much more often than one would imagine.

  5. phil on October 23, 2018 at 6:26 am

    Sad that this is so one-sided. what about the car park?, the buses?, the day-trippers? It is nothing like the spiritual enlightenment you portray. Many people are disappointed to discover what it really is, or rather what it has become. I was seriously underwhelmed by it, sad to say. Yes, the tradition is great, and it IS a part of the camino experience, but it’s becoming less and less significant. “Absolutely not to be missed”….pah!
    What you describe as “the respectful peace of this spot is spiritually uplifting even for the non-religious” is not an absolute truth. In my own opinion, given my experience, this is not true. When I was there the spot was certainly not being respected by the bus load of selfie-takers.
    And anyway, I know you’re not going to post this.

  6. Lynne on October 23, 2018 at 8:43 am

    We walked the Camino Frances last April/May. We laid our stones at the Cruz Ferro, we are not religious but yes we did find it quite spiritual and moving to remember those we had lost over recent years. It was not too busy but we noticed the big car park nearby so perhaps it is not such a spiritual place in the Summer. One question we had was regarding the stones. There were not as many stones as we expected, in some places the mound was just bare earth. Do the local Council remove them every so often? I guess the pile would get too big if they didn’t.

    • Leslie on October 24, 2018 at 11:02 am

      I don’t know the answer to that, but I would guess so.

  7. John Woods on October 23, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    I came to the Cruz de Ferro a few times in my life and as far as I knew, you threw a stone ( or several ) for your sins : I wouldnt like to tell you the size number and colour of all the stones I’ve thrown !

  8. phil on October 24, 2018 at 5:19 am

    OK, hats off to you for allowing my post to stand. I respect that. Thank you.

    • Leslie on October 24, 2018 at 11:00 am

      I am usually not into censoring unless it is over the top. We all have different experiences, I have been there twice, but both times were early in the day and therefore experienced no tourist. But, similar has happened in other sections – just life I guess.

      • phil on October 30, 2018 at 3:55 am

        Cheers Leslie. I enjoy the site, THANK YOU, and hope to be back along the Camino some day.

  9. Robyn Barry on October 24, 2018 at 6:22 am

    I get what you are saying Phil and I heard similar comments when I was there a few weeks ago. If one is looking for an aesthetic experience there is likely to be some disappointment. However for me it was a symbolic and truly spiritual experience, influenced by the reputation and stories surrounding this place. I looked at this spot as being the end of the emotional phase, a place to leave my burdens behind and start afresh, lighter. It happened for me on many unexpected levels. I intellectually know many life’s lessons, we all do, however, when I have walked so far and taken the hard road to get to a place like this, the lessons infiltrate my very being and memory – physical and emotional. One example of what I experienced that day. After the Cruz a Bible message came up on my phone. This may sound weird, and it may be just a coincidence. I cannot recall this ever happening, and I had not been reading the Bible on my phone (i.e. using this app) during the Camino. The verse was:

    And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. 2 John 6 New International Version (NIV)

    I was blown away. The message made perfect sense to me and I can’t see myself ever forgetting that now. It will likely often slip my mind unfortunately, and to my detriment. For me though this verse said it all and addressed all the minor issues that I had been trying to deal with and process leading up to the Cruz. Everyone’s Camino is different, and I have to say my day of the Cruz was a very significant day for me. I am so grateful for the gem I received. I pray everyone receives something precious when on the Camino, if not at the Cruz, then somewhere else on the way.

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