Crossing the border by accident: from la Rhune to Ainhoa

No accordion to wake up in the morning – it is chilly and I can see the morning mist covering the valley below like a coat. After a quick breakfast, I pack up and start walking
with the young couple. We soon pass the Rhune train railway heading to the top of the mountain but it is very early so it is not running yet. They soon start falling behind as the terrain is very muddy and slippery (they do have very heavy packs). I arrive at Sare an hour or so later where I resupply at the local supermarket and take a break at a Basque Pelota court.

If you want to know more about the Basque Pelota, typical of the Basque country, click here.


Ghost train

As I head out of Sare, I see a sign that indicates “Caves” if you follow the Discovery trail instead of continuing on the GR10! Oh my! Cave nerd alert! As I am not on a tight schedule, I decide to follow the blue trail, thinking it is a short walk and that I can resume my walk on the GR10 soon enough. It turns out it is not and I walk for a few hours, crossing private gardens, and fields and so on before arriving to my destination: the Sare Caves! They are commercial caves but they are huge and beautiful and I decide to buy a ticket to check them out. I am the smelliest of all the visitors here and the guide kindly let me store my pack inside their quarters. The guide is very knowledgeable and I wish I could go to all those nook and crannies where visitors are not allowed to go. There are several levels to the cave where the river used to go through, carving its way down the rock. This cave once hosted cave bears and humans thousands of years ago, it is now home for a dozen of bats species. You can find more information here.

I stop by the gift shop and buy myself a knife with the Basque symbol on it and the lady tells me to follow the Discovery trail to Ainhoa and the GR10. It’s noon and I pass several other caves that are used as a restaurant. It is here if you are curious.

After a quick lunch (baguette sandwich with cured ham and mayo – the best), I continue my way along this Discovery trail that is not very used and makes me do a lot of road walking. After a while, curious to see how much left I have before arriving to Ainhoa, I decide to check my GPS… OOPS! I am in Spain and making my way South instead of going West. Either I backtrack (walk for another 4-5 hours to make it back to Sare) or I keep going South to reach a road crossing and make my way back North-West. I decide to go with this option and finally reach a large, well deserved road. I check my GPS again: 1 hour walk along that road to cross the border again into Ainhoa (turned out, the trail was indeed heading back to Ainhoa but the trail was a whole day affair so I took the good decision).

I decide to hitchhike , hoping to get there faster as it is HOT on the Spanish side of the border. A few seconds later, a couple stops:

“Donde te vas?”

“A la frontera ! Ainhoa si es posible! Oh you are French – I am trying to cross the border sir!”

“Okay – we can drive you there but we have no back seat so you will have to get in the truck. Try to lay low when we will go through customs as I am not sure they would approve!”

“Sure, I can do that!”

And off we go, me laying in the trunk of that small car, chitchatting with this lovely couple who are also hikers and know the area well. As we drive through customs, I try to blend with the blanket and be as invisible as possible. We make it to town without trouble and I pop out of the trunk in front of a few surprised passerby.

Ainhoa is supposed to be one of the “prettiest towns of France” – it might be so but it is filled with gift shops and worst of all, tourists! Busloads of them. I shelter in a café where I order a huge glass of water as well as a Monaco – this will be my staple drink for the remainder of my hike.

I grab the last baguette at the local bakery and stop by a fountain to talk to two hikers: Robert and R. We chitchat for a few minutes before I make my way back to the trail. R catches up to me and we start ascending the hill leading up to the Aubépine Chapel. It’s a Stations of the Cross with no shadow whatsoever and it is still very hot. R soon leaves me in the dust literally and figuratively speaking. I stop by a house to get some water from an old man and involuntarily start a couple fight over the water running or not (obviously yes for the man, obviously not for the woman). As they start screaming at each other, I tiptoe out of the garden to let them settle this argument on their own.

Laundry and pony

When I finally reach the chapel, R is already here, with his tent set up and taking in the good views. The chapel is tiny with several Basque crosses right in front of the sepulcher, giving it a eerie atmosphere. R’s doesn’t show any water source but mine does – it is a water tank for ponies not too far from the trail where I can wash my clothes for the first time and remove the day’s stench and dust. R is bolder and take an actual bath in the tank when it is his turn to “bathing facilities”. I am trying to convince a very curious pony who seems eager to eat my sweaty t-shirt that it is a very bad idea when I notice what seems to look like a touareg/ninja on the path over me. It’s a tiny person running along with a backpack and a dog with a cloth wrapped around his (her?) head.

The mystery unsolved itself once I am back at the chapel. Her name is Ana and she is from Colombia, currently lives in Spain and is traveling solo for the past few weeks in the Pyrenees. She is very nice and we convince her to stay and pitch her tent with us next to the chapel. She travels stove less and was planning on stopping at Ainhoa to buy some cold food there. We put our food together so she can have a warm meal and stay with us. We talk hiking and solo travelling, she didn’t know the AT and sounds very excited at the idea of doing this trail in a year or so!


The sunset over the valley is gorgeous and we can still see the ocean in the distance. As there is barely any light pollution, the stars are out in full force and it is a gorgeous night to watch the sky. A few people drive to the chapel (cheaters!) and walk their way up the Three Crosses Pass. The dog is not happy with all those visitors and bark every time someone passes by. When the sheep come over for a midnight snack, it even growls at them. Possibly a safer but less calmer night ahead!


Start:  3 Fountains Pass.

End: Aubépine Chapel

Km: who knows?

Notable events: crossed a border by accident, hitchhiked back to France, made new friends

Disclaimer: I did this trip in September

Today’s elevation map

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