Located in Parque Natural de Gorbeia, the Itxina massif is full of features to ignite your imagination. With over 500 caves, jagged limestone cliffs and labyrinths, beech forests, and stone huts - it's hard not to create stories of some mysterious world high in the mountains of Basque Country. In fact, one of the caves inside this limestone world is said to be one of the regular homes of the Basque goddess, Mari. To make spark your curiosity even more in terms of the history of the area, remains of a Neanderthal were found in yet another cave.
Following Lonely Planet's Hiking in Spain guide book, we hiked the Atxular's Eye route into and through the Itxina. At about 10km, it's a great but not too challenging day hike into a magical place. However, route finding once you get into the Itxina can be a bit of a challenge if you're unprepared - at the very least bring a compass, a map or guide book, and a sense of adventure.
After parking in the Pagomakurre lot, you'll walk through a picnic area filled with stone tables (seriously, this whole hike is filled with fairy tale-esque tidbits) into a lightly wooded forest. You'll climb up towards the base of the Itxina through pasture land and as you begin get into the open, make sure to look behind you for beautiful views of Basque Country.
Along the route you'll want to watch for the appropriate paint markings to ensure you're on the right trail - when we hiked the trail in September 2012 we followed, or at least attempted to follow, the red markings which then seemed to change to yellow markings about halfway through.
Looking above the pasture, you'll see your entrance into the Itxina - the Ojo de Atxular, which is all that remains of a yet another large cave. The hike to the eye will be steep but amazing rewards await you on the other side.
Here's where my imagination really started running on overdrive - there's just so much to explore and so many places to get lost inside the Itxina. We wandered around this rocky area just after the eye for quite some time trying to spot the red paint swatches to guide us to Supelegor Cave, the home of Mari. We never ended up finding it, which according to the interwebs seems to not be an uncommon occurrence. While you're exploring this area make sure to watch your footing to both not trip on anything and to not fall into anything!
Like I mentioned, there are over 500 caves throughout the Itxina, so even though we didn't find our way to Supelegor - we did manage to find three other massive and deep caves. My adventurous husband ventured carefully into one of them, only to find a very sudden sheer drop of an unknown distance as our non-technical method of throwing sticks and rocks down to gauge the depth yielded nothing but silence.
After done exploring the caves, you'll follow the trail (once you find it again) back towards Atxular's Eye and head the other direction, gently meandering up through the most beautiful beech forests until you reach some open meadows.
Following the red paint markings through the open meadows (much easier now then through the forests and limestone labyrinths) you'll have some amazing views looking out around Basque Country and on a clear day, you should be able to see Bilbao. Here in the meadows you'll find a stone shepherds hut, along with the remains of a stone sheep pen, and if you're lucky some free range sheep.
Shortly after passing the shepherds hut and the sheep, the trail continues gently up through more beech forests until you find yourself at Arrabako Ate Pass. Here you'll climb out of the Itxina and into a high alpine meadow.
The meadow is actually part of a working farm, complete with a picturesque stream, horses, and cows - just all out there with you. So stick to the trail and eventually you'll see a farmhouse with a gravel road in front of it - make your way to the road for the last segment of the hike.
Making your way down the gravel road, back to the Pagomakkure parking area, watch for the small Basque horses rustling in the ferns above and below the road. Most importantly, soak in the beautiful views of the Basque Countryside on your right side before leaving.
If you're interested in exploring the Itxina yourself, Pagomakkure is in a very rural area and the closest major city complete with a variety of lodging options would be Bilbao. The easiest way to get to the Atxular's Eye hike is via private vehicle, however I believe it's possible to get to the valley town by bus and then hire a private car/taxi to take you to the parking area.
If you're interested in exploring the caves and/or don't feel comfortable with the possibility of getting lost along the trail, I would recommend hiring a guide or at the very least bringing a GPS device and some good maps with you. We only had a compass and the Lonely Planet guide book and we totally got lost trying to find the Supelegor Cave - but eventually found our way thanks to the compass.