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PAGASARRI: the lung of BilbaoBack

The Pagasarri is the most popular mountain in Bilbao and for many people, one of the most important symbols of the city, together with the Estuary, the “Casco Viejo” (Old Quarters), San Mamés or the Basilica of Begoña. The fact is that the Pagasarri, from its 671 metres of height, has witnessed the development of Bilbao from its tender childhood and many people have fostered their fondness for the mountain by running around and playing around the foot of the mountain. It has a lot of faithful visitors of all ages, who go there every day seeking a natural oasis where they can take refuge from the hubbub of the city.

The Pagasarri mountain forms part of the mountain mass of Ganekogorta, a haughty mountain that rises a thousand metres over the city of Bilbao, bordering the territories of Bizkaia and Araba. Framed by the rivers Kadagua to the northeast and the Nervión estuary to the southeast, its slopes spread along the municipalities of Bilbao, Alonsotegi and Arrigorriaga.

Ethymology describes the original appearance of this mountain. The word “Pagasarri” has two differentiated elements, namely: “Paga / pagoa”, which means beech tree and “sarri”, which means thickly dense, dense, etc. Therefore, we can picture the Pagasarri as being covered by a dense layer of beeches.


By 1300, the “Carta Puebla” of Bilbao, or Charter of Foundation of Bilbao, signed by Don Diego López de Haro, referred to this mountain that delimited Bilbao, as “Fagasarri”.

Its history is very similar to that of other mountains in the Basque Country, covered in oak woods, beech trees and holm oaks, providing wood, fruit and game to its first inhabitants. Some archaeological remains have been discovered (sylex stone chips on the surface of the same), which indicate that shepherding activities commenced during the Bronze age. Shepherds from the Bronze Age who took their herds to graze in the rich pastures of the mountain mass.

First it was shepherding, then the development of the iron and steel industry and the naval industry boom that during the 17th and 18th centuries generated a great demand for wood, exceeding the regeneration capacity of the forests of Bizkaia. One should bear in mind that between the years 1610 and 1630, the Naval Dockyard of Zorroza built over 40 war galleons, which entailed the felling of 6,000 oaks per vessel. The fires that the Pagasarri had to endure during the Carlist Wars finally depleted the forest wealth provided by this mountain.

The Pagasarri was absolutely desolate in the 19th century, having lost all its forest mass. Helped by the concern of local authorities and popular initiative, this mountain is slowly recovering part of its natural wealth.


As we approach the fields of the Pagasarri and, descending to the right, we will come across Tarin’s ice-boxes and fountain.

The ice-boxes of the Pagasarri date back to the 17th century, when ice began to be marketed in Bizkaia. These ice-boxes were underground cylindrical-shaped constructions whose objective was the storage and conservation of the snowfall from the winter, to be used during the hottest months of the year. Snow was compacted by treading, stored and separated with layers of grass, straw or ferns. The ice that formed was cut into blocks and transported to the customers during the night, as it was cooler. This ice was used for medicinal purposes, to help with fever, or as an analgesic. It was also highly appreciated for the preparation of refreshing drinks and delicious ice-creams.

Under the ice-boxes lies the fountain of Tarin, which was inaugurated in 1914 by a group of mountaineers who were gathered around the spring of Udoi, and decided to defray the expenses derived from the cost of construction by charging one “Tarín” (a coin worth 25 cents of the old pesetas) to subscribers.


The rocky area on the summit of the Pagasarri dominates an intricate landscape of crevasses caused by erosion, cracks, sinkholes, caves and walls, with a fertile layer of grass lying between them, creating an attractive and singular landscape.

Facing the crevasses, the surface of the rock has an irregular and rough structure with an abundant trace of coral fossils and rudistas that speak of a remote past under the waters.

One needs to trace history way back over 120 million years, when a warm and relatively shallow sea covered the land we are now standing on. Large coral reefs developed in those superficial waters, which have now become many of the mountains in our surroundings.

Subsequently, and during the Alpine Orogeny, a highly relevant geological period that shaped our landscape, a slow and inexorable moulding of the sedimentary basin that lay under the waters, began. The mountainous masses of the anticlinorium of Bilbao and the massif of Ganekogorta, where the Pagasarri stands.

When these materials began to come to the surface, the erosive processes returned and finally shaped the relief as it appears today.


There are a multitude of routes that leave from the bordering municipalities, offering a route of ascent to the Pagasarri from all flanks. We have opted for the route that begins at the Zabalburu square of the capital of Bizkaia, this being the most classical itinerary and one which is most widely used for the ascent.

From the square of Zabalburu itself, take the Juan de Garay street as it ascends towards San Adrián. Leaving this popular district behind, cross the bridge over the motorway. Go around the building of Iberdrola and turn left through the “Camino del Pagasarri”, going past the Garbigune (waste disposal bins for recycling).

After a deep turn, one gets to the road next to the farmhouses of Iko. A bit further up, we leave the road once more and walk on a concrete track that steeply rises to the farmhouse of Bentabarri, located on a beautiful meadow where the district fiestas and pilgrimages are held.

Continue uphill, now on the road, under the slopes of the Arnotegi mountain, going past a bar called Athletic and the farmhouses of Igerty, where this road will meet the track that rises from Buia through the valley of the Bolintxu stream. There used to be a dam there, which was destroyed by the landslides of 1983; it used to be very popular amongst the young people of Bilbao, who used to go there for a swim during the hot summer days.

After a short steep slope, we reach the barrier that hinders traffic from going to the slopes of the Pagasarri. To the left, a concrete platform brings us to the hermitage of San Roque, located in a bucolic spot, framed by the limy crags of Uzkorta, where there is an abundant autochthonous forest of ash trees, oaks, alders, maple trees, chestnut trees and holm oaks. These forests are the residual testimony of the old forest density that covered these slopes.

According to popular saying, a terrible cholera epidemic hit the population of Bilbao.

The alarmed population decided to erect a hermitage in the Pagasarri, dedicated to St. Roke, patron of plague sufferers. The saint was taken there in pilgrimage and it seems, according to the chronicles of the time, that the saint was diligent because the plague soon subsided.

We return to the barrier and climb through the wide gravel track until we get to a bend where three tracks fork out: One to the left, which goes into the woods up to the hillock of Pastorekorta and from there, it ascends to the Pagasarri through the hill range on the summit; the old path is in front and, albeit it is the most beautiful, it also happens to be the most demanding; finally, the wide gravel track continues to the right, going up until it meets with the path to Arraiz. All of these routes lead to the open fields of the Pagasarri and will take between one and a half, to two hours, depending on your stride.

The refuge stands to the left, where one can sit and rest and enjoy a well deserved snack or drink. The original building was constructed by the Town Hall of Bilbao in 1914 – a healthy life, naturism and the healthy mountain air were fostered in those days. For many years, this was run by Doña Francisca Intxausti, popularly known as “Paca” and this is the reason why people today still call it “Paca’s” bar.

In a short climb where a varied landscape offers the gentleness of the open fields and the rural physiognomy of the karst, we reach the summit, a magnificent balcony over the hubbub of Bilbao and the mouth of the Abra.

From the refuge, mountain fans can continue to climb the track that leads to the “campa de enmedio” (field in the middle), where the tracks divide and spread towards Zollo, Zanta Lucía de Llodio and Areta through the Espino fountain and the demanding climb to the mythical Ganekogorta.