The rugged countryside of northern Spain is ripe for haunting. Vast stretches of barren and rocky land is framed by lonely hills that look down upon even more lonely villages, with their crumbling churches and decrepit stone buildings. At least, that’s how it tends to look when you come to check out ruins on a rainy day.
We had come to check out the skeletal remains of Ochate, an abandoned village that lies about 15km south of Basque Country capital Vitoria-Gasteiz. Also known as Otxate, the name supposedly means “secret door” in Basque and has a murky origin. The village itself is said to first appear in the historical record in the year 1025, and it was once positioned near a highly-trafficked road connecting the fertile Atlantic coast with La Rioja. Throughout the Middle Ages Ochate’s population waxed and waned, but by the 1800s it was documented as a small village of cattle and crop farmers.
Then disaster struck. The village was supposedly hit by smallpox in 1860, typhoid in 1864, and cholera in 1870—a series of deadly outbreaks that ravaged the population of Ochate, while the surrounding villages were supposedly unaffected. By the 1920s the village had yet to rebound before the area was hit by the Spanish flu and several years of bad weather, destroying crops and decimating the harvest. Families fled, and by the 1930s the village was empty.
Things began to take a sinister and strange turn in 1936, when a shepherd was brutally murdered in one of the abandoned houses. In the 1970s, reports bubbled around of animals disappearing and a farmer gone missing while on his way to plow his fields. Then came the lights and the voices: Beginning in 1978 people reported seeing bright flashes of light in and around the village, some streaming out of the old church tower and others floating through the sky and disappearing into the mountains. This naturally caught the attention of paranormal experts and UFO hunters from far and wide, who came back with reports of ghost sightings and female voices surrounding the church tower yelling things like “Get out!” and “Why is the door still open?” In 1987, one researcher mysteriously committed suicide in his car, and another reported seeing human-like creatures dressed in black and standing nearly three metres tall.
SpooooOOOoooooky stuff. Ochate has enjoyed quite some time in the paranormal limelight over the years, and has been featured in books, magazines and on TV. Before visiting we actually had zero knowledge of any of this, however, and just happened to roll up on a rainy morning when the place was looking particularly gloomy. The remains of the town were heavy and silent, but it looked more like an archaeological hot spot and a rest area for shepherds than a haunted ghost town. The scariest thing we saw on the journey was the angry look on a shepherds face when we accidentally almost hit one of his flock with our car while passing them on a narrow dirt road just outside of town (pro tip: don’t bump idiot sheep with your car).
Ochate is about 15km south of Vitoria-Gasteiz, and accessible by either foot or car from the nearest village, Imíruri. A short hike further is an abandoned church, Ermita de Borgondo—don’t miss it like we did!