Backpacking in the Picos de Europa, September 2002
The Picos de Europa is a range of limestone mountains in northern Spain, within sight of the coast. The mountains rise to about 2600m. The range is compact - about 40km long east-west and 20km wide north-south. Jim and I intended a cycling tour of the area years ago, but never got round to it. When we started thinking of backpacking on our own, we found a 9 day circular tour described in Lonely Planet’s "Walking in Spain" and decided to give it a go.
Saturday 7 September
Flew Easy Jet from Liverpool to Madrid where we collected a hire-car. Spent the first night on a campsite just outside Burgos.. Steve had lent us his Terra Nova Voyager which Jim took a while to get used to – we use a palatial Hilleberg for cycle-touring. The Voyager has a much lower ceiling and no cupboard space – but it’s certainly more stable in the mountains. The first night’s weather proved to be much as the rest of the summer had been – thunder storms and torrential rain.
Sunday 8 September
Made a lazy start to the day, wandering round the centre of Burgos under grey skies, before heading north on quiet roads. The landscape improved the further from Madrid we drove, turning greener as we went. At the coast we turned west to Llanes, then to the village of Cue where Bill and Paddy (the parents of our friend Jude) have a holiday home. Late in the afternoon the rains began again, pouring down on the festival of "La Guia" (the local name for the Virgin Mary) in Llanes. Nevertheless, Bill insisted on giving us a tour of Cue and the coastal path – slippery mud and polished limestone underfoot threatened to break ankles before we even left the village! By the time we got back to one of the village bars so had half the villagers in their festival clothes, but they didn’t look as wet as we did! Not having eaten properly all day, we were starving, and learned our first new Spanish phrase - "patatas y huevos" Discovered that egg and chips goes pretty well with rioja.
Monday 9 September
Woke to what Bill calls "full egg" ie sunshine in a cloudless sky. The village was very quiet – lots of hangovers being nursed indoors. After breakfast we set off via the "Las Malvinas" petrol station where Jim practised his Spanish and got the SIG bottle filled with petrol for a few cents. Turned inland off the coast road, through the sprawling town of Cangas de Onis, then up the twisting road into the Macizo Occidental of the Picos – the Western Massive. Stopped at Covadonga to see the pink cathedral perched above the road, and the grotto dedicated to "La Guia". From the Mirador de la Reina we could still see back to the coast, but by now were well into the mountains. Just a few more hairpin bends to the car park at Lago Enol.
The plan was to leave the car here, spending the first night at the campsite or in the refugio promised by the guide book. Surprise number 1: campsite permanently closed. Surprise number 2: refugio closed for renovation. Revelation by park warden: camping strictly prohibited below 1600m. Options for the day: return to Cangas de Onis for the night, or set off to the next refugio as soon as possible. We started throwing stuff into the rucksacks and legged it!
The cloud had come down during the day and it was unpleasantly humid as we passed the upper lake, Lago de Ercina. The first half-hours walking wasn’t much fun, very wet underfoot and well trodden, the path churned up by boots and hoofs. At Vega de Bobbias, a small rocky meadow, the cows ambled around quietly and we were able to get some water from a spring. Gradually we climbed through banks of cool misty cloud, heading to Vega de Ario and the Refugio de Marques de Villaviciosa. We met up with a family group, 3 generations of Spanish and the English wife of one of them – good company, and we were to see them for the next few days. We all reached the Vega de Ario together as the cloud lifted for a few minutes, to give us a brief, fantastic view of the mountains of the Macizo Central on the other side of the Cares Gorge. Then it was on to the refuge. The guardian was a right stroppy bugger, definitely in the wrong job, generally unpleasant to everyone until our new Spanish friends told him where to get off.
Tuesday 10 September
Dawned full egg, and stayed that way. Left the sacs at the refuge and did a round trip to Jultayu, 1940m. This peak gives fantastic views across and down into the Cares gorge – and of the village of Cain 1500m below us, our destination for the day. Walking along the ridge we met a group of the beautiful, dreamy-looking Picos cows, all reluctant to move away from the edge so we took care walking round them. Found out later that a cow had fallen from the mountain a day or two before, so maybe they were waiting for a family member to return!
By the time we got back to the refuge it was late morning and hot. Set off again, heading toward Jultayu but turning east to find the top of the Canal de Trea. It was a long descent down scree and loose dirt, pretty steep all the way, took us over 2 hours. Apparently going up the Canal is something people only ever do once, usually due to bad planning. As the path dropped toward the Cares Gorge the passage narrowed and the path led through woodland of small oak and beech trees. The gradient didn’t let up at all, tree roots formed staircases to clamber down, and it was a relief to finally hit the deck of the flat, easy path along the gorge. After the effort of the Canal it was odd to see families strolling along, admiring the river flowing below the path, and the massive rock walls towering above us. We headed south a few kilometres to Cain.
The plan had been to camp at this village, in one of the fields. However, we were cooling off with a few drinks on the veranda of the Hostal la Ruta when we spotted an English couple from the previous night’s refugio. Sian and Phil had already booked into the hostal and when we heard the price we decided to pay up, for the pleasure of hot showers/baths and good beds. Money well spent. Met the big Spanish family later on - they were making shelters out of plastic sheeting to sleep in a courtyard, and we all ate together in the back-room restaurant run by the woman who owned the yard.
Wednesday 11 September
Sian couldn’t walk down the stairs at first, her quadriceps had set so tight! Found out that her walking experiences included Snowdon, Scafell and Kilimanjaro but little else, while Phil said he wasn’t really a walker but was reasonably fit. They had seen the Lonely Planet guide like us, and thought the route looked fun.
The river Cares flows northward past Cain, entering the gorge just north of the village. At this point part of the flow is diverted into a canal, to supply a hydroelectric plant 10km north at Poncebos. The canal is sometimes open to the air, other stretches are within the rock walls. In 1946 a path was cut to give access to the canal, and it’s this path which is now the busiest route in the Picos. It’s level and easy through the gorge, a bit more up and down where it widens out about two thirds of the way from Cain. By the time we got here the sun was burning down and some of those walking the other way didn’t look as if they were going to get very far.
At the sign for Bulnes we crossed the river on an old stone bridge high above the water. Jim, of course, decided he had to swim. OK, the setting was idyllic, the water looked great, the sun shone hot – but that water was f****** freezing – I couldn’t even paddle in it for more than a minute. Photographs prove that Jim did swim, but even he admits it was cold. From his private pool there’s a beautiful path eastward up a narrow valley. Until about 2 years ago the only way into Bulnes was on foot so everything was carried in by people or donkeys, and this path was a main route. Now there’s a funicular railway that runs inside the mountain from Poncebos, emerging just short of Bulnes La Villa. The last train had run as we got to the village so it was relatively quiet, and we camped in a field belonging to one of the bars. Walked uphill to Bulnes El Castillo, a group of houses perched on a rocky outcrop. A mixture of derelict cottages and recently renovated homes, overgrown gardens and lush meadows being scythed by hand. It would appear that this little place might have collapsed altogether if the funicular hadn’t been built.
Thursday 12 September
The hot sunshine continued. Said goodbye to the Spanish family who were heading over to Sotres, out of the mountains. We had noticed that the oldest man, the grandfather, was always in front of the group, striding along. Found out that he was in his 80s! He’d walked the mountains all his life but this was likely to be his last big walk, so it was his farewell to the Picos and it was a matter of pride that he was in front.
We were heading for the refugio at Vega de Urriellu, at the foot of the Naranjo de Bulnes. There are 2 possible routes. The direct route ascends quickly by a waterfall then through the narrow Collado Camburero and over a long scree slog on the west side of the Jou Lluengo. Our friend Jude and her brother had taken that way some years before and regretted it. We chose the longer, steadier alternative. Left Bulnes on a track that zigzagged through hazel copses, crossing a stream, passing a few empty cottages. On the other side of the valley we spotted the four students who’d shared our camping field, making heavy weather of the steep ascent by the waterfall. Eventually we came out into a huge wide open meadow, (La Jelguera). On the far side an old couple were scything the grass. A ginger cat played at stalking a hen and the brood of chicks which she kept huddling under her wings. Outside a cabin at the edge of the meadow a hand-painted sign advertised cheese for sale, the empty steel pots and pans shone in the sun. After a level stretch of pathway we began to climb away from the greenery back into the bright rocks, crossing patches of scree as we zigzagged upwards.
Reached the Refugio Vega d’Uriellu mid afternoon – it’s very posh! All dark wooden floors and tiled walls. Pretty big too – 90 or so beds. Sat out on the "terrace" and eventually realised that we knew the older couple we were talking to – met them on a Fell and Rock meet we were invited to years ago. They’ve been to the Picos several times and were "tidying up" some of the routes they had missed out before. At least an hour after we arrived, the first of the four students turned up, his mates another couple of hours after him – apparently the scree had been horrendous and the sun had made it even more hellish. Before it went dark wandered over the rocks to get some photographs of the almost-tame rebecos (chamoix) which were bouncing around, and to sit and watch the Naranjo de Bulnes – proper name Pico Urriello. It’s a bizarre lump of rock, 2519m, shaped like a mango stone stuck on its end.. As the sun sets it changes colour, hence its nickname, the orange of Bulnes. The surrounding scenery is quite alien, all hard clean rock, bouncing heat and light in the daytime but cold and grey as soon as the sun’s gone.
Feeling low on calories we booked the evening meal, but were too late to get anything veggie so just took what was served. I declined the main course, a meaty sort of stew but very dark, almost black. Jim ate his, unable to identify the meat, said it was a bit rubbery – no-one else knew what it was so I asked a Spanish bloke nearby. Calamares – squid – "Is Fish, Jim". Well, it didn’t come back up again so must have been ok.
Friday 13 September
By now we had realised that the maps we were using were not in the Ordnance Survey league. Basic mountain shapes were ok, but contours and details put in almost at will. The Lonely Planet notes were pretty good and we’d had no real problems but we gathered that this was likely to be the most awkward day. It was rock all the way, hard on the feet, and a longish day (book time 7.5 hours – our total time refuge to refuge was in fact 10 hours). Sian and Phil were still heading our way so we agreed to keep an eye out for each other. There was some mist about as we set off and it was pleasantly cool but within a couple of hours the heat was bouncing off the rocks again.
By now we were 5, having met Frank, a mad Irishman from Donegal, at Uriellu. Heading south, we crossed the Jou Sin Tierre, a huge crater in a lunar landscape. Round the basin and up, out and over into the next dip, the Jou de Los Boches. At the far side we were looking for yellow trail markers which should have led us to a scramble up a fixed rope. The description of this section had had me worried for weeks. Somehow we missed the "correct" route. Frank shot up the rocks at a rate of knots, Phil powered his way up like a steam engine. I didn’t like the shrapnel Phil dislodged from the narrow route so took to the open slab on the right. Sian had a quick "I can’t, I can’t" panic when she got her feet muddled up so Jim coaxed her over the first bit. Up a bit of scree and there we were – Horcado Rojos conquered. Except it wasn’t Horcados Rojos – we’d come over too far west, as a passing Spanish bloke disapprovingly pointed out to us Still, we could see where we were, and headed for the Cabana Veronica. This must be the weirdest overnight stop in the mountains. It’s a bright silver dome, once the cannon mount for an American aircraft carrier, now kitted out with 3 beds and a guardian. It stands on a rock platform painted dark pink and comes complete with picnic tables. There’s also a good view, including the top cable car station at Fuente De.
Getting from Cabana Veronica out to the cliff top path we wanted did not prove easy. There’s no path as such, because the area is just a jumble of huge rocks, great for scrambling around on but walking in a straight line is not an option. Following splashes of coloured paint was unreliable – they’d just stop all of a sudden – and there were cairns on every available bump, so we just headed in the right general direction skirting obstacles as we came to them. In poor visibility it would be a nightmare. Being limestone, the rocks full of holes big enough to swallow a leg, or a whole body in places, and it’s all very sharp. Sian might have looked a bit girlie wearing gloves but she saved herself a few cuts. Eventually we got through the Torre de Casares and made our way down another huge bowl (Hoyo del Sedo) and picked up the path that runs along a cliff top above Vega de Liordes. The map shows the path at the bottom of the cliff at this point!
Still a couple of hours to go. Uphill again, to Las Collidanas. Strange rock formation – a rounded rock perched on a pinnacle - Jim named it the teradactyl’s nest. At last the Refugio Diego Mella came in sight – looking as if suspended on a vertical hillside, Collado Jermoso, way across a steep scree slope. Phil was desperate for a drink and almost ran the rest of the way. The path felt a bit dodgy, especially when a flock of rebecos decided to take a higher line than mine and send stones winging down around me. Jim and Sian took the rebeocs path and got to the refugio before I did. This place really is to be recommended – it’s not big so probably gets overbooked in peak season but you can camp if you want to (and if you can get the pegs into the ground). The setting is magical, high up (2046m) with views of the Macizo Occidental on the other side of the Cares Gorge, and back over the Macizo Central. (And there was a good-looking Spanish man who managed to unlock my trekking pole when everyone else had failed.)
Saturday 14 September
Down, down, down all day. Back toward the water spring and the scree slope but turning off right to a short steep down-scramble. I directed Sian down backwards, assured here that she could safely wedge her foot into a gap - and she did, too well. Only way out was to untie boot, remove foot from boot, tug boot out of gap and put it back on foot. A scratty bit of rope that you wouldn’t trust an inch, fixed to "help" with the descent. Impressive fans of scree on the opposite side of the Vega de Asotin, from which we could hear the sound of sliding stones at regular intervals. A helicopter flying back and forth, at our level or below it. Down to the green meadow –two women walking with full packs, wearing nothing but boots and bikinis. Well brown but the thought of falling on the sharp rocks…ouch.
There was a proper path through beech woodland, shaded and restful if somewhat humid. Met Peter (Mr Fell and Rock) going the other way, to collect the car from Fuente De. Once out of the woods the path hugged the rock face, which had been cut away in places to give access. We’d come a long way down from Jermoso but the last half hour or so was still steep, as we dropped into the back of Cordinanes.
Hilary (Mrs Fell and Rock) was sitting outside the Pension el Tombo. We all decided it was time to get clean again, so booked a couple of rooms and used gallons of hot water in the showers. Jim and I handwashed essential undies then found out Sian just used the pension washing machine! Cordinanes is too small to have any shops so we walked up the road to the next place, Posada de Valdeon. The heat bounced off the tarmac and by the time we got there, all of 3km, I felt quite ill. Had to sit in the shade of the church eaves and cool off. Sian and Phil hitched a lift – both ways! We must be doing something wrong somewhere. We got fresh bread and cheese and wandered round the village taking in a bar, before walking back on the other side of the river – the Cares, in completely different mood to the stretch through the gorge further north.
Sunday 15 September
Woke with an ominous feeling in my stomach and made use of the facilities several times before setting off – having risked no more than a herbal tea for breakfast. Didn’t feel too good all day but at least there was no more to come out! Sian suffered later in the day so whether it was the heat or the wine we’d drunk with dinner …don’t know.
Saturday had been descent all day. Sunday was all the way back up again but on the other side of the Cares, back into the Macizo Occidental. It was a lovely day’s walking, hard work but varied. We knew we would have to camp rough that night, and that there was no reliable water source at the suggested camping area, or anywhere near it. In fact there is only one water source along the 2 day route from Cordinanes to Vegarredonda, so we knew we had to find that one source – using Lonely Planet notes and a dodgy map!
Leaving the village, the path slowly climbed through woodland, again pretty but humid and very close, overgrown in places. This route is obviously not as well-walked as what we’d done before. Gradually the path began to climb, rising more and more steeply up through the trees as it got closer to the rock wall. We finally met the rock at the bottom of the Canal de Capozo and began the real slog of the day. It was nothing like the Canal de Trea but we still needed to rest in the shade for a while as it levelled off. Now we started looking out for the spring which was mentioned in the guide. It was also marked on the map, but in the wrong place, too low down the valley. Finally Jim spotted a stone marker and then the spring itself – water was directed into a blue plastic bowl set into the rock. Luckily for us the bowl held a lot, as the spring was not actually flowing! The water in the bowl looked lively – lots of things floating around and swimming in it, a pretty green slime on the bottom. We’d got our Katadyn water filter so Jim and Phil set to filtering about 16litres of the soup – enough for the rest of the day, that nights cooking and the next day’s walking. Sian and I stayed ‘til our water bags were full then carried on uphill in search of the suggested camping place.
Again, we were misled and the last part of the day seemed to last ages, plodding uphill, both of us feeling grotty. Jim and Phil caught us up, and overtook me. By the time we got to the col, Vega Huerta at 2040m, I’d just about had enough for the day. The weather had closed in a bit and there was a fair breeze, but then the beautiful view made it all worthwhile. We could see back to where we’d stayed at Jermoso (almost) but also out to the coast. Ranks of silhouetted mountains, cloud down below us in the valleys, rebecos bouncing about – it was wonderful. There was great satisfaction in finding that the "intermittent spring" at the vega was just a very muddy puddle – the endless mugs of tea tasted even better. The wind was cool so we pitched Steve’s tent just off the highest point, finding enough soft soil for the pegs, then sat and watched the sky change colour. As it was getting dark another bloke turned up – Paul – to replace Frank who’d left us in Cordinanes. He’d run out of water some time before, and been drinking wine from his goatskin bag until he found the remains of the soup left by Jim and Phil.
Monday 16 September
Woke in the night to rain, still falling gently as we packed up. The cloud was low and for the first time since Cue we had to find our wet weather gear. Paul appeared to be drinking wine for breakfast, said he’d catch us up as we were all on the way to Vegarredonda. Two magnificent black and yellow salamanders made their way through long wet grass, legs moving as if in an exaggerated front crawl. We tramped north-west round the base of Aguja Corpus Christi, then up scree slopes into the mist. Just as we needed to see the way ahead the visibility dropped and it took a while to find the yellow markers to direct us to La Forcadona pass (2302m). Decided to wait for Paul rather than leave him in the fog, and after a while heard the tapping of his trekking pole along the rocks – real white stick experience! The scramble up to the pass was fine, a bit narrow and slippery in the wet but easy. The descent on the other side was messier, lots of loose rock and a small permanent snowfield (El Neveron) at the bottom. We could have managed but Jim belayed us off, not telling Sian that this was the first time he’d tried out an "Italian hitch". She was delighted to be "climbing", Jim was glad of the excuse to use the rope he’d carried round all week! Getting on to the snowfield was a bit tricky, probably a piece of cake for those of you used to such things, but we didn’t like the look of the big dirty gap between the snow and the rock. Once safely on the old, icy snow we gingerly padded across it then over a couple more rocky depressions with smaller patches of snow. Somewhere around here the cloud lifted and soon the sun was hot and bright again. The light reflecting off the limestone was harsh, and tiring on the eyes. The patches of colour in the rock and the tiny plants seemed to disappear in the glare.
The Jou Santu is a huge double depression stretching east-west. We stood on the col between its two bowls, with fantastic views all around. If we’d walked eastward eventually we’d have dropped down into Cain, but we headed northwest, through the little Jou de los Asturianas, then gradually down to the Refugio de Vegarredonda at 1410m. This is a lovely refugio in a green meadow, with a very civilised feel about it. Yet again we met Mr and Mrs Fell and Rock, and spent the last evening drinking cartons of red wine. Paul ordered rum and coke from the bar – ie the side hatch to the kitchen – it came in a plastic pint mug, full!. The refuge was busy, with an Exodus organised group in residence. We were gobsmacked when one woman changed for dinner, arriving downstairs looking immaculate, her outfit completed by a pair of strappy gold sandals! She and the rest of the group weren’t too taken with the dormitories. They hadn’t brought their own sleeping bags and weren’t impressed by the blankets provided. They made so much noise complaining Mr and Mrs Fell and Rock eventually gave up trying to sleep in the same dormitory and went to find a quieter room for themselves. Turned out they’d nicked the wardens’ beds!
Tuesday 17 September
Blowing a gale when we woke up, and it had been raining heavily. Still had a magificent view from the Mirador de Ordiales, over the mountains and way out to the coast. From there the last day’s walking was easy, through meadows and past shepherd’s cabins, scraps of beech woodland and clean streams. Even in September there are a lot of flowers – foxgloves, gentians, "thistles!!"… but in spring it must be delightful. Apart from the cows and rebekos and salamanders on the ground, we saw plenty of birds of prey – falcons, griffon vultures and, we think at least once, a pair of golden eagles. At Vega La Piedra we picked up the track that leads back past the closed refugio, Cabana de Pastores, to our starting place, Lago de Enol. Met up with Sian, Phil and Paul who hadn’t walked up to the Mirador, and joined them for a few beers to celebrate the end of our walk. I felt sad that we’d finished, but quite pleased with myself that I’d actually done it.
Sian and Phil needed a lift so we stuffed everything into the car which now had a cow pat decoratively arranged down one side, and drove back down the hairpins, past Covadonga to the heaving metropolis of Cangas de Onis. Deposited our passengers at the door of a very swish parador, where they had a night booked, courtesy of Sian’s mum. We carried on, out to a campsite at San Vicente on the coast for a couple of days of sand and sea.
Wednesday 18, Thursday 19, Friday 20 September
Spent two days wandering round the town and exploring the coast. Although the summer was definitely turning to autumn and the place was quiet, it was still warm enough to swim. On Friday we drove south again stopping to be tourists in Comillas (where the prices were ridiculous!) and to buy the chorizo promised to Steve for loan of his tent. Back in Burgos it was raining again, but we had a good night wandering round the city.
Saturday 21 September
Second breakfast in Lerma, tapas in El Molar. Late afternoon flight back to Liverpool and home. Later Bill and Paddy told us that the weather broke as we were leaving, and the 10 days or so that we were in the mountains was the best stretch of weather all summer!
Flights: Easy Jet Liverpool/Madrid. Other alternatives Stansted/Bilbao.
Possible to use public transport but buses through the Picos not frequent and the valleys make linking buses difficult. Hiring a car and leaving it at a car park may seem waste of money but if the weather had limited our walking it would have been useful to be able to drive elsewhere.
Maps used: Adrados Ediciones, Picos de Europa.
Macizo Occidental, Macizo Central y Oriental scale 1:25,000.
Picos de Europa y Costa Oriental de Asturias, scale 1:80,000
Not perfect but the best we could get hold of.
Guide book: Lonely Planet "Walking in Spain" pub 1999. Lots of other good-looking walks as well.