I awoke bright and early on my last full day of Spain, which was no small feat considering I’d gone to bed fairly late the previous night, having stayed up to purchase my ticket to the MPC event in Scotland (more on that in a later post). I headed downstairs for the simple breakfast provided by the hotel (toast, jam and juice) before loading up my car and making the absurdly short drive to Poncebos just a few minutes away. The plan for the day was to hike the Ruta del Cares (Cares Trail) in the Picos de Europa, and I was pleased to be getting an early-ish start (9 am). The route itself runs about 12 km from one end to the other, connecting the villages of Poncebos and Cain.
I ended up leaving my car in the parking lot of a funicular that I planned to check out if I had time when I returned. Tiny backpack packed, armed with leggings and a Peaker t-shirt, I was ready for the day. Thinking (somewhat delusionally in retrospect) it might be cool in the mountains in the morning, I decided to wear my Lululemon pants over my leggings. I found my way to what I hoped was the right trail and started the uphill climb. There were only a few other people on the trail, which made for a peaceful, if not sweaty, walk. I was briefly worried that I was actually on the wrong trail, as I hadn’t read much about there being a lot of uphill to deal with. My concerns about being cold were disabused within the first 15 minutes of the hike. Despite being 9 am, it didn’t take long for me to strip down to my leggings and eventually my sports bra, as the temperatures were rising fast and any direct sunlight was warm.
The steady upwards incline of the trail was somewhat rocky, and I was soon glistening with sweat. To my dismay, I discovered that my water bottle had fallen off my backpack, likely when I’d set things down to get changed, so I was in for a dry few hours. Undeterred, I ploughed onwards and, after about an hour of uphill, the trail eventually flattened out, changing into more even packed dirt and stone. I was amazed that the trail had largely been carved out of the limestone cliffs, which afforded unbelievable views of the mountains and the Cares Gorge. It also made for some very precipitous drop-offs, which just made the hike all the more fun!
I remember at one point looking around, somewhat in disbelief that I was able to see these striking vistas, and whispering to myself: “see the world”. I am immensely grateful to have opportunities to explore this world and experience new things, and would so encourage others to do the same, if they can. We can so easily get wrapped up in our own tiny corner of the planet, that we can get a little tunnel-visioned and forget that there is so much out there to see. It was interesting, I also forgot for a moment what country I was in–and that it really didn’t matter, in some sense, as these mountains and rivers belong to the world, indifferent to the political borders imposed on them. It was an oddly comforting thought.
At one point, I passed a small, trickling stream of water collecting in a little pool at the side of the trail, so I stopped and gulped down a drink. An older American woman who was also stopped to wet her hat to keep her cool offered to give me one of her water bottles. As I didn’t want to deprive her of her drinking water for the hike, I politely declined. Her and her husband later passed me on the trail where I’d stopped to rest and offered again, at which point I took them up on their offer (they assured me they had 4 bottles between them). And I was definitely grateful for a drink. While the trail was flat and by no means arduous, my feet and legs were starting to feel a bit fatigued after several hours (and the accumulation of all the walking I’d done over the last 2 weeks). I’d also managed to develop a blister on a pinky toe during the trip from a different pair of shoes, and it was starting to make itself known again. I’d read that the Cares Trail was such that you could do a round trip (24 km), or just go to one end and take a shuttle bus from the village back to the start. I decided the latter might be the best plan.
I continued onwards, and the trail began to gradually descend closer to river level. I passed through numerous rock tunnels carved into the rock, over small bridges that allowed me to criss-cross the gorge. The last section of the trail involved a longer set of tunnels running along the water side that emerged to picturesque views of the river and the village of Cain, set against a looming, craggy mountain. After over 3 hours, I felt tired but victorious to have reached the end. I wandered into the village, which was predominantly small restaurants situated to catch trail hikers. I took a poke around but couldn’t seem to spot where the shuttle bus left from, so I decided to grab some water at one of the bars.
To my dismay, when I asked the bartender about the bus, she said that it no longer ran in June (just July and August now). There was no other way back to Poncebos other than taxi, which she said would run me about 120 Euros. It dawned on my sun-addled brain that I would have to make the walk all the way back. My heart sank, if only because I’d mentally prepared myself that I was coming to the end of my hike, and that all my aches and pains would soon be relieved. I wasn’t entirely sure my body was up for another 3.5 hours, but given that there really wasn’t any other viable option, it would have to be done. I summoned my inner Peaker and set myself to this new challenge. I stripped down further to athletic shorts and my sports bra, got myself a new bottle of water, and headed back to the trail.
Because I wasn’t stopping to compulsively take photos every few steps, I managed to make it to the halfway point in decent time, and I was actually feeling pretty good. I had put on some music and was focusing on just moving forward. The latter half of the trek, however, was a bit more of a slog. My legs were really starting to feel the strain, and my feet were increasingly destroyed (I was actually limping at a certain point). The sun and heat were in full force at this point in the day, which helped sap my energy further, and I tried to rest frequently in the shade. At the beginning of the hike, there had been an uphill climb followed by a descent, which I soon remembered would now be an uphill climb and a descent. It wasn’t a particularly steep hill, but there was no shade anywhere–no respite from the blasting sun. I took to wearing my t-shirt draped over my head and back to try and take the edge off, as I slogged up the seemingly never-ending hill. Mercifully, I made it to the top and remembered there was a largish map at the crest, so I huddled in its shadow for a bit to cool off.
I willed myself to keep moving, knowing it was all downhill from there (heh). I shouldn’t have been surprised, but my knees really started to object to the descent. I gingerly shuffled along the trail, picking my way down the, at times, quite rocky slope. I stopped in the shade of a large tree for a bit, drinking the last of my water and munching on a Cliff bar, which made me the subject of interest to some local mountain goats. I eventually caught sight of the road and parked cars below, at whose sight I gave an unashamed whoop. Home stretch! Buoyed by the knowledge that I’d almost made it, I was able to pick up my pace, half jogging my way down the final bit of trail in relief. I don’t know if I’d ever been so grateful to see a road in my life. I limped towards the car park, stopping in at a little restaurant to grab more water and to sit down fully. I sank into the warm, comfortable embrace of the driver’s seat and headed off to my hotel for the evening, about 1 hour away.
It was an easy, picturesque drive through the verdant countryside, with the last honey-coloured rays of sunlight bathing the mountain tops. I eventually pulled into the small town of Santillana del Mar, rather amusingly named since it is not a saint, flat or by the sea (as implied by the name). Google maps was having a difficult time with the tiny, old streets, and I ended up making several loops around, trying to find the right turn off. The streets were largely dominated by tourists, who looked at me with a mixture of amusement and annoyance, and I worried that I wasn’t actually allowed to be driving in the town (I later found out that cars are allowed only if they are staying somewhere in the city centre, which I was). I eventually found my hotel, Casa Organista, and gratefully collapsed in my room, unable to move for several hours. Driven by hunger, I hauled myself out of bed and made an effort to walk around the town. It was unfortunate I was so knackered because part of the reason I’d selected Santillana del Mar to stay in is that it was supposed to be a very beautiful, old town. I was able to glimpse some of that in my hobbled wanderings but would have to come back to really appreciate it fully. I settled on the Gran Duque restaurant, enjoying a multi-course meal involving fish paté, mushroom risotto and cheesecake before heading back to my hotel for the night.
Despite all my complaining of the blisters and fatigue, it was a truly amazing hike. I have never really been a hiker, I think in part because I can get bored of the monotonous plodding through endless forest. What I loved about this hike was that the trail was so epically situated, such that there were constant amazing views throughout the duration of the hike. I owe a debt of gratitude to MPC for preparing my body, even somewhat, to endure what was the longest hike I had ever done. It wasn’t my original plan to walk 24 kilometres, but I’m a little bit proud that I managed to face the challenge and survive it (more or less in tact). Indeed, 2017 is my year of challenges, a year to test my limits and learn how much I can do and how strong I can become. And this was a challenge well-worth facing–a fantastic final day to cap off a wonderful two weeks in Spain. Adiós España! Until next time.