Hiking in the Picos de Europa

I was afraid to travel alone. I kept scaling back my plans, and then canceling them at the last minute. I blamed it all on being stingy. A weekend in Paris became a weekend in Ronda, which I was always planning to do on the nebulous “next” weekend. When “next” weekend finally comes around, it will be a full itinerary indeed.

And so I stayed in Seville, weekend after weekend, until one week I was homeless. With nowhere to stay, I bit the bullet and bought the necessary transportation. I was going to spend 7 days in 7 places with 4 different hosts, going to the beach and up into the mountains all by myself.

But it didn’t really hit me that I was traveling alone until I was in the mountains, strolling through the black-and-white rocks of the Picos de Europa, bending over tiny orange and yellow orchids with blossoms the size of the fingernail on my pinky; as a matter of fact, I thought about it most while scrambling over pitted rocks to follow a waterfall into a deep, dark cave.

La Cueva de Orandi

The cave was on the edge of a meadow, tucked between trees whose height hid a massive gash in the rock face. It must have been stories high, and as I approached, the walls of the cave abruptly plummeted into a black pit. I climbed inside, carefully avoiding some of the most pristine specimens of cobweb that I have ever seen, and peered over the mossy edge of the furthest rock to watch the water disappear just meters away. I was the world’s smallest dentist looking down the throat of the world’s biggest snake.

I was not very brave about this pre-beginner-level spelunking. Despite remaining well-lit by the full afternoon sun, I jumped and looked all around me near 5 times. There was a strong animal smell that I was still too city-bred to place; could it be a bear? And what was that noise? Was there a noise? Was it me? And I was so very alone. I set up my bright orange backpack near the entrance as a beacon.

After a few seconds watching the water, I looked up and saw a bulbous rock the size of my bedroom hanging directly above me. Noting a similarity to the bulbous fallen rock I was currently perched on, I directly scrambled back out of the cave, satisfied with my bravery for the day.

Alone At Last; But What Is That Smell?

As a matter of fact, climbing the trail was the first time in my trip that I was actually alone. In Ribadesella, on the beach, I spent the full day with a German pilgrim named Willi, who tried to convince me to cancel the rest of my trip and walk all the way to Santiago de Compostela with him. Hopefully in a few weeks when he is finished with his pilgrimage he will send me some pictures from Ribadesella that I can share with you.

But I was glad to be alone in the mountains, and alone I was. There was no one in sight, ahead or behind, although the path was well-trod; I would find out why later. I had a bottle full of water, a package of trail mix, two apples, a baguette, some cheese, and a bar of chocolate-stuffed chocolate  — I think this might be my favorite lunch ever. I ate everything noisily, like a piggy, throwing back my head to pour trail mix directly into my mouth and scooping the melting chocolate bar up with my fingers; I ate the whole bar in one sitting in less than 45 seconds. Sweet Heaven!

After lunch, I had two options: beyond the Cueva de Orandi, I could continue on to the Lagos de Covadonga and try to hitchhike back in time to catch the bus, or I could turn around and… go to another mass in the giant pink cathedral. I decided to press forward, watching the time, turning back if I felt too chicken to hitchhike.

I saw brown mounds the color of fertile dirt with uniform size and character, though some looked squirted and some looked smooshed. They were porous but soft, and flies buzzed all around them and other bugs crawled all over them. What were they? Were they dug up from the earth by insects? Were they old, caved-in gopher mounds?

I saw large hoof-prints, but there were so many. Could these mounds be horse poop? But why was it so large and liquidy? And why did it poop so often? Perhaps it was a great group of horses — a horse-tour of the mountains.

At least it wasn’t bears. I settled on this explanation of “horse tour” for a while, and continued trekking. I followed sheets of sandy-white rock, pitted and dented but with smooth, rounded edges from rushing water. I saw old rural mountain shacks built out of bricks; I had to climb over the fence of one because the gate was wrapped in barbed wire.

At one point, I heard bells. Enchanted, probably, I followed the noise until an orange-brown backside presented itself to me around a bend. A young cow turned its head (with its white, curving horns!) and began to walk toward me. City-bred, I was scared of the cow, and so I ran away, crossed a nearby bridge made out of one large rectangle of stone, sat, and waited. Eventually three cows appeared on the hill across the bridge, meandering about and occasionally taking a chomp from some likely crest of greenery. They ambled toward the river and I watched a cow take a drink from the mountain river. I realized that I had never seen a cow drink before.

The cows seemed as clumsy as I was on the mountain, slipping and sliding over the rock as they pressed forward on the very same trail I was walking. And then, in the distance, I heard a whole cacophony of bells! Climbing higher up the mountain face to increase my vantage, I could see a vaquero herding some 20 cows along the trail. It was a narrow trail, and steeply dropping off into the shallow river down the side of the mountain. I always thought of cows as big, lumbering creatures, and by feeling impressed with this spectacle before me, I had to ask myself: did I think cows would not be able to balance on uneven ground?

At this point, I had run into a french couple who told me I was on the wrong path and not heading to the Lagos de Covadonga at all, but actually back toward Cangas de Onís. They arched their eyebrows at me and looked nervous when I told them I was alone. I briefly wondered about their reaction and how unsurprised strangers are to discover that I am a youngest child, but pushed the thought aside. I turned around and trekked back toward Covadonga, passing two stinky hippies herding another 20 cows, this time including several tiny calves, up the mountain.

I thought this was all great fun while I stood aside and watched them pass, but that was before I had to try dodging sickly-green-turd-covered rocks and is-this-a-cowpie-or-is-it-dirt mounds while declining nearly a foot with every step.

Well, that’s why the trail was so clear.

In Conclusion

When I got back to Covadonga, I saw the French couple waiting for me at the trail head. They told me that I was right after all, and the trail did make its way finally to the Lagos. Bummer. With no time to turn back, I washed my shoes, changed my socks, and went to church again; there is literally nothing else to do in Covadonga. Covadonga has one bar, one giant cathedral on an outcrop overlooking the valley, one small chapel carved into the cliffside above a waterfall, and one boring museum that the staff actually suggested wasn’t worth visiting.

Next time I come to Covadonga, I will plan to stay for a full day so I can complete the hike to the lakes. I will buy another chocolate bar and another bag of trail mix, because they were the most fun to eat. I will bring a working camera. I will wear hiking boots so that I don’t get rude stares at my dirty running shoes. I might do it alone, but I’m not sure.

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4 thoughts on “Hiking in the Picos de Europa

  1. Hehehe…I am sitting comfortably in front of my computer shaking my head in wonderment.
    Why doesn’t the knowledge I have gained over a lifetime get inherited by my children the way my many other quirky characteristics have? Why isn’t knowledge inherited? When will they create an app for that?

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