La Riera – Madrid
La Riera is a tiny, tiny town in northern Spain (I mean that very literally – it has a population of just 20), and is very difficult to access without a car, involving a somewhat convoluted route that took me the best part of 24 hours. These features may make it seem like an odd choice for a backpacker to visit, particularly a lone one relying solely on public transport. However, just 2km down the road from the remote little hostel I stayed in is the Picos de Europa National Park. And that’s something worth travelling for.
I arrived at around two in the afternoon, and was soon met with the reality of staying in a place as isolated as this: limited hostel reception opening hours. Locked out for two hours under the blazing Spanish sun was not how I had intended to spend that afternoon, but it could have been worse – the owners’ neighbour took pity on me and opened the door half an hour early. This waste of my time was soon compensated for, though, when the owners arrived and showed me something I had been missing over the last couple of weeks: bikes! For free! For me to use! In need of some food and another look at the surrounding hills, I set off on two wheels for the nearby town of Cangas de Onis.
Unfortunately, my thighs are in no way up to the challenge of cycling around the mountainous national park, so on day two I opted to take the bus up to the Lagos de Covadonga information point. I set off considerably later than planned (I have a tendency to turn off my multiple alarms while still half asleep before nodding off again none the wiser), arriving at the lakes just before midday. The views from this point are stunning, gazing out to the north and watching the clouds rolling in across the hills in the distance.
Walking uphill a little, I encountered Lago Enol, the larger of the two lakes here in Covadonga, with crystal-clear water and a rather large herd of cows gathered around the shores. The cows came as no surprise – there had been several forming temporary road blocks on the way up the mountainside in the bus – but I hadn’t quite anticipated how many of them there would be. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would spend almost all day dodging them at increasingly high altitudes and narrowing paths.
Aware of the time pressures of my day (the last bus back to La Riera was at 7pm), and having done worryingly little planning for a day in the mountains, I glanced at the hiking route signposts, picked one that looked about the right distance and set off. Thus, this day will henceforth be known as “The Day I Accientally Climbed a Mountain”. A word from the wise: check the elevation of a route before you start it, because if you have my luck, you’ll realise a little too late that you’re heading somewhere you hadn’t expected. Fortunately I was well-equipped with proper hiking gear and plenty of food and water, but it was a rookie error nonetheless.
Regardless, the route itself was spectacular. The Picos are unbelievably beautiful – at times resembling the Alps, snow-capped and surrounded by lush fields of wildflowers and, of course, cows. The only glaringly obvious difference between the two is the temperature, which was nearing 30 degrees Celsius as I walked along to the backing track of the chorus of chimes from the cows’ bells. Strolling through the valleys and pastures here, I found it hard to believe I was even in Spain, as the views are so far removed from what I had expected of the Spanish countryside.
As I climbed higher and became increasingly aware of the fact that I was most definitely in for a long uphill journey, I began my search for a spot to have lunch. It’s easy to forget how high you are when you catch a coach halfway up a mountain, but at these elevations there are no trees, and thus little shade from the sun overhead – the exposure is constant. Eventually finding a rock to cower under, I looked back and marvelled at the view behind me: total cloud inversion coating the landscape as far a I could see, punctured with the peaks of surrounding mountains rising up like tiny islands in an endless white ocean.
After four hours of hiking through this breathtaking landscape (it should have been three and a half, but several cow-related traffic jams saw me scrambling up rocks adjacent to the paths and taking a couple of detours), I reached the pinnacle of the journey – the Mirador de Ordiales. From below, this viewpoint is really unremarkable. It looks just like the brow of any other hill, a simple scattering of stones inamongst the grass. But if you climb a little higher, the view on the far side becomes visible, and it is unreal.
I’ve been sat on this train trying to think of an effective way to describe this view for over an hour now, but the truth is I can’t come up with one, because it really is that beautiful. Even the pictures here don’t give you the full effect; it has to be seen, and experienced, to be believed. It is just insane, and made me totally forget about the trials of the hike up to the viewpoint, which sits at an altitude of over 1,700 metres. I’ll try, of course, to describe what it felt like, but be aware that nothing I say can really do the Picos justice.
As far as I could see, mountains rose up from the valleys that separated them, countless in their number and forming row upon row of rocky peaks stretching back along the horizon. Between these, mist swirled upwards and along to the west, where the hills receded and ducked below the blanket of inverted clouds that hid the land below. There’s a natural balcony ledge here – a ridge of rock about two feet tall that separates you from the sheer drop on the far side – where I spent a good twenty minutes stood looking out at the park, jaw on the floor. Butterflies and bees dance around the flowers on the ridge, and in the distance the chorus of cow bells continues. The birdwatching is amazing, too – although my identification skills were limited to a few crows owing to my lack of binoculars or a telescopic camera lens (I swear I saw an eagle, though).
My reluctant return from the mountain turned out to be a little more treacherous than the way up – no cows to navigate around this time, thankfully, but the constant exposure to the sun coupled with intense exercise had left me more than a little overheated. Exhaustion was setting in, and dizziness and nausea soon followed. Fortunately I had lots of water remaining, but my mind suddenly became very, very focussed on one thing: getting back down. What had taken me four hours to get up took me half that time to descend, as I scurried down without a second thought for pictures or taking time to admire the view. Of course I was fine, I was always going to be – at no point do I think I was in real danger – but I might think twice before deciding to climb a mountain by myself in that kind of heat again.
Back at my hostel, and one much-needed shower later, I was once again packing my bags and preparing for the next leg of my journey. La Riera and the Picos were complicated to reach and challenging in nature, but so, so worth the effort, which I’m incredibly glad I made. Thankfully, however, the journey back to Madrid that I’m currently undertaking is the last time I’ll have to take such a tricky route. It’s less than a week until my flight home, and I’ve only got two planned stops to go, so it’s back to the capital for now.