What is it about mountain goats? Perhaps it’s their cross-species sociability. Their curious nature. Their direct gaze. And their amazing agility on steep mountainsides.
If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, you know that goats have been our travel companions on quite a few hiking trails. Their presence equalled the splendour of everything else on what’s considered one of the most spectacular hikes in Spain—Cares Gorge in the Picos de Europa National Park.
And that’s saying something because Cares Gorge has a lot going for it.
Long ago, the trail was the only route between the two villages of Poncebos and Caín and its walkers were mostly four-legged sheep and cabras herded by shepherds. Guess the name of the trail access road we started from near Poncebos? Arenas de Cabrales! An artisan blue cheese, Cabrales, by law must be made with goat milk exclusively from herds raised in a specific area in the Picos de Europa. Delicous.
The hike follows the Cares River, “gin-clear.” (The Spanish love their gin almost as much as the Brits.) It’s eleven kilometres long, and you see it all twice as the hike returns the same way. Twenty-two kilometres may sound like a long slog, but the trail is easy, mostly flat with only a 650 metre elevation gain. It’s the canyon that’s steep with the Cares River gushing below you, the mountains soaring beside you. But the path is reasonably wide, so vertigo isn’t really an issue.
Early on, you come to Los Collados, a group of ruined barns. You already know who they were for don’t you? There’s a modern barn soon after but the cabras seem to prefer gathering near the limestone overhangs the trail passes underneath, likely for the water dripping from the rock ceilings.
When you reach the abandoned hamlet of Camarmeña, you get the first good view of the canal—the reason this hike exists. Built between 1916 and 1921, the canal, which runs from Camarmeña to Caín, carried water from the River Cares for hydroelectric generation at the Camarmeña Power Plant and now, the Caín Dam. Below you, you may also notice the remnants of a road that the electricity company attempted to build so their workers could access and maintain the canal more easily. They gave up. Instead, in the 1940s they chipped a footpath through the rock walls. As one description reads, “The walking trail is a marvel in itself…the river becomes so narrow—if you were to stand in the middle of the riverbed, you could just about touch both rock walls before the narrow trail is forced into a series of tunnels.” To this day, Viesgo, the electricity company, maintains the Cares Gorge trail.
Magellan was quite fascinated with the engineering of the canal, especially the tunnelling they did through this rugged terrain a hundred years ago. “We’re really lucky they’re maintaining it today, patching leaks or whatever it is they’re doing,” he said as we watched the workers. “We get to see the river in its full glory.”
The stretch after Culiembro is the most beautiful, as the trail runs high above the river with two spectacular crossings: Puente Bolín (with the Prieta Waterfall nearby), and soon after, Puente de Los Rebecos.
The Picos de Europa, Spain’s first national park, is also a UNESCO biosphere reserve—and Cares Gorge boasts its share of flora and fauna. Holm oaks, bay laurel, wild fig, walnut and lime trees, maidenhair ferns and the Petrocoptis, a pink/white flower in the campion family that’s unique to the Picos de Europa. Cares Gorge is also known for its birds—we saw griffin vultures. And cabras, which I’ll get to in a minute.
All the guidebooks warn you about the crowds—300,000 people walk the Cares Gorge each year. On a Monday in mid-September we saw few people on the trail, until we neared the village of Caín. And they didn’t seem like hikers. There were people wearing flip-flops. Women carrying nothing,not even a bottle of water. Women toting nothing but a handbag. A couple of guys hovering in the mist under their matching umbrellas, large, black and imprinted by Audi. We concluded that most of them were walking a few kilometres out of Caín and then turning around.
A nice thing about hiking in Europe is you don’t have to carry a lunch and a lot of water because often there’s a restaurant somewhere along the way. At a café in Caín, Magellan and I lunched on fabada, a hearty broad bean and meat stew, washed it down with a bottle of cider and filled our water bottles. (Not with cider; we had to retrace our way eleven kilometres back to Poncebos.)
We prefer loop hikes. And yet the journey in reverse often yields new perspectives that surprise and delight. It was on the return that we came upon a small herd of cabras that proved to be the highlight of this eight-hour hike.
“Did you know Cares Gorge is also called the divine gorge?” I asked Magellan. Ever ready with his dry wit, he said, “Maybe it’s because of the holy goats.”
Our constant hiking campion throughout the Picos de Europa was Teresa Farino’s guidebook, Landscapes of the Picos de Europa, published by Sunflower Books in London UK in 2015.