There’s an excellent, albeit meandering and rather vertiginous, road from Órgiva to Pampaneira and we pulled up in the free car park about 30 minutes after setting off, having covered a little more than 15 km.
Harri selected today’s walk from his latest book purchase, i.e. Ciccerone’s Walking in Andalusia by Guy Hunter-Watts, which include walks across Andalusia’s six natural parks. Walk 25, a 10.8km circular route from Pampaneira, didn’t sound too bad, although the author had graded the hike as medium/difficult (I later discovered this was in fact the toughest category … and the author refers to the route as ‘challenging’ in his introduction).
At 1,060 m (3,480 ft), Pampaneira felt considerably cooler than Órgiva, which was reassuring. I’d been a bit worried about hiking in the mountains (even the foothills) in mid-summer; however, Mr Hunter-Watts assured his readers that ‘the altitude of the villages ensure you can walk in reasonable comfort in both July and August’.
As we wandered around Pampaneira admiring our surroundings, the first thing that struck me was there were still patches of snow on the higher peaks of the Sierra Nevada (and we’re not talking the highest peaks here, just the next tier). The village is incredibly pretty, both in its buildings and the surrounding landscape. We were fascinated by the sunken water channels which run along the middle of its narrow streets as a preventative measure against flooding when the melt water is flowing from the high peaks. Even now, in mid July, there was shallow water cascading along some of the channels.
We stopped briefly to drink from the Fuente de San Antonio. Local folklore maintains that if those who are single but wish to marry drink from this spring they will instantly be granted their wish. As no priest leapt out from behind the wall to perform a marriage ceremony for Harri and me, we’re guessing it’s just another of those legends which is preserved, and widely publicised, to pull in the tourists.
I could have happily wandered around Pampaneira for hours; however, Harri gently reminded me that we had a half-day hike to complete; however, we could linger for longer when we got back. Mr Hunter-Watts estimated the entire route would take around three hours and ten minutes; at this point, we had no reason to disbelieve him.
The alarm bells should have gone off when we set off downhill. After all, we’d be passing through Bubión and Capileira on this route and both were at higher altitudes than Pampaneira. We crossed a wide bridge spanning the Poqueira gorge, passing to admire two waterfalls, before joining a zigzagging dusty footpath rising steeply.
On and on we trudged (and it felt like a trudge with the hot sun burning down on our heads). The rock underfoot was loose and the walking quite technical. Every now and then I’d stop for a breather and to admire the stunning mountain landscape which was now opening out in every direction.
We stopped to rest on an outcrop. Pampaneira was now far below, with Bubión roughly level with us and Campiliana higher up the gorge. Something which didn’t escape me was that our destination(s) seemed to be on the wrong side of the steep ravine. I didn’t understand why we were climbing higher and higher over here when we really needed to be over there? Ah, said Harri, all will eventually become clear, and he carried on his way with me puffing and panting behind him.
By now, I’d decided I was vetting all future hikes in the Alpujarras before agreeing to walk them. Whatever Mr Hunter-Watts said, undertaking such a demanding walk in this temperature did not strike me as a good idea. Wiping perspiration from my forehead for the umpteenth time, I thought maybe now wasn’t the time to recall our terrifying Via Algarviana experience when we ran out of water walking from Messines to Silves. I trusted we’d have the opportunity to replenish our rapidly dwindling water supplies in Capileira … if they lasted that long.
As we continued to climb, we passed several ruined homesteads. It’s hard to imagine how tough life must have been for the people who lived and worked on these slopes for centuries without any of the comforts we expect today.
What had started out as a clear albeit steep path had deteriorated and we were now fighting our way through what the guidebook called ‘thicker undergrowth’. Unfortunately, this ‘undergrowth’ included brambles so our bare legs, arms and shoulders were taking a bit of a battering as we fought our way through it all.
I’d set my TomTom watch just after crossing the bridge and it confirmed what I’d thought: we were moving at a terrifying slow pace. Based on the author’s estimations, Harri thought we’d be back in Pampaneira by early afternoon. That timescale seemed unlikely; it had taken us 55 minutes to cover the first mile.
At last, we reached a wider track where we enjoyed the first level walking of the route. Capileira had been a little speck on top of a hill when we set off; now, we were looking down on it from across the ravine. Which brought me back to my original conundrum. What on earth were we doing on this side of the ravine, when Capileira – our second village – was over there? Maybe there was a rope bridge farther along? It was the kind of minor detail Harri often sprang on me … like precariously placed ladders.
We paused for a quick snack under the shade of a tree and were soon off again. The wider, undulating track meant we could finally stop staring at the rocks underfoot and enjoy the spectacular scenery all around us. Harri showed me a photograph in the guidebook where the higher peaks we could see were entirely covered in snow. Clearly, the author preferred to walk in cooler temperatures, no matter what he wrote.
Too soon, it was time to leave the track and begin our descent. I’ve never been to Africa; however, the surrounding scenery was how I’ve always imagined the savanna to look, i.e. level(ish) areas of dried, yellowed grassland dotted with trees. It would have been perfect had our forward route not deteriorated badly almost immediately.
Not only was the path ahead poorly-defined, meaning we weren’t always sure where we should be heading, but the ground underneath our feet was slippery, dusty and stony. When I’m navigating precarious terrain I often look to the vegetation to steady myself, but in the immediate vicinity it was mostly brambles. Around this point, I started cursing Guy Hunter-Watts loudly, while mentally composing the scathing review I was going to post on Amazon.
While I was in this dark mood, the worst happened and I slipped and landed on my bottom. Fortunately, I wasn’t hurt but it sort of proved my point to Harri that would never have included such a ‘horrendous’ walk in one of his own hiking guidebooks (I used the words ‘horrendous’ and ‘horrible’ a lot of times on my dictaphone).
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, we entered heavy undergrowth and spent the next half an hour bent double trying to push forward while extricating our hair, clothes and rucksacks from the rampant brambles. Why did I agree to this, I wondered? One of my friends, on hearing we were spending a few months in Órgiva, had strongly advised us to visit these villages. She meant by car, I’m certain.
Harri redeemed himself a little when I realised I’d dropped my watch in the undergrowth and he retraced our steps to retrieve it, but really, I’d had enough by this point. From time to time, the footpath became a shallow stream, until eventually we reached our second bridge of the day … this time returning us to the right side of the ravine.
Here, it was clear that there was another, better-maintained footpath running along the bottom of the ravine. Harri’s theory is that Mr Hunter-Watts, in devising his longer route, wanted to make the walk his own rather than just have his readers follow the waymarked route. In doing so, he added a whole other layer of hell.
In the heat of early afternoon, we were now facing our second climb of the day. True, it was nowhere near as steep or long as the first one, but by now my energy levels were badly depleted. Thankfully, there was a lot more shade which made it slightly more bearable but the going was slow, very slow.
Finally, we reached Capileira where the first ‘person’ we saw was a hay-carrying donkey followed closely by the goat herd and goats. I’m afraid I couldn’t resist taking a photograph as the little entourage passed by (my usual rule is to not take pictures of people without their permission).
The first few streets we walked through were completely deserted, presumably because we’d arrived during siesta. We found a fountain and drank enthusiastically before refilling our water bottles. If I thought the climbing was over for a while, I could think again. Capileira is built on slopes, with the restaurants and cafes located at the top of the village.
On and on, we soldiered, walking through impossibly narrow streets and marvelling at the topsy-turvy layout of the whitewashed houses, the numerous covered passageways or tinaos with balconies or rooms built above them and low doors going off at intriguing tangents. Harri expressed some trepidation about the ageing exposed timbers that seemed to be the only thing holding up most of the second storeys.There were flowers everywhere, from brimming pots at street level to climbers growing across the balconies. The roofs here are not tiled, but flat and made of clay to enable them to expand in extreme heat.
Harri commented how strange it must be for the oldest residents in these hilltop villages. Not that long, there would have been no road access; now, tourists arrive in their hundreds to admire the scenery and eat in the restaurants.
Eventually, we found the main plaza and ordered beers and tapas. Having been unspecific in our request (our Spanish isn’t good enough to order in any detail), we were pleasantly surprised when the waitress brought us six very large breaded mushrooms dosed with mayonnaise. They were absolutely delicious as Harri later told our waitress in his best Spanish.
Too soon, it was time to get going again. I wasn’t too concerned about the next section of the route because we could see Bubión and Pampaneira, and both looked lower than our current position. Unfortunately, what began as a reasonable path soon degenerated into an uneven,stony and wet descent lined with overgrown brambles (apparently it’s normal in the Alpujarras for paths to double as watercourses!).
I couldn’t believe this was the waymarked route to Bubión. Incidentally, the next village on our itinerary had completely vanished from view as we descended deeper and deeper into another valley seemingly in completely the wrong direction. I wished I’d stuck to my guns and walked back on the road as I’d suggested.
The last few hundred metres into Bubión was tough going, but at least there would be no more climbing after this. Our third whitewashed village of the day was undoubtedly very pretty but by now I’d lost the will to live and Harri was firmly focused on his end-of-walk beer in Pampaneira. It was mid-afternoon when we passed through the deserted plaza and, barely stopping to admire our surroundings, we continued on our way.
We left Bubión on a wide, stony track in a generally downhill direction, eager now to finish this ‘short’ hike through one of the prettiest gorges in Andulusia.
Outside a bar in Pampaneira, Harri checked Viewranger and ran through the stats with me. We’d taken six hours and two minutes to cover just 11.3 km. I felt ashamed until he revealed that we’d climbed a total of 1,106 metres during that time, the equivalent of climbing Mount Snowdon from sea level and then a bit more, mostly with very little shade. When you look at it like that, I suddenly felt like a super hero.