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Summer has come and gone (Spring too, it has been a very busy year and my blog has been dormant), but the memories of my week long horseback ride over the Cantabrian Mountain Range (Cordillera Cantabrica in Spanish) of Northern Spain will remain. It was a hell of a ride with great friends, fabulous wild mountains and plenty of adventure.

Horseback Picos Europa

Saddling up in the heart of the Picos de Europa

It had been sometime that I had been on a multi-day ride so I was a bit concerned about my ability to endure a week in the saddle.  The promise of a more than memorable trip far outweighed any pain and suffering that might come from lack of riding lately.  You just ride through it.  I knew I was in good hands with my buddy Marino at the helm, if I also know how long and arduous his rides can be, especially when reopening lost trails like he likes to do…

It was a diverse group of six of us riding and six strong horses (mountain horses, not show animals):

Marino – our trailboss if you will, riding Nieves a stubborn but strong mare

Our fearless leader

Our fearless leader Marino and Nieves

Sandra – his daughter, chip off the old block, quite a horsewoman riding Sherpa, mother of Nieves and one the best horses I have ever known, still going strong after well more than 20 years…

Sandra and Sherpa,  the toughest girls on the ride

Sandra and Sherpa, the toughest girls on the ride

Javi – trigger happy but a horse whisperer, riding Chiquelo, a rocket on four legs

Javi ready to shoot at any moment on Chiquelo

Javi ready to shoot at any moment on Chiquelo

Belka – nicknamed Calamity Jane, which says it all, riding Aila, calm but jealous

Belka, aka Calamity Jane, on Aila

Belka, aka Calamity Jane, on Aila

Fernando – a city slicker lawyer from Valladolid who had never been on a horse, riding Trueno, Aila’s boyfriend

Fernando and Trueno, there were doubts weather he would make it but he came through like a champ

Fernando and Trueno, there were doubts whether he would make it, but he came through like a champ in the end… not everybody can ride for a week, especially never having been on a horse really…

Me – half Cantabrian, half Texan, 100% of both, riding Xira, a real black beauty

Me and Xira

Me and Xira with Peña Vieja looming in the back, my dad´s ashes are up there so he was watching and enjoying every minute of it, the Picos were one of his favorite spots in the world

We all rode horses that fit each of our bills well.  The logistics were all handled ahead of time, mostly by Marino and Javi.  They had arranged the routing, places for us to stay, provisioning for us and the horses, and our support vehicle.  I was swamped with tours prior, so I simply showed up with just a few things to do a couple of days before, which is convenient.  The plan was to ride from Santo Toribio Monastery near Potes in Cantabria, up and over the Cantabrian Mountains to Boñar in Leon.  Piece of cake… with lots of icing.

Our first day out of the gate we had beautiful weather and rode just under the looming Picos de Europa mountains most of the day.   The Picos are locally not regarded a part of the Cantabrian Range but a outlying subset of higher, alpine environment mountains mostly all above treeline.  We rode through the upper stretches of the Deva river valley and climbing out of Cantabria into Leon.  This section of our route followed the Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James, on the Ruta Vadiniense which is considered one of the toughest but most majestic ways to make the pilgrimage across Northern Spain to Santiago to Compostela.  What is the Camino de Santiago?  Read about it on my wife’s blog here.

Riding away from the Picos and up the Cantabrian Range

Riding away from the Picos and up the Cantabrian Range on the Camino Vadiniense

Sometimes its the simplest things that make for great moments and the ride never lacked in that department.

Trail encounter with one of the tough old women from Liebana

Trail encounter with one of the tough old women from the Liebana valley in Cantabria, she reminded me of my grandmother

Horreo, grain storage shelter typical of western Cantabria and Eastern Asturias

Horreo, grain storage shelter typical of western Cantabria and eastern Asturias, notice the wooden stilts and flat rocks on top to keep out the rodents

Arrival to our cabin the first night

Arrival to our digs for the first night

The second day was a tough one with our first quintessential Marino trail finding technique revisit.  Truth be told we encountered low clouds and a trail that gets eaten alive by the broom bushes as it is in disuse.  It ended up being one of the tougher days becasue of the terrain… it would be on the way back also.  Again, no shortage of great moments though.

Preparing to saddle up for another great day

Preparing to saddle up for another great day

It was up, up, up right out of the box, and then the weather turned a bit squirrely after our beautiful sunny early morning.

Riding up into the clouds

Riding up into the clouds

Low clouds and a sea of broom bushes, now what?

Low clouds and a sea of broom bushes, now what?

Despite our predicament in not being able to find a well worn trail to get down out of the clouds and the broom bush hell, we got a glimpse of some wildlife.  Along with the brooms were tons of wild blueberry bushes with plenty of ripe fruit that the Cantabrian brown bears love.  I, as I´m sure many of the others did, secretly hoped for a bear encounter, but we settled for riding up on a beautiful European red deer stag.

European Red Deer

A large, well armed European red deer stag with summer velvet preparing for upcoming battles in the early fall rutting season, or “berrea” as we call it.

Then it was back to our broom dilemma. It got so thick we had to dismount and wade through and over the brooms, something you can do downhill but nearly impenetrable uphill.  Fernando was so tired he couldn’t even muster the strength to dismount…

Wading through the brooms

Wading through the brooms

We eventually made it out and got some running room.  We had scheduled a meetup for lunch with our support vehicle at around 2… it was nearly 4 and we still had a few hours ride to get to them…damn brooms and low clouds, but hey, this is par for the course with our rides.  They wouldn’t be as much fun without a little of uncertainty and adventure.

Out of hell, off and running

Out of hell, off and running

A steep very rocky section that was probably ridable but a slip would mean serious trouble and a bad accident in the middle of nowhere, better safe than sorry

A steep, very rocky section that was probably ridable but a slip would mean serious trouble and a bad accident in the middle of nowhere, better safe than sorry

As our lunch rendezvous was likely going to be closer to dinner we opted for a snack at a sunny spot near a cabin

As our lunch rendezvous was likely going to be closer to dinner, we opted for a snack at a sunny spot near a cabin

Stopping to smell the flowers

Stopping to smell the mountain flowers

After our late and improvised lunch we headed down a very well worn 4X4 track and into our first sign of civilization in over a day, a road and small mountain valley village.  Not without a little excitement when we encountered a large stallion protecting his band of horses.

Marino and the lead stallion, neither wanting to back down

Marino and the stallion, both charging and neither wanting to back down

Eventually when the stallion saw we were just passing not wanting anything with his band, he charged down the hill kicking and snorting the whole way down... it was awesome

Eventually when the stallion saw we were just passing by, not wanting anything with his band, he charged back down the hill kicking and snorting the whole way down… it was powerful and quite awesome

A well deserved break in the stream

A well deserved break in the stream

Our first sign of people in over a day, a small town in Leon

Our first sign of people in over a day, a small village in a mountain valley of Leon

We rode straight through the village and up into the beach forest to climb another pass.  We still had a rendezvous with our lunch crew, or so we presumed.  With no mobile service most of the time we were unsure of whether they would still be there or not as we still had quite a ways to go.  I love no mobile phone service, a sign of real freedom…

Into the beach forest we go, not really realizing just how far we still had to go

Into the beach forest we go, not really realizing just how far we still had to go

Here comes Calamity!

Here comes Calamity!

Rendezvous

We did finally make our lunch rendezvous … at about 6:30…they had almost left

After “lunch?” we saddled back up in the face of what looked like rain.  We still had another pass to make our stop for the night.  The very long day was rewarded with a rainbow and a real meal at a sit down table (a table which we all almost chopped up and ate along with the chairs, it had been a very long day).

On the home stretch hoping to skirt the rain that was everywhere around us

Riding toward our pot of gold

Riding toward our pot of gold

Not a lot was said at this meal, we all just shoveled food in our face

Not a lot was said at this meal, we all just shoveled food in our face

Eventually we did make our destination, a small pension in a village of Leon where Marino had booked us a few rooms.  We got there so late the owner had given two of our rooms away… we let our most tired take the two rooms that were left and the rest of us spent another night in a cabin and tents.  At this point, everyone was so tired we could have slept on rocks and not cared.  There was a corral next to us so the horses rested well that night, with plenty of room and not having to be tied up.  We could be worry free also, although my mare Xira took a lick on the rump from somebody in the night (she was the newcomer and not trusted by the others that know each other well having spent a lot of time together).

The cabin tent setup for our second night

The cabin tent setup for our second night

Everyone getting a morning feeding prior to hitting the trail again

Everyone getting a morning feeding prior to hitting the trail again, notice Xira being cautious after her kick in the rump

Breakfast on bed, mountain cabin life

Breakfast on bed, mountain cabin life

Moth, thistle

Fringe benefits of having to poop like a bear (in the woods), a lovely moth on my favorite purple thistles

Day three was ahead of us and we hoped it was not as long as the previous.  We all wished for a bit shorter ride and and were looking forward to a rest and a shower.  Let’s see what the day had in store for us, as with Marino… you just never know.

Over the hills and far away...here we go again

Over the hills and far away…here we go again, a new day is upon us

It ended up being a beautiful day with great weather, if a little chilly in the morning.  This part of Leon has huge day/night temperature swings with cold nights and hot days even in summer.  Stark contrast.  The day started out with a nice fairly flat trail that soon led us to the lovely village of Lois.  It has a seemingly excessively large church made of local pink marble for a small village in the middle of nowhere.  The church (and town really) are known as “La Catedral de La Montaña” which translates as the cathedral of the mountain.

Let me clarify though, La Montaña, is a Northern Spain reference historically to the region of Cantabria where the people from Cantabria have historically been known as “Montañeses”, the people from the mountains. This La Montaña refers to the mountainous area of Leon that borders Cantabria and Asturias, La Montaña de Leon.  It was beautiful in any event and the colors in the stone when you got up close were hundreds of shades of pink.

La Catedral de la Montaña

La Catedral de la Montaña

The rest of our morning entailed a great ride up out of Lois through beautiful country, a mix of forest and eventually a nice ridge top stopping point for our morning almuerzo (a great Spanish meal between breakfast and lunch that you don´t always have, really only when you need it… it’s a holdover from the days when folks worked in the field all morning and needed fuel to keep going, fitting for us these days).

The forest above the village had a big bloom of wild iris

The forest above the village had a big bloom of wild iris

Climbing out of the forest above Lois

Climbing out of the forest above Lois

Arriving at the high summer pastures of Leon

Our much needed almuerzo

Our much needed almuerzo

Once again we had a long ride ahead and only Marino knew how far.  The scenery remained spectacular and although it ended up being long again, the views were all worth it (also knowing we had a shower and a bed to look forward to…)

Passing through a farming and ranching village of Northern Leon

Passing through a farming and ranching village of Northern Leon

We then of course encountered another pass (which is what happens when you are riding over the Cantabrian Range, valley, pass, valley, pass...)

We then of course encountered another pass (which is what happens when you are riding over the Cantabrian Mountain Range: valley, pass, valley, pass…).  The sun was blazing at this point.

The land of the Cantabrian brown bear with the Riaño reservoir in the distance

The land of the Cantabrian brown bear with the Riaño reservoir far off in the distance

Overlooking the forest at the ridge with views for miles

Overlooking the forest at the ridge with views for miles

From the last ridge it was obvious we were nearing the end of our ride over the Cantabrian Mountain Range.  The mountains  tapered off in front of us and just beyond them there was nothing but the flat farmland of Castilla on the high central plateau of Spain… factoid: did you know Madrid is Europe’s highest capital because it sits on this plateau? Now you do.

Nearing the end, notice then mountains tapering off and nothing but the flat farmland of Castilla on the high central plateau of Spain... factoid: did you know Madrid is Europe's highest capital becasue it sits on this plateau?  Now you do.

Descending on the back side of the Cantabrian Mountain Range and toward Castilla.  In Spain we say “Ancha es Castilla”, meaning literally “wide is Castilla”, as in flat and endless

A great watering hole for the beasts, we couldn't wait to get to ours either..

A great watering hole for the beasts, we couldn’t wait to get to ours either..

Even if you know the way, the villagers love to get asked directions... it gives them authority, Marino is a country boy and always has the foresight to make good relations with the locals... he knows he´ll pass through again

Even if you know the way, the villagers love to get asked directions… it gives them authority, Marino is a country boy and always has the foresight to make good relations with the locals… he knows he´ll pass through again

Destination reached, Boñar, Leon

Destination reached, Boñar, Leon

It has been another long day and when we reached the road into Boñar we all dismounted and walked into town like we owned it after a long three day ride.  We had a consensus at dinner that we should take a day off the next day in Boñar prior to heading back home over the mountains to Cantabria.  We were all tired and the horses were probably even more.  A day of rest ensued… stay tuned for the ride back!

A much needed day of saddle free backs, shade and loose grazing

A much needed day of saddle free backs, shade and loose grazing

The cowboys and cowgirls also did plenty of grazing and lazing on our day off

The cowboys and cowgirls also did plenty of grazing and lazing on our day off

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