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.
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
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…
Javi – trigger happy but a horse whisperer, riding Chiquelo, a rocket on four legs
Belka – nicknamed Calamity Jane, which says it all, riding Aila, calm but jealous
Fernando – a city slicker lawyer from Valladolid who had never been on a horse, riding Trueno, Aila’s boyfriend
Me – half Cantabrian, half Texan, 100% of both, riding Xira, a real black beauty
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.
Sometimes its the simplest things that make for great moments and the ride never lacked in that department.
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.
It was up, up, up right out of the box, and then the weather turned a bit squirrely after our beautiful sunny early morning.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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…)
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.
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!