Friday, 7 February 2014

Awesome Short Break in Aiguestortes Parque Nacional

As a trek leader, there are times when I pack the bags, and rush out of the door, passport, first aid kit, emergency shelter, and gaffer tape at the ready. Often with little time to appreciate the incredible variety of landscapes and experiences that I work in. And then, there are the other times, when I just wish I could bottle the essence of mountain, and sell it to the world. The Aiguestortes would do that trick rather nicely. A nice short journey, good weather at the destination, the most stunning mountains, and fantastic food, this trip has it all.


Just a short hop from the UK to either Pau or Lourdes Tarbes airport, and from there are drive of around an hour and a half, will bring you to the trailhead for one of the finest mountain experiences available in Europe.


This piece describes how you might consider this as a bit of a wham bam, quick hit and run on the Pyrenees. You can cram it into a Budget flight weekend, but of course, you could happily double, triple, or more the length of time to dedicate to it.


We flew into Pau airport (but you might use Lourdes - or if pushed, even Biarritz), and after a short transfer to the French Spanish border, then through Vielha and the Vielha Tunnel, we pulled up at Hospital de Vielha - ready to take on the Pyrenees finest. With poles extended, laces tightened, and food squashed in as best we could for the 2 days ahead, we climbed out of the valley, inevitably winding our way up towards the high and wild mountains. As we climbed up through the pine forests, our breathing adjusted slowly to the task that lay ahead; 2 days of mountain trekking. Our small team of 3, used to trekking together, chatted eagerly for the first couple of kilometres, before settling down to the task ahead.  As the first Col at 2320m approached, that special feeling of anticipation started to build. With blue skies overhead, and the sun rising rapidly in the sky, the canvas was set, for a very special couple of days.


Crossing the Port de Rius, the landscape undergoes a simply incredible change. From the unassuming climb, we snuck through a narrow nick of rock at the top, over and into the outer reaches of the Aigues Tortes National Park. Immediately we knew we were in for a special treat, as the first of a series of impossibly beautiful and pure Glacial lakes came into view. The deep blue of the lake makes an impressive backdrop, and contrasts beautifully against the brightness of the pristene wind scoured granite. The sublime combination of colours and crystal clear air are intoxicating, and make the soul and the spirits soar. We sprung along lightfootedly beside a series of lakes, and marvelled at the beautiful waters, and perfect reflections. The walking is so absorbing that miles and hours pass so quickly. The horizon draws you in, the intrigue and amazement of the ever more spectacular surroundings is breathtaking.


Our end of day destination was the Refugi de Colomers, an innocuous 12 miles of walking - but of course, cols at 2355m (Port de Rius) and 2570m (Port de Caldes) conspire to make this trek somewhat more arduous. Depending on how you are travelling, this could be a tough day, or fairly manageable. Our recommendation for a fast break like this is certainly to pack light, and enjoy every minute. Also, the weather will change the undertaking considerably, summer weather in the mountains is perfect, especially here in the high Pyrenees, where we spent most of the day above 2000m. You should expect temperatures to fluctuate in the middle of the summer from 25 degrees down to 5 or 10 degrees (closer to feeling like zero with a stiff breeze blowing). We trekked with small packs (as we were making full use of mountain refuge facilities) - and so the day's walk was around 8 hours.


With perfect weather conditions, our lunch break beside one of the high mountain lakes was a blissful affair, the warm sun keeping us just warm enough to stretch out on a nice soft grassy lawn. Nothing can really get close to the feeling of soft grass, clear air, and warm sunshine. Add some Spanish Omlette and some Chorizo, and lunch is just what the doctor ordered. Let your eyes close, lay back, and take a few deep breaths... this is what mountains are all about.


The walk remained high up for the afternoon, and we reached the intermediate Refugi dera Restanca  in the mid afternoon. Across a long hydro electric barrage, the path reached the Refuge, and our slightly dehydrated bodies were pleased to find the Guardian already serving cold drinks. This was just the tonic we needed to continue on the second stage of our day's trek. Tempting as it may have been to roll out the sleeping bags, our 'camino' wound on, up and over another pass - and further amongst these wondrous peaks.


The twin passes of Gueliicrestada and Caldes require a further 500m of ascent, but once again, it brought us into sublime territory. The feeling here is certainly of remoteness, and the mountains became more atmospheric as the day drew towards its close. The whispy white clouds in the deep blue sky had developed through the afternoon, becoming heavier, and greyer as we marched on. By Port de Caldes, our high point for the day, as is so often the case, the wind had freshened to a stiff breeze, whipping our rucsack straps, and encouraging us to hurry off down the hillside towards Colomers. The trail roughened and steepened up coming down the final 400m down towards the lakes of the Circ de Colomers. Certainly this kind of terrain deserves some thought and consideration. Whilst it may not be the domain of extreme altitude, and it was on the waymarked GR11 trail, a slip and tumble here can have serious complications, and can turn an easy and enjoyable day into something very different. With wearying legs we trod carefully on our final descent of the day - and down to the lakeside which we skirted to find our way into the shelter of the Colomers Refuge.


The refuge is a wonder of the European Mountains, and no matter how many times I visit, it is always such a great experience to be able to be fed and watered up high in the mountains. Some may find sleeping cheek by jowel with folks from across Europe a disconcerting experience, but I find it life affirming, and always a fascinating way to spend a night. Dinner was served bang on the stroke of 8pm, and with three courses, including thick creamy polenta, tasty gravy sauce and local mountain meat (probably horse!), followed up by fruit for afters, and a cold beer, life just doesn't get much better.


An important aspect of any trip to a mountain refuge in Spain, is the etiquette of life in the refuge. First rule is that all bags must stay downstairs (usually in storage lockers or similar). Second, you will usually be offered slippers for use whilst in the refuge, and you should definately NOT enter the refuge with boots on (unless you want unspeakable things to be done to your dinner !). Thirdly, if you get any choice over your bed for the night, there are 2 key factors; firstly stay on the bottom deck, and close to a toilet escape route, or, if you don't generally need night time pit stops, you could consider a window spot, to benefit from fresh air. Fourth: Keep your Headtorch easily accessible. Fifth: Whilst Refugi may look like hotels in the mountains, don't treat them as such. They are staffed by a small team, and any help you can offer clearing tables, putting rubbish in bins, and generally keeping the place tidy, always goes a long way. Finally, remember to take home everything, including all your rubbish, the refuge has enough of its own rubbish to dispose of, and it all has to be carried out.


Inevitably the next morning, we all looked around to identify the phantom snorer, who had gurgled and growled through the night. Every person was ready to lynch the person who looked like they had enjoyed a good nights sleep. 11 trekkers had been awake all night, one slept like a baby. Should be easy to guess who? As quick as we could we squashed our sleeping bags away, and made for breakfast. For those of you who are not experienced visitors to rural Spain, it could be that the breakfast ('Desayuno') will take you by surprise. Forget Egg and Bacon, forget Porridge, in fact forget anything apart from coffee and some stale bread and biscuits. The Spanish simply don't believe in breakfast. It could be something to do with often taking dinner at 10pm at night. For trekkers used to early nights, and big days however, this can be tough. Forearmed is forewarned though, and you might just want to pack some little extra treats from home for this part of the weekend's adventure.


The upside of this less than memorable meal is that it hardly held us up from getting off and away. Good thing too, as outside the day was dawning bright and beautiful, once again we tramped straight into the continuing mini lake district of the Aiguestortes, or in English - the Park of winding Streams. Immediately our path plucked a route through the heart of the park, through the lakes of Plan, Long and Redon, before climbing up to Obago. The pleasant fresh mountain air warmed steadily as the sun climbed higher and we emerged from the morning shadows into warm sunshine.


The second day of this two day trek is very similar in distance, at 12 miles, but easier physically with just one pass, at 2580m the high point of this trek. We were then once again treated to another incredible change in horizon. From being drawn to the incredible lakes, and the reflections and shades of blue in the water, over the Port de Ratera, our eyes were drawn to two incredible peaks. The amazing silhouettes of the Enchanted Peaks - 'Els Encantets' greeted us like the Twin Towers of the Pyrenees. Positioned perfectly amongst an impossibly beautiful layered landscape of blues and purples, the 2 twin peaks draw the eye inexorably. The path descends at a gentle rate through the layers of a perfect mountainscape, and provides some most enjoyable walking. With time to savour the epic view, and not requiring high concentration we walked on, and chatted as we dropped away down towards the Lake of Estany St Maurici, and then onwards into the Espot Valley.


As the afternoon wore on and we dropped further and further the sun became ever warmer and more powerful. Our feet appreciated a generous lunch break, once again beside the water, where we dipped feet in the freezing mountain stream waters gurgling down the valley bottom. The trek finishes off with a steady descent of the sweeping Espot Valley, following the lightly used valley track which eventually gives out to a narrow tarmac road. Our journey is at an end, and we turn to savour these 2 amazing days in the mountains.


To cap our 2 incredible days of trekking off, we had reserved a night in La Guingueta, in a reasonably priced but very comfortable simple Spanish Hotel. Either a short taxi ride, or a further 6 miles down the road, brought us to La Guingueta - where there are a choice of places to eat, and a couple of nice places to stay.


After a pleasant overnight, and more than a couple of cool fresh Estrellas, a classic tasty Spanish dinner was our reward for 2 days on the trail, and the journey home was a mere formality. The hotel connects perfectly for the return journey, and is just over 2 hours by road to the airport. From here, the wonders of the budget airlines will bring you back to the UK. 2 of the finest days of mountain walking, to be found anywhere. That's anywhere, any continent, this is mountain-ness of the highest order. What are you waiting for? Get going!




Best Time of Year


Mid June - Mid September




As ever - you should expect everything. But it should be pleasantly warm most of the time - increasing to hot in the valley bottoms (up to 27-28) and cooler at the tops of the Cols (typically down to 10 -15 degrees).




The trails are well marked using the Grand Randonee Red and White splashes. Also from time to time named signposts exist. However, nothing should replace your ability to navigate. Poor visibility can render the high mountains disorientating, and although the trail is generally benign, terrain just off to the side can be difficult and dangerous.  Best of all would be to engage the services of an International Mountain Leader for such a mountain journey. 01460 249191.



Essential Kit List

                                First Aid

                                Walking Poles

                                Mini Storm Shelter

                                Sleeping Bag / Silk Liner

                                Change of Clothes

                                Full Mountain Clothes - including waterproofs & leggings




                                Water Bottle + Extra Water Carrying Capacity

                                Snacks (& Optional Breakfast Extras)

                                Maps / Mapcase / Compass

                                Good Quality boots




                                Refugi Colomers -


Last Minute Items

                                Food / Trekking Gear / Medical etc. Available in town of Vielha, just before passing through the tunnel to the start of the trek.



                                May be done by taxi (relatively expensive) - or by hire car. Or you can join an organised trek - to take away some of these difficulties.


                                Airport - Hopital Vielha - Approx. 1.5 hrs

                                La Guingueta - Airport - Approx 2 hrs.



                                Adventure Cafe recommends the Institut Cartografic Catalunya Series - which are generally accurate and sufficiently detailed for accurate navigation.



Richard McLaughlin is a member of the British Association of International Mountain Leaders, and leads treks around the world, in Africa, Asia, Europe and all around the UK, in summer and winter. Experienced as a mountain leader, climber, cyclist, caver and by Sea Kayak, he has been lucky enough to travel the world extensively. To find out more, or to engage his services, contact Adventure Cafe.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Bikes, Bedouin's and Bazaars...Cycle to the Sahara

Cycle The Sahara

From the minute the plane touches down, and you eye the distant snowcapped Atlas Mountains and the palm trees that surround the airport, you can smell the exotic atmosphere of the Imperial City of Marrakech. Any time we spend on two wheels is always special, but as we cross the Atlas Mountains and head out desert bound through the Anti Atlas, and each day passes, a new and ever more spectacular landscape unfolds before us. At Grand Tour Cycling and Adventure Cafe, we know a thing or two about cycling adventures, having ridden the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Australian Outback, the Rainforests of Sumatra, and even the high and mighty Himalayas. Believe us when we say that a week's cycling adventure simply doesn't get much better than this.

Our evening before setting forth into the wilds of Morocco allows us to sample the energy, sights, smells and sounds of Marrakech's wonderful Medina (Old Town) and main square the Djema El Fna. In itself a destination and experience worth a flights alone, on this ride, this is only the tip of a wonderful iceberg! Early the next day, we ride up the winding mountain road to cross the Tizi n Tichka - the high pass across the Atlas Mountains, before enjoying screeching descent to the only major large town on the fringes of the desert.

            We then ride to the amazing Dades Gorge, to witness the deep red earth, and impossibly shaped rock formations, and we continue onwards through the Valley of the Roses, to reach the biblical Todra Gorge. This Gorge is an epic slice that cuts like a knife through sheer and towering walls of orange limestone, populated by a small collection of guesthouses, and a crystal clear stream running through the heart of the valley. We spend our third night here before riding on further into the wilderness.

            From Tinerhir (last main town near Todra Gorge), the road branches off shortly and becomes eerily quiet, now pointing squarely at the dunes of Merzouga. The tranquil road is home to the odd small group of grazing camel, and goatherds lazing under shady trees to avoid the midday sun. We have just one more overnight before the road makes its final southwards spur, and reaches the towering dunes at Merzouga. On arrival in the desert, we have time to relax, shower, let the heat of the day subside, before we head out in the late afternoon to watch the sun set on a most amazing ride. The colours of Morocco reach their climax here, with deep blue sky fading to deep purple, and the orange sand reddening as the sun slips behind the high dunes.

Distance: - 360 miles
Days Cycling: - 5
Max Altitude: - 2260m
Typical Average Daily Max. Temp: - 25 degrees
Start : Marrakech
End : Merzouga

Departures: 25th March 2014 & 8th October 2014

Price = £599pp