2018 Spain

Around the Picos

In June Rudi and I cycle for two weeks on our mountain bikes in northern Spain. We start in the lively city of Bilbao, make a long loop westwards through various national parks, including Zepa Liebana, Somiedo and Picos de Europa, and finish on the north coast in Santander. We cycle through vast landscapes and spectacular canyons, over easy asphalt roads and steep trails, past high wind turbines and over old mining tracks in tunnels. We cover 1,000 kilometers and climb 22,250 meters.

Day 1: Bilbao Airport > Quincoces de Yuso (86 km)

From our hotel near the airport we descend over the wide carriageway to down-town Bilbao. We keep the city center, with the prominent Guggenheim Museum, for later. On the west bank of the Ría Del Nervión we go north again and then take the BI-3651 (and later BI-3641) to the southwest. I’m astonished by the speed of the transition from the big, busy city to the much quieter and greener surroundings.

We regularly see empty business premises and “foreclosure” signs. The Spanish economy has not yet recovered from the financial crisis that has hit this country so severely. In Alonsotegi Rudi is being held up by the local drunkard, so I have the opportunity to withdraw money and run some errands. In Arrespalditza we eat bread in front of the village church, where a boy is performing all kinds of tricks on his mountain bike.

At the end of the rolling valley a 600 meter high wall suddenly looms up on the southwest side: Monte Santiago. We climb this mountain by taking a nice jeep track from the picnic spot near Urduña. This road starts easily, but gets steeper, stonier, wetter and more slippery; the last series of pin bends is almost impossible to ride. On top we see the Ermita de la Virgen de Orduna: a fifteen meter high structure from 1904 that represents the trunk of a mulberry tree, in which the Holy Virgin is said to have appeared.

We push the bicycles further up the green slope. We follow markings and the GPS track – a path is no longer visible. With a lot of effort we step through the high grass and between the big stones to the top of the hill. On the ridge we cycle and walk along the edge of the steep mountain wall we gazed at two hours ago from the valley. The view to all directions is beautiful, especially with those … thunderclouds ….uh oh…

Soon we only count five seconds between lightning and thunder. Walking over a ridge with a big metal object in the hand in this weather might not be that smart. So we interrupt our planned route and descend over a jeep track to the valley. During the descent Rudi manages to ride in a branch with thorns and get a punctured tire. He acts fast: takes the thorn out of the tire, points the puncture downwards, and lets the latex do its job. Tubeless really works! In Quincoces de Yuso we find a hotel and eat pizza in a cozy bistro.

Day 2: Quincoces de Yuso > Vega de Pas (78 km)

First we cycle about thirty kilometers on a wide but very quiet road to the west. On our right we see the beautiful ridge where yesterday’s initial route lies. From Espinosa de Los Monteros we ascend 750 meters (on average 9.4%) to Picón Blanco (1,529 m) over a narrow asphalt road. On top of the ridge the mighty windmills stand out nicely against the rising thunderclouds. We’ve been hearing thunder for some time now…

We quickly descend on the gravel road along the windmills to the Portillo de la Sía (1,200 m), go a bit south over the CA-665, and after a couple of kilometers we take a steep road when that I had drawn on my computer back home. But this road soon becomes a terrible path full of big pebbles that becomes a hiking path – if if there is one at all… The weather is deteriorating again. The prospect of pushing our bikes 400 meters up in a thunderstorm, without a view of the landscape, doesn’t appeal to us. So we return to the asphalt road and descend.

Because it has started pouring down on us and it keeps on lightning, we take the shortcut to our final destination Vega de Pas. During the last kilometers to the Puerto de Las Estacas de Trueba (1,166 m) it clears up a bit, and that results in beautiful pictures. We start the descent in the thick clouds so we can hardly see the road – let alone the surroundings. And then, before we know it, we arrive in Vega.

Day 3: Vega de Pas > Reinosa (85 km)

Last night we slept well in the beautifully decorated Casa de don Guzman. We say goodbye, get some groceries at the local supermarket and go on our way. After having descended a few kilometers along the Rio Pas River, we turn left onto a narrow paved road. We ascend more than 500 meters (9% on average) until we reach the top of the ridge between the electricity pylons, lazy cows and frightened horses. We see how a farmer spurs his cows with a stick (“Venga!”).

We descend a bit to the nice village of San Pedro Del Romeral, where we have a cup of coffee (1 euro everywhere – wherever we order). From there we climb on to the Puerto de la Matalena (946 m), a saddle point on a ridge with numerous wind turbines. We turn left and continue uphill on the unpaved maintenance road. We hear the buzzing and whistling of the blades above us all the time. The view from the ridge is fantastic.

Almost at the end of the gravel road we climb further to the summit (1,500 m) over a tractor path, with lots of boulders, summery soil and cowshed. From there we take a hiking path that is difficult to cycle on. After a few kilometers the path becomes a gravel road on which we descent quickly to the blocked, southern entrance of the former railway Tunel de la Engaña. After a lunch on the overgrown platform we descend further on an asphalt road.

What remains are fifty boring kilometers to and along the Embalse Del Ebro, a fresh water reservoir for the lower hinterland. From the low hanging clouds it starts raining now; next time we have to bring rain trousers as well… Wet and feeling cold accept a worn-out room in the ugly town of Reinosa. In an unsociable restaurant we eat greasy hamburgers – the plates thrown on the table by a grumpy waiter who wouldn’t look out of place in Fawlty Towers. Considering the weather forecast for the coming week –every day rain– I am also becoming very grumpy.

Day 4: Reinosa > Potes (70 km)

From Reinosa we cycle to Espinilla, where we buy some provisions in the shop that is hidden next to the roundabout. Then we turn right to the CA-280, where we climb gradually to the Puerto de Palombera (1,260 m). Just after the pass height we take a good jeep track that takes us into the Parque Natural de Saja-Besaya. We see horses with their foals and cows everywhere.

From the bridge over the mountain stream (1,500 m) the road becomes a lot steeper. On top of the second ‘top’ a farmer tries to get his cows in line. We try to keep our bikes in line of the muddy jeep track. The combination of ridiculously steep slopes, the Nordic landscape (green, water and bits of snow) and the weather (variable) makes it look like we’re on Iceland. Sweet memories…

After a bit of paved road we have lunch in the village of Uznayo, where a dog and cat are begging for food – in vain. A bit further in the village Laguna we take off our raincoats, drink coffee, and refill the water bottles. Next we rise steeply to San Mamés, where it starts to rain again. At an altitude of 1,050 m the asphalt stops; we climb further westwards on a jeep track. The bends are very steep, and the road surface is difficult because of the wet, sucking sand.

When we finally reach the top, there appears to be only a narrow footpath on the other side. Or path… in the beginning it is a steep gully through which rainwater flows abundantly. After this it becomes a bit less slippery, yet we continue to walking through the mud. At Ermita de la Luz we descend over a very steep jeep track to Somaniezo. From there we enjoy a marvelous descent on asphalt to Potes, with stunning views of the Picos. What a great day!

Day 5: Potes > La Vega (66 km)

From Potes we take a varied narrow road along the river southwards, until we reach Cabariezo again on the main road. In Pesaguero we turn off and climb through a series of hairpin bends 500 meters to the picturesque village of Caloca. We eat fried eggs on a lovely terrace hidden at the back of the village. Then we continue onto a narrow jeep track into the forest. There we bump into a dozen horses that are afraid of us and protect their foals; they shoot past us through the roadside.

Above the tree line we reach a cattle grid that marks the entrance to the Parque Natural Fuentes Carrionas y Fuente Cobre-Montaña Paletina. Here we end up in a fairytale landscape: all around us the heather is in bloom, and some hilltops are even completely purple. The quality of the jeep track improves a lot, although sometimes the road is so steep that I have to walk a bit. We pass cows with calves and also a barking dog, that fortunately doesn’t harm us. And after that the vicious little climbs continue, which is very strenuous, but the beautiful surroundings more than compensate for the effort.

In a stream valley we see a jumble of jeep tracks. We take the bad track, climb to the highest point (1,800 m) and descend over a narrow path full of boulders to a wide valley. Here the Río Carrión flows against the backdrop of rugged, snow-covered mountains. We turn right and climb over a fairly good but sometimes difficult track to today’s last pass height. The descent goes on a steep jeep track through the forest to Ledantes – the many gullies and bumps we avoid on good luck. We arrive in Vega at 8 pm. Another great day!

Day 6: La Vega > Puebla de Lillo (92 km)

Today we cycle mostly on asphalt: the only way to get to the west quickly. We climb more than 1,100 meters to the Puerto San Glorio (1,600 m), where we enjoy a nice view of the mountains in the south that we cycled close to yesterday. We descend through a rough valley to the freshwater basin Embalse de Riaño. With those steep mountains rising out of the water it looks a bit like the Norwegian Lofoten here.

After lunch in downtown Riaño we continue northwest along the lake. At Acebedo we turn left to Marana. Now that we are here, the planned track over the Pico de Tronisco doesn’t seem to be feasible: pushing up the bikes too far without the certainty of a path. So we choose the ‘safe’ jeep track to the northwest. After a few kilometers we take the asphalt road to the Puerto de Tama (1,429 m), followed by the Puerto de Las Señales (1,630 m). We descend through a rugged valley to the sleepy Puebla de Lillo.

Day 7: Puebla de Lilo > Caldas de Luna (84 km)

After a few kilometers of asphalt we cycle on a jeep track further west. Except for a few houses, cars and some cows in the beginning we don’t see anyone at all until the village on the other side of the pass. This pass road is not very steep or stony. Unfortunately the view is limited because of the low-hanging clouds from which it starts to rain. We cycle steadily uphill to the pass height (1,700 m) and go just underneath the Cuerna (2,140 m).

During the beautiful descent a running deer almost bumps into Rudi. It stands there frightened for one second, but then regains speed, and sprints in graceful movements up the slope on the other side of the road. From the village of Villaverde de la Cuerna we continue on asphalt. After Tolibia de Abajo the valley suddenly narrows, and both the road and Río Curueno squeeze themselves between steep mountainsides – as if this place were the valley drain. After a few kilometers we turn right and climb steadily in the rain through an ever widening valley.

Despite the fact that the route is not difficult –or maybe because of that– I get an energy dip. In Carmenes we are just in a bus shelter to have lunch when it starts pouring rain. Dark grey clouds pass by. The energy dip becomes a motivation dip. I want to give up, because what’s the use of cycling in this weather? Wouldn’t it be better to warm up in the hotel across the road and wiat there until tomorrow? But then it stops raining and the air becomes brighter. Okay, let’s keep going!

We cycle through wide valleys with beautifully shaped mountains, especially near the Embalse de Casares basin. From the Tunel de Aralla (1,450 m) we descend to the much larger reservoir Embalse de Los Barrios de Luna. Along the eastern side of this lake we pass through a wild landscape flanked by dark grey rain clouds. We pass underneath a highway and end up at a too expensive but nice wellness hotel in Caldas de Luna.

Day 8: Caldas de Luna > Pola de Somiedo (58 km)

Ouch! Drinking that bottle of wine last night might not have been such a good idea. I slept badly and I’m feeling a little weak. Luckily we start the day easy: first we ride with the wind in our backs along the shores of the lake, followed by a whole stretch through the main valley. In San Emiliano we meet an eccentric, English-speaking Spaniard on an old bicycle. He says there has been a lot of rain in this area this year, and twice as much snow as normal.

In the beautifully situated Torrestío we continue on a gravel road between high mountainsides to the Alto de la Farrapona (1,708 m). We turn left above and take the jeep track to the Lagos de Cueva. From there we climb steeply to a higher, marshy plain with a few lakes (Lagos de Saliencia), where the path ends. After a rainy lunch we continue cycling and walking over the many tracks in the grass.

On top of the saddle point above the Lago de Valle (1,750 m) it becomes difficult. The marked footpath to the lake is soggy, narrow and it’s unclear whether this is actually the right one. We turn around and take another marked path towards a building. This path is also very wet and narrow, but at least we descend. However, near the building the path is fully covered with liquid cow shit, so we can’t reach the jeep track that’s further on. That’s why we take a shortcut over a narrow path, in this case between thorny bushes and barbed wire.

Down in the beautiful valley we bath our bikes in a mountain stream. We continue onto a good gravel road, which from Valle de Lago becomes an asphalt road on which we continue to our destination La Pola (700 m). Afterwards we stroll around a bit in this village. We see several characteristic horréos: (grain) storage sheds on four legs with millstones in between (to protect against mice and other vermin). Nowadays they mainly serve as roofed parking places.

Day 9: Pola de Somiedo > Mieres Del Camin (75 km)

Today we will cycle almost entirely on asphalt. The first part from Pola to La Riera we descend through a narrow gorge. It looks like a Minecraft canyon country around here! At La Riera we turn right on to the AS-265. On this through road we ascend almost 850 meters (8.4% on average) to the Puerto de San Lorenzo (1,347 m). From there we quickly descend to San Martin, where it starts to rain. We escape into a bar where we get coffee and boccadillos.

We descend further, partly on an old mining track (the Senda del Oso) that has been transformed into a cycle path, winding spectacularly between and beneath steep and high mountain walls. For the first time in days we see other people cycling. Then we arrive at Las Xanas. At home I had drawn a route through the gorge, but unfortunately it turns out to be closed. One turn further we try again: a track that gets steeper and more slippery; after one kilometer we have to give up. Too bad, but we can also take the asphalt road. We climb more than 300 meter (10% on average). Almost at the top the drizzle becomes heavy rain.

After cycling a while in the pouring rain we arrive in the not very inviting Mieres, situated in the heart of the coalmining area of Asturia. I’d like to come back here later to explore the history and topography of the dozens of mines and railway lines. We leave our damp hotel room to eat the best pizza ever in the Trattoria La Peppa. The waitress complains that the weather conditions in North Spain haven’t been this bad in years, and compares the situation with the Biblical Flood. Well, that could be a bit overstated…

Day 10: Mieres Del Camin > Cangas de Onis (88 km)

We have breakfast in the cozy Cafe Palau, which is decorated as a ship’s cabin. All around us are workers who are trying to find courage for the new working week. We cycle out of Mieres on an old mining track that leads to the Pozu Tres Amigos and Pozu Polio. Everywhere in this valley we see old housing blocks for the miners in the villages and towns. We turn off halfway down the valley and climb to Otones (600 m).

During the descent we cycle an extra loop on narrow roads through the charming villages of La Caleya and Les Cuestes. Down in the valley we cycle from Sama, often on a separate cycle path, for a while through the valley of the Río Nalon. In this otherwise somewhat depressing area we see interesting remnants of former mining activities everywhere. In one place even a mine seems to be operational. I find the renovated buildings of Pozo Soton near San Martin impressive!

At Los Barreros we turn left and climb steadily to the hamlet La Faya Los Llobos (650 m). Here we leave the asphalt and take a jeep track up the hill. A little further on the planned track appears to be an impossible narrow, slippery and overgrown cattle trail. Via an alternative muddy path that ends on a farmyard with pigs we get back on the planned route a bit further on.

The next fifteen kilometers we ride on a beautiful elevated gravel road that is paved only in the very steep (15-20%) sections. At Campa Gues (950 m) we drink a cup of coffee before cycling further along the base of the Pico Peña Mayor (1,149 m). After some more tough climbs we start a long, varied descent through meadows and woods at the Pico Redondo, which ends at the bridge in Miera.

We continue our descent to L’Infiestu, from where we take the dull N634 eastwards. The last eight kilometers we take a nice shortcut to the rather busy Cangas de Onis. Apparently this is the tourist gateway to the Picos de Europa. I have to admit: the steep thirteenth century bridge is beautiful. On a terrace we eat a pan paella together. Next to us the waiters pour cider from a bottle held high in the air into glasses – without looking. Funny to watch for a first time, but soon it gets boring.

Day 11: Canga de Onis > Posada de Valdeon (81 km)

Before we leave, I’d like to check my front brake because there is some friction. However, I don’t manage to fix it, not even with new brake pads. But I’m lucky: nearby is a good bike shop with a workshop. Within fifteen minutes the mechanic has bent the front disc straight (that was the cause) and replaced the disc brake pads of the almost worn front and rear brakes, including bleeding and adjusting the brake levers. The bill: 7 euros.

Because of this delay we leave late, but that’s no problem as we only ride over asphalt today. Unfortunately it’s heavily cloudy and the sun doesn’t show itself all day. First we take the N625 south for ten kilometers, and then turn right on to the AS-261 to the valley of the Río Ponga. At a certain moment the river squeezes itself through a narrow gorge. Because of the heavy rain the water gushes down the steep slopes from all sides, and sometimes also streams on the road.

In San Juan de Beleño we drink coffee before we start the climb to an unnamed col. This one starts quite steep, and I get cramps in my right leg. In theory we should have a fantastic view of the Picos from the pass height (1,012 m), but due to the low-hanging clouds that is not the case today. So we quickly descend to the main valley.

In the main valley the Río Sella squeezes itself spectacularly between huge high walls. How beautiful it must be here when the sun shines! After Oseja de Sajambre the road continues through the forest and it gets misty; we don’t see much of the surroundings anymore. It is now mainly a matter of fighting against the saddle pain until the Puerto de Panderrueda (1,470 m), after which we quickly descend to Posada de Valdeon. Here we finally catch a glimpse of the impressive Picos de Europa.

Day 12: Posada de Valdeon > Panes (66 km)

From Posada we climb 850 meters: first over asphalt to the Puerto de Pandetrave (1,525 m) and then further over a jeep track to the actual pass height (1,780 m). While we could still see quite a bit of the mountain walls of the Picos when we left the village, we end up on top of the col in the clouds. Fortunately on the other side the visibility is a lot better.

The descent is on a mostly good jeep track, and ends at Fuente De (1.000 m) at the cable car valley station. There we take the bikes in a quite small gondola to Mirador El Cable (1,750 m). Here we enjoy a view of the enormous mountain walls, similar to (but a lot less high than) the Eiger north face. It takes a few minutes to get used to the many tourists that are around here.

After lunch in the restaurant we climb a little bit between the tourists and snowfields, before descending 1,000 meters northeast through the long-stretched valley. At the hamlet of Texu the asphalt starts again and we take a steep road to the beautifully situated Sotres. Unfortunately the clouds are moving closer and the sun doesn’t come into play anymore. After Sotres we cycle even steeper eastwards before we descend for kilometers along steep walls to Tresviso.

In Tresviso we resume our mountain bike adventure by zigzagging the famous footpath 750 meters down to Urdon. This spectacular trail was once built for postal service when Tresviso was snowed in. Sometimes we can cycle, but on many stretches there are so many big boulders that we have to dismount. Down in the valley we descend another ten kilometers to Panes.

Day 13: Panes > Santander (79 km) > Bilbao

This is already the last day of our cycling trip, and an easy one: 100% asphalt and little elevation. From Panes we first ride towards the coast. There the town of San Vincente de la Barquera is beautifully situated on a bay with boats lying on shore. Along the highway we see many pilgrims on their way to Santiago, sometimes on dedicated asphalted paths. The many pilgrim hotels indicate that pilgrimage stimulates the local economy.

We arrive at the bus station of Santander already at 3 pm. According to bus company Alsa’s policy we have to remove both the wheels, and pack the whole stuff as small as possible (in a bag or wrapped in plastic foil). After a relaxed 90-minute bus trip on the highway we arrive in Bilbao. Our hotel is situated in the lively, old part of the city center. Here are many narrow streets with houses of five floors high. The next day we stroll through the city and visit the Guggenheim Museum (Chagall exposition!) before we fly back to the Netherlands.


Day 1: Bilbao Airport > Quincoces de Yuso (86 km; 1,794 meters elevation gain)
– Day 2: Quincoces de Yuso > Vega de Pas (78 km; 1,524 m)
– Day 3: Vega de Pas > Reinosa (85 km; 1,983 m)
– Day 4: Reinosa > Potes (70 km; 1,973 m)
– Day 5: Potes > La Vega (66 km; 2,364 m)
– Day 6: La Vega > Puebla de Lillo (92 km; 1,954 m)
– Day 7: Puebla de Lilo > Caldas de Luna (84 km; 1,484 m)
– Day 8: Caldas de Luna > Pola de Somiedo (58 km; 1,073 m)
– Day 9: Pola de Somiedo > Mieres Del Camin (75 km; 1,305 m)
– Day 10: Mieres Del Camin > Cangas de Onis (88 km; 1,727 m)
– Day 11: Canga de Onis > Posada de Valdeon (81 km; 2,178 m)
– Day 12: Posada de Valdeon > Panes (66 km; 1,474 m)
– Day 13: Panes > Santander (79 km; 1,240 m) > Bilbao