ACTIVE 4X4 ADVENTURES
Spanish Pyrenees – an Active 4X4 Adventure from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic!
The Pyrenees remain an ever popular destination for the adventurous 4X4 explorer, and for a plethora of good reasons too. Beautiful rugged terrain, breath-taking scenery, plentiful flora and fauna, outstanding campsites and of course, the enticing tales of smugglers and smugglers’ tracks, many of which feature on most 4X4 tour operators’ itineraries. Indeed, some of these smugglers’ tracks are still in use, albeit surreptitiously, by the vagabonds running duty-free alcohol and tobacco from the nearby mountainous tax haven of Andorra.
And through this paradise of mountains and rivers in Catalonia and the Basque Country, there is so much more to do than just drive the off-road tracks. The local inhabitants have done an excellent job of sympathetically and ecologically utilising the spectacular assets of their natural environment, to provide visitors with an extensive and diverse choice of all manner of outdoor adventure activities. Active 4X4 Adventures unique 10 day fully catered Pyrenees 4X4 Tour includes some of the best of these outdoor adventure experiences, for example an exhilarating half day of river gorge canyoning in the stunning Vall de Chastau, before returning to camp for a whole rack of juicy BBQ’s ribs per person. Another day sees us tackling an elevated tree canopy traverse course amongst the fragrant pines, followed by a mind-blowing 430m long zip-line ‘flight’, the longest and fastest in the whole of Catalonia.
It all begins when we meet at a campsite on the hill overlooking the idyllic Catalonian seaside town of Banyuls, famed for its beautiful beach and warm waters. (Do yourself a favour and arrive early; a day or two could very easily and pleasantly be whiled away swimming, soaking up the sun and indulging in the bustling beachside restaurants.) As is the norm on all of our tours, we get started with a complimentary welcoming BBQ on the evening before day 1. Our legendary flame grilled 100% beef burgers, topped with caramalised onion rings and served on brioche buns, are always a big hit and set the tone for plenty more delicious BBQ feasts which will follow. And there’s freshly brewed filter coffee and a decadent dessert to finish with, for those who enjoy getting properly stuck in to good food!
The next morning after our usual breakfast of fresh filter coffee and tea, muesli, cereals and milk, granola bars, wholegrain flapjacks, bread, butter & marmalade, we’re off and heading for the hills, taking in the local wine route on our way, where the grape pickers are out, toiling under the sun with wicker baskets strapped on their backs, plucking at endless bunches of the juicy Grenache varietals. It’s not long before the narrow lanes turn to gravelly tracks, and the vineyards are replaced by the indigenous bush, alive with the sound of cicadas and aromatic from the sun-warmed essential oils. Right from the get go, the conditions are perfect for the off-roading enthusiast, with just enough technicality to keep things interesting, and all the while surrounded by unspoiled countryside, often offering spellbinding views as far as the eye can see. We take our lunch stop in the shade at the base of an ancient castle, the Castello de Requesens, which itself makes for an interesting opportunity for some on-foot exploration as, with a little effort and determination, it is possible to circumnavigate. The afternoon unfolds along much the same lines – excellent off-road driving through outstanding natural terrain, with the occasional moderately challenging section thrown in for good measure. Since the campsites we use almost always include a swimming pool plus and bar restaurant, we aim to reach camp with plenty of time to enjoy the facilities. What better way to conclude a wonderful day of overlanding, than with a refreshing swim followed by a frosty beer or two, while the enticing smoky BBQ smells waft their way over from my charcoal braai. Wonder what’s on the menu tonight? It could be marbled rib-eye steaks, succulent chicken breasts, juicy pork tenderloin, or something else, equally appetising and delicious.
We leave the area of Macanet de Cabrenys heading west along some of the best mountain tracks to be found anywhere. The vegetation has morphed from the maritime scrub and bush of the coastal regions, to the more substantial and majestic European hardwood forests, through which the ancient tracks mend their winding ways. By afternoon we are travelling through the spectacular Val de Camprodon, enjoying the most fantastic, quintessential Pyrenean off-road adventure driving. The valley is home to enormous Griffon vultures, which soar overhead, gliding effortlessly as they are propelled by the thermal updrafts, radiated off the sun-baked rocks below. Our exceptional driving experience of the day concludes in the Val de Ribes, at another lovely campsite, again boasting a most welcoming swimming pool. Dinner comes from our large casserole and could be a mild chicken Korma curry, a rich and hearty Bolognese, or perhaps our much loved hot and spicy sausage hotpot. Keep feasting!
Conveniently located just down the road from our campsite, is Campdevanol, location of the tree canopy traverse and zip-lines adventure activities. It’s a fabulous morning of excitement for young and old alike, the operation is expertly run by a crew of professional instructors, who clearly are well trained and well experienced. We do appreciate that not every client is keen on this type of activity though, so as with all of our adventure experiences, there are always alternatives for those who prefer. In this instance, the fabulous Walk of the Seven Waterfalls through the adjacent nature reserve, which is well shaded, and can be as gentle or as strenuous as one chooses to make it. After a refreshing picnic lunch we’re on our way again, heading off on the tracks and up the mountains. The afternoon comprises a phenomenal Alpine style off-road route, through beautifully scenic mountain scenery along the Coll de Morella and Coll de la Creueta, both of which are simply stunning high altitude drives, usually featuring more massive vultures circling in the skies above. Later we pass through the Guils Fontanera ski area, en route to the mountain refuge of Malniu, which is located near a vast pristine lake, and is the perfect site of our semi ‘wild camp’ for that night.
Proceeding through the Cerdanya mountains, we enjoy further wonderful terrain and conditions, heading towards the region of Aransa, all the while travelling through the unspoiled wilderness of the Cerdanya Nature Reserve. We make use of some infamous smugglers’ tracks emanating from Andorra, and have in the past bumped into some rather nefarious looking characters, bombing along in their clapped out old bangers, more than likely loaded with contraband, stashed away out of sight. Amusingly, I have also on previous occasions encountered members of the local police, hiding in the bushes in their Nissan Patrols, no doubt waiting to pounce on any unfortunate smuggler who may be coming their way. We were merely given a nod and a smile and waved on our way, without a pause.
Then on the following day, we are privileged to experience the natural wilderness of the Catalonian Pyrenees at its best. Traversing the National Park d’Alt Pirineu, the largest natural park in Catalonia, ticks all of the boxes one could ask for, both in terms of being a nature lover and a responsible four wheel drive explorer. The seemingly endless and perfect trail we follow for most of the day tracks along adjacent to a lovely river, tributary of the glorious Noguera Pallaresa. We finish the day at another very well appointed campsite, including swimming pool and bar restaurant, in the vicinity of the photogenic little town of Espot. For those requiring some evening physical exercise, there is an enjoyable, if a touch lengthy, forest walk leading right from the campsite to the town mentioned. As if it couldn’t get any better, continuing our adventure westward, along narrow and winding mountain tracks, we pass through isolated medieval mountain villages, all constructed of stone. We are still in the protected reserve of the Alt Pirineu NP, now following the main section of the roaring Noguera Pallaresa river. It’s a lively body of water, offering along its length such adventure sports as kayaking, rafting, bodyboarding and suchlike. We take great pleasure in continuing our travels on to the Alt Aneu National Park, all the while travelling through the world renowned Val d’Aran, an area of copious outstanding natural beauty, if ever there was one. We stop for lunch within walking distance of the Sanctuary of Montgarri, which makes for an interesting and pleasant mini excursion. After another fabulous afternoon of exploring and meandering, we pay a visit to the busy mountain sports town of Vielha, which has plenty to offer the visitor, before heading to our campsite on the outskirts of town, for another feast!
Thereafter we enter the rugged mountains of the Sierra de Chia, for even more unbeatable off-road driving and beautiful scenery, taking in the many splendours of the Natural Park of Posets Maladeta. As has been the case on every day of this tour, there is ample opportunity for breaks out of the cars, whether to take a short hike, splash in the river or just chill out in the sun and breathe the clean air. The afternoon features some slightly technical conditions, though nothing too hairy, and my tour notes contain phrases such as ‘excellent mountain tracks’, ‘absolutely outstanding scenery’ and ‘spectacular views all round’. All of which sound exaggerated, but are not. It really is as good as that. Our campsite for the night is a real gem, obviously complete with swimming pool, bar restaurant and the best ablution facilities. Located not far from the town of Saravillo, in the pristine Val de Chistau, between the Posets Maladeta NP from where we have come, and the Ordesa NP to where we are going. The campsite also serves as the base of our next adventure activity operator, the affable Alfonso, adventure sports guide extraordinaire, who will lead us in canyoning down the river gorge. After an unforgettable half day of exhilarating gorge canyoning down the river, we return to the campsite for a relaxing afternoon at the pool, at the bar restaurant or just snoozing in the shade, before feasting to our hearts’ content on another delectable gourmet evening BBQ.