Springtime In Green Spain: Time To Get Out Into The Countryside, And Under It!

Green Spain
Green Spain has finally emerged from a miserable winter into a glorious if unreliable springtime, so it’s time to get out and enjoy the region’s natural beauty.

The northern coastal strip of Spain consisting of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Region has the best outdoor and underground adventures the country has to offer. Its combination of scenic hikes and extensive caves is thanks to the predominance of karst, a type of stone the weathers quickly with water. As you can see from the picture above, rain turns exposed karst into strange, picturesque shapes. When water flows underground it carves out long caves.

One of the best places to see this at work is the Parque Natural de Collados del Asón in Cantabria. Less than an hour’s drive from both Santander and Bilbao, this 11,700-acre natural park is cut through by the Asón River and several smaller streams. Those and the frequent rainfall have scoured the terrain into a series of gorges and cliffs. A network of trails provides lowland rambles past traditional farmhouses and challenging climbs up to rugged and snowy peaks. The dark mouths of several caves beckon to you from the trailside, but these aren’t places to explore without training and preparation.

The weather was glorious the day we went. When you have a fine day here in the north, you get outside. Luckily, you don’t need good weather to get some exercise. The next time I went out we were pelted with a chilly northern rain, perfect conditions to explore Green Spain’s other outdoor attractions – its caves.

Caving is big here, with several organizations and adventure travel companies ready to show you the ropes. And for many caves, ropes are what you’ll need. As water cuts through the stone, it often finds fissures and plunges downwards, gradually widening them into vertical shafts. Rappelling into Stygian darkness is one of the best thrills caving has to offer.

One cave where you don’t actually need ropes is Cotera Cave, not far from the famous prehistoric painted cave of Altamira, 20 minute’s drive outside of Santander. The entrance isn’t terribly inviting – an almost invisible trail snarled with brambles leads to a low opening where cows take shelter from the rain. Cows, being cows, have left more than their hoof prints behind.

%Gallery-186970%Picking out way past the cow patties we turned a corner and entered a large chamber. Sadly, the walls were covered with graffiti. The vandals weren’t very adventurous, though, and we soon left their ugliness behind.

Cotera is a wet cave. For much of the route we sloshed through ankle-deep water as more dripped on us from above. This action creates the formations that make caves so alluring. Cotera appears to be a fairly young cave since there aren’t many large stalactites or stalagmites. Instead, we had baby formations in the form of soda straws, which with enough water leaving mineral deposits on them will eventually grow into stalactites.

At times, the cave narrowed down into tiny crawlspaces we had to worm our way through. Often these shafts took lung-crushing right turns or plunged down at 45 degrees so that we scooted down slick clay into a welcoming puddle. In this sport a “taste of adventure” tastes like wet clay, and the grit gets stuck between your teeth.

Once the cave had covered us in grime, it decided to wash us off by making us crawl along an underground stream with a low roof. There was no choice but to get on our hands and knees and splash trough chilly water. We spotted a couple of underwater passageways leading off into the unknown.

We let them stay a mystery. Cave diving – a combination of spelunking and scuba diving – is extremely dangerous and best left for the truly crazy.

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Gadling Goes Underground: More Explorations Of Caves In Spain

caves in Spain
The caves in Spain are famous for their variety and extent. Some delve more than a kilometer into the ground. Others are adorned with prehistoric cave art more than 10,000 years old. Almost all have beautiful rock formations. There’s a whole other world under the one we usually see.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m taking a course on caving. My first experience was in Cañuela cave, an easy cave suitable for beginners. Last weekend we went to Coventosa in a remote valley in the Sierra de Cantabria, a tougher cave system that requires more rope work.

The first challenge is what you see in this photo. Here I am worming my way into a little tunnel that slopes down at a steep angle. As you can see I’m tied in with a pair of carabiners attached by ropes to my harness. Why? Because at the end, the tunnel opens out onto the edge of a cliff. Start sliding uncontrollably down this tunnel and you could fly right off the cliff, fall ten meters and smash into a bunch of jagged rocks.

Coventosa is an active cave with some amazing formations. Water seeping through cracks in the rock leaves mineral deposits that harden into stone. Over vast periods of time, these accumulated deposits create stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other formations. Several walls were full of shellfish fossils, evidence that the area was once underwater. Exploring caves gives you an appreciation for how incredibly old yet constantly changing our planet is.

%Gallery-183046%Normally as the water drips down it will create a stalactite hanging from the ceiling. The water hits the floor below, leaving more deposits to create a stalagmite rising from the ground. Eventually these two features will meet to form a column.

If the water is dripping more slowly, sometimes instead of a stalactite you’ll get a soda straw, which looks exactly like what it’s called. These tend to hang straight down or at a bit of an angle if the water is pushed by an air current. Some soda straws eventually turn into stalactites, while others cling to the side of existing stalactites and grow at crazy angles, with the water seemingly defying gravity. There are various theories as to how this could happen, which means that scientists really don’t know what’s going on. We still have a lot to learn about our world.

Caves are one of the last frontiers left to us for exploration. New caves are being discovered every year, and additional tunnels in existing caves are being explored regularly. Caving is pretty much the only way a regular person can discover a previously unseen part of the world.

While I’m years away from that level of skill, the caves in Spain are already giving me a taste of that feeling. How many people have been to the Beach, a stretch of sand next to an underground lake so large that it defied my attempts to photograph it? Or visited the Ghosts and the Virgin Mary, a cluster of eerie stalagmites in one of the deepest parts of Coventosa Cave?

Then there was my favorite, a low gallery with a forest of columns half submerged in water. Our lights couldn’t penetrate to the far wall. As we crouched there, one of the students asked how far it extended. The instructor said it didn’t go much further than we could see and was sealed off by a rock fall at the end. That made me wonder – what if we took away the rocks? Was there a tunnel on the other side? Where would it lead?

Passing between these sights got tricky at times. On one cliff we had to tie into the rope, get around a difficult outcropping, then secure our protection to a second rope. Going up that same route was even more difficult and a couple of us (myself included) made the rest wait as we fiddled around trying to find the best way to do it.

While caving can be physically demanding, it requires more balance and focus than pure strength. The best student in our class is a young woman who is a foot shorter than I am, who flies up and down the ropes with far more ease, and an obvious natural talent. This is a sport that any reasonably fit person can do.

Even so, by the end of the day we were all worn out. As we emerged from the cave entrance we were greeted by the deep blue sky of evening. We’d been in the cave for nine hours and the day had passed us by. Jupiter and a crescent moon shone high above the peaks. In that other world you lose track of time. Now that I’m back in the regular world with its sky and its clocks, I’m marking time again until next Saturday, when I’ll try an even more challenging cave.

[Photo by Dani]

Meramec Caverns: The Coolest Attraction On Route 66


If you want to beat the heat this summer, there’s no better way to do that than to explore a cool and beautiful cave.

Missouri is one of the best states to see them. A combination of lots of limestone and plenty of water has honeycombed the state with some 6,000 caves, from tiny little crawl spaces to grand and glorious show caves. One of the most popular is Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, on Route 66.

Like many caves, it was first used by Native Americans. In the 18th century, French explorers mined the cave for saltpeter, an ingredient used in making gunpowder. Saltpeter Cave, as it was then known, became tactically important in the Civil War. Union troops were stationed there mining the saltpeter until 1864, when Confederate guerrillas attacked them, drove them off, and destroyed the works.

The cave didn’t become a public attraction until the 1890s, when dances were held in the main gallery, appropriately called “The Ballroom.” Showman Lester Dill bought it in 1933, renamed it Meramec Caverns after the nearby river, and opened it to the public. He systematically explored the cave and discovered several impressive chambers. Soon people were flocking to see the stalactites and stalagmites, and beautiful stone drapery that looks like giant curtains. The action of the water depositing minerals on the walls had created amazing shapes and contours on every spot.

%Gallery-158676%Dill decided to create some clever advertising by linking the cave to Jesse James. He claimed it was one of his gang’s hideouts, although James scholars dispute this. The Jesse James/Meramec Caverns legend got a shot in the arm when the public became aware of a man claiming to be the real Jesse James, still alive and spinning a tale about how he faked his own death. Actually this old coot was named J. Frank Dalton and had one time passed himself off as Billy the Kid.

Local booster Rudy Turilli brought “Jesse” to Meramec Caverns to celebrate his 103rd birthday on September 5, 1950. This brought in a huge amount of publicity and Turilli offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he didn’t have the real Jesse James. The James family took him to court and won. Turilli never paid the $10,000.

The tour and the nearby Jesse James Wax Museum explain this conspiracy theory in detail. The whole experience is fun and a bit cheesy, having the roadside appeal of The Thing? and South of the Border. There’s no denying the natural beauty of the cave itself, and beyond the showbusiness aspect of the place that’s its real appeal.

While you’re in Stanton also check out the Riverside Reptile Ranch to meet all sorts of creepy creatures, and take a ride on the Caveman Zipline.

Two day hikes in the mountains of Cantabria, Spain

Cantabria
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’ve moved from Madrid to Santander, in Cantabria in northern Spain. This region is part of what’s often called Green Spain, made up of the four northern regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country. I’m loving life by the sea and I’ve been busy exploring Cantabria’s countryside, which offers some of the best hikes in Spain. Green and mountainous, northern Spain is unlike most people’s popular conception of the country.

I discovered a local hiking group via a Couchsurfing friend. We go every other Sunday and the group also acts as an intercambio, or language exchange, which are very popular all over Spain. It’s a good way to practice your Spanish, French, German, English, Italian, or Portuguese. There’s also an Irish guy who insists on speaking to me in Gaelic because of my name. If he keeps it up I’m going to start speaking to him in Amharic.

My first hike with them was through the Reserva del Saja, a reserve in the cordillera Cantábrica. This is one a popular destination for hikers from Santander and is only about 40 minutes by car. The hike starts at Bárcena Mayor, a cluster of stone houses nestled in the woods by a mountain stream.

%Gallery-140381%From there we hiked along a dirt track through woods bright with fall colors. An amateur mycologist kept heading into the woods in search of mushrooms and soon had a sackful. Like in other parts of the world, some mushrooms in Spain are toxic and you shouldn’t pick mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing. He showed us one particularly nasty variety that will give you permanent liver damage if you eat it. After a long walk we humped over a steep ridge and on the other side saw a large pool fed by a couple of waterfalls. This made a peaceful stop for lunch.

When hiking with Spaniards, be prepared for their later eating hours. Our lunch stop was at about 2PM and some people commented that we were stopping too early. Another culture shock came when I brought out my practical wilderness lunch of a sandwich, chocolate bar, fruit, and water. Many of my hiking companions busted out elaborately prepared meals, fine cheese, even bottles of wine. The Spanish know how to live well, and don’t see why they should stop doing so simply because they’re miles from the nearest paved road.

My second hike through the cordillera Cantábrica was from the town of Ampuero, about half an hour’s drive from Santander. This is in the Ason-Aguera region. Our goal was to climb Mount Yelso, also also known as Mojon Alto, to see a prehistoric menhir, or standing stone. This mysterious ancient stone stands in a prominent location from which you can see the surrounding countryside as far as the sea.

Of course getting there was half the fun. The fall colors are wonderful in Cantabria at this time of year. We tramped through a forest past a mysterious cave entrance and a sinkhole hinting at another cave. This is one of the best regions for caving in Europe and in future posts I’ll be sharing my experiences under Cantabria. Some of these caves have prehistoric paintings dating back 10,000 years or more. Others go down more than a kilometer and if you want to see the whole thing you have to pitch camp and sleep underground. Cavers from other parts of Europe have been known to move here just so they can be closer to the amazing caving opportunities.

At times the forest opened up and we passed green fields where cows, horses, sheep, and goats grazed. We enjoyed sweeping views of the mountains all around and the play of light and shadow over the landscape as the shadows of the clouds passed overhead. The weather can be unpredictable in this part of the world so Cantabrians are in the habit of enjoying the outdoors any time the weather is favorable.

The hike ended, and all hikes should, with a trip to a local tavern before the short drive home.

If you’re passing through Santander, feel free to look me up (just Google me) and with enough prior notice I’d be happy to introduce you to the group and see that you have a fun hike in the mountains of Cantabria.