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.

Bad marketing: don’t use a horse to advertise a butcher shop

bad marketing
I spotted this butcher shop sign near my new home in Santander in northern Spain. What’s wrong with this picture? Yeah, the “Equine butcher shop” is using a horse to advertise its product!

Now I’m going to give this hardworking small business owner the benefit of the doubt and assume horse was never sold at his shop. I can’t say for sure, though, since the place went out of business before I arrived. I wonder why?

Want to see more embarrassing adverts? Check out this Facebook page dedicated to bad marketing.

I’m curious, has anyone out there actually eaten horse? What does it taste like?

Inca Kola: Peru’s tasty soda

Inca KolaOne fun aspect of travel is discovering cool local brands. When I visited Peru back in 1998 I first learned of Inca Kola, a neon-yellow soda produced there. I was curious so I ordered some at a cafe. The waiter was surprised and delighted that I chose his nation’s drink over Coca-Cola and told me proudly that it was the only local soda that had a bigger market share in its home country than Coke.

He brought me my Inca Kola and I took a sip. It was wonderful, an ultrasweet bubblegum flavor that my girlfriend couldn’t stand but I immediately fell in love with. I brought two liters back with me on the plane and served it to all my friends.

Peruvians are pretty proud of this soda, and that’s reflected by its advertising, with lines like La bebida del Perú (“The drink of Peru”) and ¡Es nuestra! (“It’s ours”). Sadly, the Coca-Cola corporation got its global tentacles wrapped around Inca Kola in 1999 and it’s no longer a completely independent company. Several Peruvian-owned rival brands have since taken up the banner.

I haven’t seen Inca Kola much outside of Peru. Some Latino shops in the U.S. stock it under the name Golden Kola, but it can be hard to find. Today I discovered it here in Santander, Spain, under its own name. The local long-distance phone bank, where people use Skype for a small fee rather than racking up huge phone bills to South America, had it for sale. Strangely, the shop is owned by Pakistanis. Santander is pretty cosmopolitan for such a small city!

After I bought some I went next door to a Chinese-owned convenience store, generally called Chinos here because most convenience stores are owned by the Chinese. As I picked up some beer the owner asked me how much I paid for my Inca Kola. Turns out he sells it for five centimos less. Live and learn.

In many ways the world is getting smaller, and that can be a good thing.

Cider: Spain’s other great alcoholic beverage

ciderWhile Spain is justly famous for its fine wines, the country also produces an amazing amount and variety of alcoholic cider. It’s made almost exclusively in the northern four regions that make up Green Spain.

From west to east these regions are Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country, which isn’t actually a country but that’s another story. This region gets a lot of rain and is much more temperate than the rest of Spain, so it’s a good place to grow apples.

Asturias makes the most cider, called sidra in Spanish. It tends to be sweet, crisp, and a bit cloudy. You pour it from way up high like I’m doing here. This puts bubbles into the cider that makes it a bit like drinking champagne, assuming you get it in the glass and not on your kitchen floor.

I’ve seen Bedouin doing this with coffee and they said it both cooled the coffee and added to the taste. Hmmm. . .perhaps aerating liquid adds to the flavor?

Galicia produces some fine cider as well, as does the Basque Country, where in the Basque language it’s called sagardoa. The region that produces the least in Green Spain is Cantabria, where I’m living. So little is produced that I’ve met Cantabrians who said I couldn’t find any here! Well, find it I did, at a little farmers’ market downtown. It’s pretty good, but I have to say that Asturian cider is better.

Northern cuisine uses cider in lots of recipes, including my favorite chorizo a la sidra, a wonderfully rich and flavorful way to harden your arteries. You can see some below in this Wikimedia Commons photo. So if you’re headed to Spain, keep an eye out for restaurants serving northern cuisine and try out the sidra or sagardoa. It makes a nice change from wine.

Yes, Food Week was last week here at Gadling, but we’ll still be bringing you tips about what to eat and drink around the world!
cider

African music in northern Spain? Gotta love the global village!


I’ve recently moved to Santander, a port in northern Spain. While leaving a major European capital for a small provincial city was quite a leap, Santander has an international feel to it that I like. Being a port, it gets immigrants from all over the world, mostly China, South America, and West Africa.

The West Africans are especially numerous. They man most of the Cantabrian fishing fleet and work on the docks and in industry as well. Sadly I haven’t found any suya restaurants, but I did get to hear some great African music. Last weekend there was an African jam session at a local bar. The band was made up of guys from Senegal and the Ivory Coast playing drums, a xylophone, and the kora, with a Chilean saxophonist thrown in because. . .why not?

If you’ve never heard a kora player, try to go to a concert. The kora is a stringed instrument from Western Africa. With 21 strings it’s got quite a range and sounds like a cross between a harp and a guitar. Check out this video from kora master Toumani Diabate explaining how it works.

As I downed a generously poured rum and coke while speaking Spanish with a bunch of South Americans and listening to West African music, I got to thinking just how mixed together we’re getting. This mid-sized bar in a mid-sized city after the tourist season had people from at least half a dozen countries and four continents. Everyone drinking, dancing, talking, and listening to music. Nice. Later I stepped out for a smoke (Spain started a smoking ban this year) with a guy from the Ivory Coast and another from Cantabria. We all shivered in the cold rain of autumn and complained about the weather. Well, two of us did. The Cantabrian didn’t grow up in Arizona or West Africa, so he didn’t see what was wrong about the weather.

It was the only disagreement I heard the entire night. I can live with that.