Paddling the South Saskatchewan River: Old Bindloss Ferry to Estuary

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

Close encounter of the rattler kind and storm of the sesquicentennial behind us – Ma Nature went all out with a noisy and bright light show for Canada’s 150th – we launched two canoes and a single kayak at an old ferry site on the South Saskatchewan River. Heading downstream, we were searching for a little r’n’r – with a dash of history on the side.

Paddling the South Saskatchewan River

In honour of Canada’s 150th year, we decided to forgo modern forms of transport for a couple of days and paddle our way back into history – before planes, trains and automobiles – back to a time even before this great country called Canada came into existence.

Our starting place was the old Bindloss Ferry site, five kilometres (3 miles) downstream of Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield. The crumbling remains of a concrete approach for the ferry crossing was perfect for sorting gear away from the mud. It’s early July. River levels are dropping. The spring melt is pretty much done, making canoeing and gravel bar camping a little easier.

Boats ready to launch for our 3-day river adventure. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Day one’s route would take us on a gentle, approximately 21 km (13 mi) float down through the coulees of the Middle Sand Hills, past deer grazing along the still-green grasslands, beaver plying the waterways, and cliff swallows dipping into the mud on the riverbank to build their clay castles in rocky outcrops.

Sandy Point Bridge over the South Saskatchewan River. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

We continued to a point just below Sandy Point bridge and its established, but busy campground, where an open sand and gravel and rattlesnake-free shoreline became home for the night. Nighthawks serenade from above as we sit riverside, watching the sky turn golden.

Sunset on the river. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

River Day Two

The second day – with almost 32 km (20 mi) of river travel – should have felt a little more difficult. The light push of the wind, the warmth of the sun and the catch and release of sauger – tiny fish in comparison to the massive sturgeon that inhabit the South Saskatchewan River – had us drifting along without much of a worry. Popping back and forth along the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, the river meandered effortlessly in a northeastly direction.

A gaggle of geese pulled up onshore as we drifted by. Three young owls took practice flights in the low trees along the bank. Sandpipers ran along the mudflats. A great blue heron flew effortlessly downstream.

Ma Nature held true to course and gave us a little test of wind in our faces for a short stretch of the journey. She relented, came back in from behind and allowed us to drift down using umbrellas as sails. The ghostly abutments of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) bridge that spanned the river in 1914 came into sight.

Canoe hounds could care less about the ghostly railway abutments in the distance! (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Long abandoned, the concrete pillars on a midstream island provided the perfect backdrop for camp – with ready-built shade. Unloading quickly, it was all hands in the cooler for happy hour. Deer crisscross the river up and downstream. Beavers swim around us. White pelicans bob in slow upstream eddies. Relaxed? Oh yeah – nature’s medicine is working its magic!

Camp perfection! (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Final Float to the Pullout

We can hear the meal bell from the nearby Hutterite colony as we prep for a leisurely breakfast. Reluctantly, we load up and drift down past the flood-blasted muddy confluence with Red Deer River. The channel becomes a wide flat lake for a short stretch. Tip: stay river right to avoid having to walk on water across the shallow sections.

After the confluence of the Red Deer and the South Saskatchewan, the river stretches across like a lake. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

It is somewhere right in here, on river left, that Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) explorer, surveyor and trader Peter Fidler built Chesterfield House in the fall of 1800. HBC established the trading post on the South Saskatchewan River to provide competition for the Northwest Company (NWC) and other Canadians trading for fox, wolf, badger and beaver pelts with the Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan and Gros Ventre in southern Alberta.

It is also somewhere right in here that his First Nations wife, Mary Mackegonne, gave birth to their third son George on November 10th of that same year. Fidler and his family would spent two seasons at the original post before it was abandoned due to increasing tensions with the Gros Ventre.

The post was resurrected in the winter of 1804/05, left for almost another two decades and then rebuilt as a temporary trading post and palisade about seven km (4 mi) downstream of the confluence in 1822 – the same year Peter Fidler passed away in his post at Fort Dauphin. In April of 1823, Chesterfield House was abandoned for good.

Sadly, there are no visible remains of either trading post, but the fact that we were paddling alongside the past was some kind of Canada cool.

Empressive – packing five adults, two dogs, two canoes & a kayak into one return shuttle vehicle! (Photo: Megan Kopp)

If You Go:

  • Our trip ran from the Old Bindloss Ferry in Alberta at Km 255 (5 km east of the CFB Suffield boundary) to the Estuary Ferry in Saskatchewan, just past Km 320. We covered 65 km distance on the South Saskatchewan River easily in 2 ½ days.
  • We accessed the put-in point at the Old Bindloss Ferry landing on the north side of the river. Range Road 2-3 is graveled down to a band of willows just above the river, but be aware the lower section is not maintained and may have washouts in wet weather.
  • A second vehicle was left at the take-out point at the Estuary Ferry (talked with ferry operator to ensure that where it was parked was okay before leaving)
  • Buy a copy of Prairie River, by Dawn Dickinson and Dennis Baresco. It may be dated, but the cultural and natural history information and maps inside this small volume are still valuable. You can find it online in books at Paddle Alberta’s store.
  • You can access additional maps online at Alberta River Basins. Flow levels can be monitored by accessing the Alberta Rivers: Data and Advisories Mobile App on this same page.

Hosted by:

SaveSave

SaveSave

Machu Picchu’s Story in Stone

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

Sitting in the Vilcabamba mountain range of Peru, perched high above the Vilcanota River, is a sacred place. They call it Machu Picchu. Viewed from above it looks like a great bird – like a condor –  turning in full flight. Up close, it is a key to a past life. Machu Picchu’s story is shared in the carefully considered placement of rock.

The Story of a Name

The original name of Machu Picchu is unknown. Archaeologist and explorer Dr. Hiram Bingham gave the city its current name in 1911. It is the same name of the mountain that rises above it. Machu means “old” in the Quechua language. Picchu means “mountain” or “peak.”

The namesake old mountain itself towers at a height of 3,050 meters (10,004 feet) to the south. Waynapicchu (young peak) rises 2,750 m (8,965 ft) to the north. The buildings and terraces of Machu Picchu sprawls out on the col between the two peaks, sitting at around 2,400 m (7,824 ft) above sea level.

Building Machu Picchu’s Story

According to archaeologists, building Machu Picchu’s story began during the reign of Inca Pachakuteq in 1438. It took about 30 years to complete the initial phases of construction. An exclusive group of priests and priestesses and important members of the Inca government lived here.

Machu Picchu’s terraces as viewed from the urban section of the site. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Machu Picchu is divided into two sections: agricultural and urban. The agricultural section contains more than 100 terraces. It covers over half of the built area within the site. Experts estimate that the terraces were capable of producing nearly 9,000 kilograms (19,840 pounds) of corn each year. The urban section holds the main temples, residences and storehouses.

The stony enclave became an educational center for future leaders until 1537 when war broke out. As a result of the conflict, Machu Picchu was slowly and systematically abandoned over the next eight years. It soon became a distant memory, its presence known only to locals.

Machu Picchu’s Story of Rediscovery & Restoration

1895 – Peruvian government restores the old Inca trail from Ollantaytambo to Quillabamba (passing below Machu Picchu, alongside the Vilcanota river)

1907 – Two local families move into Machu Picchu and farm the terraces

1911 – Dr. Hiram Bingham (Yale University) is guided to Machu Picchu for the first time

1912 – National Geographic and Yale University lead an expedition to open tombs, uncover buildings, photograph buildings and complete topographical research

1914 – Third expedition by Bingham; explores trails leading to Macchu Picchu

late 1914 to early 1934 – Machu Picchu is left alone again

1934 – Spanish government and Patronato de Arqueologia (archaeological sponsorship) take over, start to remove growth and begin restoration

1941 – Machu Picchu is declared a National Archaeolgical Park

1946 – Construction on a road to connect the archaeological site from the begins

1948 –  Road opens and a tourist hotel is built near ruins

1981 – The site is declared a Historical Sanctuary by Peruvian government

1983 – Machu Picchu becomes a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site

Hidden Stories Seen Today

Half of the Inca cross, placed in front of the Temple of Three Windows. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Dig a little deeper, look a little closer and Machu Picchu’s story starts to emerge. The Sacred Plaza includes the Main Temple, the Temple of Three Windows and the Priest’s House. There is half of an Incan Cross placed in front of the Temple of the Three Windows.

Why only half of a cross? Because the trio of open windows face west. When the sun come in the windows, the light hits the cross and the shadow that is cast completes the cross. Circumstance? While it may seem like it, this was a result of careful consideration and planning.

Paying Attention to Detail

Precision stone work and fine quality granite are signs of important buildings. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Compare and contrast the granite stones used in the buildings. Notice the range of quality. A finer grade of stone was used to build royal residences and temples. The stone placement is precise. Primitive stonework can be found in the terraces, storehouses and other less important buildings. Read the stones, learn a little more of Machu Picchu’s story.

Part of the Inca Royal Residence. Notice the round rock on the patio, hold water. Another stone, another purpose – as a mirror for astronomical observations! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Look at the doorways. Some entrances have a double-jamb doorway. This means that it the entrance to a sacred place, such as the priest’s quarters and areas used for ceremonies.

Double-jamb doorway in Machu Picchu. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Many doorways are quite tall. There is a reason. Inca rulers were carried everywhere. The extra height was necessary to facilitate movement of the Inca.

Entrance doors are almost always trapezoidal in shape. They look cool, but there is more to it. Earthquakes are common in the region. Trapezoidal shapes are strong. They resist movement.

Now, check out the roofs. Cylindrical stones were stacked in the gables. Decorative? No, they had a purpose. These stones were used to tie down wooden roof beams to keep the roof from blowing off in strong winds.

Note the less precise stone construction of the guardhouse and the tie down rocks for the roof. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Machu Picchu’s Story of Random Stones

This carved granite altar was used for funeral rituals, sacrifices and offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The Funeral Rock next to the Guardhouse is a granite block delicately carved into an altar. It was used for funeral rituals, sacrifices, healings and offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth. Most people see the large funeral rock, few see the smaller stones.

Machu Picchu’s story includes these miscellaneous stones found around the funeral rock are called the Apacheta. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The Apacheta is a collection of medium-sized volcanic, limestone, sandstone, and other stones not native to the area. They are now found littered around the funeral rock. It is thought that these stones were brought by pilgrims as offerings during Inca times. When a pilgrim crosses a mountain pass (abra) or visits a sacred place for the first time, carry a stone to make an offering to gain protection from mountain spirits.

Each stone in Machu Picchu holds a story – a story of purpose, a story of vision, a story of belief. Machu Picchu’s story is written in stone.

Read more about the Historic Sanctuary at Machu Picchu on the UNESCO WHC website.

What stories did you uncover in your visit to this storied place?

Planning to Go?

A wide selection of accommodation options can be found in nearby Agua Calientes, also known as Machupicchu.

The Wild Side of Machu Picchu

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

Machu Picchu – architectural wonder, Inca monument, historic gem. All are fitting descriptions for this fortress carved of stone, but I’m going to detour for a moment and take you along for a walk on Machu Picchu’s wild side.

Discovering Machu Picchu’s Wild Things

Thousands of visitors flock to Peru’s Andes on a quest to tick off Machu Picchu on their bucket lists – and for good reason. Machu Picchu is a stunning example of Incan engineering prowess.

We finally made it! (Credit: Megan Kopp)

Stone temples and carefully placed sacred rocks perch on a pass between 2,750-metre high Waynapicchu and the 3,050-metre high Machupicchu mountains. The sheer majesty of the view and the architecture make everything else irrelevant…

… until a bear walks by.

Bears? In Machu Picchu?

Apparently.

I wish we’d been one of the fortunate ones to have witnessed the spectacle of the Andean bear sauntering through Plaza Principal or scaling the terraces in the Agricultural sector, but just the fact that they are here is captivating.

Lucky visitors have videoed Andean bears – also known as spectacled bear – at Machu Picchu.

A Little Llama Love

While we didn’t personally see any bears during our visit – next time! –  we did find a wild side to Machu Picchu, starting with the llamas.

Photo star of Machu Picchu! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

 

Llamas are not exactly wild. They were brought to the site as workers. Yup, they are the lawnmowers that keep the terraces cropped. We saw four and one sweet baby still wobbly on its feet. The llamas are free to wander, but why would they want to  go anywhere else when they can get free food with little competition and get to pose for the paparazzi whenever they want?

Chillin’ Cinchillas

Technically, the large, bushy-tailed rodents that scamper around the boulders – often overlooked by visitors – are called viscachas. But they are members of the chinchilla family. Their fur matches the colours of the stones for perfect camouflage.

Looking like a cross between a rabbit and squirrel, the southern viscacha is a Machu Picchu original! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

 

 

Taking Flight

Using spiders as hosts to feed their young, this wasp is a killer! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

While the spider wasp looks threatening – and indeed probably are to spiders – this curious insect is worth a closer look.

Birds abound in Machu Picchu, but finding the right opportunity to take a pic can be a bit of a challenge.

This rufous-collared sparrow serenaded us from the treetops while standing below the guardhouse. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

We don’t always photograph birds as the camera we carry is not meant for that level of photography, but the avian life at Machu Picchu demands an attempt.

Sugar buzz! Come a little closer and sit still for a moment would you! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary spans across 32,590 hectares. It lies on the eastern slope of the Andes. Humid montane forests drop down towards the Amazon basin. Over 400 species of birds have been recorded in this prime habitat.

Temple of the Condor

Birds held high court in the world of the Inca as well. The Temple of the Condor was named for its appearance, stretched out like the wings of the condor.

The rock outcrops of the Temple of the Condor look like the wings of its namesake. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

 

Take Time to Smell the Flowers

Machu Picchu may be on the bucket list for its impressive architecture and cultural legacy, but don’t pass up the opportunity to take a moment to stop and smell the flowers – or listen to the birds or watch the insects or enjoy a chillin’ chinchilla – along the way.


Expedia.com

All Aboard for Lizard Land in the Galapagos

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

A ship, a ship – we have a ship. The Monserrat waits patiently in the harbour for us to board. Our Galapagos boat adventure is about to begin. It’s all aboard for lizard land.

The Galapagos Name Game
Okay, maybe lizard land isn’t the right name for this piece.

How about small island teeming with life?

Land of life?

Island Iife?

Yep, that’s it! Island life – where water-lapping land iguanas mingle with lounging lava lizards, seaside-sitting storm petrels, nesting boobies and sunning sea lions. That’s a typical scene on Isla Plazas.

Isla Plazas

Stepping on the short concrete dock, our G Adventure guide William warns us to be careful. The white guano stain – aka bird poop – is slippery.

Heading out on the rock-lined trail, a finch flies by. Another calls from a nearby cactus. A yellowish land iguana blocks the path, demanding a photo or ten. A small lava lizard scurries by.

Land iguanas thrive on Isla Plazas. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

All this and we haven’t moved more than 30 metres (100 feet) from the dock.

It doesn’t look like a productive habitat for wildlife, but don’t let first impressions fool you! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

This tiny, cactus-laden island is a refuge for hundreds of individuals – some large, some small, and some downright slothful.

Wandering Wild in the Galapagos

Walking on Isla Plazas is less about forward momentum and more about taking care not to inadvertently crush an unsuspecting resident.

Everything you may have ever heard or read about the abundance of fearless wildlife in Galapagos hit home on this short stroll.

Wild walking in the Galapagos. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Massive bull sea lions slumber unconcerned as we walk by. They are as sleepy as sloths in a tree.

Juvenile sea lions pose on rocks and cavort in the water.

Frigate bird watch us watching it! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Frigate birds hold court on rocky outcrops, watching tourists watching them. I kept expecting one of them to pull out a camera and start snapping photos of us!

Nesting pairs of Nazca boobies keep watch over eggs. Their rock-lined nests are precariously perched on black lava cliffs above a frothing surge.

A solitary land iguana laps water from an ephemeral rainwater pool steps away from the path. We stop and watch in awe as it casually drinks without a care. Watch as William explains in the background about land iguanas and their drinking habits:

This island life is pretty unique, don’t you think?

What wildlife adventures have you experienced in the Galapagos, or what would like to experience?

If You Go:

G Adventures  (*Save up to 25% on Last Minute Adventure Travel Packages) offers many options for Galapagos Adventures.

Learn more about the unique natural history on the islands:

Tortoise Time in the Galapagos

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

Time on land and in the water plus a small ship to call home equals the perfect combination for exploring the Galapagos Islands. Today, it’s tortoise time on Isla Santa Cruz!

Ready, Set, Go Galapagos

We started our tortoise tour by visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, arriving early before the crowds. It was the final day of the land portion of our Galapagos adventure.


Up to 25% off G Adventures

The Charles Darwin Research Station is the perfect place to learn about giant tortoises.

Giant tortoises have long been the focus of attention in Galapagos. These prehistoric wonders were once viewed as nothing more than a source of food and fuel.

Tortoises can last for up to a year without food or water. As a result, hundreds of thousands of tortoises were taken by sailors as fresh food for long trips. Tortoise oil was also burned in lamps. The fragile population of giant tortoise also suffered due to predation by rats brought in on ships.

Because of all of this unwanted attention, four tortoise species are now extinct in the Galapagos.

Smaller than a leaf! Baby tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Centre (Photo: Brad Kopp)

One of the goals of the Charles Darwin Research Station is to provide a rearing facility for endangered species.

Pens of young tortoises from several months to several years old give us our first glimpses of one of the keystone species of the Galapagos Islands’ unique fauna.

Hard to believe these little guys will grow into adults weighing upwards of 215 kilograms (475 pounds).

Click, click, click – too many photos, but these tortoise tots are so darn cute!

Cute as a button, this teeny tiny tortoise is! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

A Tortoise by Any Other Name

The buzz at the research station was all about Lonesome George. He is finally home again. Well, at least the preserved version of Lonesome George is home again.

It all started in 1971 when Lonesome George was found. This Pinta Island giant tortoise was the last of his kind. Each island has a distinct species of giant tortoise. George was it on Pinta Island. He became the poster-boy for giant tortoises throughout the Galapagos.

In 1972, George was brought to the rearing centre in Puerta Ayora for protection. It was hoped that researchers would also be able to find a mate for the lonely fellow to preserve his genetic heritage.

No such luck.

Lonesome George died in 2012 without reproducing. His body was sent to the United States for preservation. His remains recently came back to the Galapagos and are now on display in a specially-lit, climate-controlled room.

Lonesome George – on display. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Way to go, Diego!

Personally, I think George is overshadowed by Diego.

He is an endangered giant tortoise from Isla Española.

By 1960, only 14 adult tortoises remained on Española – 12 females and 2 males. Researchers took them into captivity to start a rearing program.

Diego was a captive Española tortoise brought back from the San Diego Zoo in 1975. As a result, he became the third male for the tiny group teetering on extinction.

Now over 100 years old, Diego has fathered an estimated 800 offspring. Way to go, Diego!

Living Large and Free

Meeting up with rest of our boat gang in the afternoon, we headed up to the highlands and El Chato Ranch. El Chato is a private ecological reserve where giant tortoises have free reign.

Giant tortoise strolling the path at El Chato on Isla Santa Cruz (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The reserve is actually a working farm. Tortoises come and go as they please. Tourists flock to the ranch to see these giants munching on fallen guava fruit and grazing next to livestock. It can be difficult to stay the required 2 metres (6 feet) away when these giants cut a straight path through the crowd!

Guava face! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Giant tortoises migrate seasonally from highlands to lowlands. You can follow their movements at www.movebank.org.

Far too soon, our tortoise time is done for the day. The Monserrat is calling our names.

‘Til next time, tortoises!
Expedia.ca

Next up: All Aboard for Lizard Land in the Galapagos

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Gearing Up for the Galapagos Islands: Finally!

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

Thirty years ago I dreamed of going to the Galapagos Islands to snorkel with sea lions, walk past nesting blue-footed boobies and trip alongside giant tortoises.

You know what?

Dreams do come true.

Making a Plan and Checking It Twice

Boat or land tour?

That was the first big hurdle we had to cross when we finally decided the time had come to walk in Charles Darwin’s footsteps.

One of Darwin’s finches – it’s all in the bill! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

There were pros and cons to each. Boat tours are expensive. Sea sickness is a concern.

Land tours are limited in scope. They require extra travel time between islands.

After hours poring over guidebooks, scouring the internet and checking potential trip options with TripAdvisor – we decided a cruise was the way to go. Not ultra-budget, not luxury – somewhere cruising comfortably in the lower middle.

But which boat?

Which islands?

How many days?

The budget was set. We had a month of travel through Ecuador and Peru. We couldn’t afford more than a small sample of the Galapagos.

After days of deliberation and countless hours on the computer, we settled on G Adventures 7-day (Quito to Quito) Land and Sea option.

Galapagos – Ready or Not!

We met our G Adventure representative in Quito, at the Hilton – no less! We reviewed the trip itinerary and learned that everyone else was already travelling on an extended tour, so we would join them in the Galapagos.

Our room was overlooking the green expanse of Parque El Ejido. We could see the Basilica in the distance. Sorting through a month’s worth of gear, we downsized to one bag, storing the extra bag with the hotel before crashing for a few hours.

The 4:00 a.m. breakfast and 4:30 a.m. departure would come far too soon.

On the morning flight, we saw signs of heavy rains and flooding of lowlands near Ecuador’s west coast from the plane window.

Flooded lowlands near Guayaquil (Photo: Brad Kopp)

A quick refuelling stop in Guayaquil, a short hop across a thousand or so kilometres of Pacific Ocean and we were wheels down on Baltra – a tiny island that was once a USA military base.

Boat ride from Baltra to Santa Cruz (Photo: Brad Kopp)

A short 10-minute bus ride to the dock, another short 10-minute boat ride, and into the van with our G Adventure guide for the 45-minute drive up over the highlands and down into Puerto Ayora.

The fog and drizzle lifts.

Floral scents fill the air.

Deep green, grassy fields hide ancient tortoises.

Lava Lizard (Photo: Brad Kopp)

After 30 years of waiting, we are finally here. Feet firmly planted in the land of Charles Darwin. We spent the afternoon hiking to the powder-fine white sands of Playa Brava – mockingbirds, lava lizards and finches!

Lava Heron on the hunt! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Another short walk past sunning marine iguanas to kayaks waiting in Tortuga Bay, paddling past red mangroves to view dozens of mating green sea turtles, young black-tipped reef sharks, and squawking lava herons.

The land and sea are alive.

I revel in its wildness.

And I can’t seem to get this smile off my face; some things are worth waiting for!

If you have been (or are you planning to go) to the Galapagos, what tips do you have for selecting the perfect adventure to fit your budget?

Next up: Tortoise Time in the Galapagos

Exploring Northern Spain: Hiking Urkiola

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

Hikers look for parks and natural spaces to explore wherever they go – and we are no exception. Pulling out the map, we spied Urkiola Natural Park, in the heart of Basque Country just south of Durango in northern Spain. A quick internet search unearthed hiking options worth investigating. 

The road winds up and up and up from Durango to Urkiola Pass.

The Sanctuary at Urkiola Pass. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Driving past the imposing Urkiola Sanctuary shrouded in fog, we parked and began the gentle uphill climb into the heart of the park. From the Sanctuary, it is easy to follow the signposts indicating the route to go up Mount Urkiolagirre.

Urkiolagirre is one of the most important stockbreeding zones in Urkiola Natural Park. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The fog slowly lifted. Wire fences separate herds of belled livestock. The path climbs gently up the verdant pasture land.

It takes about half an hour to reach the small summit of Urkiolagirre, where photogenic Basque ponies demand to be photographed. Look for the orientation table with the names of some of Urkiola’s limestone peaks and other notable points of interest.

Young Basque pony in Urkiolagirre, one of the most important stockbreeding zones in Urkiola Natural Park. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

 

Pol-Pol spring and its iron-rich water. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The way down from the peak leads to the Asuntze col, with the Pol-Pol spring and its reddish waters. There are several well-marked paths from the col. A signpost lists various trail options. We chose to head up to Larrano.

Santa Barbara Chapel on Larrano Col. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

It took less than half an hour to  climb up to the Larrano col. Here stone herder cabins and the tiny Santa Barbara Chapel capture the imagination.

This lush, grassy pass overlooking the town of Durango would be a good place to stop, but the rocky series of small summits to the southeast were calling our names.

Up and up and up – the trail winds to the first summit

There isn’t a readily identifiable trail. We headed up, following a fence line and animal trails and then funnelling into a rocky access point where a more obvious route appeared.

A short scramble up to the first summit. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

A short scramble and we summited the first small peak with stunning views of the countryside. Hiking options in northern Spain are endless. Urkiola Natural Park is only one of the hidden gems in this region.

Have you hiked in northern Spain? What gems have you uncovered?

Unique summit marker in Urkiola Natural Park. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

When You Go: 

Read more about the Hiking Routes through Urkiola Natural Park here.

Hosted by:

Exploring Northern Spain: The Painted Caves of Cantabria

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

Cave paintings – they are history, art and exploration all rolled into one sweet package. How could we come to northern Spain and not check out some of their painted caves?

First up, the star of northern Spain’s painted caves – Altamira.

Cave painting of Northern Spain

 

The Cave of Altamira

Altamira has an intriguing history – in addition to the prehistoric paintings dating back some 14,000 years.

This painted cave is 30 kilometres (19 miles) west of Santander on the northern coast of Spain, in the province of Cantabria. A roof collapse blocked the entrance 13,000 years ago, sealing off the paintings inside. In 1868, a hunter stumbled across the treasure. Eight years later, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola saw the cave for the first time.

An amateur archaeologist, Sanz de Sautuola returned to excavate the entrance to the cave. During one of his visits, his daughter Maria found paintings of bison on the ceiling of a side chamber.

Nobody believed that the paintings were paleolithic art. After 20 years of controversy about their status, the authentic nature of the Altamira paintings was recognized in 1902. Archaeologists discovered engraved animal bones in subsequent digs. One of these carved bones dated to 14,480 years ago.

Maria’s chamber contains most of the paintings. There are red hematite and black charcoal bison images, horses, and a doe – which at 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) is the biggest painting in the collection. Altamira was finally designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 – more than 100 years after its discovery.

After Altamira, everything is decadence.” – Picasso stating his belief that in Altamira, art had reached maturity.

Neo-Cave

On one hand, a visit to Altamira is exciting. On the other, it is a mixed bag. The original painted cave closed in 2001 to protect the art. Understandable. Altamira Museum’s Neo-Cave is a replica of the 270-metre (885 feet) long cave and its paintings.

We purchased our entrance tickets and at the same time were given a spot on a cave tour. Touring the museum during the wait, we had time to learn more about the painting process and techniques.

Cave painting
Example of a charcoal outline. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The image is complete. (Photo: Brad Kopp)
The reconstructed Altamira cave is a carefully crafted exhibition. Every detail of the cave paintings is faithfully replicated. But the fact that it is climate-controlled, it has no loose stones or pointed outcrops or low ceiling dips to avoid, and that there are not even faint sounds of dripping water makes it all seem a bit soulless. Even though it’s perfect, it’s kind of like looking at a good forgery of a masterpiece.

Beyond Altamira

Seventeen painted caves now make up the UNESCO designated Paleolithic Cave Art of the Cantabrian Coast. These include caves in Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country.

There are seven painted caves in the province of Cantabria: Chufín, El Castillo, Las Monedas, El Pendo, Cullalvera, Covalanas and Hornos de la Peña. Because many of the sites are only open Tuesdays to Sundays, timing is key. We lucked out with visits to El Castillo and Las Monedas – both part of the Monte Castillo cave complex near Puente Viesgo.

Monte El Castillo is riddled with caves; only four of them have paintings. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Cueva El Castillo

King of the castle, archaeological excavations date the use of this cave back 150,000 years. Cuevo El Castillo was re-discovered in 1903.

The tour starts in the museum and walks under the protective roof to the rubble left from the archaeological digs before entering the cave. A real cave! And there are more than 275 different example of Paleolithic art in its dark recesses. Now this is what I was looking forward to experiencing.

Puntas – or dots – are a common art form in the cave. There are over 300 dots between the entrance and the end of the cave paintings. Why were they put there? It seems like a obvious question. Sadly, there is no obvious answer.

In addition to the dots, there are paintings of horses, bison, does, aurochs, stags, goats and a mammoth. Dozens of 40,000-year-old handprints mark the inner walls of the cave. Who left them here? What do they symbolize?

My mind is abuzz with thoughts and images and questions – oh, so many questions.

Protected painted cave entrance
Painted caves are protected on Monte El Castillo; entrance by guided tour only. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Cueva Las Monedas

In 1952 Cueva Las Monedas’ existence came into the light, along with its 12,000-year-old artwork. The cave itself is the longest cave in Monte El Castillo – stretching 800 metres (more than 2600 feet) from the entrance.

The paintings themselves are interesting, but it’s the story of the 23 Spanish coins dating back to the 16th century that really sparks the imagination.

When were the coins left in Cueva Las Monedas? Who left them? And why?

Maybe I’ll never find the answers to all the questions these painted caves bring about. Then again, if it means taking another trip back to northern Spain to continue the quest, I could live with that!

When You Go:

We stayed at the Hotel Villa Arce just outside of Puente Viesgo. In good weather, it has a view of Monte El Castillo.

Be sure to book ahead of time as painted caves are popular tours.

Expedia.com
Read more:

Hosted by:

Exploring Northern Spain: Fuente De

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

Zipping up close to 700 metres (2300 feet) without breaking a sweat sounds like heaven. Indeed, the cable car at Fuente Dé is a little slice of bliss. Exploring the hiking trails of Picos de Europa in Northern Spain just got a whole lot easier!

Picos de Europa

The Southeastern Side of Picos de Europa

There are places that make your heart sing. Picos de Europa is one of those places. From Arenas de Cabrales, we moved southeast to Potes to continue our exploration of Picos from Fuente Dé.

Fuente Dé
Trail marker in field at the base of the cable car in Fuente Dé
It is an easy half hour drive from Potes up to Fuente Dé. The rugged stone wall at the end of the valley draws eyes away from the cable car – or teléforico – passing overhead.

We couldn’t help snapping a few pics before heading over to the terminal for the ride up into the still partially snow-covered alpine. The cable car has been hauling people up the mountainside since the 1960s.

 

Hiking around Fuente Dé

Mere minutes after boarding, we are standing at the cable car summit. Packs on backs, light hikers laced tight on eager feet and we’re off.

Within 20 minutes there are no crowds and only a few other people working their way through lingering patches of snow.

Spring hiking in Picos de Europa. (Photo: Megan Kopp)
We took route PR24 in a clockwise direction. The trail climbs up to a pass before heading down the other side to a red-roofed refugio (closed until summer).

Refugio in Picos de Europa
Looking back at the pass above the cable car summit. (Photo: Brad Kopp)
From the refugio, we took a short detour up onto a rise in search of the elusive chamois.

Scanning for chamois. (Photo: Megan Kopp)
And wouldn’t you know it, we saw one!

Asturian chamois
A rare Asturian chamois sighting! (Photo: Brad Kopp)
We climbed back up to the route, past Hotel Áliva (again, closed for the season) and down towards an old church.

Hiking in Picos de Europa
The hills are alive with the sound of music! (Photo: Brad Kopp)
The Virgen de la Salud Puerto de Aliva stands out in the meadows like a beacon to all who wander nearby.

Church in Picos de Europa
Worship in the mountains. (Photos: Brad Kopp)

Heading Down from the Alpine

From here the trail joins up with a gravel road for a short distance as it descends back down toward Espinama.

Hiking Picos de Europa
Heading back down towards Fuente De from the alpine meadows above the cable car summit. (Photo: Brad Kopp)
We pass an historic fountain before descending into a thick oak forest. Towards the end of the hike, the trail surface became a bit of a mud bog in early May.

Hiking Picos
Valley bottom trail not quite as pleasant as the alpine! (Photo: Megan Kopp)
The sight of the cable car at Fuente Dé looked even sweeter than it did on our initial approach. What a hike!

Trail PR 24 – over and out.

If You Go:

  • The cable car at Fuente Dé cost 11 Euros each on our visit.
  • The circular route following PR 24 – including countless detours and an extended picnic time – took us 6 ½ hours. Total distance was 16.8 kilometres (10.4 miles).

Expedia.com
Hosted by:

Exploring Northern Spain: Cares Gorge

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

More than 500 workers carved over 70 tunnels to carry water from Cain to Poncebos for a hydroelectric project. The project started in 1915 and was finished in 1921. Eleven workers died. Of course we didn’t know any of this when we started out. All we knew is that we were going to hike into the famous Cares Gorge, in Picos de Europa, Spain.

Cares Gorge

The Spectacular Gorge

The Cares Gorge (Garganta del Cares) is a cleft running through the heart of the Picos de Europa mountain range. Carved by the Cares River, this massive rift reaches more than 1000 metres (3300 feet) deep in places. It stretches 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) in length.

A testament to work involved in building the canal in such a rugged canyon. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Portions of the Cares River were diverted in the early 1900s for a hydroelectric power. Some of the water from the Cares flows through a canal that is built into the mountainside. The maintenance path for the canal is now an extremely popular hiking path through Cares Gorge.

The Path

A local decided to show us the way at the start of the trail! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

It is possible to do the hike in either direction. Because we based out of Arenas de Cabrales, we started at Poncebos. The six kilometre (3.7 mile) drive snakes high into the mountains. After one false start, parking too early and crossing over the canal before the bridge and tunnel, we found the trailhead.

Old stone buildings along the trail speak to the past. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

It is a steep, rocky climb up to the pass. Near the summit, old stone buildings speak to another life. It is also here that the first signs of the canal appear. At the summit, interpretive signs tell the story of the canal’s construction. Who knew?

Rugged and steep, the beauty of Cares Gorge is undeniable. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Down, down, down – the path levels off as it hugs the cliff above, below and on top of the leaky canal. Stone retaining walls and short tunnels help maintain the grade. We catch occasional glimpses of the fast-flowing, blue Cares River far below. There are numerous side trails – goat tracks for the most part – veering off down into the canyon. The views continue to make us stop again and again for photo after photo.

Should you consider doing even a portion of this walk if in northern Spain?

Without a doubt!
Expedia.com

Tips for Hiking the Cares Gorge

  • Be prepared for hundreds of people if on a weekend.
  • There are no washrooms or trash cans along the route, use Leave No Trace principles.
  • Sporadic signposts help mark distances.
  • Weather can change without warning, pack an umbrella and windcoat.
  • Don’t forget your camera.
  • To get to the trailhead, take route AS-264 to Poncebos from Arenas de Cabrales. Drive across the bridge and through the tunnel and watch for the sign “Funicular de Bulnes.” Take the right fork of the road here and continue uphill to the gate and trailhead.
  • Get a hiking guidebook: