In September, the TENT team hosted a group of guests on a tour of the wilderness in northern Spain. Here is an account of the Cantabrian Journey.
Hosting a trip in search of elusive wild animals always carries a baseline level of suspense and anticipation to it, and visiting Asturias this time was no different. Our flight landed in darkness and we met with one of the wildlife guides in the car park to the sound of rumbling thunder and flashes of lightning – an ominous welcome.
As we drove away from the blinking city lights of Oviedo and began our slow ascent, the clouds cleared to make way for inky silhouettes of the looming Cantabrian mountains. I find that travelling at night does wonders for the imagination, particularly when considering what creatures could be lurking in the darkness, watching on perhaps just metres from the car.
We snaked our way up hillside lanes into a little hamlet with streets lined with stonewalled houses, their shutters closed for the evening. A solitary street lamp directed us to our first night’s accommodation and we were greeted by the warm glow of the hotel’s lights and the sounds of a bar buzzing with locals.
Hotel La Bolera is a quaint and charming place with darkwood beams and an old, creaking staircase leading to cosy bedrooms. With plenty to discuss ahead of the next few days and lunch far behind us, we dropped our bags and headed straight down to the restaurant where over homemade stew and local wine we made a plan for the next day. It wasn’t long before the effects of the journey and the excitement for what lay in store had us heading to our rooms to rest up.
We had arrived in darkness, and we woke the next day in darkness. Early starts are a characteristic of a TENT Conservation Journey – luckily the hotel team are also familiar with the concept and had breakfast and coffee ready for us when we emerged from our rooms. A quick bite and a shot of caffeine and we were on our way with our guide to meet the team from Fundación Oso Pardo.
The first lookout point was a short drive away from the little hamlet of Robles de Laciana, and we set up the tripods at a vantage point looking down into the heavily forested valley below. The sun was beginning to rise and with it the temperature (thankfully, because despite being Spain the early mornings bite!), flooding the valley with sunlight and morphing the landscape from monochrome to technicolour.
The morning was spent moving from place to place, walking along woodland paths leading down the valley and all the while learning from Fernando and Elias about the methods of bear conservation used by Fundación Oso Pardo. A number of times we stooped to examine the mud for signs of wildlife, and with great excitement began to learn the tell tale signs that bears were indeed close by. At one stage, we were told that we couldn’t have been more than an hour or so behind the beast that was leaving its prints along the path we were taking. But, true to form the bear eluded us and the closest we came was to a parting gift, left no doubt as a reminder that she would be deciding whether or not we would be catching sight of her.
After a leisurely refuel at lunch we made our way to our second location: Somiedo. If the drive from the airport had been suspenseful then the drive to Somiedo was surely what all the suspense was leading up to. As we turned out of a dense forest at the top of a gradual ascent, we were welcomed by a spectacular view of rocky peaks and bare hillsides stretching out ahead of us. We took a few minutes to stop and take in the view, admiring the somewhat comical road sign warning drivers of the possibility of being joined on the road by a four-legged, furry traveller.
We arrived at Hotel Palacio Alvaro Florez-Estrada, tucked away from the village of Somiedo in the heart of the valley. The colonial building, that we were told was one of the first built in the valley, sat alongside the rushing stream that ran the length of Somiedo. Much like our first night’s stay, the rooms here were filled with antique furniture and a lot of character.
The evening’s activity involved setting up a spot on the hillside with tripods, scopes and binoculars aimed at the rocky hillsides rising above the village. Just as the sun had flooded the valley that morning, as the evening drew on the warm glow of sunset receded up and up across the rocks eventually detaching from the landscape and turning the sky to deeper blues and purples. We had yet to catch sight of a bear, but as I have learnt from these trips the “not seeing” does very little to detract from the magic and wonder of experiencing the surroundings. In any case, we had spent plenty of time contentedly watching a group of chamois as they clambered across the scree, almost impossible to make out when they stopped moving. Furthermore, this part of the world is a twitcher’s paradise, with a huge variety of birds calling to each other and darting from tree to tree.
After a full day of walking safari and wildlife watching, we were ready for a good meal and night’s sleep ahead of our last full day. I was pleased that our group were keen to make the most of every opportunity to find wildlife, and there was no messing around with “lie ins” or “slow starts”!
Another up-and-out and we were on our way to our first wildlife watching spot of the day. Being a morning person, the prospect of seeing a sunrise in a place as magical as Somiedo is nothing short of a treat – and this particular sunrise did not disappoint. We set up, a short walk from the car and right on the edge of one of the valley’s characteristic rockfaces. A steep drop levelled out to the valley floor and we could just make out the twinkling lights of Somiedo below. The sounds at that time of morning are cacophonous with the dawn chorus erupting and the sound of bellowing male red deer booming from one side of the valley only to be answered from the other, either by echo or by competitor.
Our guide kept his expert eye fixed to the scope, scouting out places where bears might appear. The rest of us, far less familiar with the surrounding sights and sounds were busy buzzing around gawping at strange plants and the lone tawny owl perched on a branch a short distance away. As a photographer, being in a place like that is like Christmas even without the wildlife. Condensation-laden spiders webs adorned the bushes, and the rising sun painted stark outlines of trees and rocky landscapes against the sky – I think I may have become briefly distracted from my hosting duties.
We eeked out the early morning, pleading for the guide to wait “just one more minute” in case a bear emerged from the treeline, before heading back to the car. Now in complete daylight, the landscape was even more impressive, like something out of the Avatar movie. There was great excitement when we spotted a pair of vultures nesting right up onthe top of a cliff, their eerie squawks echoing down the valley. But if we were to make it to our next wildlife watching spot – which with it, brought the prospect of seeing wildcats and wolves – we needed to head off.
The drive to Riaño entertains with a landscape that is without a doubt the most spectacular I have ever come across in Northern Spain. The view of the Picos de Europa reflected in the waters of the reservoir is one that looks like it belongs in Yosemite, not Europe. Despite the fact that we were running late from extending our wildlife watching time as much as possible that morning, we pleaded for our guide to stop the car so we could take in the views.
After lunch, we made our way to a remote vantage point from which all we could see was a vast expanse of rocky scrubland and patches of tree cover. Having not had any luck with the bears, we were in full “deer-watching” mode, fascinated by their number – and by the noise they make! But no sooner had we set up the scopes, our guide silently but very manically gestured for us to look through the scope.
“Just in the middle, lying down”.
Anyone who has been wildlife watching before will know that an animal is often easiest to spot when it is on the move, but when still their artful camouflage can make them near impossible to see for the untrained eye. So Rafael’s description prepared us to really strain in order to see the animal he was grinning so emphatically about. And after one or two moments each of us could see there, languishing in the afternoon sunshine was a very regal-looking Iberian wolf. And then another appeared, followed closely by one more. I’m sure that they knew we were there of course, but they seemed utterly unphased and indifferent to our presence. It wasn’t long before they had tired of us watching and moved away, their mottled coats helping them merge with the foliage and disappear from view.
Thrilled with our experience, we took our cue from the wolves and headed back to our final night’s accommodation Las Cabañas Patagónicas, the perfect way to spend our final night – idyllic log cabins decked out with fairy lights.
One last early start and our guide decided that we would try our luck spotting wildcats in the morning mist. The bottom of the valley was thick with soupy mist and dew hugging the grass. We drove very slowly up and down, constantly on the lookout. But, as with the bears luck was not on our side and only our guide caught a glimpse of what he thought was a wildcat.
Nonetheless, we we were still reeling from our wolf-watching encounter from the day before so our spirits weren’t dampened and we made our way back to Oviedo feeling content and inspired by the last few days in the Spanish wilderness.
For me this Cantabrian Journey epitomised the purpose of The European Nature Trust and for so many reasons. I didn’t know that these places existed before I travelled to them with TENT, even less did I know of the animals that could be found there and the incredible people working so hard to protect them. This trip taught me that even if you don’t see what you’re there looking for, there are plenty of natural wonders around you that you can immerse yourself in.
Travelling to Asturias helped cement why we do what we do: to inspire people with these remote, wild places that are so very special and in such desperate need of support. To visit these places isn’t difficult, they are right on our doorstep, but just because they aren’t a long-haul flight away and just because the wildlife their isn’t glamorised in the same way as that of Africa or Asia doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t rave about them. We should rave about them, we should support them, and we should certainly not take them for granted.