Legends of the Costa Blanca
Almost nothing has been written about the Costa Blanca in the United States. This primer, based on a trip last Christmas, will sort out the facts from the myths.
The Costa Blanca has perfect winter climbing weather.
Fact, but not a universal fact. When the winter weather is good, it’s great for climbing, with warm but not too hot, sunny days and often a nice breeze. It’s also possible to choose sunny and shady crags to optimize conditions.
The best bets are late fall (November) and late winter (February-March); the latter can be crowded, but the orchards will be blooming beautifully. At Christmas, the days are short and if you’re unlucky you may be hit with the dreaded gota fria, which, as much as I wish it meant “cold goat,” actually means “cold drop”—a period of several days of chilly, rainy, windy weather. Snow may fall at the higher crags.
If this happens, you’ll do some sightseeing. Best bets: Take the train to Valencia and tour the beautiful and architecturally fascinating downtown, or drive to the ancient hilltop town of Guadalest and hike to its crag-top castle and cemetery.
The best crags are at Sella.
Myth. Sella (pronounced “Say-ya) is the most popular destination in the Costa Blanca, in part because it’s one of the few places you can get by without a car and because it has a host of moderate routes. We thought the climbing there was OK, but you’d miss out if you spent most of your trip there. To be fair, we only scratched the surface at Sella—for one thing, some of the best-looking crags were too hard for us.
Here are some of our favorite Costa Blanca crags, plus a few we wished we’d gotten to:
Gandía: About 20 minutes north of Calpe. Looks small from the road, but there’s plenty to do for several days unless your name is Graham. The cliff has the best rock we saw on the Costa Blanca, with cool tufa features and pockets.
Peñón d’Ifach: An amazing plug of limestone rising about 1,000 feet from the sea by Calpe, with routes averaging around eight pitches. The classic of the cliff is Costa Blanca (6c+/5.11c), which can be climbed at 5.10 with a good variation. Bring a small rack of supplemental gear and a helmet for these routes.
You have to carry stoppers to clip some of the bolts. What’s up with that?
Fact, but fortunately this is not widespread. Rowland Edwards, one of the major route developers in the area, developed the ENP, a sort of hangerless bolt, in an effort to create low-impact climbs. A drilled hole is filled with a steel tube and a spring mechanism; slot a No. 3 Wild Country Rock into the tube and twist it into place, and then clip the wire. The guidebook marks routes that may require use of ENPs. These are gradually being replaced, but bring some wires anyway.
The towns on the Costa Blanca are hideous tourist traps.
Myth. The forest of bizarre apartment towers and hotels in beachfront Benidorm, like a set from a Star Trek movie, has tainted the image of the entire Costa Blanca for those who might like a taste of Spanish culture and not some low-rent East Vegas. Fortunately, it’s easy to escape this madness by heading to the hills. We rented a casita at Finca la Asmoladora (www.finca-la-asmoladora.com) near Parcent, a beautiful small village about 20 minutes into the hills from the coast, very close to some excellent crags (Alicalí and Peña Roja, among others). The British owners of this place, Pam and Derek Carthwaite, also helped us enormously when our gear was stolen (see below). A casita is a great way to go: You can cook your own meals when you don’t want to go out, and, especially if you share one with friends, they’re very affordable.
The food is excellent.
Fact. Most town have several restaurants, and most bars sell tapas. Be sure to order at least one paella, the delicious local specialty, while you’re in the area.
For cooking your own meals, the supermarkets have most of the basics and some extraordinary items (at least to American shoppers): The seafood displays were huge and gorgeous. We took to buying heaps of fresh mussels and cooking them up with a bit of white wine and butter as an appetizer. On the other hand, the supermarkets have almost no fresh produce because the Spanish still shop for fruits and vegetables at outdoor markets. These take place once or twice a week in almost every town and village, and they’re a great experience.
Also, don’t make the mistake we did of shopping for herbs at the grocery store. We wanted rosemary one night and, after a long search at the supermarket, found a bottle of wan, pulverized “romero.” The next day, hiking up to a cliff, we realized we were walking through thick bushes of the stuff, and we clipped off a bough for future meals.
If you’re lucky, you may also stay at a place, like we did, where you can pick fresh oranges.
The wine is cheap.
Fact, in both stores and restaurants. We discovered the joys of the Spanish sparkling wine called cava, but there are plenty of options for all palettes. In the town of Jalón, there’s an amazing bodega where you can bring your own container and, after tasting samples, fill up from enormous wooden casks using a hose like the ones used to pump gas.
The hiking is excellent.
Fact. Costa Blanca is popular among walkers, as the Brits call hikers, and the local trails make great bad-weather alternatives or rest-day outings. A superb evening hike is the trail up the backside of the Peñon d’Ifach in Calpe (same as the descent route from the climbs). Tunnels and steep limestone shelves lead to an amazing sunset view over the coastline and fishing boats returning to the port.
We also did a fantastic half-day hike starting in Castell de Castells and climbing through olive groves to a Moorish fortification called Serella on the summit of a limestone pinnacle 3,400 feet above the sea. Several guidebooks to Costa Blanca walks (available from Amazon.com) will lead you to this and similar hikes.
The definitive guide is Costa Blanca by Chris Craggs and Alan James (2005, Rockfax). The Rockfax.co.uk website also has updates and a database of many routes, with photos and climber comments.
Other useful websites include:
costablancarock (updated topos to various areas)
costablancaclimbing (decent intro to many crags)
compasswest.co.uk (Edwards website with articles and topos)