The Way to Tranquilo: How Spain is Paradise for Every Climber
A liter of wine costs less than two dollars.
Plump and juicy olives sit piled high at the corner market fresh from the farmer, and a gaggle of children kick a soccer ball back and forth on their way to school. Every day begins with a delightfully cheap café latte and a stroll through the warren of narrow back alleys and quaint apartment buildings. We sit among the open-air fruit stands eagerly pawing through a guidebook and drawing curious stares from locals. After loading ropes and water bottles between the seats of our tiny rental car, we’re off—following a maze out of town through the high-walled, cobblestone one-ways. Limestone is calling, and we are on our way.
I flew into Madrid in early February and met my friend and photographer Forest Woodward, and we immediately set off in our impossibly cheap rental car. (Seven weeks for $300, courtesy of Spain’s Priceline equivalent: doyouspain.com.) We took turns on the six-hour drive south and quickly figured out that our miniature car was ideal for navigating the narrow roads of old Spanish towns.
All the hype you’ve heard about Spanish sport climbing is absolutely true: It’s the best in the world—even if you don’t touch 5.14, 5.13, or even 5.12. The J-shaped coastline on the Mediterranean offers everything from limestone caves that never see rain to multi-pitch bolted 5.9s above historic Roman ruins. These aren’t just the 5.impossible overhangs of areas like Siurana, Margalef, and Oliana, but warmer and drier regions with thousands of routes spanning the full range of grades and lengths—there’s something here for climbers of all stripes. For a sunny destination between November and April when your home crags are probably gray and cold, the overlooked southern and eastern edges of the Iberian Peninsula provide a low-priced getaway and the relaxation of a climbing life lived tranquilo. Here’s a sampling of some of the best climbing outside of Catalonia.
The largest climbing area in southern Spain includes the gorge and limestone walls above the hamlet of El Chorro, in the province of Andalucía. With daily trains reaching a station just five minutes from the climbing, it’s an excellent choice for those visiting without a car. A handful of rental homes and hostels nearby means El Chorro is well-suited for a quick trip, those who demand logistical simplicity, and those who want to dig in for a while. Walk to overhanging 5.14s, eight-pitch moderates, and everything in between. A great area intro is a 600-foot 5.9 called Amptrax, which tackles a sweeping buttress on one of El Chorro’s biggest, highest walls. The route’s eight pitches of fully bolted limestone will earn you views of a campground and river valley below. But you’ll stay within sight of the nearby bar and café, making it easy to beeline toward après-climb libations. The area’s showcase wall, the Makinodromo, is a 45-minute walk along the train tracks that wind through the slender El Chorro Gorge. “El Maki” soaks up winter sun, making it pleasant throughout the holidays when temperatures are generally in the 50s and 60s. Water-streaked tufas form El Chorro’s highest quality stone, with varnished stripes, dense route concentration, and lines that angle from vertical to overhanging.
The climbing in Spain, regardless of the region, is typically steep and powerful, with routes conveniently close together. A standard low-5.12 pitch may have no move harder than 5.11-, but you’ll be doing those moves for the entire pitch and lower off more pumped than you’ve ever been. Consequently, it’s easy to have a productive and full climbing day in a few hours by maximizing sun or shade. If you’ve got a car, visit the pipe-like tufas and pockets of Loja, the shady walls of Desplomilandia, and the clean 5.8 to 5.9 slabs of Turon, all covered in El Chorro, by Mark Glaister ($37.50, wolverinepublishing.com). We found helpful route suggestions from bar owners and other patrons as we snacked our way through dinner at various spots, and we gained a serious appreciation for how the Spanish culture fosters the kind of social interactions that are rare back home. Cheap red wine and simple tapas done right probably don’t hurt, either.
On rest days, El Chorro offers a plethora of vacation-worthy activities, and this is where southern Spain truly shines as a destination: The coast is never far away and varies from white-sand beaches to scenic rocky breaks. In February and March, it wasn’t warm enough for us to swim, but wetsuit-clad surfing was popular. The beach-side city of Málaga makes a great destination for a waterfront stroll, or visit the Pablo Picasso Museum near where the artist once lived. Try out the unforgettable via ferrata that twists through El Chorro Gorge. A climbing harness and a couple of long slings keep you on the new steel cables, which run for one kilometer above the Guadalhorce River. Whitewashed buildings and bright red roofs characterize the architecture near El Chorro, but explore the cities casually on foot because the alleys have a tendency to dead-end or suddenly be too narrow for a car. If none of that suits your fancy, then practice the Spanish art of simply living well in a slow-paced culture that honors the daily siesta and embraces quality relaxation time as an unquestioned necessity.
Although I did bring a tent and small stove on the trip, we only used them on a handful of “unplanned roadside bivies” when driving between rural crags. Basic public or government-run campgrounds that abound in the States simply don’t exist in Spain. But one of the best things about the country is the low price of housing. Many of the large climbing areas are served by private campgrounds or hostels with bunks in the $15 to $25/night range, but we found apartments to split for less than that. Learning the language or traveling with a partner fluent in Spanish (as I did, luckily) helps in chatting up a local climber or business owner about private rooms in the area. The entire southern and eastern coast of Spain saw a frenetic housing boom in the 1990s and early 2000s—prior to the current national recession—and the area only bustles with tourists from June to September, so the off-season creates an abundance of inexpensive rentals. We booked the first few days in the hilltop village of Ardales after some basic online searches, and then used locals’ info to find one- or two-bedroom apartments with kitchens and laundry a short walking distance from climbing—all for about $200 per week. When going to a new location, book your first few nights beforehand, but don’t hesitate to ask around for cheaper, unadvertised flats to rent for the rest of your stay.
After a few weeks in Andalucía, Forest and I joined more friends and moved east to Costa Blanca, the sheltered Mediterranean shore along Spain’s interior. The Costa Blancan beach towns are a favorite summer spot for northern Europeans, and they host a surprising array of businesses advertising in English, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian languages. We did a few minutes of Googling for cheap rentals, and soon hooked up with an ex-pat British couple who own property in Spain. We rented another apartment, this time a few blocks from the beach in the town of Calpe. The one-bedroom flat with pool access, a kitchen, and a fold-out couch set us back $250 for the week, and the beach was a mere three blocks away. Ten-pitch routes were about one kilometer down the coast. Despite tales of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in high season, the streets and shorelines were largely empty in March, and we seemed to have local bakeries and markets to ourselves. We could walk along the sea for a few minutes to the Penon d’Ifach, where six- to 10-pitch sport climbs ran up a wave-swept limestone tower. The peak’s walk-off descent traces a well-worn path used for centuries by lookouts of the Roman, Arab, and Spanish empires, though the only aggression apparent to us was that of quarrelsome seagulls fighting over our scraps of salami.
Some beach towns like Benidorm and Alicante are dominated by modern construction and foreign tourism, but just a few miles inland, a different and more traditional Spain emerges. Terraced olive and almond groves spread thousands of feet up hillsides, and tufa-draped crags such as Gandia and Sella sit among rural farming towns 30 minutes from the sea. Though luminaries of Spanish climbing such as Dani Andrada and Ramón Julián have established many of the region’s 5.14 lines, the climbing is varied and unforgettable in the 5.9 to 5.11 range. Sculpted stalactites with deep pockets require acrobatic hero climbing, with big moves and three-dimensional sequences not often found on routes with such moderate grades. South- and west-facing walls receive generous amounts of winter sun, and hot days during the shoulder seasons can be split between cool mornings at an inland crag and warm, pleasant afternoons on a largely empty beach.
Basque Country and the North
Of course, you can’t completely ignore the famed areas in Catalonia, where the sheer volume of hard routes is mind-blowing, but the colder and rainier weather frequently kept us indoors when we visited for a few weeks during early spring. It wasn’t too bad, though, as we acquainted ourselves with the soccer standings and refined our tastes in hard cheeses and local wines. Barcelona proved a very walkable city, with a good subway system and a dense urban center built upon a gently sloping coastal plain. The museums, architecture, and metropolitan feel are unlike anything in the more rural south, and climbers traveling on the cheap will appreciate that many of the town’s art and history museums are free on Sundays. Margalef, Siurana, Montsant, and the Riglos are just a few of the deservedly famous northern Spanish stops for a traveling climber; they offer thousands of stellar routes that are by no means over the heads of moderate sport climbers. But Catalonia and Basque Country tend to be quite cold during midwinter, and they lack the convenient beach access and tend to be more crowded because they are closer to major cities.
After six weeks of wandering Spanish hillsides, crags, and back alleys, we deemed the country a mix of a cleaner, first-world Thailand and a less crime-ridden El Potrero Chico in Mexico. Spain holds the long bolted limestone walls that make Potrero so well-known, but the shorter and steeper climbing is often no less featured, acrobatic, and gymnastic than the cartoonishly juggy, steep walls of Southeast Asia. The Mediterranean coast is an almost-too-perfect winter destination with appealing culture, easy living, and endless limestone that make leaving the hardest part.
- Guidebook: The British company RockFax (rockfax.com) has excellent English-language guides to El Chorro/Andalucía and Costa Blanca available for purchase in the U.S. at wolverinepublishing.com.
- Get There: Fly in and out of Madrid, which typically costs about $1,200 round-trip. Kayak.com was useful for searching and tracking fares. A five- to eight-hour drive gets you to any of the climbing described, but other options would be to connect through on smaller flights (read: more expensive) to Málaga, Alicante, or Granada. Fast and efficient trains also connect daily from Madrid and Barcelona to almost anywhere else in the country.
- Car: Personal transportation is a necessity for any trip other than a quick visit to El Chorro (accessed via daily trains from Madrid and Málaga). We found one- to two-month rentals from doyouspain.com for $200 to $300. Many credit cards offer built-in car insurance, so see if you’re already covered before shelling out another $50 to $100 for insurance from the rental agency. We rented a car in Madrid but spent little time in the big city where driving was terrifying.
- Gear: Nearly everything is bolted. Take a single 70-meter rope in the 9.1mm to 9.5mm range, a set of 20 quickdraws, and some slings. Going to Spain for the occasional trad climb would be like going to Yosemite to clip bolts.
- Season: Although it can be cold and wet during midwinter, the Costa Blanca and Andalucía provinces generally provide excellent climbing conditions from October through April. Be diligent about chasing sun or shade to make the most of your conditions; most areas provide numerous options.
Muscle Memory: How One Backsliding Climber Happily Came Back to the Sport in Montserrat
By Amelia Blanquera
With more than 350 routes on impeccable rock, one has to wonder why Montserrat is not as famous as other Catalonia climbing areas that are known the world over. Top out at dusk, and you see the Pyrenees in one direction and the night lights of Barcelona in the other. There are pinnacles and needles galore. The trailheads are easy to spot, thanks to the handiwork of the Parc Natural de la Muntanya de Montserrat. Effortless access, aesthetics, and year-round climbing beckon to all climbers. Instead, the mountain’s main attraction is La Morenata, a 12th-century statue of the Black Madonna housed in a Benedictine monastery atop the north side of the peak. In this unlikely spot, I rediscovered climbing.
There was a period in my life when I climbed nonstop, hitting Red Rock, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Seneca Rocks. I thought of the Gunks as my local crag. But I had become a backslider, “too busy” with work commitments in New York City; I hadn’t touched rock in three years. The day before I left New York, I ran into an old friend who gushed about the climbing in Spain. My harness and climbing shoes were the last things I packed. Climbing was not a primary reason for my trip; I came to Spain as the writer-in-residence at the Can Serrat Artist Residency in El Bruc at the base of Montserrat, about 45 kilometers from Barcelona. Serendipitously, the farmhouse where Can Serrat is located is also the home of the Montserrat Art & Climb Association. Started in February 2013, it’s an association for “people who love the mountain.” Guests are welcome to borrow ropes, draws, harnesses, shoes, topos, maps, and guidebooks. The massif looms large behind the farmhouse.
“The rock is special,” said Lisi Roig, a local guide. We met at the inaugural event for Montserrat Art & Climb Association last April. The big bash included an art exhibit, climbing videos, and live bands. Despite the pouring rain, more than 100 people came, even the guy, I’m told, who lives in a cave. If Lynn Hill were Catalan and a proficient watercolorist, she would be Lisi. We discussed why I don’t climb outdoors as much as I used to. I gave the lame excuse that my partners got married and had kids. She seemed content with that response, although I was not. I needed a local climbing partner, but I was afraid I’d hold Lisi back.
One morning I hiked along the dirt access road at the base of the cliff and ran into Vincenzo Contino, an Italian who had come by Can Serrat. He had been living for a month in a tricked-out van with a platform bed and gear storage. He and I walked to Agulles, an area rife with intermediate sport routes. The gray rock was conglomerate with pockets, crimps, knobs, and lots of pebbles. From the guidebooks I had read back at Can Serrat, I knew the massif had sport, trad, and aid climbs 5.5 to 5.13 starting just off the path, and that footwork and balance were the keys rather than big, powerful moves. I thought it a mellow, straightforward place to get back on the rock. We made plans to come back the next day and climb. During our hike back to El Bruc, we had an easy-flowing conversation about religion, the Spanish economy, and his daughter. Mostly Vincenzo talked and I listened. At one point, something got lost in translation, and he made his move. I dodged his kiss with a laugh, and then he taught me the Spanish phrase No me molesta, which means “Do not bother me.” I decided to find another climbing partner.
Antonio Garcia Picazo is a hero among Montserrat climbers. “We grew up in his shadow,” local 40-something climber Salva Figueras told me. On a rainy morning in Barcelona, I met Antonio’s climbing partner, Miguel Montserrat Armstrong, and he agreed to introduce me to the legend.
Antonio has been climbing since 1973 and has written several books, including the definitive guide to climbing in Montserrat (printed in Spanish only). He put up what is considered one of the classics in Montserrat, ValentÍn-Casanovas (7c/5.12d) in 1976 when he was 19. Of the hundreds of routes he established, Antonio described 60 of them as possessing “supreme elegance.” He says, “Beautiful climbing is what is simple, elegant, aesthetic, logical. There is no substitute. This mountain is full of poetry.”
I asked Antonio why Montserrat wasn’t well-known internationally. “It’s better that it remains unpopular,” he told me—half joking, half serious. I decided to set aside my last week in Spain to focus solely on climbing. I made dates with Antonio and Miguel, and then another with Lisi. And I met another climber-artist, Erin King, and her husband, Rob, from Boulder, Colorado, and borrowed draws, biners, runners, and two ropes. We set out to climb at the areas called Buddha and Gandolf, which had routes starting at 5.8, and just like that, the muscle (and mental) memory kicked in. That knob over there to the right? Yes, that’s a good foothold. Reach up and stick your two fingers into that pocket. They’ll fit, I promise. Where do you want to put your left foot? Not there. Can you get it a little higher? A little bump? Or smear. Nice, that’s it. Now shift your weight and reach left. It looks slopey from below, but—hey!—it’s positive if I lean a tiny bit right. Excellent, now move your right foot up.
When I first arrived, I used not finding a perfect partner as an excuse not to climb, but the truth is that I was afraid of being bad after so much time away. Finally getting back on the rock reminded me that the spirit of climbing isn’t about being good or bad. It’s about enjoying nature and spending time with friends.
Climbing rewards perseverance, but the sport isn’t only for elite athletes. These are essential lessons if you are to climb through every stage of your life as I now aim to.
As a gift to the Montserrat Art & Climb Association, I left my old harness and approach shoes. With little resources, the Association is able to provide support and good cheer to newbies and experts alike. It’s a good place to get acclimated to Catalonia rock and tap into the local climbing scene, not to mention an awesome place to kick back, grab a burger, see some great artwork, and take in a live band.
I considered leaving behind my climbing shoes, too, but I didn’t: My time at Montserrat renewed my passion for climbing. I’ll head home, find a partner, and go straight to the crag.