Picos de Europa activity holidays

There are some views that you can only experience if you’re wearing a hard hat. You’ve crossed a rope bridge and climbed an irregular set of iron staples clamped into the side of the mountain. Now you’re on the top, you can see the Central Massif of the Picos Mountains stretched before you. Not everyone gets this far on the via ferrata – this is a view that few have clasped eyes upon before.
The Picos de Europa National Park is pretty compact – bounded on one side by the Bay of Biscay, it’s only 48km or so across at its widest point – but there is plenty of drama within. The incisor-shaped Naranjo de Bulnes looms 2,500m above sea level, biting any cloud that comes too close. Some of the world’s deepest caves delve under the rock – the Torca del Cerro del Cuevon cave is over 1.5km deep. The Camino de Santiago doesn’t dare go through the range, skirting to the north instead as the Camino del Norte.
Via ferrata – climbing mountains using a series of walkways, ladders and man-made handholds – is one of the best ways to explore the Picos de Europa. “Anyone can do it, if you have a head for heights,” says Ana Rodríguez García. “Our guides are brilliant – they can get anyone across the bridges. It’s one of the most successful activities.” Ana is the founder of our Spanish holiday experts Peak Me Languages. She runs family activity and language holidays from a village just outside the national park.
The Picos Mountains are not generally marketed by tourist boards. Outside of a few weeks in summer’s peak, there are few visitors, so you feel like a guest rather than a tourist. “It’s the sort of place where some people still have sheep in their back gardens, or cider presses in their stone sheds,” said Catherine Mack, one of Responsible Travel’s writers, who visited with her son on a Learn Spanish and family activity holiday in Spain. “I loved it.” An activity holiday is the perfect way to enjoy the area.

What do Picos de Europa activity holidays entail?

A week-long adventure holiday gives you enough time to try a different activity every day – including a more relaxing day on the coast, if you want. You’ll stay in locally-run accommodation close to all the activities, in small towns where traditional ways of life prevail. “At one café in particular when we ordered orange juice, he went down to the bottom of the garden, picked some oranges, and came back and squeezed them,” Catherine recalls.

It’s not just oranges that are in abundance. Being so close to the coast, you’ll also find seafood on the menu, and traditional shepherding in the area means you’ll find lots of local lamb, too, often prepared with mint. Bringing your custom to the town makes a big difference – especially outside tourist season. “There are no international chains here,” Ana says. “All businesses are local and hardly any English is spoken.”

Learn Spanish

Knowing Spanish isn’t essential, but for those who are interested in flexing their linguistics, this is a great area to practise. Some family holidays in the Picos Mountains integrate language lessons into the day – with great results.

“Families enjoy the opportunity to do things together,” Ana says. “Not everyone is good at languages, not everyone is sporty, but having a mix of the two things means that everyone can have a bit of what they enjoy.”

You might start the day with a language lesson – perhaps writing a postcard in a classroom and then heading into the village to buy a stamp for it. As a reward for a successful missive sent, the afternoon is set aside for a more adventurous pursuit.

What activities can I try?

Caving

What do you do when you see a cave in the Picos? First off, you should probably check for cheese – the area’s famous blue cheese, queso cabrales, is matured in limestone caves near the town of Arenas de Cabrales. Next, you should look out for Palaeolithic paintings. The burnished bison pictures in the Altamira Palaeolithic Caves are off-limits to casual visitors, but there are others open to the public. “It’s a really exciting part of the history of the area,” Ana says.

Exploring deep under the mountain on a caving trip, you may come across helictites – stalactites that look like they’ve grown in zero gravity – among the many rock formations. These are some of the world’s deepest caves and your explorations will just scratch the surface. Just as well: you never know what else you may find down there.

River sports

Look across the Picos Mountains in spring and the whole scene is streaked with waterfalls. These braid together to form rushing rivers which are great for canyoning. A classic canyoning route will have jumps, water slides and abseils along its length, and a guide will show you the best – and most exciting – way to descend. Lower down, the rivers get tamer and become perfect for canoeing trips. Class I rapids on the River Sella are easy enough for any novice, but still very exciting. Every August the river is the site of a famous canoeing race; the rest of the year, it’s yours.

Via ferrata

The Picos de Europa is one of the best places to do via ferrata in Spain. Head to the Valle de Valdeon, where there are Tibetan rope bridges – some strung incredibly high above the valley floor – plus zip lines and dizzying climbs. You don’t need any climbing experience to enjoy via ferrata, but you do need to be relatively fit and have a head for heights. “Some people love it, some people find it exhausting, some people find it so exciting that they don’t notice they are doing something quite strenuous,” Ana explains. Are you up for the challenge?

Walking

Even something as simple as taking a walk can be extreme in the Picos Mountains. The landscape is vertiginous and the most popular hike – the Ruta del Cares – plunges 11km through a gorge with jaw-dropping drops alongside the path. There are strenuous routes up to the village of Bulnes (the more sensible take the funicular up, then and walk down) and coastal walks if the weather in the mountains turns.
“It is a brilliant place for hiking,” agrees Ana, “but being so close to the sea, the weather can get really bad really quickly within a manner of minutes.” She advises guided walks, so you can get local knowledge and keep safe. Take walking poles or buy a walking stick in a local shop – they are necessary companions on the trail.

Our top Picos de Europa Holiday

Spanish course & walking holiday, Picos de Europa, Spain

Spanish course & walking holiday, Picos de Europa, Spain

Walk and talk on this small group language holiday in Picos de Europa National Park

From €659 7 days ex flights
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Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Picos de Europa or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

When is the best time to go?

You can visit the Picos de Europa any time from mid-March to the end of October. Outside of these months, the daylight hours aren’t really long enough to get the most out of the area. The most popular time to go is between June and September, when the daily high can be in the mid-20°Cs, but pack for all weathers.
“Because of climate change the weather patterns have changed massively,” says Ana. “Some years you get a really heavy snowfall in May, but in March you can get lovely spring weather.” Bad weather can come at any time because of the proximity to the coast, but weather is very localised in the mountains and it’s normally easy to find an activity where you’ll stay dry.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mick Stephenson mixpix] [Intro: Alberto Cabrera] [River sports: Sergei Gussev] [Via Ferrata: Savognin Tourismus] [Best time to go: Martin Alvarez Espinar]
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