Get back to nature in Cuenca
Although the monuments and castles are incredible in Spain and well worth visiting, you shouldn’t miss out on rural Spain. For starters, there is a lot of it. Spain is the 2nd largest country area-wise in Western Europe and yet it comes in low on the population density ratio. To give even more countryside, people in Spain only live in cities, towns and villages. They don’t live out in the country. If you do see areas (with the exception of Galicia and Basque country) where there seems to be a house in the middle of an acreage, more often than not, the owner probably has his main residence in the nearby village and uses the house for when he works the land or to enjoy a weekend in the country, but not to live permanently. As a result, the population is clustered in urban areas leaving a lot of rural space to enjoy.
Taking the time to get to know rural Spain, including some of the small villages, will allow you to peek into a window of the past. Often these small villages keep the same customs generations gone-by. A unique thing that I enjoy about Spain is that each town or village seems to have its specialty—either in artisan crafts such as making ceramic, lace, wrought iron—or in gastronomic fare such as cheeses, sausages, spices, beans with dishes that includes the local ingredients. In most cases you can only get this speciality- whether food or craft—in one village or region and nowhere else in the world has the same.
Spain encourages people to get to know the rural areas by putting up excellent signage and maps for hiking trails and routes that you can take in the country. In almost every town or village you can ask at the tourist office for a map of the local routes. If the village is too small even for a tourist office you can simply ask the locals to direct you to the trailheads of the area. Of course, the most logical areas for any kind of hiking are in the mountainous spots—the Pyrenees, the Sierra near Madrid, the Central range of mountains near Granada. But these are not the only options. I am often surprised the beautiful hikes you can find in areas that don’t seem to have much of anything for scenery.
In this post, I will take you to a couple of places that are only 20 minutes from Cuenca, or within 2 hours from Madrid. These places are well marked and very easy to find, the only thing is that you will need to have a car to get to them as there isn’t public transportation that stops in these areas.
Hoz de Beteta—a stroll among old forests, cliffs and caves
This is a very easy stroll through a stunning canyon alongside the Guadiela River. The trailhead is well marked and has parking for about 10-15 cars—depending how well they park. At the trailhead, you can decide on two different hikes, either the Botanico or the cuevas (caves). We decided on the botanical on the day we went as the caves were closed to the public. (that and I have a fear of bats which are prevalent in the caves)
The botanical walk is only 2.5 kilometres and is easy to do. In our group, we ranged from young children to an 85-year-old woman. (although the 85-year-old out-paced and put to shame a number of citified teenagers)
The only word of caution I will mention that once you start on the trail you have to pay attention to the signage to make sure you go on the right trail from the beginning. About 50 meters from the trailhead you will see a number of picnic tables in an inviting meadow on a bit of a knoll. The actual trail starts BEFORE the picnic tables. There is a sign and a small trail just before you get to the picnic tables but it doesn’t jump out as obvious. We made the mistake of going to the picnic tables and then following a trail that was on the far side of the meadow. That trail meanders near the river and eventually peters out. Instead of turning back, we had to scramble through brush up a steep incline to get to the real trail that was about 200 meters above us.
Once you are on the correct trail the going is very easy, and beautiful. With limestone cliffs towering above you on either side, and a stunning forest of Linden trees to walk through it is a beautiful stroll any time of the year. The Linden trees (sometimes called Lime trees in Britan-although there is no relation to the citrus fruit) are hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old. Although the Linden trees have fascinating shapes and are unique as one of the oldest of these forests in Europe, you will also see other species of trees including Elms, Hazelnut, Maple, Yew (which are very poisonous), and holly bushes.
Along the trail, there are wooden bridges and stone stairways. You will also notice man-made square tunnels. I can’t find any information about these, but our group came up with numerous theory’s from being used as aqueducts to hide-out bunkers leftover from the civil war. We’ll leave you to decide for yourself what you think these might have been used for.
Explore the rock formations at Callejones
In the heart of the Sierra of Cuenca are some fascinating rock formations that I imagine look like the ocean floor. (I have found no evidence that this actually was an ocean at one time—but I still cling to my analysis) The route of the Callejones is a short one—if you were to go through without stopping. It took us more than two hours as we explored all the alleys and crevices that were for the exploring. This is an area that children love, it makes an excellent hide-and-seek place.
The limestone rocks are formed into bridges, arches and other natural-made shapes from wind and water. From a higher vantage point, you can also see that there are deep crevices and canyons in the formations. I found out only after that you aren’t actually supposed to climb up on the rocks… ooops.
There is an area close by called the “Ciudad Encantado” that is more famous, but there is an entrance fee and it is crowded. In the Callejones there is no entrance fee and far fewer people know about it. When we went, there were only a couple of other people. I have been to both places and prefer the Callejones because of the freedom to roam through the rocks at your own whim.