I’ve done many bike-packing trips here and there, but for my first XPDTN3 trip I wanted to do something special. So, I decided to go to the place where I feel the most alive: the Pyrenees. Text by Anna Barrero , photos by Oriol Simon.
The Pyrenean mountain range, the biggest high mountain ecosystem in the Iberian Peninsula, has something special. They are the mountains where I grew up. The mountains where I put on my first skis when I was 4 years old. The mountains that taught me how to climb. The mountains where I did my first 3000m summit. The mountains that I crossed with a bike from coast to coast completely self-sufficiently.
This mountain range saw me laugh, cry, hungry, thirsty and suffer a whole roller coaster of emotions. And they are still the mountains where I enjoy most of my adventures. I never get tired of them. I particularly like watching sunrises and sunsets from their peaks and I really love watching the stars from my sleeping bag with that feeling of a cold nose but a warm heart: the pleas of my soul to experience life authentically and through vulnerability.
The Pyrenees are huge, but one of the most iconic places is Aigüestortes National Park, located in the northwestern part of the province of Lleida, in Catalonia, northern Spain. For this trip, we did a 3-day loop which circles around this amazing Park starting and finishing in Vielha.
Early in the morning, the day before the first stage, we drove there (Vielha) to check into the hotel, pack everything and get our bikes ready for the adventure. As we had some time left before dinner (it doesn’t happen often) and we had spent most of the day sitting and driving, we took a stroll on one of the most emblematic waterfalls of the Aran Valley to relax our legs; the Saut deth Pish.
The falls are located at an elevation of 1,553m above the sea level (12kms from Vielha), and from there, besides enjoying the spectacular waterfall itself, you can also see on the other side of the valley the Posets-Maladeta Nature Reserve with its majestic highest peak, the Aneto at 3404m… a place to feel free and get lost.
STAGE 1 (77km, +1.964m)
When we stop struggling, we float. It is the law.
After a huge breakfast in the hotel (one of those that leave you without energy and you ask yourself “Why did I eat so much?”), we drove to the initial point which is right after crossing the Tunnel of Vielha, in the south part where we would park and start the route.
For the first 19kms in the saddle, there were two options depending on whether we wished to ease our way to the next village (Vilaller), or to start with a bang! Both routes go in parallel down the vibrant green landscape of the Barrabés valley. We took the hard way, but it was just a matter of time or kms that we decided to take the tarmac to get down to Vilaller, as the route was very nasty (as expected).
Once in Vilaller we took a gravel route to climb the col the Serreres. An easy and short one compared to the ones that were about to come and that helped us to cross the mountain and change the valley. In fact, from now on, all the climbs would be to change valleys.
Once in the top, we gently rolled down towards Llesp. On our way there, some cows made us reduce speed. In Llesp a steep single track (Cami de l’aigua), very beautiful but very narrow (perfect for hiking) awaited us; …we carried the bike in our backs the whole time. But if you want to skip this section, there’s a parallel road to be taken in Llesp that will join the next climb where the rocky single-track transforms into a path. After this little hiking, we rolled up towards the Ermita de Sant Salvador de Irgo (the top of this climb) with amazing views.
We stopped to contemplate the views and we took our time to imagine how cool it would be to fly from there. Sometimes I wish I could fly like a bird. And sometimes we have nonsense conversations like how cool it would be to put wings to our bikes and this kind of random –or not so much- stuff.
Luckily, after a big climb, there is usually a descent. In this case, a well-deserved one that would take us to Gotarta where we filled our water bottles. From there, there is an intersection where you can go to the capital of the county town with less inhabitants of Catalonia (Pont de Suert) or to another road towards Malpas (an even smaller village) which is the one that we took.
We gently rolled down until this village (Malpas) where there was no one nor any place to eat. We already had 50 km in our legs and we were hungry. We checked on the GPS where we could find a restaurant and apparently in the next small village (Castellàs) there was one bike-friendly restaurant. The problem was that they closed at 15:30h and we arrived there at 15:40h.
Imagine the emptiness we (and our stomachs felt), and there were no other places around to eat anything or to buy any kind of food. Moreover, we were not done climbing, as the route still held a demanding section up to its sleeve. First, a 12km climb with a short break at km 9 for a short descend crossing 2 villages with no inhabitants (Erta and Sas) and then 3 more km up to the mountains.
The emptiness of our stomachs was filled with stunning views. On top of the mountain, we could enjoy the views of Vall de Manyanet. There, I let myself die in the grass and had a short rest. Gotta say that I hit the wall… luckily the rest of the route was a downhill towards Sentís and Les Esglèsies where we had planned to sleep. In that descent we were imagining what one could eat in an extreme situation… like eating each other and all this.
Once we reached the village, we headed to Casa Batlle, a cozy rural house. And right before asking for a room, we asked for whatever they had to eat. We filled up our poor stomachs with all they gave us for that late (8pm) lunch. Things with full stomachs looked different…like brighter. Then a relaxing shower and some nice time in the balcony while waiting for dinner made things look beautiful. When we stop struggling, we float. It is the law.
We closed the day with a generous dinner 2 hours later and a shot of the most typical liquor of this valley -Cassis- while discussing with the owners about the (great) taste of it. A must if you go there.
STAGE 2 (86KM, +2.516m)
Paradise among horses
We woke up tired after yesterday’s mountain stage but when we got our breakfast served with a big coffee we recharged all batteries.
To start we headed to the Coll de l’Oli, an 8km climb ranging 8-13%. The last kilometer was the toughest as it was averaging almost 25%: it was a pure hike-a-bike section. The top had very nice views, but we immediately saw that the descent was a very narrow single track. Indeed, it was another hike-a-bike section during 3 km until Aguiró, a small, beautiful empty village typical from the Pyrenees. From there a gentle descent would take us down the valley.
Straight after the descent, the route continued on a false flat towards the villages of La Torre de Cabdella, Aiguabella and Espui. We knew that Espui was the last village before the biggest climb of this adventure. There, we decided to stop wherever to eat and drink as much as possible to avoid the (non-existent) nutrition of the day before. The village was nice, the sun was shining, and the Cokes were cold. Three facts that made us stay there longer than expected. At 2pm (not the best time of the day!) with 30ºC we decided to tackle THE CLIMB (Coll del Triador): a mountain pass at an elevation of 2,108m (6,916ft) above the sea level.
The Pista del Triador is 12 km long and the gradient averages 7.5%. It’s one of the highest roads in Spain. It is a great trail for experienced wheelers. Once we reached the top, the views were stunning. We could see the huge “snake” that we just climbed and enjoy the fresh air and views. I remember looking at the valley and telling Oriol “That is what life is all about”.
But the reward was not only this. The following 20 crested km had one of the most impressive views in the Pyrenees. With Montsent de Pallars on our left and the exceptional panoramic views of the territory in our right, we enjoyed that trail like kids that see the Pyrenees for the first time. Avoid riding in this area if mountain roads aren’t your strong point and if you are scared of heights!
We were there completely alone when suddenly a bunch of horses crossed our path to greet us. Those wild horses were extremely lovely. I could feel their inner peace and I guess they could feel mine. They came to us and I hugged one of them and I could feel her head on my back. How cute is that?!
The 20 km ended at 2,300m, the highest point of the route. From there, the following descent towards Espot Ski resort was a gift for any downhiller (not me) where you better have your brakes in good shape. 13kms of pure adrenaline!
In Espot we had a delicious late lunch (6pm) and a small break.
Job done? Not at all. We had another climb to get to Son, a very small and cozy village, where we had planned to sleep. But the hotel we were looking forward to sleeping in was for sale! Oops!
We looked up the nearest hotels, then descended 400 meters (for 5 km) towards Valencia d’Àneu where both (and only) hotels were closed, too. We descended an extra 130 meters (5 km more) to the next village (Esterri d’Àneu). We knew that these 530 extra meters of elevation were going to be our breakfast for the following day. But the decision was worth the deviation, as we ate and slept in Hotel/Restaurant Bruna, the best one of our adventure. Not only because of the place, but the woman in charge of it was super gentle with us. We got there at 9pm. Maybe the breaks we took during the day were too long. Maybe… but hey, you know what? Riding at this time of the day allowed us to enjoy the golden hour.
STAGE 3 (74km, + 1.798m)
Gerdar Forest and green landscapes
We woke up at 6am in order to leave early as the rain was in the forecast for the afternoon. We had a huge and delicious breakfast and when we finished, and we were about to jump to our bikes a nice storm welcomed us. Oh boy! no way to ride under this universal flood. We went back to the hotel room and had a 60 minutes nap until the rain stopped a little bit.
At 8:30am we restarted the plan. To begin with, 6km of a paved road towards the small village of Son was in the menu. But this time we did not arrive there as we saw an alternative route towards Gerdar Forest (our first objective of the day). This alternative path was an 8km steep climb at 6% but as we were still fresh we did it quite fast (I got a QOM!).
The Gerdar Forest is the largest spruce forest in the area on the southern slopes of the Pyrenees. It is unique in forming an unbroken body of forest and despite centuries of exploitation, it is one of the best-preserved.
It is a magical place where we thought that an Ewok from Star Wars could appear at any moment. It was as well the place where we mastered the art of carrying our bikes.
Following this magical place, a long and gradual drop took us to what would be our last break before a long and grueling climb of almost 35 kilometers that would take us to Baqueira, the highest point of the day with its 1880m.
On our way up there we found Isil, a village where we filled up our bottles, knowing that we would not find any other place to eat/drink in kilometers and that we would be left in the wilderness again. The first part of the climb was a paved road following the valley, but the road turned into a wild trail very soon where the cows and horses were our only company.
With just 7km from Pla de Beret, we found Montgarri where we stopped. Montgarri is a picturesque abandoned town where a mountain refuge (where we had lunch) has been habilitated in the old town rectory. Next, to it there is the church “Mare de Deu de Montgarri” from the XVI century, built on an old Romanic chapel from the XII century. We can hardly find any remains of the old town in the surrounding area anymore.
After a quick lunch (the expected storm was on its way) we continued climbing towards Pla de Beret. The gradients from now on were not as gentle as before, but the scenery was exceptional towards the top, making it really enjoyable despite the fatigue.
The last part of the ride was a long descent towards Vielha with amazing views and some rain that made us take some paved roads instead of unpaved ones to exercise precaution.
We arrived at Vielha soaked and tired, but extremely happy.
|Best Time||June – September. Check the weather, especially in Coll de Triador where there may be snow till late June and where thunderstorm activity can quickly happen.|
|Terrain||Highly challenging. Technical – with hike-a-bike sections and pretty steep climbs. Extreme care required at times. Avoid riding in this area if mountain roads aren’t your strong point.|
|Tires||Knobby 27,5×2.0 mountain bike tires (WTB Ranger)|
|Gearing||42T in front; 10-42 cassette in back if you want to make your legs burn like mine. A 38T chainring in the front would have been better!|
|Food & Lodging||Hotel Riu Nere
Carrèr Major, 4, 25530 Vielha, Lleida
L’Abadia de Castellars
Lloc Castellars, S/N, 25529 Castellars, LleidaCasa Batlle
Únic s/n (Casa Batlle), 25555 Las Iglesias, Lleida
Calle Com s/n, 25515 Espui, LleidaCafè & Bistro E BO
Plaça Dr. Benavent, 3, 25597 Espot, LleidaHotel Bruna
Carrer Major, 71, 25580 Esterri d’Àneu, Lleida
Refugi de Montgarri
Eth Refugi d’Aran
All i Oli
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