My Adventure Playground: A Love Letter to Spain

A subjective analysis of what makes Spain the perfect home for the adventure-obsessed

Feature type Story

Read time 8 mins

Published Jan 19, 2023

Photographer Will Appleyard

Will Appleyard
Will Appleyard Diver, mountaineer, climber and paraglider pilot, Will communicates his passion for adventure through his photography and writing and is the author of several books.

If I was asked, in some imaginary way, to select a country to live in, one that I could never ever leave, I would immediately choose Spain. For the outdoors adventure sports-person, paired with its mostly favourable climate, I believe this country has everything. For me, Spain spans a huge spectrum of variety – on land and the sea. The sea is a whole other story in itself and something I have photographed and written much about before, but for this piece though, I’ll concentrate on the land… and the air.

Navigating a narrow ridgeline along Picos Culebras

Navigating a narrow ridgeline along Picos Culebras

THE SOUTH

I said goodbye to England in 2020, as a place to live anyway. Grumpy about Brexit, I felt that I was destined to relocate to Europe. Fearful of losing my freedom to continue travel the continent without Brexit imposed time constraints, I sought and obtained residency in Spain with the help of some fabulous people.

I will breeze past the pandemic, it’s all been said before. But once we had all got through that peculiar episode, I was free to head back to familiar territory; the mountains, national parks and the Sierras surrounding the white villages – the pueblos blancos of Algodonales and Grazalema.

These are two neighbouring villages, about 25 kilometres apart, about one hour’s drive south of Seville in the Andalucian province of Càdiz. Separated by a diminishing reservoir, the more touristy village of Zahara de la Sierra sits upon a hill. These are places I had spent many weeks exploring during previous visits prior to finally residing here – climbing, hiking, biking and paragliding. 

The towns of Algodonales and Zahara.

Life is pumped back into the ground in torrents and the landscape becomes green and begins to breathe again.

Algodonales is a laid-back bubble home to around 5500 people. It’s a place where the foreigner can forget about the outside world with ease.

Grazalema, sits higher in the sierra, ensconced behind the 1300 metre col of the Puerto de las Palomas and is officially the wettest place in Spain. Muslim rule during the 8th century saw an Arab influence here before it was later conquered by the Christians. It is also where the specially protected Pinsapo tree thrives, a Spanish fir native only to this region and northern Morocco thanks due to a mix of the perfect climate and altitude for this species.

During midsummer Andalucía is unbearably hot, particularly south facing Algodonales. Those that can escape this oven head to the coast or to the north of Spain during this time. The Sierra in July and August is sucked dry of any moisture, tiringly dusty, hot, brown and beige. The heat is debilitating and in the main, people stay within their darkened houses during the day – something that I am completely unable to do. I always head north.

Despite the famed humidity of the Sierra de Grazalema, clear nights can showcase incredible night skies.

From autumn to spring however, when the long-awaited rains arrive, life is pumped back into the ground in torrents and the landscape becomes green and begins to breathe again. Clouds build and tumble over the limestone cliffs of the Sierra de Grazalema. Opposite, the mountain Mogote sits right behind Algodonales, protecting the village from north wind and this 1000 metre hump is what attracted me to the area during my first few visits.

As summer ends, the conditions in the mountains of northern and central Europe stop working for paraglider pilots, this is when Algodonales opens up. Thermic conditions are good here for the cooler months and many pilots, as I did initially, travel south to fly. Hundreds of paragliders, a few old school hang-gliders and a local Spaniard named Nacho with his sail plane fill the sky almost daily, conditions permitting.

A hike through the Garganta Verde.

Initially obsessed with paragliding, as one has to be if one wants to progress with the sport, I flew my paraglider from Mogote at any given opportunity. Attempting cross country flying, thermalling with vultures and landing out in random fields scrounging lifts back home or walking for kilometres with my weighty gear, happy with any height or distance that I had achieved. Paragliding is an addictive, intense sport with a long learning curve, not without risk and with a globally connected community that love to talk para-bollocks, as we collectively call it.

My feet after the first year though stayed more often on the ground, choosing to spend more time exploring the hiking trails by foot and E-mountain bike, keeping myself in good shape. The flying community here comes with a bit of a drinking community also and socialising with beer in Andalucía is a sport in itself. I’ve discovered that Nacho’s sail plane is far less-faff approach to getting some airtime now, along with some camera time too. Compared with paragliding that is where you might be hanging about on the mountain waiting for perfect conditions to take-off. 

Thermalling with vultures and landing out in random fields scrounging lifts back home

Hanging around above Algodonales.

My decision to stay in Spain permanently through my imaginary incarceration here is not just based around the spread of mountains and adventure sports, it’s also based around the people I have met. I have been warmly welcomed, both by the Spanish and those long-term likeminded residents from other parts of Europe, and as such, I now have a reasonable command of the language.

I feel fortunate to have found a life down here and try to remind myself of this daily. Of course, in reality, not every day can be wonderful and full of adventurous things, there are low points too. Having more free time at my disposal than most, I sometimes feel as though my life lacks routine and although I do have a few avenues of income and projects that keep me going, there are days when I miss that Friday feeling after a week in the office or looking forward to a holiday from my annual allowance. Normal things.

An evening spent at Picos Culebras before an early morning hike.

The North

Having temporarily fled the south and the heat of Andalucian midsummer this year, I took off solo in my camper van for Los Picos de Europa in the north west of Spain. Mountains, rivers, hearty northern food, photography and cider kept me occupied for some weeks. A woman walked into my life here too and so this is where a deeper discovery of the north of Spain then began.

Núria lives in the Catalan Pyrenees at the foot of the 430 kilometres east to west spine of magnificent mountains. Her mind is like a shelf, full of guide books and her garage a toy box of tools to explore the mountains. We set off regularly to explore them together.

The magnificent Los Picos de Europa.

An explosion of planets and stars crown the mountains and the Milky Way stretches above across the black of night

The Pyrenees tip just over 3400 metres at their highest point, with Aneto being the top prize for baggers of the biggest. In both the north and the south of Spain, our exploration doesn’t stop at the mountains and the views and vibes they provide us. We look up to explore the sky also.

It is easy to escape light polluted places in Spain, where, when the sky is clear of cloud, an explosion of planets and stars crown the mountains and the Milky Way stretches above across the black of night. Movement in the sky comes in the form of shooting stars, cruising satellites and occasionally the International Space Station makes an appearance.

Long hikes and scrambles that begin before sunrise and multi-pitch sport climbing routes are go-to activities in the Pyrenees, slowly ticking off a list of firsts for us or repeating some routes that Núria is already familiar with.

Dawn at Picos Culebras.

A buffet of rock types makes the Pyreness, making the climbing here varied and interesting. Some of these landscapes are volcanic, some of the ridges white marble stone while in other areas we climb granite or on sketchy looking but solid conglomerate sedimentary rock formations which, for example, make up the walls and towers of Mallos de Riglos, an easily accessible sport climbing playground in the province of Huesca.

Leaving the Pyrenees and heading slightly south by a couple of hours drive, the almost out of place mountain range of Montserrat (serrated mountain) just begged to be explored. Another type of conglomerate rock, this series of peaks, walls and towers stands at 1236 metres at its highest point (Sant Jeroni) but appears much grander than that being surrounded by reasonably flat land. To find the sport climbing routes we wanted to scale meant pushing through narrow bushy trails, that only climbers use. The lines are well used, well bolted and numerous, so not difficult to spend a day climbing alone.

Mallos de Riglos.

The serrated mountain – Montserrat.

Successful mountain days stand together with failures also. Misleading climbing guide books, or perhaps misinterpreted by us, sometimes lead to not being able to find the line we want to climb. Longer than expected walk-ins to a route turn into a hiking day rather than a climbing day, always punctuated with a beer at the end nonetheless.

Tucked away in a deeply walled valley next to beast of a spewing dam, in the province of Llieda, Xin Xan (Chin Chan), a 200 metre, five pitch, grade 5+ multi-pitch route was waiting for us on a chilly autumn morning after a night spent in the van.

I’m not really a believer in favourites as for me every place has its own story, but if I had to choose a recent one, Xin Xan could be it. An easy short walk in to the base of a beautiful location, just one other pair of climbers on an adjacent route and all-day sunshine from the anchor of pitch onwards made this exploration really standout.

To be able to walk out of a route like this as well, rather than fiddling around with multiple rappels, adds further pleasure points to the experience. The Glimbing version of Glamping, I guess.

Now, I have fallen into a routine of splitting my time almost equally between northern and southern Spain, I’m continuously making mental comparisons, a pros and cons list for the two locations 1000 kilometres apart.

On a basic level, it’s cheaper to live in Algodonales and of course, money talks. The people there are extremely open, welcoming and sociable. Whereas, the folks in the northern areas where I’ve been spending my time in any event, need a little more encouragement to open up. Perhaps culturally closer to the English than the loud, gesturing, touchy feely Andalusians that I have fallen in with.

Here in Torellò, the Catalan town from where I’m writing this piece, the locals are very much mountain people. Torellò is home to the annual, long running Torellò Mountain Film Festival, where this year the Leo Holding’ House of the Gods film did pretty well I gather.

I’m continuously making mental comparisons, a pros and cons list for the two locations 1000 kilometres apart

Evenings well spent exploring the stars.

The mountains here are also proper mountains and to explore them all will probably be impossible. Speaking with a Swiss paraglider pilot in Algodonales one afternoon, he told me ‘I really like your flat land flying here man’. I don’t think that he really considered any of what we have there to be actual mountains. The winter climate for me is far more favourable in Algodonales than the single figure temperatures of the wintering north, but the spring, summer and early autumn up here are ideal temperature-wise too.

And so, to choose between the two ends of this country to perhaps plant my flag. Well, my imaginary list of pros and cons has drawn to a close and really it is a pointless exercise. To magically manufacture a land where I could mix all the best bits together would be my first choice, but I can’t.  Yet to enjoy the contrasts between the two locations and their people is something that I can and will continue to do. So Spain, thanks for everything to date, you’ve been just fabulous.

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