Wednesday 15 January 2020

Sierra Nevada: Los Cahorros de Monachil

This was the first of two hikes we did when we visited Granada in the summer of 2019. For both walks, we relied upon the excellent website Trek Sierra Nevada. It provides detailed hiking routes that you can search by length, by location or by season, as well as several pages of invaluable supporting information for anyone visiting the region. We didn't hire a car while we were in the city and picked the routes we did because they were accessible by public transport. In the event, we were in Andalucía just after the European heatwave of 2019 so we took taxis out of the city early in the morning to ensure we'd either be finished or near the end of our walks by the time the day was at its hottest in the mid-afternoon.

Pueblo de Monachil is a village around 12.5 kilometres from Granada by car and it took about 20 minutes to get there. It turned out the taxi driver was a keen hiker himself and had walked this gorge with his children several times. He insisted on taking us through the village and dropped us at the trail head.

The path ran alongside the River Monachil, which was quite lively even though the country had been baking in unusually hot temperatures for the past couple of weeks. For the most part the ground was flat and well-maintained underfoot. At times you had to cross over rocks and tree roots but really this initial section was a gentle stroll and gave little indication of the fun that was to follow.

The morning air was still cool, especially in this sheltered river course, and birds called out from the branches above our heads. I was hoping to get some good wildlife pictures on the walk but they kept themselves well-hidden in the foliage - occasionally they'd break cover but they flew past so quickly, you barely had time to register it. There were plenty of flowers in bloom along the side of the path, though, and they were more obliging when it came to photographs.

After a short while the path veered away from the river and we found ourselves by the 'Tranvias' hydropower plant. Originally built in 1906-07, it was reconstructed in 1991 and is owned by the municipality of Monachil. Some parts of it seemed to have been left as "ruins", which were being taken over by the local vegetation.

An arrow painted on the corner of one of the buildings directed us back onto the path, which began to feel a little less manicured. We were gaining height now, the river falling away below us, and eventually we came to the first of the hanging bridges for which Los Cahorros gorge is famous. They swing a little under your feet as you cross them but they are - so every online article assured us - perfectly safe and regularly checked.

Because we'd been walking through trees, we didn't really get a strong sense of our surroundings until after we'd crossed that bridge to the opposite side of the river. We joined up with another trail here and once again we found ourselves on a well-maintained path. This one followed an old irrigation channel (in Spanish, acequia) along the side of the valley. Now we could see the limestone cliffs and crags that form the gorge in all their splendour. It was such a beautiful sight, a couple of waterfalls adding to the effect, and we stopped here for a while just drinking it all in.

For those who relish disappointment, there are a couple of brief but shaky phone videos here and here that completely fail to convey how wonderful it was.

We carried on following the winding path, descending and climbing again, and crossing a couple more bridges. In fact, we were beginning to feel quite nonchalant about the whole "swaying in the air at a height guaranteed to cause a horrible death if anything goes awry" thing.

That said, there was still a sharp intake of breath when we reached the final and longest crossing, where a large sign informed us that the bridge could only support four people at any one time. There was a line of people waiting to go over, perhaps a blessing for anyone who was alarmed at the prospect - when there's a queue behind you, all watching your progress, you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it.

The gorge narrowed drastically once we were over the gently-swaying bridge. There was a concrete walkway that led you around its twists and turns, though in some places the cliffs bulged out over the path. There were metal handles fixed to the limestone at most of these points, which you could use to defy gravity, shuffling along with your feet on the ground and the rest of you hanging backwards over the river. Some people preferred to crawl under the overhangs and at one point I climbed down from the path and walked along the rock-strewn river bed itself.

After a short while, we passed through a section where the walls of limestone above us were so close together that we were effectively walking through a dark tunnel. After this, though, they began to widen out again and a fascinating world of teetering rock towers and baroque crags opened up above our heads.

This proved to be just a taste of what was to come. As we walked out of the gorge we found ourselves in a vast, natural amphitheatre of towering cliffs and mountains. It suddenly became quite busy too and we could see trails crossing the steep sides of this valley with tiny figures making their way through scree and scrub deeper into the Sierra Nevada national park.

The trail we were on meandered gently into the valley, eventually taking us down to the riverbank. Here several families (or the members of one big family) were picnicking in the shade of the trees; children paddled in the stream as parents watched and shouted warnings, while the older generations sat on rocks half-chatting and half-watching what was going on. 

The path led us briefly away from the river again before bringing us to a narrow footbridge further upstream. On the other side, a broad track began to wind its way vaguely northwards along the eastern flank of the valley. 

It was a steady up hill climb and we could feel the full heat of the midday sun now. We were well-protected with sun cream and hats, and we had plenty of water, but if you're thinking of doing this walk it's worth stressing that once past the river you're pretty exposed - there's no shade to speak of and we didn't see any water sources until we neared the village again.

The valley looked even more magnificent from the vantage point this track provided. I think it's undoubtedly one of most impressive places we've walked and we left it behind with a slight pang of regret.

As we made our way north, the terrain around us began to alter. Precipitous cliff faces and jagged outcrops of limestone gave way to hills that were still on a grand scale but smoother and more rounded in form. Despite the seemingly arid conditions of the ground, there was plenty of greenery and the air was heavy with the scent of rosemary, thyme and other aromatic plants. We'd read beforehand that this was the case but we were surprised at how fragrant the trail actually was.

We reached the highest point of the walk just east of Hazas Llanas and shortly afterwards made a left turn at a junction of trails to head westwards back to Monachil. From here on - bar a couple of minor bumps - it was downhill all the way. An attractive ridge of hills to the north of Monachil dominated the view ahead. They looked like they'd provide great walking with extensive views across the Granada plain as well as onto the mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

As we lost height, the terrain around us began to look less wild and we found ourselves walking through meadows. There were increasing signs of cultivation, particularly groves of olive trees. We still had plenty of water left and the walking was easy, despite the heat, so we wandered along at a gentle pace, frequently stopping to examine the flora and fauna we encountered en route. I suspect we were maybe a month or so too late to see the local wildflowers at their best but there was still plenty of colour around.

Eventually, we came to a parking area and a proper, surfaced road, from where we had great views to the hills on the far side of the River Monachil and back up the mountainous valley from which we'd just descended. 

Just below, clinging to the sides of the hills was Pueblo de Monachil.

It's a short walk from this point into the village, where you can get a bus back into Granada on weekdays and Saturday mornings. 

If you do this walk on a Sunday, like we did, there is no bus from the city into Pueblo de Monachil. The Sunday bus service only goes as far as Barrio de la Vega (also popularly known as Barrio Monachil or simply El Barrio). It's about a mile and a quarter from there to the start of the trail so you would need to factor that extra distance into your plans.


The Trek Sierra Nevada page for the walk can be found here:

Our next Sierra Nevada hike can be found here:

Sierra Nevada: Beas de Granada Ridge Walk


Date: July 2019

Walk length: 8 km, starting from Pueblo de Monachil (or 12 km if using the bus to Barrio de la Vega)

Total ascent:  400 metres


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