it’s a new way to discover the city and ideal for insomniacs. All you need is your smartphone.
Two years ago I knew everything about insomnia, and yet no book or website, no over-the-counter remedy could alleviate it. Nothing but physical exhaustion worked for me. That was when I began walking. I came to know Barcelona not by day, but by the small hours, when the city shines with a different kind of glitter.
It is an expansive way to calm mind and body; empty streets, white noise, ghosts in parks and a beach breeze. But sometimes aimless walking, what the Situationists called psychogeography, may be enhanced by a purpose; a set number of kilometres covered or landmarks visited.
I discovered geocaching while looking for resources on urban exploration and night walking. It is a game that uses GPS coordinates to guide you to secret spots where containers, called caches, have been hidden. To play you need to visit geocaching.com, look for caches in your area, and set their coordinates on your GPS device or the official app for smartphones. You can create an optional username, network with friends and keep track of your findings. The basic service is free but premium membership grants you more tools and information. The community is strong and international and Barcelona is littered with containers.
There is more to this than just finding boxes. Each cache has a logbook where players write down their names, date of discovery and any comments. Other caches hold small trinkets, usually coins and candy. If you’re lucky you may even find a travel bug, which is a traceable dog tag registered online that players can take from one location to another.
Caches vary in size and difficulty. The average one is a small plastic or aluminium box while others may range from diminutive and nondescript to large and cumbersome. They can be easy to find or cunningly difficult. Hiding spots include phone booths, benches, trees and lamp posts. Others will be stashed in the least likely places, sometimes right in front of you. Patience is the only requisite.
I found my first cache under a phone booth by Monumental station after standing beside it for almost 40 minutes, having no idea where else to look. The content inside was a useless collection of stuff now precious by association, most of it brought from abroad; an acorn seed, a coin minted in Eastern Europe, a folded miniature map of the London Tube. The logbook was full but I still had a small corner to write something down. TFTC! That stands for “Thanks for the Cache”, one of the many terms and acronyms that have evolved through the game’s lifespan. The growing vocabulary can be found online.
A week later, with my first cache under my belt, I planned for a longer night session. The traced route, 15 spots spread between an urban orchard near La Sagrada Familia and the outer edges of Mar Bella beach, would take me several hours to cover. Geocaching has no fixed rules. You’re free to go looking for caches any way and at any time you want, but there is an added edge in doing so at night. People who wander around during the witching hours tend to be of a special kind. That night a drunken kid wanted to know if I was looking for my car keys inside a dustbin while later a red-bearded man offered to help me find whatever I was looking for under a bench.
Later I got stuck at Avinguda Icaria, under the pergolas designed by Enric Miralles for the 1992 Olympics. The cache marked in the app’s map for this area was nowhere to be found. This is a frequent occurrence; suspicious-looking caches have been retrieved by the police in the United States and England while other times they are found and stolen by strangers or taken away for maintenance by the owners.
After a while I spotted it, high on top of one of the pergolas and impossible to reach. Thankfully Caroll and Anja were around the corner, both from Germany and out for a night of geocaching too. We were looking for the same spot, but whereas I had a digital device all they had was a paper scribbled with esoteric words, street names and the hope of not having wasted their night chasing ghosts. We agreed to team up, did some acrobatics to fish the box out, signed the logbook and went on our way to the next stop on our maps. Serendipitous adventure and chance encounters with strangers is one of geocaching’s added values.
Sometimes caches demand a level of risk. Both girls had been crawling and climbing to find some of the most difficult ones and had the scars to prove it. The game is legal, but sometimes owners hide their caches in off-limits or dangerous areas. Caution and common sense are advised.
Caroll found our next two caches. The daughter of a professional hunter, she had been raised in the family tradition of patience and observation. She told me stories about hunting wild boar while we looked around Mar Bella beach, vaguely aware of some kids keeping an eye on us to the beat of Slavic hip hop. Anja found the next one behind a beach sign; an elegant cylinder wrapped in electric tape, a useless measure against wear and leakage. The coiled logbook was soaked and illegible.
We didn’t find the next cache on our list. However, thanks to some false steps, we found an unrelated one. Sometimes you get lucky. As we headed to our last spot of the night, Plaça de Prim, Caroll told me about a cache she had been looking for in Australia. She wandered off track and found a much bigger prize, a little beach all for herself,
Plaça de Prim wasn’t empty, but the five friends talking on the bench didn’t look like they would bother us. A small square, it was built in 1851 and renamed after the death of General Juan Prim in 1870. What remains of a larger fishermen’s neighbourhood is crowned by a fountain and three beautiful ombú trees brought over from the South American Pampa.
We spent plenty of time looking around, unavoidably attracting the others’ attention. They were students from Poland living in a flat in Rambla de Poblenou. They joined our party and it didn’t take long before one of them found the cache. We all signed the logbook, talked some more and parted ways. No use calling a cab when we could walk back home. Caroll and Anja lived a couple of blocks away from my flat, but sadly we could not agree for another hunt as they were leaving for Germany in a few days.
However I’ve met other people since then. Geocaching and night walking are perfect excuses to see the city. It’s a fun way to spend sleepless hours and meet strangers, and you’ll be ready for a good rest by the end of the hunt, even if you’re not done until seven am. That’s why we have weekends.
Where did it all start?
Huge improvements to GPS technology, including the end of selective availability in May 2000, led GPS enthusiast Dave Ulmer to test the accuracy of this new technology. On May 3rd, 2000 he hid a black bucket in the woods in Beavercreek, near Portland, Oregon. Along with a logbook and pencil, he also left various items including videos, books, software and a slingshot. He then posted the GPS coordinates on a GPS users forum. He called his experiment the ‘Great American GPS Stash Hunt’. The only rule was that if you took something you had to leave something. Within a week, some readers had found his ‘stash’ and others were hiding their own and posting the coordinates. The first person to find Ulmer’s black bucket was Mike Teague. Teague began to document all these online coordinates on his homepage and created a mailing list to share and discuss the activity. Enthusiasts looked for another term to replace ‘stash hunt’ and the name ‘geocaching’ was born. According to www.geocaching.com there are currently 2,512,952 active geocaches and over six million geocachers worldwide.
What you’ll need
All you need is a GPS-enabled phone and basic membership at www.geocaching.com.
How to get started
1. Go to Geocaching.com and register for basic membership.
2. Go to the ‘Hide & Seek a Cache’ page.
3. Enter your postcode.
4. Choose a geocache and click on it to get its coordinates.
5. Enter the coordinates into your GPS device.
6. Use your device to find the cache
7. Sign the logbook and put the cache back in its original location.
8. Share your stories and photos online.