Trekking in the Pyrenees
Parc del Aiguestortes
Far from being a Catalan version of the Oscar-winning British film, the name Carros de Foc (Chariots of Fire) actually refers to a stunning route that links nine mountain refuges in the Pyrenees. The route makes up part of the much larger and extremely challenging Pyrenean traverse that starts in Andorra and ends in the village of Sallent deep in the Aragonese Pyrenees. Spectacular throughout, the Carros de Foc presents an excellent bite-size section of the traverse for the hardcore mountain climber or the weekend hiking enthusiast.
The vast part of the trek falls within Catalunya’s only national park, el Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici. Aigüestortes means twisted waters in Catalan, and for good reason. The park brims with hundreds of mountain lakes, laced with braiding, cascading streams, freckled with cool clear ponds and roaring waterfalls. Although the abundance of lakes—227 to be exact—is due at least in part to the presence of hydroelectric dams, they are few and scattered, and their power lines hardly distract from the majestic natural beauty of the park.
The natural formation of the park took place some 200 million years ago with the grinding, chewing, scraping action of glaciers during successive ice ages that gave it its present shape, its cirques and corries, scoured U-shaped glens and hanging valleys. The melting snow and the precipitation foster a rich and diverse natural landscape. In all but the alpine environments, low banks of azaleas blossom. Around them grow juniper brushes brimming with bright yellow flowers, bilberries and wild raspberries. All this vegetation can be found during the hiking season between early June and late September. Come earlier and one runs the risk of facing intimidating snow banks; come later and the weather is increasingly unreliable—although at the higher elevations, snow flurries have been known to occur even in August.
A natural starting point for the trail is the village of Espot, a three and a half-hour drive from Barcelona, where one can take a sealed road that leads up from the ski resort town into the wilderness. As the trail begins to rise above the thick evergreen forest at 2,000 metres, the vegetation becomes sparser and the snow-capped mountain peaks come out into view. At times, the trail never seems to stop going up: one ridge leads to another, to another. Occasionally, wildlife breaks the soothing monotony of the hike; one can find and also hear marmots—listen for a humming whistle—and also have a good chance of seeing chamois (reddish-brown animals akin to antelopes) as sure-footed as mountain goats.
Rising up to the mountain crests, the trail starts to level out bordering a string of medium-sized linked lakes, Estany Negre, and in the distance appears the Josep María Blanc refuge, a large stone house perched on a low finger of granite jutting into the lake. The water surrounds the house, and the early-morning fog on the lake can virtually hide the cabin from the trail’s view. Josep María Blanc is the first and most modern of the nine refuges along the route. The refuge network is what makes the Carros de Foc so terrific for the amateur hiking enthusiast. At any or all of them, hikers can get drinks, eat dinner, sleep, have breakfast the next morning, then hike off, bearing a picnic lunch. No need for tents or sleeping bags, gas stoves or cooking pots, no ramen noodles or canned beans.
However, while not exactly roughing it, the refuges are for the most part distinctly basic: only seven of the nine have toilets and showers, and the sleeping arrangement is like summer camp: hikers of both sexes sleep side by side in long bunkbeds as many as 40 to a room, and there are no partitions—though at the end of a long day of hiking there is little possibility that someone’s snoring will keep one from his or her sleep.
From Josep Maria Blanc, the Carros de Foc trail swiftly rises above Estany Negre and the refuge quickly fades into a dot in the distance. The other refuge stops along the trail after Josep Maria Blanc depend on your level of fitness or experience and if you want to take the hiking more leisurely or seriously. The publisher Alpina publishes the large-scale and reliable map of the Parc Nacional d’Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, an indispensable guide to planning routes and evening stops at the refuges.
One is bound to see a variety of birds of prey wheeling above these upland valleys and peaks past Josep Maria Blanc, including golden eagles and possibly spot the bearded vulture or lammergeyer. In Spanish, the bird is called el quebrantahuesos (bone breakers) for its habit of flying high and dropping bones onto the rocks so that it can peck at the marrow. As for oversized carnivores, the chances of running across one of the six brown bears believed to be living in the park are fairly remote.
Passing a steep ascent of the Collada de Saburó and ascending above the treeline, one comes across the Estanys de Mar and de Colominia (estany means small lake) along whose western shores can be found the Refugi Colominia. After passing this refuge, the trail threads through a jumble of truly huge boulders, where improvised cairns mark the way.
Finally, after the seemingly interminable boulder field, a real trail emerges gliding down the valley. The trail follows a stream that drops into a succession of small idyllic ponds, each crowned with effervescent little waterfalls. The trail gently descends down to Estany Monestro and passes through a dense pine tree forest until reaching Estany Maurici. There, it links up with the east-west traverse of the park, a classic walk not only because of its beautiful scenery but also for its antiquity. In medieval times the trail was a conduit for goods, people and animals travelling between the lands of the Count of Pallars in the east and those of the fiefdom of Erill to the west.
The link-up of the two routes also provides a return point for those wanting to complete an abbreviated version of the Carros de Foc as four-wheel drive taxis can be taken from the Refugi Ernst Mallafré or the Refugi Amitges back to Espot. From Refugi Amitges, the trail continues onto the refuges of Saboredo, Colomers, and reaches its most westerly point at the Refugi Restanca before looping back towards Espot passing the Refugi Ventosa and Estany Long.
One of these hikes can be expected to deliver sore legs, spectacular views and, with any luck, a peaceful state of mind.
All trekkers must buy a pass to use the refuges, which allows them to spend all the time needed at these stopping places.
Details about the refuges and the Carros de Foc route including how to make reservations for dining and lodging can be found online at www.carrosdefoc.com