The Ebro reservoir was finished by Franco in 1945 to provide better water supplies to areas downriver (i.e.outside of Cantabria). The remains of 9 villages lie beneath the waters, although several were relocated to shore level. It’s a drive of around 60km and around an hour to circumnavigate the lake, and makes an interesting trip with many things to stop off and see. The roads are good, and relatively fast (there are often speed traps in the villages on the north side), although the section in Burgos is not as new as that of Cantabria. This itinerary starts from Reinosa, takes in the north side, and then the south side. At the bottom are some ideas for interesting detours if you want to make it even more of the area.
Starting from Reinosa, coming off the A67 motorway, the CA171 along the north side first passes through the village of Orzales, famous for its dense round loaves of bread, available from various bakers in the village and in Reinosa and seen in Rick Stein’s Spain. Appropriately, there is also a flour mill in the village, restored in 2016, which is visitable through Naturea on their programme of guided walks and visits. In Orzales there is also a bridge linking to the peninsular of La Lastra, great for fruit picking in the autumn and some stunning views back to the Campoo mountains – especially at sunset. The next village, Monegro, is home to be the small chapel of La Virgen de las Nieves above the village, with fantastic views across the lake, a great picnic spot and a great festival, La Fiesta de la Virgen de las Nieves, with free paella for all on 5th August every year. Further round still is the village of La Población with its modern bridge over an inlet. On the west side of the village there’s the free Centro Ornitológico bird centre (signposted from Reinosa), also run by Naturea, which shows the wide variety of native and immigrating birds to the reservoir. They run walking tours and boat tours from here at certain times of year. In the village of Lanchares, further on past the bird centre, is one of the nicest hotels on the circuit, the Mirador de Lanchares. Also in La Población are several restaurants and bars, including the lovely Puerto de la Población, which has a great menu del dia and a la carte menu, and has a wonderful south facing wooden terrace over the reservoir. Additionally, this place also has its own floating jetty with canoe, SUP and pedalo hire in summer – and if you look carefully you’ll find the resident buffalo – sometimes seen swimming in the lake in summer! Continuing round, there is a lovely picnic area between La Población and Corconte, in amongst the pine trees at the water’s edge. In the next village of Corconte, the last before heading into Burgos, there is another visitors centre, the Centro de Visitantes del Embalse del Ebro. This is another free visitor’s centre, with information about the reservoir, some interesting hands-on exhibits and an observation platform on the top floor with great views. In Corconte there are also restaurants and bars, and several activity centres, such Nosopla Kiteboarding and Ebrokite, this area of the reservoir is considered one of the best places to kitesurf in the north of Spain, and is a real spectacle on windy days. Due to the influx of kitesurfers, there are also plans to create a dedicated motorhome service point in Corconte too. Next to Corconte, just in Burgos, is the Balneario de Corconte, a spa complex open since 1922, and famous for its bottled water (produced for the public since 1883 and sold all over Cantabria and further afield). It’s quite imposing, and looks slightly dated, but it does have great facilities and very pure water! After Corconte, the CA171 joins the N623 main road. To the left this leads over the Puerto del Escudo (great views) down back towards Santander, through some lovely villages, but to continue round the lake, turn right towards Burgos. This takes you almost immediately through the rather unexciting looking hamlet of Cabañas de Virtus, often with some interesting snow clearing machinery on display at the side of the road. Actually though, this village is quite a centre of outdoor activities, like Corconte. It has another kitesurfing and SUP school, Northwind, and if you ask at the bar/shop next to the road, you can also hire 350cc bikes and go on a trip around the neighbouring hills. To get to the BU642 along the south side of the lake, turn right in Cilleruelo de Bezana and follow signs to Arija.
Along the south side of the lake, the first place of real interest is Arija, the largest town on the lake, with a campsite, youth camp, some shops, and a natural beach, which is popular in summer (just before Arija there are sand extraction plants, which extract the natural sand found here). Arija is also the first place along the southside which has a FEVE rail station. This railway used to be a major coal route from La Robla near León to Bilbao, and is now served by a couple of trains a day in each direction. It runs along this side of the lake, before it veers off up to Montesclaros, and it’s possible to change over to the main Santander-Madrid RENFE line further on at Mataporquera. Heading back into Cantabria, with the road changing to the CA730, there is an interesting reminder that this was once a valley, home to its now submerged villages. At Las Rozas, turning right and passing under the narrow railway bridge is the remains of church, now flooded. Only the church tower still stands and can be reached by a wooden walkway (or on foot when the water level is low). The wooden walkway is currently in disrepair, but there are plans to restore it in 2018. Just before reaching the town of Arroyo, you have to cross the dam, built by political prisoners under the orders of Franco. Driving through Arroyo the large buildings used to house the officials of this project can be clearly seen. There is also another adventure centre in here in Arroyo, H2UR, which offer a large range of activities, including canoeing on the lake and rafting down the Ebro from the dam. Along the winding newly resurfaced road along here glimpses of Cantabria’s as of yet only wind turbine can be seen on top of the hill to the left. The last place of interest along this side is actually above the lake, in the village of Retortillo. Again, signposted from the road, are the Roman ruins of Juliobriga, with an interesting Romanesque church and several areas of clear ruins either side (walk down the track past the church for the best ones, and great views over Reinosa, Campoo and the reservoir). There is ample parking here, and a visitor’s centre with a small fee. Again, this is a great spot for a picnic. Rejoining the main road, there is another lovely Romanesque church in the last village before hitting the motorway again – Bolmir. The road then leads back to the A67 and Reinosa, although if desired it is possible to go back to the other side of the lake via a new road in Bolmir, which connects with Requejo on the other side.
Swimming in the lake
As commented above, there is good swimming with natural beaches at Arija on the south side of the lake. Swimming is possible at many other points, however swimming anywhere should be done with extreme caution, as the water levels rise and fall drastically at different times of year, exposing cables and plants and trees which otherwise cannot be seen. Be aware that over the last decades people have drowned from swimming without due caution. Many locals do, many never would.
Boating in the lake
Until recently it was prohibited to bring boats to the lake, only windsurfers, rental canoes and kitesurfers. Now the rules have changed slightly, hence the new provisions for hire at La Población.
Services around the lake
Most of the villages around the lake have very few services, relying on Reinosa and Soncillo. On the northside there are no cashpoints, although there is a small Caja Cantabria bank in La Costana. There are also no real shops to speak of, although bread can often be bought in bars (and the bakery in La Población and of course Orzales). On the southside, Arija has some services, with another bank, but there is little else.
There are several interesting detours which you could take to make a longer trip out of the circuit.
When you hit the N623 after Corconte, initally turn right towards Burgos, and then almost immediately onto the BU232 towards Bilbao and Logroño. When you reach the village of Soncillo, turn left signposted to the BU526 Bilbao. Now along the C6318 road, this back road to Bilbao is lovely, and there are many interesting places to see not far from the reservoir and spectacular scenery the whole way along. First the village of Puentedey is signposted to the right on the BU561, a small village built on and around a huge rock arch through which the river and previously railwayline passes. A little further on from Puentedey is a small but pretty waterfall, the Cascada de la Mea, a nice stop. Back on the main road, in the village of Pedrosa, signposted to the left is the southern entrance of the Tunel de la Engaña, part of this same train track, which was part of the ill-fated Santander-Mediterranean railway. The history of the line is very interesting, partly because it never actually ran, but has all the infrastructure, including this nearly 7km long tunnel linking southern Cantabria, in the Yera valley above Vega de Pas, with northern Burgos. You can no longer walk or drive the length of the tunnel as it has collapsed in various places, although there are plans to do it up for tourist use again. The drive up there from Pedrosa is about 6km, and there’s also a Via Verde cycle track, which starts by the old station in Santelices – now a climbing hostal and a motorhome service area. In the town of Pedrosa there is also a soon-to-be-opened Adventure Park with hugely tall zipslides amongst other things. Further still along the main road, you’ll find the wonderful Ojo Guareña, a spectacularly situated cave, in La Cueva, which makes an interesting visit. Just a bit further along at Quintanilla de Rebollar there is the Casa del Parque, the visitor’s centre for the cave and surrounding landscape, with details of the excellent network of marked walks in the area.
Again, when you get to the N623 after Corconte, turn right onto the N232 and keep on going towards Burgos. This road takes you over the lovely beechwooded Puerto de Carrales, and once you’re over the otherside, you start to notice that you’re on the Meseta, Spain’s central plain, with a noticeable change in scenery – and flat, long roads. As you start to go down some seriously windy corners into what is the Ebro gorge, turn off a sharp right signposted to Orbaneja del Castillo. Here you are going up the Ebro gorge, and you know you’re below the village when you hit the stunning waterfall that pours down from it. Several restaurants here and its a very popular place, lovely, unique and worth a visit. There is some parking on the corner next to the waterfall, and more if you carry on around said corner. There’s also a lovely 1 hour circular walk starting in the village, taking you back up onto the plain through an expanse of chozos – circular stone huts used for shelter and shade. The route back down has spectacular views over the gorge and village. It’s also worth mentioning the next three villages along the road/gorge, just further along the road from Orbaneja, and back in Cantabria again. The first is the next village, Villaescusa del Ebro. If you park just over the bridge here and walk left along the river (back towards Orbaneja), you will shortly come to the enchanting Cascada del Tobazo. If there’s no water, then you’re able to climb up the banks to see the hermit’s cave at the top, if there is water this is more difficult, but you get the pleasure of a spectacular Lord of the Rings type waterfall. The next village along, just off the main road is Arroyuelos, which has a fantastic rock church – there are many more here in the south of Cantabria. And finally, the next village of San Martín de Elines has a beautiful Romanesque collegiate church, one of the most lovely in the region.
In the town of Arija, turn south towards Santa Gadea de Alfoz and Monte Hijedo. You pass through Santa Gadea and then after the village, turn right, signposted Monte Hijedo. Along this scenic road, you’ll come to the parking area, where you have to leave your car, you can’t drive down the road you’re going to walk down. You’ll see here the start of the very lovely PR-BU30 walk, the Sendero del Monte Hijedo. This 12km walk first goes to the curious and beautiful Cabaña de Hijedo, and then does a circular route through part of the huge Hijedo forest, and includes many huge yew trees to climb on and marvel at.
After going over the reservoir’s dam, in the town of Arroyo, take the road to the left signposted Montesclaros. The road then climbs up quickly to the the Santuario de Montesclaros. Aside from having lovely views across the valley and to the reservoir beyond, especially from the terrace of its bar (open to the public), it has a very beautiful church and a few curious secrets inside! The first thing you need to do is find a friar to show you around – one usually appears out of nowhere – and don’t be afraid about not speaking Spanish, some speak English, and even if they don’t they’re used to foreign visits and will happily lead you around. Inside the monks will show you first the very curious and slightly bizarre but impressive butterfly and bug collection, brought back by one friar from his missions around the world. Then, they will also show you down to the Cave of the Virgen, a natural cave under the church which is thought to date to the beginning of Christianity in the region. There is also a FEVE railway station just near here, which enables you to do a great circular walk, the PR-S33 Ruta de Montesclaros, from Llano on the reservoir to Montesclaros, taking the train one way or the other. There’s only 1 train a day, in the afternoon, so make sure you know the times if you do this, it’s a longish walk too.