Adventures in the Asón

Something I’ve been wanting to do for ages has been to go back to the Asón area in eastern Cantabria for a short break.  So making the most of the 15th Sept regional holiday/sunny Cantabrian weekend combination, we went over there to spend a couple of days and get in some good outdoor action.

Well, if I’m honest, our weekend away didn’t start in the Asón at all, but in fact in Santander to get a bit of the ISAF Sailing World Championships action, visiting the casetas (tapas huts) along the seafront, seeing local group Lazy perform, having a wander around the all new Duna de Gamazo area, the newly remodeled area between the Palacio de Festivales and the Maritme Museum, previously a bit of a dump, now a lovely area to walk around, and checking out the newly refurbished Jardines de Pereda.  Santander is looking good!!  Great ambiance and a lovely warm evening.  We continued the next morning on a bit of a lazy vibe, having a yummy lazy breakfast at El Machi, and then we headed off east down the A8 to our destination!

Well…still not there yet, as we decided to make a little stop in Ampuero to stock up on food and have a wander, I really like Ampuero, great little town, which I find feels really “real”.  Certainly, we turned up on a Saturday morning to find the market in full swing on the main plaza, and thoroughly enjoyed our rabas (battered squid sticks) in a bar watching the world go by.

Saturday market in Ampuero

Then we headed off a little further up the valley and had a quick stop in Rasines to see something I’ve been wanting to investigate for a while…one of only 2 square bull rings in Spain.  It’s actually on the way out of Rasines going south, on your left next to a large church, and it’s a right little find.  The doors are grilled rather than solid, so you can easily see through them and get a great idea of the place, or if you’re lucky you might find it actually open…

Square bull ring, Rasines

We then headed up to Ramales de la Victoria, our base for 2 nights, checked into our very cute little mobile home in the Camping de la Barguilla (the only campsite in these parts) and prepped ourselves up for the afternoon…an afternoon of caving!


Camping La Barguilla

There are several high quality companies which offer caving expeditions in Ramales, we went with lovely Antonio at Guias Rivert, and visited the breathtaking Coventosa cave.  Or part of it, it’s a huge cave complex, and according to Antonio, the Mont Blanc of caves!  And wow, it was certainly spectacular.  After kitting us up with boiler suits, harnesses, helmets and headlamps, we undertook the short, pretty walk to the cave mouth, where we were greeted by the gush of cold air coming from it.  Once inside, and after a short 15m abseil down, and only one very short on-your-tummy bit, we spent 2 hours in absolute underground wonder!  Amazing stalactites, stalagmites, columns, crevasses and huge, huge galleries, it was simply breathtaking.  Not too strenuous, not at all chilly (a consistent 12ºC), and I would do it again in a shot.  I’ve seen a fair amount of caves in my time, this beat them all hands down, what an incredible place!  Highly recommendable.

So after we left Antonio and had gathered ourselves together again, we carried on up the Asón river valley to see the waterfall and source of the Asón river.  Now, as it’s been a dry summer, there was no waterfall, however, I can vouch for its presence under normal circumstances!  Usually, it is an impressive 70m high waterfall coming straight out of the rock into the woods below, and is a beautiful sight.  It’s possible to walk to the base of it, or for a longer walk, try the PR-S 14 route from the villages of either Arredondo or Asón.  There’s also a great viewpoint on the road up to the Collado del Asón pass.  So we stopped up there to check out the lovely view back down the Asón valley, and also to check out the starting point for our upcoming walk, more on that later!

Asón valley

We then continued on down to the little village of La Gandara in the Soba valley, where there is an excellent picnic area and the Mirador de la Gandara, a hanging viewpoint over the waterfalls of the Gandara river, as well as the Centro de Interpretación del Parque Natural del Asón, which is a good place to start a visit to these parts.  We didn’t visit either of these on this occasion, instead heading back to Ramales and taking in the views on our way down.

The next day, after a lovely long breakfast on the great terrace at the campsite, we had a lazy morning wandering round Ramales town centre, booked ourselves into the last slot to visit the Cullalvera cave later on that day, checked out the medieval bridge over the Asón, and had some more yummy rabas on one of the squares with a view up to our afternoon entertainment, the Pico San Vicente, the tall pointy mountain which towers over Ramales and its valley.

It looked to be a bit of a wet afternoon, but that didn’t deter us from getting in a good walk we’d seen signposted next to the medieval bridge, the Ruta de Ramales.  And it was a lovely walk, if horrendously signposted, we were glad of Google maps, phone GPS and the photo we’d taken of the information board before we’d set out.  But the old stone paths leading up through the woods and fields up to the base of Pico San Vicente, and the huge chestnut trees on the way down made it all worth it, and we managed to collect a nice supply of walnuts, hazelnuts and blackberries too – bonus, love September in Cantabria!  As we’d thought, it rained for a good deal of the way, before torrentially downpouring, in true summer mountain style!  After we’d got back to the car, we popped into the tourist office in the centre of Ramales to get details of our long walk the next day, lots of great info in there, and then headed up to Cullalvera for our guided visit.

Ramales has two caves open to the general public, the Cueva de Covalanas and the Cueva de Cullalvera.  Now we’d done the Covalanas cave before, and it is a fantastic cave, after the short sharp walk up to it, it’s pretty accessible for all, and has a huge amount of incredible paintings inside, very intimate (think the guide saying “turn around” and there’s a goat in front of your face).  So this time, we decided to try Cullalvera.  Now, ideally, you’d do Cullalvera first, and certainly before any caving, as it’s a different and simpler kettle of fish.  Fully adapted for the viewing public, accessible by pushchair, wheelchair etc, there are no visitable cave paintings here, (they are too far inside the cave) the main attraction is its accessibility and its sheer size, it’s huge!  It’s within easy walk from the centre of Ramales, in fact that’s the ideal place to park, and as you walk down the path towards it the first thing you notice is the sudden rush of cold cold air, before you can even see the cave, it’s bizarre!  Then as you turn the corner you come face to face with the enormous cave mouth and visitor’s centre.  Now if the guide’s in the middle of a visit, the visitor’s centre and toilets are locked, so you’ll have to wait, times are posted on the outside of the visitor’s centre.  As with all caves in Cantabria, it is best to book in advance, although Cullalvera does have the biggest group capacity, with groups of up to 30 people.  We went in on our own as it was last thing on a Sunday.  So, the lovely guide took us first into the mouth (which is worth a visit if you’re in the area even if you’re not going to go into the cave), before showing us a video of the area, and then on into the cave along the 400m raised platform (in very wet weather a river runs below).  It’s vast, in fact it was used to store army vehicles during the civil war, and a great visit for kids especially, although serious cavers will find this a bit tame, as you only actually go 400m into the cave, in my opinion it’s still worth the visit for 3€ each though.  So after a quick sprint back to the car through another huge thunderstorm, we had a quick change and headed out for dinner.

One of the nice things we discovered about Ramales was that it’s actually really accessible from the A8 motorway, only taking about 20 minutes to junction 173.  Bearing that in mind, we arranged to meet friends from Santander in Laredo that evening for dinner, and had a lovely walk around the old town, before some excellent fusion tapas in Somera, mmm, yummy!

The next day was our last, and the biggie for us – our long walk.  After a dodgy looking start rainwise in Ramales early in the morning, we decided to go ahead with our plan anyway, having already tested our wet weather gear the previous day, and headed up to park in the big car park at the Collado del Asón, where we’d *not* seen the waterfall from the other day.  Deserted, as we’d expected for a Monday morning, holiday in Cantabria, but not in the neighbouring Basque Country where large numbers of visitors to this area come from.  The weather lifted a little, and off we went, on the PR S 66 Ruta del Glaciar de Bustalveinte-Hondajón.  Now we’d been waiting a long time to do this route, heard it was spectacular, seen some photos, and read a lot about it in various walking guides (including in English in Cantabria Calling’s great little book of walks), but knew that it would be best on a clear day.  And we were lucky, just after starting it completely cleared into the most beautiful walking day, sunshine, clouds and a good breeze.  And the walk was indeed stunning, one of the best in the area I’d dare to say.  And, for once, very well marked!  Ignoring the right turns for another walk (I’m planning already), the Vuelta de la Colina, the first part was track, followed by the first gorgeously green glacial depression, Bustalveinte, then a climb through beech woods (in the shade, phew!), to the highest point, with views to the Lunada military observatory, the Bustalveinte glacial valley, and over the other side right across the Soba valley to the Basque Country hills in the distance, and down into the Hondajón glacial valley.  Down, down and very down (we were glad we had walking poles with us) and at the bottom of this a definite detour to the cirque was in order, great glacial cirque indeed with cows grazing at the base.  Then back along the valley to more woods, a fountain, sea views, and a good descent back to the car.  6 hours of beauty, 600m up and down, but not bad going as the main ascent was through shaded woods.  Again, highly recommendable.

And that was it!  We finished off on a high note, going home via the Sía mountain pass (one of the first to be closed by snow every year) for great views back over the Soba valley, and then dropped down into the north of Burgos province for a drink on the main square of lovely Espinosa de los Monteros…and then back into Cantabria and home!  A great weekend, what a wonderful area, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, great walks, great caves, and so much beauty…we shall return soon…and hope this inspires you to do so too!

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