Viajar a pie

"Viajar a pie" is Spanish for "Travelling on foot"

Busdongo de Arbas. Puerto de Pajares. Collado Valverde

I took the early morning train from Leon to Busdongo de Arbas, 4 km down the road from the Pajares pass in the divide. The train line goes north across the plains and into the foothill mountains, along a narrow, winding valley.

Busdongo de Arbas is a road & railwayside hamlet. I’m the only one disembarking there. To my dismal, the pub in front of the station is still closed. I was planning on a hefty, pre-hike breakfast and had a clear picture of it in my mind. There was a tiny bakery in the second section of town and I got a few goodies there instead.

Little traffic on the N-630 on a mid-November saturday morning

I filled bottles in a roadside, piped spring but returned part of the content before eventually packing the bottle as I was trying to pack smart while at max load. I should have checked the upcoming itinerary before deciding on how much water to pack. It’s not easy to get everything right at the beginning.

The road is surprisingly quiet for its trunk category and the hike up to the Pajares pass turns out a smooth intro into life on the trail. I leave the road just before the actual pass so I miss the view of the old, abandoned, “the Shine”-looking hotel in there.

Instead I get a cracking view of some limestone giants across the valley to the west. It’s my third time here but it’s the first time I get this view. I quickly recall it must the summits of the Pena Ubina massif. They look glorious under the blue sky.

The Pena Ubina massif limestone giants to the west. Beautiful horses from a nearby farm

On the trail

It’s crest divide from the very beginning, a gentle ascent on a wide track with fantastic views to the mountains on the west and the valleys below with a mix of beech woods, clear-cuts for pastures and tiny, picturesque hamlets in the lower slopes.

A clear track on the very crest

All is good.

My crest visible horizon goes as far as the first prominent peak, Pico Cellon, a 2K one, which I reach without any technical terrain involved.

Trig point on top of Pico Cellon. Pena Ubina massif in the background

Once up there, I can see farther ahead. I get a first session of crest-guessing, which one is mine?

Route finding

Maybe I was expecting a more evidently prominent ridge, maybe the fact that the watershed crest is closely followed by the regional boundary and this makes it look like more prominent on the map than it really is on the terrain, I take the chance to take the pack off, produce the compass and play the lovely art of feature identification from a vantage point. I love this.

The other part of this take-a-look-around is getting used to the particular map, the representation, the scale and how it all translates into the terrain. This is somewhat important in a place like Spain where there’s no set standard for mapping and dealing with different series is common ground. Not only between different trips, also within one.

So the watershed climbs down from Pico Cellon to follow a series of low saddles.

At this stage, I’m already rationing water. I took with me a limited amount to ease the climb in max pack load conditions and water is naturally scarce on the crest. Finding water is another big part of getting used to the land, and a most crucial one to get on fine. Water is essential. Once you learn where to find it you can feel far more relaxed.

Water finding

My map shows a spring just down from the lowest saddle. It’s a likely place anyway but the terrain doesn’t show any visible gully, just a flat-sided, steep slope covered by bush. It’s not gonna be pretty search.

I can only hope there actually is a spring, it’s easy to find and it’s not far down from the saddle. If there’s no trough or pipe, I will not be able to see it but I’d be able to hear the water so I stop and listen: et voilá.

A trickle coming out of the ground, invisible under the bush but I can hear it. I get my water, I offer my thanks in return, as I always like to do. It’s a precious gift.

It doesn’t matter how many times I do this: finding water in a new land is always a milestone. It takes me to a new level.

Bush walking

So far all the walking had been on trail or over a grassy crest. Next climb is apparently trail-less and through dense bush. I had spotted what looked like a way through from the distance but I knew it could be hard to find once there. In fact, I didn’t find it.

This way. Yes, ouch…

I should probably have followed the crest fence as there’s usually a clearing along it. I instead plodded mercilessly through bush taller than me until I realised I would not find any clearing so I changed strategy: head for the rocky outcrops, head for the crest, both factors usually meaning easier bush.

I wasn’t feeling particularly confident or mentally strong, it was more a gregarious approach: I had to do it and I wouldn’t resign. Not the most elegant of ways out but I eventually left the big bush behind as I got to higher ground. Now it was crest again. First serious test passed.

Days are short

If it’d be the summer, this would feel like just past middle of the day. In mid November, it feels like near day’s end. The sun has drawn a low arc on the southern half of the sky and it’s now approaching the horizon behind me. It’s time to think of a camp. I spot a minor saddle in front of me as the crest arcs to the south. It’s getting dark when I get there and the map shows there’ll be nothing flat for a while so I make myself comfortable in the gentle, grassy southern side of the Valverde saddle. So it’s written on the map.

Camp pics from this trip are bound to be blurry… diminishing light at Collado Valverde

The suns’s gone and It’s getting breezy by the time I pitch the Trailstar. The temp drop is dramatic and the tarp does an excellent job at providing shelter from the chill while I cook dinner. I make a brief attempt at stargazing: the sky is clear and there’s nearly no moon so conditions are excellent, I can see the milky way! but it’s cold, I’m tired and I need to get inside. It was a good day but I feel the weight. I feel the weight but it was a good day. Good night, nos da.

Looking obviously west. Sunset in Cantabrica

Maps & Track

View route map for Cantabrian High Route Stage 1: Busdongo de Arbas – Puerto de Pajares – Collado Valverde on

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Cantabrian High Route East
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  1. Travesía Pireno-Cantábrica

    To avoid that bush section, you should have followed the track in North direction. For the ascent, there is a narrow but clear trail.

    • Viajarapie

      I tried to be creative and screwed it up. First day out, I was still getting used to the place. Thanks for the advice!

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