Sierra de Guara
The Sierra de Guara lies close to the Spanish city of Huesca on the southern side of the Pyrenees. It is a mountanous area famous for it’s canyons with turquoise water and expert climbing routes. We spent one week discovering the cliffs and canyons of this stunning area along with Elric’s family. Most of us are just adventurous beginners so it was ideal having the instructing experience of Elric’s dad to show us the ropes (literally).
We came here with the main goal of heading out canyoning in the beautifully unique turquoise waters. With so many canyons to explore and only one week to spare we had some tough choices to choose where to go. After a bit of researching I think we managed to find a handful of canyons that gave us a broad idea of what we can find in this area (as well as testing out a couple of Via Ferrata climbing tracks as well). It was incredible to find how unique each canyon was despite being in such close proximity, not only in terms of technical differences but visually as well (even the cliffs and the water completely change colour from place to place).
We were incredibly lucky as despite having a storm filled week on the forecast all of the rain managed to stick to the nights leaving beautiful sunny days for us to explore in. So here are some of our experiences and the places we discovered in the Sierra de Guara.
I had pretty much no idea what to expect on this canyoning trip. I have never done canyoning before, barely done climbing and wasn’t even really sure how the whole thing worked. But after a week of being a bit of a sheep I’m pretty confident with the basics and very sure that I’ll be doing it again. Elric said his experience was minimal too, but you can tell with his dad being at instructor level that he pretty much already knew everything he was doing. So for people like I was that have pretty much no idea what canyoning is I’ll give a basic run down.
As the title says, you are in a canyon. At the base of the canyon is obviously water, and generally you go down the canyon with the flow of the water (the easiest way), but you can also have dry canyons or partially dry canyons or choose to go up in the opposite direction to the water in some places if you really want a challenge. But most of the time you are in water, and not only has the water has just come off the mountains but it is also mostly in the shadow of the canyon, so it is very cold, and you need a decent wetsuit. But you don’t just wade and swim through the water. There are sections where you need to jump down waterfalls or abseil down into the canyon, so you need harnesses and ropes of different lengths for different canyons and somebody with a decent knowledge of how to use everything, which is why you generally need an instructor. You also need to walk to and from the canyons, and as you start and finish at different points often the walks can be quite long, but generally they are beautiful with views over the canyon. The time it takes in a canyon can also be pretty hard to judge, especially as newbies. I never would have imagined it would take a group of decently fit people like ourselves 8 hours to travel 6km down a canyon, but there you go…
In our one week we explored five very different canyons, so here’s a little description about how we found each of them!
♥ Best Beginner Canyon (a little bit of everything)
Approach: 45 minutes
Canyon: 2h30 (it took us closer to 3h)
Return: 10 minutes
On our first day we decided to head out to the Formiga Canyon. This is one of the most popular canyons here as it is beautiful with clear turquoise waters, it is not too technical for beginners and at only around three and a half hours (including the walk there and back) you only need half a day to do it. We did see quite a lot of people in the canyon which I can imagine being a little annoying if you had a lot of experience, but for us it was actually kind of helpful as we could see the best way to navigate the canyon before we got there and if the water was deep enough to jump. There is also a rule that you need to leave 10 minutes between each group so it is not just like you are constantly following a line of people (which would be very annoying even for us…).
Out of all of the canyons we explored, this one definitely had the most variation with many jumps both big and small, cliffs to abseil down, natural rock slides, rocks you needed to dive under and even a mini via ferrata at the start. It was a really great spot to start and get a test of everything before trying anything a little more technical. Not only did it have a little of everything, but it was also one of the most beautiful canyons we explored (you really can’t beat canyoning in water this clear).
Peonera Canyon (inferior, 2nd half)
♥ Most Beautiful Canyon (In my opinion)
Approach: 45 minutes
Canyon: 4h (including a large section of the river to the dam, only 2h if you take the earlier exit)
Return: 45 minutes (if you take the earlier exit, longer if you walk to the dam like us)
We headed out early-ish in the morning to beat the other groups (and any potential storms forecast to arrive in the afternoon). The hike to the start of the canyon was beautiful taking us through bushes of rosemary and thyme to incredible views over the canyon. We also found a large family of mountain goats grazing by the path. The walk down was pretty steep and a little unclear in places (we got lost one point and did a big loop before finding the right path) but the views were truly incredible.
Once down at the canyon there was just one other group we saw head out before us, and we barely saw them actually in the canyon so we could find our own way down. I think this was pretty lucky as like the Formiga Canyon this is a pretty popular one! We could really see why people love it, the water was beautifully clear and in some sections the way the sun shined through the rocks would make it glow. Not only was it beautiful but there were many jumping spots (not too high for people like me) and great places to swim around and under the rocks. Out of all the canyons this one was probably my favourite and being quite an open canyon it way perfect for a sunny day like we had (I would love to do it again).
The canyon opened out into a beautiful river at the end. At the end the water was also very deep and clear, and with many surrounding rocks you could choose the exact height you wanted to jump from. It was a pretty good way for me to try a few higher jumps anyway (step one to conquering the fear).
The walk back along the river should have taken us only 45 minutes, but somehow we managed to get very lost walking off on many riverside paths that ended up taking us in the completely wrong direction (it took us around 2 hours…). Retrospectively, as we knew that we were ending at a dam, it would have been a better idea just keep our wetsuits on and wade/swim through the river rather than get into our dry clothes and try and find the path back (we ended up waist deep in water anyway). Either that or take an earlier exit and just walk back to the car rather than going to the dam. But despite that it was a beautiful walk around the river with even more jumping spots (of a decent height too).
Mascun Canyon – Estrecho Final
♥ Easiest Canyon (would be great for young kids)
Approach: 30 minutes
Canyon: 1 hours
Return: 30 minutes
The supposed storm today was forecast for around midday so we decided to just do a very small canyon (however like every day the storm never ended up coming until the evening). We were the only people on the canyon which made it a very relaxed and tranquil trip down the canyon. You could tell it was not a canyon many people chose to explore as the rocks were all covered in moss and under the water the algae was untouched rather than having been destroyed by many groups trampling on it (which was great but also made it very slippery).
It was a very short and sweet trip with beautiful views in a calm environment. There were just a few small jumps and one small abseil so I can imagine it being a great canyon to take young kids on, or people that just want to chill and enjoy the scenery. The canyon ended at a beautiful old abandoned bridge, something that looked like it couldn’t hold the weight of any of us. But we got some pretty nice photos jumping off the surrounding rocks.
The views didn’t stop in the canyon because the short walk back also showed off spectacular scenery over the canyon we had just discovered. The walk also ends at the best bar/restaurant in the area, the Refugio Kalandraka. With no storm looking likely in the afternoon we had time to try out the Vía Ferrata Espolón of the Virgen (but I’ll get into that later…).
Barranco Fondo + Balcez Inferior
♥ Most Technical Canyon (of those that we did)
Approach: 10 minutes
Canyon: 8 hours (we got lost)
After choosing several small canyons due to storm forecasts that never came we decided to finally try something a bit longer. It turns out we didn’t really anticipate how long though with our planned 4 hours in the canyon turning into 8… The storm was forecast for 2pm so we headed out early (even though we predicted it would once again not arrive until later). However after underestimating our time in the canyon and getting a little lost along the way it did turn into a little race against the rain. Needless to say it way a pretty big day.
We planned to do two canyons one after another, both supposedly taking around 2 hours each. The first one was a dry canyon with several abseils around 20-25m high. I imagine if you had a decent amount of experience with abseiling you could easily stick to this estimated time, but for us near beginners it took us 3.5 hours. On the second abseil (of six) Elric’s sister got an injury to her finger which we managed to splint with a little wilderness handiwork. After abseiling down the first drop there was no possible way back up, and with the only exits at the beginning and the end the only way is forward no matter what.
Despite a rocky start the first canyon was really beautiful, and it was a nice change not having to get wet for a change. The rocks and cliff faces are so different here compared to the other canyons we have seen. It felt like we were abseiling down into the depths of the earth, past layer upon layer of ancient rock. A very unique experience for sure.
Once we finally arrived at the second canyon we got into our wetsuits and plunged into the water. The canyon was very narrow and with high cliff walls on either side blocking out most of the sky. It was quite an exciting canyon to explore and had it’s own unique beauty despite the fact that the water was not that clear due to the storm the previous night. But we were particularly interested in two specific sections on the canyon; Chaos, an area with a beautiful mess of large boulders to climb around, and Oscuros, a narrow area where you swim under large boulders wedged in between the cliffs. We swam on and on through the canyon (there was a lot of swimming) searching for these two stunning areas but never came across anything that even slightly resembled them. As it turned out the entrance point that we took into the canyon was just after they finished so we were looking for hours in the wrong place…
However once again despite having a bit of trouble in the second canyon there were some very beautiful sections, in particular the areas with small rapids you could slide down. There was a lot of swimming though, and in water that wasn’t so clear it did get a bit much.
As the hours ticked by we were wondering at what point we would come to the path leading out. We thought we would take longer than the estimated 2 hours, but when 3 hours came by we thought we better check. As it turns out we had gone well past the exit, and once again the only way was forward… At this point we were pretty exhausted, and with grey clouds looking as though they might come our way we needed to get a bit of a move on. We kept going searching for a path that would take us out of the canyon, but even when the canyon opened up to a river there were still cliffs either side of us too steep to climb up. We saw on the map that a little further along the river was a bridge crossing the river, so we decided to push on to there with our fingers crossed that we would be able to climb up to the road. We were very lucky to find that it was possible, but with everyone exhausted and the car parked several hours walking away we decided to call for a pick up. But with no reception Elric had to go for a little jog up the hill to find some… Our experience of this canyon was definitely very mixed, but we made it out alive so all good!
Oscuros de Balcez
♥ Most beautiful Hike
Approach: 45 minutes
Canyon: 2 hours
Return: 30 minutes
After missing the Chaos and Oscuros sections of the Balcez canyon first time around we decided to head back and give them a look (using the classic hike-in entrance this time around). The hike down was incredible, one of the most beautiful we have had. We were surrounded by steep cliffs making us feel incredibly small and completely alone with the only other movement coming from the vultures flying above our heads. The hike was well worth the trip in itself, and the canyon that followed was equally spectacular.
The ‘chaos’ section of the canyon definitely lives up to its name with boulder after boulder blocking the way through making it a bit of a challenge to find the best way down. Directly after was the narrow ‘oscuros’ section where boulders had now been wedged in the canyon right above our heads letting just a few streams of light through. We swum through the turquoise water until the canyon opened up a little to a small pool with some rocks to jump off. I’m pretty happy to say that after being a bit afraid to jump in places on the first canyon, I was able to back flip of a rock in the last canyon. Fears are nothing.
During our week we also had a bit of time to test out a couple of via ferrata climbing tracks too. A via ferrata is kind of half way in between climbing and hiking. You need the climbing set-up with a harness and carabiner (minus the rope) with you as you walk along the rocks and up the cliffs on a pre-made track of metal handles and chains. You clip yourself onto the cliff face via the chains as you walk (or climb) as a safety. There are lots of different types of via ferrata though, some with bridges, some without climbing, and some with a lot more climbing taking you very high up over steep drops several hundreds of meters high. We started with the latter… Not the easiest if you have a fear of heights, but the only way to get over it is to just do it, so that’s what we did.
Espolón of the Virgen
After a storm never arrived after the Mascun Canyon we decided to give this via ferrata a go. I was pretty nervous of the height after seeing the photos of people hanging off the cliff high above the ground, but decided to bite the bullet and give it a go. Looking from the bottom of the cliff it didn’t seem as bad as I thought it would be. Little did I know that the highest points of the climb were hidden around the corner…
It was not a long climb, less than 1 hour, but it was directly up (I mean completely vertical). I made the mistake of taking a look at the view about of a third of the way up, at which point I realised I was far higher than I had ever climbed in my life and still had two thirds of the climb to go… At that point fear sunk in, and didn’t leave. There was one point where you had to follow the wires to the left hand side. This move meant you were literally moving your full weight over a direct free fall of around 200m… You really have to have a lot of trust in your safety equipment for something like this. But with a decent chunk of help and encouragement from Elric and his family we all made it to the top in one piece. Despite the fear I’m very happy we did it, fear shouldn’t be an obstacle, and this is one step closer to leaving it behind for good.
The day after our 8 hour canyon we were all pretty exhausted and felt a small via ferrata was a good option. As we were driving over we found several large swarms of vultures flying above our heads and perching in the trees. It was incredible to see. They are such large impressive birds and to see so many together was unlike anything I have seen before. The sound was literally that of a swarm of bees, and they filled the sky circling areas where they may have spotted something to dive down for. A very cool sight.
Just before we clipped ourselves onto the via ferrata we watched a couple go before us. You could tell that she was very cautious and took a couple of attempts before she was able to make a definite start. I felt her pain after my last via ferrata experience. However, this one was much lower and with some swing bridges which were a cool change. Honestly I think that doing a massive via ferrata made this much easier, but having said that it could also be just because it was nowhere near as high (highest point at around 80m vs. 200m). Maybe this would have been a better test run on the via ferrata before going all out on the highest one, but then again, nah…
It has been a pretty epic week for us all! But we are now straight off to the airport to fly off to Scotland for a week in a luxurious camper rather than the classic car/van we are used to. We have another week of rain forecast, but knowing how amazing this week turned out with the same forecast we have pretty high hopes that our luck will stay with us!