A Short Walk in the Alpujarras: Capileira to Portugos
“Are we lost?”
“I’m not sure. Hang on”.
I walked a little farther and climbed up a slope, turned a short corner and went past a large tree with roots that clung to the side of the hill.
What I saw beyond didn’t look like anything described in our guide. There were no route markings or footpaths. I hated to admit it, but this wasn’t where we were supposed to be.
“Okay. We’re lost,” I decided, and turned back.
I had come to Spain to hike in the Alpujarras, a hilly region on the lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada. I was here with my friend Zarah and it was she who had wisely hinted, barely ten minutes after setting out from Capileira, that we might be lost and it was I who had wanted to believe otherwise.
We retraced our route and found the small bridge and muddy streambed that we were meant to cross. Before long we spotted the first houses of a nearby village.
Our first stop on the trail was Bubión. The villages in the Alpujarras have a long history- these hills were home to the last remaining Moorish settlements after 800 years of Muslim rule in Spain. When the city of Granada fell to the Christians in 1492, the Spanish Muslims fled and sought refuge in the Alpujarras. One of the first things I noticed about the villages here were the houses: the Moors, who were originally from North Africa, had built houses which looked very similar to those in their homeland.
When we arrived in Bubión, we found it to be deathly silent. The village playground and schoolyard were empty. There was no sign of life- we heard no music, no laughter or voices. The doors of the white, boxed-shaped houses were closed and their windows shuttered. “Siesta time,” Zarah said.
We walked through the village and found a snow-covered forest path which led us across the Rio Poquiera, where the trees lining its riverbanks had turned brown and leafless, and returned to Capileira at 5.30 that evening. By this time we knew how to look out for the way-markings which indicated the route: two or three stripes of colour, painted on large rocks, wooden stiles and signboards.
After breakfast the next day we set out for Pórtugos, once again entering Bubion but this time we headed for the town centre high above the Berber-style houses and took the main road.
We arrived at a charming village called Pitres about two hours later where we had lunch, well- some form of afternoon sustenance. It wasn’t much, but I thought it was delicious: Zarah set up her portable stove by the village church and we had rice with beef serunding and chili sauce, which we downed with mugs of hot chocolate. After hours of walking, that was the best meal I’d ever tasted.
Not far from where we had lunch was an area known as La Taha de Pitres, another legacy of the Moors. ‘Taha’ is an Arabic term which refers to traditional councils which were set up during Moorish times to regulate water usage. After they arrived in the Alpujarras (also a name with Arabic origins), the Moors established a network of irrigation channels to collect water from the snows of the Sierra Nevada. Thanks to this network, you can see drinking fountains throughout the Alpujarras – every village we stopped at had at least one public fountain. We were never short of drinking water.
Somewhere after Pitres, we passed a woman in her sixties who stopped to look at us. She made a walking motion with her fingers, then she held her shoulders tightly and said: “Frio!” I knew what she was saying. It’s cold, and you’re out walking? I shrugged and smiled at her: Si.
We soon discovered that getting to Pórtugos, where we had booked accommodation for the night, wouldn’t be so straightforward. We lost our way once again in a village called Ferreirola. A fork in the road stood at the end of the village, where a paved lane went left and another path marked ‘Ruta Medieval’ headed straight. After reading our guide notes, we turned left.
The lane climbed uphill and transformed into a dirt path with a crude fence on one side and a rock face on the other. Beyond the fence was what appeared to be a construction area. In this small plot of land stood an old tractor, some unidentifiable bits of machinery and some large blocks of wood.
“Looks weird, right?” I said. There were no visible way-markings.
“Takkan jalan ni kot. Doesn’t look like it,” said Zarah behind me.
“Mana tau. You never know with these Europeans. They walk everywhere,” I laughed, although deep inside I doubted this was the right way.
We walked for a few metres, saw nothing but the same unmarked dirt path and so decided to turn back.
We returned to Ferreirola. There was a notice board with a map close to the straight path we had ignored earlier. This Ruta Medieval, or medieval route, was also a PR- a Pequeños Recorridos (small or minor route), a walking trail indicated by yellow-white markings. It appeared to be the only logical exit, although it had a roundabout way to Pórtugos, where we needed to be before dark. Based on the map, the PR A299 would bring us to Pórtugos, but via another village called Busquistar.
I remembered reading in the route notes that we would hit Busquistar the following day after leaving Pórtugos.
“Since these two villages are linked, why don’t we head for Busquistar today then take the reverse direction back to Pórtugos?” I asked.
“Is that a good idea?” Zarah said.
“I don’t know, I’m not too sure about that road on the left and there’s no-one here to ask for directions.”
So we took the straight road and followed the yellow-white PR markings. We ended up adding another 6km to our hike that day, and eventually found ourselves wandering around on a hillside pockmarked with large rocks. The familiar yellow-white marks meant that we were on a proper walking trail, but there were two series of the markings leading in opposite directions, and no indication as to which led to where.
By this time it was about 4.30 in the afternoon. We had no idea where we were.
“Wait- I hear voices,” Zarah said suddenly. Never had the prospect of bumping into strangers been so welcome.
Two silver-haired heads bobbed into view. An elderly, fit-looking couple was walking briskly up the path.
We introduced ourselves, asked whether they spoke English and when they said yes, told them we were looking for the trail to Pórtugos.
“Oh, we can show you. You’re headed in the right direction, but we’ll show you a shorter route. This way,” said the man almost immediately. If he hadn’t turned around so quickly I would have given him a hug.
They were from England but had moved to Spain four years ago.
“We’re very happy here,” said the wife. “Lots of lovely walks, good food and much better weather, of course.”
“And you’re from Malaysia? How interesting. We don’t get many Asians walking here,” the man added.
The husband stopped after about ten minutes of walking and pointed to a path ahead. “Go that way. Just follow the path, it goes up and down a bit through some woods but you’ll soon see a sign pointing towards Pórtugos, and when you do, you’ll know you’re not far off,” he said.
“It’s not a difficult route, I mean, we can do it,” said the woman kindly, “but before you see that sign, you’ll come across a large stream and you’ll have to be careful because there’s no bridge.”
“You’ll be fine, just try not to slip,” said her husband. After saying thanks and telling them how grateful we were, we went on our way.
Just like they said, the trail wound its way up and down through a forest and led us to a large stream, which we didn’t find too difficult to manage. Not long after that we descended to lower ground and half an hour later spotted a sign with the words “Pórtugos, 2km”.
It was close to six o’clock when we arrived. My walking poles, which I had used to steady myself while crossing the stream, clicked loudly with every step as we zigzagged up the path into the village- the soft forest trail had disappeared and turned into a paved footpath. The clack-clack-clack on hard concrete sounded so alien after the quiet of the woods.
We rounded the corner and saw a group of teenagers kicking a ball around. One of the boys turned to look, distracted by the sound. Not far from us was a man on his bicycle, heading in the opposite direction. A cafe stood just up ahead and the aroma from a nearby kitchen reached my nose. Signs of life. We’re not in the woods anymore, I thought, as we made our way to our guesthouse.
This was a self-guided walk in February 2016 organised by Macs Adventure, who provided us with route notes, daily maps, an information pack and the all-important baggage transfer service. We paid our own way for this trip and did not receive any payment for this post, which is an account of Days One and Two of our walk. Macs provided excellent support, right from my first enquiry email in November 2015.
Apart from the minor glitch in the Matrix where we lost our way in Ferreirola, we experienced no problems during the walk. (After rereading our route notes, I am now convinced that we were supposed to take the dirt path, but the way-markings were somehow placed too far apart for us to notice them).
Our route, with distances walked per day:
Day One: Circular walk from Capileira (1,436m) to Bubión (1,350m): 8.1km
Day Two: Capileira to Pórtugos (1,300m): 17.07km
Day Three: Pórtugos to Trevélez (1,486m): 15.73km
Day Four: Rest day spent exploring Trevélez: About 2.5km.
Day Five: Trevélez to Bérchules (1,350m): 16.42km
Total distance walked: 59.82km.
Our route followed some of Spain’s most impressive long-distance trails: the GR7, a trail measuring 1,700km from Algeciras in the south to the entire length of eastern Spain up to Andorra, the 300-km GR240 Sulayr which circuits the Parc Nacional de Sierra Nevada, and the incredible 10,000km-long trans-European E4 route which traverses 10 countries from Portugal to Greece. The Spanish sections of these three long-distance paths pass through the Alpujarras. The highest point on our route was at El Portichuelo (2,020m) between Trevélez and Bérchules.
Getting there and back:
Our starting point was Capileira. To get there, take a bus from Granada. Buses depart at 10am, 12pm and 4.30pm. We took the 10am ride (€6.13) as it was winter and we needed enough daylight hours to walk.
We ended our walk at Bérchules. From Bérchules, you can take a bus to Granada (€9.50). There are only two buses daily: 5.50am and 5.30pm. Don’t miss the early morning bus because it won’t wait. ALSA buses are comfortable, have wi-fi and are punctual.
© 2016, Anis. All rights reserved.