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Exploring the uplands of Extremadura, western Spain's unsung hiking destination

Ancient monasteries, vulture sightings and thundering waterfalls — a hike through the dramatic, under-explored uplands of La Vera, in western Spain, offers enough to challenge both thighs and perceptions.

By Paul Richardson
Published 23 May 2021, 06:11 BST
Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows, near Guijo de Santa Bárbara in Extremadura's La Vera ...

Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows, near Guijo de Santa Bárbara in Extremadura's La Vera province. Dominated by the Sierra de Gredos mountains, the region is a largely under-explored swathe of western Spain.  

Photograph by Alamy

Leaving the village of Guijo de Santa Bárbara, we climb upward through oak woods, green pastures and rocky escarpments scented with heather and broom. Stone barns with moss-covered roofs stand guard beside the trail, a testament to the shepherding still practised in these highlands. Crossing a meadow stippled with wildflowers, my guide Andrés puts a finger to his lips. “Listen.” The sound of water. It’s all around, trickling out of dry-stone walls, babbling through meadows and rushing down steep-sided gorges.

We’re in La Vera, a county that bumps up against the Sierra de Gredos mountain range on the northernmost edge of Extremadura, in western Spain. Before I visited this region for myself, my impressions were of an extreme, harsh landscape. Perhaps I can be forgiven; even for Spaniards, this place exists in the popular imagination as a tough sort of place — dry and dusty, largely flat, and pummelled by unforgiving heat that has locals cowering indoors for much of the year. 

But on this bright morning, La Vera is a revelation; the air is cool, with a spring-like freshness. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V chose this as the site of his monastic retirement after a lifetime of battles — and today, at least, it’s plain to see why. 

Far from cowering indoors, my Gore-Tex-clad guide Andrés Gómez is a champion of La Vera. Originally a carpenter, he initially came to the area for work, but has since fallen for his adopted home. “What I love is the wonderful climate here, the natural surroundings — it’s a great place to live,” he says. 

After a two-hour yomp, we arrive at a humble chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Snows. On 5 August every year, devotees make their way here on foot from Guijo de Santa Bárbara, as they have done for centuries, bringing food and wine to celebrate her feast day. Incidentally, it’s lunchtime, and Andrés unpacks a picnic of Swiss chard tortilla, and chorizo made with smoky pimentón, a key ingredient in local cooking. 

After eating, he disappears among the rock and scrub, returning breathless a few minutes later. “There’s a whole group of them down in the valley!” I hurry to the lookout, squinting into the distance to see an extended family of wild mountain goats, the herd’s alpha male standing proudly, horns aloft. Above, vultures wheel like giant kites against a pale blue sky. 

“La Vera has a lot of biodiversity,” says Andrés. “Ecosystems are well protected because they aren’t too disturbed by humans.”

And diverse it is. Earlier, my drive from the city of Plasencia had taken me past plantations of cherry trees and the grand hillside Monastery of San Jerónimo of Yuste, Charles V’s ‘retirement home’. But now, as the afternoon darkens, we look out from a crag above Garganta Jaranda, one of La Vera’s many deep gorges, where white water courses among giant boulders, forming secret pools for bathing. Above us is Extremadura’s highest point: the peak of Calvitero, 7,874ft above sea level and sugar-sprinkled with the last snow of the season, glittering in the late sun.

So much for flat, dry and dusty. Sometimes being proved entirely wrong is all part of the fun

How to do it

Paul Richardson leads a nine-night tour of Extremadura for Martin Randall Travel (departing 12 May 2022), taking in Plasencia and Cáceres; Yuste and Guadalupe monasteries; farm visits; and hill walks. From £3,320 per person, including flights from Heathrow. 

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Read more stories and travel guides for Spain

Published in the June issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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