Hiking the wild highlands of Asturias, Spain's bear country

In Spain’s northwesterly Asturias region, Cantabrian bears lurk in misty, forested reserves, wolves coexist with livestock in high-altitude pastures, and hikers follow the same routes taken by centuries of pilgrims and herders.

The view up the Río Duje vallery from Sotres.

Photograph by Ben Roberts
By Stephen Phelan
photographs by Ben Roberts
Published 24 Feb 2023, 11:00 GMT

The first bear, or rather its ghostly heat signature, appears almost as soon as we start looking through the thermal binoculars. It’s before dawn, and we’ve pulled up to the crash barrier on a high and lonely road above the Xunceras river valley. Without the expensive piece of kit, nature guide José García Gonzalez tells me, we’d never be able to see these creatures in the dark. But there one is, visible through the high-tech lenses: a brown bear showing white against the black of the steep mountain slope opposite us. 

As the sun comes up, we no longer need electronic wizardry to make out the scene before us: a primeval forest of oak and chestnut, broken by grass and scree, rising towards peaks cloaked by low cloud. From somewhere up there, we hear a wolf howl. I gasp, and García holds a finger up to quiet me, then points in the direction of an answering howl. Then another, and another. 

Five call-and-answer howls ring out in quick succession along the invisible ridge lines. Shortly after that, a wolf emerges from cover, just perceptible to the naked eye as a shifting grey-on-grey shape against the rocks. Using another pricey bit of gear — a sniper-grade digital scope with x125 magnification — I watch this phantasmic figure sit and yawn, and sniff the wind, and shake the morning drizzle off its fur, much like a domestic dog would. 

When it vanishes behind the tree line again, García assures me that such a gorgeous sight isn’t common, even up here in the wilds of wolf country, in the Cantabrian Mountains, deep in Fuentes del Narcea, Degaña e Ibias Natural Park. García has been up this way in northwest Spain’s Asturias region almost every day since March, in his capacity as owner-operator of eco-tourism company Bosque Activo. It’s now mid-October, “and that’s the first wolf I’ve seen this year”, he says. García has clocked many more Cantabrian brown bears during that time, and during course of the morning we spot two (females or young males, judging by their size) mooching around the boulders in a way that’s begging to be called ‘adorable’. After they withdraw, we cross the valley to find their paw prints sunk into the mud, and the claw marks of bigger males slashed deep into tree trunks as warnings to potential rivals. 

Omnivorous as they are, the bears aren’t big meat-eaters, says García, and don’t tend to prey on other animals; they might push the occasional chamois off a mountain ledge and clamber down to strip the carcass at leisure. Wolves, though, will frequently attack livestock. 
Both apex predators are, however, endangered species, protected by both the EU Habitats Directive and the Spanish Ministry of Environment. But they each face very different threats. When we stop and chat to three flat-capped older farmers, they tell us a calf was killed the night before last, and half-joke about their nostalgia for culling wolves instead of coddling them. García knows these guys, and their grievances. He learned the lie of this land from his father, a hunter. That he’d parlay his tracking skills into tourism is a telling measure of generational change here on his home turf.

Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga.

Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

Asturias was once a medieval kingdom ruled by Alfonso the Chaste, who made the first pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in neighbouring Galicia, in the early ninth century. For all the hikers and pilgrims who follow his footsteps along the network of trails that make up the Camino de Santiago, and all the coal and cow milk taken from these mountains and pastures for nationwide consumption, the region has been somewhat marginal for the past millennium. Locals will tell you how cut off they felt before the Autopista del Cantábrico was built, in phases between the 1970s and the 2010s, spanning the Basque Country from east to west. Younger residents now tend to use the road as an escape route to better opportunities in bigger urban centres.

Entrepreneurs like García see the upside of isolation: virgin forests, pristine valleys, rare wildlife, a rural culture that still exists in relative harmony with the natural world up here. Bears are part of that equation. By the early 1990s, they were almost extinct, but the last official census, in 2018, counted 31 mothers with cubs among the regional population of Asturias, a comparatively healthy number that’s only narrowly bumped them off the critical list. Conservation efforts led by the Fundación Oso Pardo (Brown Bear Foundation) have seen the creation of an ecological corridor so well-stocked with their favourite seasonal foods — blueberries, acorns, chestnuts, etc — that they don’t always need to hibernate like they used to. 

Asturias is also cider country, and the bears will sometimes break into orchards for apples. Some might say this is a trivial crime, but the smell of ripe fruit can draw them so close to villages that the inhabitants have felt compelled to scare them off with fireworks. More often, the bears conduct smash-and-grab raids on apiaries, stealing fistfuls of protein-rich bee larvae coated in honey, then running away sharpish to evade the furious stingers. On a short walk though ancient woodland in the nearby Muniellos reserve, García and I come to a row of cortíns: arcane-looking, circular, stone enclosures that have served for centuries as bear-proof storage areas.

Inside are orderly rows of brightly painted hive boxes containing honey. Lately the cortíns have been bolstered with electric fences to give any would-be Winnie the Pooh a mild shock and send him on his way. If an especially determined honey thief does manage to foil the defences, the beekeepers are compensated immediately for their losses. The regional government doesn’t want bears to be deemed an enemy by agricultural business in the same way that wolves often are.

A cobbled street in the hamlet of Bulnes, set in a secluded valley which was only ...

A cobbled street in the hamlet of Bulnes, set in a secluded valley which was only accessible on foot or horseback until 2001, when a funicular linked Bulnes to a main road.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

Shaped by fire & ice

Cortíns are just one of the signature structures that make the distant past feel uncannily present in Asturias. As we travel through the interior of the region over several days, my driver, fixer and constant companion, Fernando Abarquero Zorrilla, proves especially attuned to these sites. An environmental scientist with a doctorate in the study of protected areas, he sometimes takes on a dreamy, wonderstruck aspect. He says his wish is to time travel across the pre-Roman Iberian Peninsula, from Cádiz to the Bay of Biscay, to see how the whole landscape looked 3,000 years ago. 

This part of it surely didn’t look so different, I’m thinking, as we enter the Somiedo Natural Park for a horse ride through the Valle del Lago area. And during the moments when my greedy steed (named Cuba Libre) stops, again and again, to eat fragrant autumn leaves, this doesn’t look like classic, sun-soaked Spain at all. At the end of the trail lies a glacial lake that’s been dammed for electric power and girded with a concrete containment wall. 

On a grassy bluff above the water looms an ancient stone hut with a sharp-angled thatched roof, haunting the scene with its own pre-industrial energy. These are called teitos, and they used to be something like croft houses for families. Today, they’re relics; further down the valley, a cluster of them have been repurposed as a local folk museum, while a few other survivors still serve as cattle shelters in this quiet corner of the country. 

More ubiquitous all over Asturias are hórreos: wooden grain stores pieced together without glue or nails, and raised on stilt-like pillars to keep their contents safely high and dry. The oldest of these have stood since the 16th century, reposing in as much mystic architectural genius as the region’s landmark pre-Romanesque churches. 

We drive out of our way to see Santa María del Naranco, a chapel and crypt on a hill above the regional capital, Oviedo. Its sinuous columns frame socket-like archways that have stared out over the city since the Dark Ages. But no less impressive is the vintage hórreo at nearby hilltop restaurant Casa Chema, which has room beneath it for diners to sit and eat. 

Under that granary canopy, our waiter demonstrates the indigenous art of the cider pour, or escanciar, which requires the green bottle to be held high over a short glass, letting the liquid fall in a golden cascade that allows for the proper aeration. This place also specialises in the unequivocal essential of rustic Asturian cuisine: the buttery, meat-and-bean stew fabada asturiana. Together, they make for one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Spain.

Moving east into the Picos de Europa mountain range, we hike around the Lakes of Covadonga, two glacial pools whose verdant banks are a magnet for visitors. As I’m averse to anything resembling a crowd — although there’s only a scattering of people at this autumnal time of year — Abarquero leads me off the main loop on a drover’s path through backwoods and across rolling fields dotted with tiny farmers’ lodges. This landscape, he says, was shaped over aeons. First by millions of years of slow-moving ice, then by many generations of herders, who lit fires on the mountainsides to clear grazing space for their sheep and goats. Those nimble, nibbling ruminants were part of a seasonal cycle that saw them moved to lower grasslands in the winter, then back to high ground in summer. 

Few shepherds work like this any more, and the villages they built as high-altitude homesteads can no longer be sustained from livestock alone. Bulnes, a small community that could once only be reached by climbing a mountain track, was all but abandoned in the 1990s. A long tunnel was then blasted through the rock for a new funicular railway, which passengers now ascend to spend money in a bucolic, touristic quasi-replica of what Bulnes used to be. From way up there we watch a distant flock of sheep flowing single file along a narrow vein of rock, like woolly traffic through the valley.

Clouds rise off the peaks surrounding the village of Sotres.

Clouds rise off the peaks surrounding the village of Sotres.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

Extreme dairy farming

Only a couple of herders still drive animals in and out of a nearby glacial basin known as Las Vegas. That name sounds ironic when you’re standing in it — the area is dotted with ancient, stone-built troughs and shelters, where sheep, goats and cows chew the grasses under peaks eroded into weird shapes suggesting alien temples. They’re guarded by a heavyset sheepdog wearing an anti-wolf collar called a carlanca — thick leather armoured with wickedly pointy nails that make this gigantic mastiff look like a bouncer at a fetish club. His name is Tyson, we learn later from his owners, local farmers Abel and Kaelia Fernández. 

“It’s just me and one other guy down there now,” says Abel, who may soon be the last in a long family line of herders. “Nobody else uses that site anymore. And anyone who still keeps sheep and goats around here, it’s because they love it, not to make a profit.” 

To love it is to risk your life for it. Abel tells me he’s lost several friends to the fatal slips and missteps that are an occupational hazard and a common cause of death up here. If an animal gets lost or stranded against a sheer rock face, the herder is duty bound to go after it, and the direst outcome is known by a reflexive verb that echoes through the Picos: despeñarse (‘free-falling’). 

Fernández shows me an iPhone photo of a cow killed that way a few days ago: a grisly image that also demonstrates how bovines are not nearly as sure-hoofed on this high ground as sheep or goats. At the same time, the cows are taking over. Less vulnerable to wolves, they’re also more valuable on the open market. But Abel and his wife, Kaelia, maximise the value of their livestock, serving dishes of grilled free-range goat and lamb at the local bar and grill they run to supplement their income. 

“We cut out the middleman to serve this food directly to our customers,” says Kaelia. 

“The meat on their plate comes from the sheep and goats they see around them, and by eating it, they’re actually contributing to those flocks continuing to graze here.” 

Gastronomy feeds into eco-tourism in this way, and may yet be the salvation of communities like the one in her husband’s birthplace: Sotres. The highest village in Asturias at around 3,300ft above sea level, it’s been steadily depopulated by the decline of farming and mining (the nearest spharelite mines, at Ávila, shut in 1986), but still has an abundance to offer the hiker, the nature-lover, and particularly the cheese-eater. 

Cabrales, the region that encompasses Sotres and several neighbouring hamlets, gives its name to the signature blue cheese matured in limestone caves. “The conditions are ideal,” says Jessica López Fernández (no relation to Abel), as she leads us through a metal door cut into the mountain and down through the cool, damp, lamplit darkness of a cave called Boca de Tejedo. “Ten degrees celsius and 90% humidity all year.”

Wheels of cheese at varying stages of ripeness fill wooden shelves in the depths, all made by Jessica, her husband and their small team at Quesería Maín, using cow’s and goat’s milk. Other brands of cabrales are made with sheep’s milk, but Jessica doesn’t like sheep. “I think they’re foolish,” she says. She follows recipes inherited from her grandparents, but this cave was first used for fermentation purposes so long ago that nobody even knows when.

“I’m proud to be part of that tradition,” Jessica says. “How could I not be?” As we surface again, I’m wondering if we could outlast the collapse of civilisation by locking ourselves down here to survive on drips of snowmelt and chunks of this tangy blue cheese. Fernando, true to form, is thinking of the past — those prehistoric dairy farmers, those ancestral cheesemakers. “Imagine their lives,” he says. “Their daily routines. Their love stories.” 

At close to midnight on this autumnal Saturday, I take a short walk out of Sotres, following the empty main street as it rises,  rises, bends and tapers into an unpaved trail that leads out past the last house to a limestone precipice. This makes a fine craggy balcony for viewing the Moñetas valley, under a hunter’s moon so full and bright that it blanks out the stars and backlights the surrounding ridge lines. The Duje River looks like a tiny silver filament far below, flanked by steep slopes in deep shadows. The dinging of goat bells sounds out of the dark — music to the ears of wolves, no doubt. The way of life that grew out of this landscape may now be in its terminal phase, but for a moment I get the sensation of floating high over that whole history, with a clear view back to the beginning.  


Getting there & around

Ryanair, Vueling and Wizz Air fly from the UK to the Asturian capital, Oviedo. Average journey time 2h.
Ferries run from Portsmouth/Plymouth to Santander, two hours by road to Oviedo. Average sailing time 24h.
The Spanish Renfe train network serves Oviedo and other Asturian towns, but the interior is mountainous, and most visitors rent a car to cross the region on the Autopista del Cantábrico.

When to go

August is high season for hiking in Asturias. Spring and autumn are cooler and quieter. Cantabrian brown bears are most active in May. Winter can be attractively but prohibitively snowy.

Where to stay

Parador de Corias, Cangas del Narcea. From £75.
Casa Miño, Somiedo. From £50. 
Parador de Cangas de Onis. From £85. 
Casa Cipriano, Sotres. From £60. 

How to do it

ProNatura offers guided wildlife tours in Asturias from £35 per day, including transport and activities but not meals and accommodation. 
S-Cape Travel arranges self-guided eight or 12-day trekking tours in the Picos de Europa and Cabrales region from £450 per person, accommodation and dinners included, airport transfers on request. 

Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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