Bierge, Spain, Jun 24 (efe-epa).- The road that leads us to Bierge, a tiny village perched on a hill near the Sierra y Cañones de Guara Natural Park in Spain, winds along the verdant landscape like one of the many rivers that flow from the foothills of the Pyrenees. The park is famed among fans of adventure sports as an unmissable destination for canyoning, hiking and climbing.
We arrived right at the start of the season and were going to be among the first of the 80-90,000 adventure tourists that descend upon the park every summer for canyoning, a sport in which participants go down narrow river gorges on foot, swimming through pools and leaping or rappelling down waterfalls.
Our guides Laura and Alfredo have kitted us out at their cabin office in the outskirts of Bierge, which is packed with over 100 wetsuits, stacks of helmets and tangles of ropes and harnesses.
Recent heavy rains mean only two of the canyons are currently open to gorge-walkers and the parking near the one we’re planning to descend is clogged with cars full of visitors. Laura decides it’s better to wait before we start and takes us to a nearby viewpoint. The landscape that unfolds in front of us is spectacular. White and orange crumbling cliffs drop to brilliant turquoise rivers whose roars echo between the rocks. Vultures circle overhead, occasionally swooping into nests concealed in caves. The distant Pyrenees are still snow-capped but the peak we’re on is hot and we’re starting to dread the idea of squeezing ourselves into wetsuits.
But in no time, we’re walking over asphalt in all our heavy gear and only the prospect of stepping into icy rivers is pushing us forward through the heat. The water is clear and freezing, though the wetsuits protect us from the worst of it. There are no fish, just blazing orange leaves swept away at an intimidating speed and the occasional half-drowned ant trying to make its way up dripping wet rocks.
It’s easy to get overconfident at the start, walking through ankle-deep water and dodging the occasional bush or sudden pool, but the night before, Laura regaled us with tales of people dying gruesome deaths while in the canyons. Aside from the obvious possibility of falling and breaking your neck, or getting stuck in some hole and never being seen again, the story that haunted us most was the one about the waves. The waves come following strong rainfall, which Spain had just been submerged under for weeks. Water builds up behind natural dams made up of fallen trees and debris. Eventually, the dams burst, sending flood-loads of water roaring down the canyon and dragging away anyone who didn’t manage to climb their way out.
This is precisely what we try not to think about as the dirt tracks to our side disappear and a crack in the floor ahead widens, ready to swallow us whole. The next thing we know, we’ve slipped over a little waterfall and the walls reach just above our heads and should one of these deadly waves approach, we’d be completely helpless before it. Nothing to do but throw ourselves onwards.
Which of course is easier said than done. At times, we can only move forward by squeezing ourselves between rocks through the water, trying to press forward through a space much narrower than our shoulders. Other times, we climb spiderman-like over the rocks, holding ourselves up by pressing our feet onto opposing walls.
The slow descent through the gorge is regularly interrupted by sudden falls that we need to rappel down. Rappelling, also known as abseiling, involves walking backward down a cliff, controlling your speed of your movements by changing the levels of friction on a rope. The most important thing we’re told is to keep our feet flat and straight in front of our bodies, but we’re descending waterfalls piled high with boulders and there are regular holes exactly in the spots we need to step on.
Laura and Alfredo seem unsure of how many rappels there are in this canyon. This is their first time out this season and their memory of the routes is hazy. Alfredo has only just arrived back in Bierge from near Valencia, where he spends the off-season working as a masseur and climbing, and an entire summer of non-stop work looms ahead of him. He and Laura depend on tourists for their livelihood, but the area is primarily only visited from June to September, meaning they and all other guides will spend several months working every single day from dawn to dusk. Laura tells us that it’s not uncommon to barely speak to your neighbors throughout the season, as all 40 of Bierge and the surrounding towns’ inhabitants are too busy to socialize.
As the heat simmers down and starts fading into autumn, the work grinds to a halt and locals spend endless hours on terraces together, cradling cold beers and finally relaxing. Eventually, winter descends upon the region and the mountains on the horizon are less lush and full of promise and more ominous and cold. The locals get sick of each other and the bar. This is when they turn inwards, facing the tasks at home they’ve been avoiding, like Laura’s daunting piles of paperwork. Around late January, the world picks up speed again as the tourism fairs in Spain and abroad start kicking off and they’re back to the rush of preparations for the coming summer. In no time at all, they are back to working full time, guiding groups like ours through the labyrinthine mountain paths.
The rhythm of work is punishing, but their time away from the mountains means they can look at the natural wonders with fresh eyes. During one of our many breaks, Alfredo lays a hand on a damp rocky wall and turns to me excitedly. “It’s warm!” he exclaims. I brush my fingers against the trickle. He’s right. The side of the mountain has been under the Spanish sun all day and the heat of the ground has warmed the once icy waters that race down it.
Towards the end of our route, after wriggling through tight cracks and precariously lowering ourselves deeper and deeper, we reach a site that immediately makes me envious of our guides. A much deeper canyon unfolds ahead of us. Walls curve and ripple dozens of meters above our heads in veritable cathedrals of natural rock. A wan light filters through from high above, making the pinpricks of water dancing in the air glimmer. There is a constant dripping from the cliffs above and it’s hard to tell if it’s raining. The thought of a summer in which I never part from the mountains, except maybe to gorge myself on the local cheese, lamb and olive oil, is tempting.
The Sierra de Guara’s produce is so precious to residents that stores will not sell cheese unless customers can guarantee that it will be kept in perfect conditions from the moment it leaves the fridge. The best way you can appreciate the mouth-melting delicacy is on a terrace in some medieval town on a spring afternoon, a fresh breeze from the mountains stirring the leaves of the nearby trees, a glass of red wine within arm’s reach.
By Julia Cañas Martínez