Spain's landscapes are almost continental in their scale and variety, and they provide the backdrop to some of Europe's best hiking, most famously the Camino de Santiago. Skiing is another big draw, as are cycling, water sports, river-rafting and wildlife-watching, among other stirring outdoor pursuits.

Hiking

Spain is famous for superb walking trails that criss-cross mountains and hills in every corner of the country, from the alpine meadows of the Pyrenees to the sultry Cabo de Gata coastal trail in Andalucía. Other possibilities include conquering Spain's highest mainland peak, Mulhacén (3479m), in the Sierra Nevada above Granada; following in the footsteps of Carlos V in Extremadura; or walking along Galicia's Costa da Morte (Death Coast). And then there's one of the world's most famous pilgrimage trails – the route to the cathedral in Galicia's Santiago de Compostela.

When to Go

Spain encompasses a number of different climatic zones, ensuring that it's possible to hike year-round. In Andalucía conditions are at their best from March to June and in September and October; July and August are unbearable in most parts of the region (though they're the ideal months for the high Sierra Nevada). From December to February most trails remain open, except in the high mountains.

If you prefer to walk in summer, do what Spaniards have traditionally done and escape to the north. The Basque Country, Asturias, Cantabria and Galicia are best from June to September. Pyrenean passes are usually accessible from around mid-June until some time in October. August is the busiest month on the trails, so if you plan to head to popular national parks and stay in refugios (wilderness hostels), book ahead.

Hiking in the north can be splendid in September and into early October – the summer crowds have gone, there's (usually) still enough sunshine to go with the lovely autumn colours and there's plenty of room in the refugios.

Hiking Destinations

Pyrenees

For good reason, the Pyrenees, separating Spain from France, are Spain's premier walking destination. The range is utterly beautiful: prim and chocolate-box pretty on the lower slopes, wild and bleak at higher elevations, and relatively unspoilt compared to some European mountain ranges. The Pyrenees contain two outstanding national parks: Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici and Ordesa y Monte Perdido. The former is home to the magnificent Carros de Foc, a loop route that links nine major refugios.

The spectacular GR11 (Senda Pirenáica) traverses the range, connecting the Atlantic (at Hondarribia in the Basque Country) with the Mediterranean (at Cap de Creus in Catalonia). Walking the whole 35- to 50-day route is an unforgettable challenge, but there are also magnificent day hikes in the national parks and elsewhere.

Picos de Europa

Breathtaking and accessible limestone ranges with distinctive craggy peaks (usually hot rock-climbing destinations too) are the hallmark of Spain's first national park, the Picos de Europa, which straddles the Cantabria, Asturias and León provinces and is firmly established as one of Spain's very best hiking areas.

A hiking itinerary known as El Anillo de Picos links together the Picos’ most important refugios in several neat loops. Visit www.elanillodepicos.com for further details.

Elsewhere in Spain

To walk in mountain villages, the classic spot is Las Alpujarras, near the Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada in Andalucía. The Sierras de Cazorla and Sierra de Grazalema are also outstanding. The long-distance GR7 trail traverses the first two of these regions – you can walk all or just part of the route, depending on your time and inclination.

Great coastal walking abounds, even in heavily visited areas such as the south coast.

In Galicia, the Camiño dos Faros is an adventurous 200km trail along the magnificent Costa da Morte from Malpica de Bergantiños to Cabo Fisterra (practicable in one direction only at the time of writing). Other excellent Galician routes include the Ruta Cañón do Río Mao, a beautiful day hike in the inland Ribeira Sacra region, and the Camino Natural de la Ruta del Cantábrico, a walking and biking trail running 154km along the northern coast from Ribadeo to the Ría de Ortigueira. The Camino Natural passes the famous Praia As Catedrais, among other places.

In Catalonia, the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa is another popular walking area with unique volcanic landscapes.

Another fine coastal path is the Camí de Ronda, the coastal path that runs all the way up the Costa Brava and is really rather special in places.

Information

For detailed info on walking routes in all of Spain's national parks, check out www.mapama.gob.es/es/red-parques-nacionales/nuestros-parques.

Region-specific walking (and climbing) guides are published by Cicerone Press (www.cicerone.co.uk).

Numerous bookshops around Spain sell guides and maps. The best Spanish guides are Prames and Adrados, while Editorial Alpina publishes excellent map series.

Camino de Santiago

The door is open to all, to sick and healthy, not only to Catholics but also to pagans, Jews, heretics and vagabonds.

So go the words of a 13th-century poem describing the Camino. Eight hundred years later these words still ring true. The Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) originated as a medieval pilgrimage and, for more than 1000 years, people have taken up the Camino's age-old symbols – the scallop shell and staff – and set off on the adventure of a lifetime to the tomb of St James the Apostle, in Santiago de Compostela, in the Iberian Peninsula's far northwest.

Today the most popular of the several caminos (paths) to Santiago de Compostela is the Camino Francés, which spans 775km of Spain's north from Roncesvalles, on the border with France, to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, and attracts walkers of all backgrounds and ages, from countries across the world. And no wonder: its list of assets (cultural, historical and natural) is impressive, as are its accolades. Not only is it the Council of Europe's first Cultural Itinerary and a Unesco World Heritage site but, for believers, it's a pilgrimage equal to visiting Jerusalem, and by finishing it you're guaranteed a healthy chunk of time off purgatory.

To feel, absorb, smell and taste northern Spain's diversity, for a great physical challenge, for a unique perspective on rural and urban communities, and to meet intriguing travel companions, this is an incomparable walk. 'The door is open to all' …so step on in.

History

In the 9th century a remarkable event occurred in the poor Iberian hinterlands: following a shining star, Pelayo, a religious hermit, unearthed the tomb of the apostle James the Greater (or, in Spanish, Santiago). The news was confirmed by the local bishop, the Asturian king and later the pope. Its impact is hard to truly imagine today, but it was instant and indelible: first a trickle, then a flood of Christian Europeans began to journey towards the setting sun in search of salvation.

Compostela became the most important destination for Christians after Rome and Jerusalem. Its popularity increased with an 11th-century papal decree granting it Holy Year status: pilgrims could receive a plenary indulgence – a full remission of your lifetime's sins – during a Holy Year. These occur when Santiago's feast day (25 July) falls on a Sunday: the next one is in 2021.

The 11th and 12th centuries marked the heyday of the pilgrimage. The Reformation was devastating for Catholic pilgrimages, and by the 19th century, the Camino had nearly died out. In its startling late 20th-century reanimation, which continues today, it's most popular as a personal and spiritual journey of discovery, rather than one necessarily motivated by religion.

Routes

Although in Spain there are many caminos (paths) to Santiago, by far the most popular is, and was, the Camino Francés, which originates in France, crosses the Pyrenees at Roncesvalles and then heads west for 775km across the regions of Navarra, La Rioja, Castilla y León and Galicia. Waymarked with cheerful yellow arrows and scallop shells, the 'trail' is a mishmash of rural lanes, paved secondary roads and footpaths all strung together. Starting at Roncesvalles, the Camino takes roughly two weeks to cycle or five weeks to walk.

But this is by no means the only route, and the summer crowds along the Camino Francés have prompted some to look at alternative routes: in 2005, nearly 85% of walkers took the Camino Francés; by 2016 this had fallen to 63% and four alternative routes were added to the Camino de Santiago's Unesco World Heritage listing in 2015. Increasingly popular routes include the following:

Camino de la Costa/Camino del Norte From Irún along the coasts of the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias, then across Galicia to Santiago.

Camino Vasco-Riojano An alternative start to the Camino Francés, beginning in Irún.

Camino Primitivo Links the Camino del Norte (from Oviedo) with Melide along the main Camino Francés.

Camino Lebaniego From either Santander or San Vicente Barquera to the important Monasterio de Santo Toribio de Liébana in Cantabria; not actually a Camino de Santiago but part of the Unesco listing nonetheless.

Camino Portugués North to Santiago through Portugal.

Vía de la Plata From Andalucía north through Extremadura, Castilla y León and on to Galicia.

A very popular alternative is to walk only the last 100km from Sarria in Galicia. This is the minimum distance allowed in order to earn a Compostella certificate of completion given out by the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.

Another possibility is to continue on beyond Santiago to the dramatic 'Lands End' outpost of Fisterra (Finisterre), an extra 88km, or Muxia (a further 30km still), which is considered sacred by pilgrims as it was here that the Virgin appeared (in a stone boat) before Santiago.

Information

For more information about the Credencial (like a passport for the Camino, in which pilgrims accumulate stamps at various points along the route) and the Compostella certificate, visit the website of the cathedral's Centro Internacional de Acogida al Peregrino.

If you're in Santiago, the Museo das Peregrinacións e de Santiago, almost alongside the cathedral, provides fascinating insights into the phenomenon of Santiago (man and city) down the centuries.

There are a number of excellent Camino websites:

Camino de Santiago (http://santiago-compostela.net) Extensive info on Camino routes as well as maps.

Mundicamino (www.mundicamino.com) Excellent, thorough descriptions and maps.

Camino de Santiago (www.caminodesantiago.me) Contains a huge selection of news groups, where you can get all of your questions answered.

When to Walk

People walk and cycle the Camino year-round. In May and June the wildflowers are glorious and the endless fields of cereals turn from green to toasty gold, making the landscapes a huge draw. July and August bring crowds of summer holidaymakers and scorching heat, especially through Castilla y León. September is less crowded and the weather is generally pleasant. From November to May there are fewer people on the road as the season can bring snow, rain and bitter winds. Santiago's feast day, 25 July, is a popular time to converge on the city.

Feature: Pilgrim Hostels

There are over 300 refugios (simple hostels) along the Camino Francés, and numerous refugios on the other caminos. These are owned by parishes, 'friends of the Camino' associations, private individuals, town halls and regional governments. While in the early days these places were run on donations and provided little more than hot water and a bed, today's pilgrims are charged €5 to €10 and expect showers, kitchens and washing machines. Some things haven't changed though – the refugios still operate on a first-come, first-served basis and are intended for those doing the Camino solely under their own steam.

National & Natural Parks

Much of Spain's most spectacular and ecologically important terrain – about 40,000 sq km or 8% of the entire country, if you include national hunting reserves – is under some kind of official protection. Nearly all of these areas are at least partly open to walkers, naturalists and other outdoor enthusiasts, but degrees of conservation and access vary.

The parques nacionales (national parks) are areas of exceptional importance and are the country's most strictly controlled protected areas. Spain has 15 national parks: 10 on the mainland, four in the Canary Islands and one in the Balearic Islands. The hundreds of other protected areas fall into at least 16 classifications and range in size from 100-sq-metre rocks off the Balearics to Andalucía's 2099-sq-km Parque Natural de Cazorla. For more information, visit www.mapama.gob.es/es/red-parques-nacionales/nuestros-parques.

Feature: Spain's Best Parks

Features

beautiful Pyrenees lake region

Activities

walking, wildlife-watching

Best Time to Visit

Jun-Sep

Features

bird and mammal haven in Guadalquivir delta

Activities

4WD tours, walking, wildlife-watching, horse riding

Best Time to Visit

year-round

Features

spectacular section of the Pyrenees, with chamois, raptors and varied vegetation

Activities

walking, rock climbing

Best Time to Visit

mid-Jun–Jul & mid-Aug–Sep

Features

beautiful mountain refuge for chamois, and a few wolves and bears

Activities

walking, rock climbing

Best Time to Visit

May-Jul & Sep

Features

mainland Spain's highest mountain range, with ibexes, 60 types of endemic plants and the beautiful Alpujarras valleys on its southern slopes

Activities

walking, rock climbing, mountain biking, skiing, horse riding

Best Time to Visit

year-round, depending on activity

Features

abundant wildlife, 2300 plant species and beautiful mountain scenery

Activities

walking, driving, mountain biking, wildlife-watching, 4WD tours

Best Time to Visit

Apr-Oct

Features

rolling, lightly wooded hill country, stone villages

Activities

hiking

Best Time to Visit

year-round

Features

spectacular mountain range on Mallorca

Activities

walking, birdwatching

Best Time to Visit

late Feb-early Oct

Features

spectacular birds of prey

Activities

birdwatching

Best Time to Visit

Mar-Oct

Features

lovely, green, mountainous area with rich bird life

Activities

walking, caving, canyoning, birdwatching, paragliding, rock climbing

Best Time to Visit

Sep-Jun

Features

steep pre-Pyrenees range

Activities

rock climbing, walking

Best Time to Visit

Jun-Sep

Features

beautiful wooded region with 30 volcanic cones

Activities

walking

Best Time to Visit

Apr-Oct

Features

beautiful mountain region, home to Spain's biggest ibex population

Activities

walking, rock climbing, mountain biking

Best Time to Visit

Mar-May & Sep-Nov

Features

dramatic section of Cordillera Cantábrica

Activities

walking

Best Time to Visit

Jul-Sep

Features

sandy beaches, volcanic cliffs, flamingo colony and semidesert vegetation

Activities

swimming, birdwatching, walking, horse riding, diving, snorkelling

Best Time to Visit

year-round

Features

superb Pyrenean valley and mountain scenery

Activities

walking, climbing, canyoning

Best Time to Visit

Jun-Sep

Features

spectacular mountain and valley scenery including the Pyrenees' two highest peaks

Activities

walking, climbing

Best Time to Visit

Jun-Sep

Features

superb Pyrenean valley and mountain scenery

Activities

walking, climbing, canyoning

Best Time to Visit

Jun-Sep

Sidebar: Best Hiking

  • Aragón

Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido (June to August): the best of the Pyrenees and Spain's finest hiking.

  • Catalonia

Parc Nacional d'Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici (July to September): glacial lakes and mountains make a stunning backdrop to this wilderness landscape.

  • Cantabria & Asturias

Picos de Europa (June to August): a close second to the Pyrenees for Spain's best hiking.

  • Andalucía

Sierra Nevada (July to mid-September): remote peaks and snow-white villages in the Alpujarras valleys.

  • Pilgrimage

Camino de Santiago (Camino Francés; May to September): one of the world's favourite pilgrimages, across northern Spain from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela.

  • Coast to Coast

GR11 (Senda Pirenáica; July and August): traverses the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Med.

  • Coastal Walks

Camiño dos Faros (May to September): an adventurous 200km trail along Galicia's spectacular Costa da Morte (Death Coast) from Malpica de Bergantiños to Cabo Fisterra.

Canyoning

For exhilarating descents into steep-walled canyons by any means possible (but in the care of professional guides), look no further than Alquézar in Aragón, one of Europe’s prime locations for this popular sport. Alquézar’s numerous activities operators can also arrange rock climbing and rafting in the area of the Sierra de Guara.

Canyoning is also possible in Cangas de Onís in the Picos de Europa, in the Sierra de Grazalema in Cadiz province, and the Pallars Sobirá area in the Catalan Pyrenees.

Rock Climbing

Spain offers plenty of opportunities to see the mountains and gorges from a more vertical perspective. Vie ferrate are growing fast in number and in popularity around Spain. A good source for info is the excellent (but Spanish-only) site http://deandar.com.

For an overview of Spanish rock climbing, check out the Spain information on the websites of Rockfax (www.rockfax.com) and Climb Europe (www.climb-europe.com). Both include details on the best climbs in the country. Rockfax also publishes various climbing guidebooks covering Spain.

Cycling

Spain has a splendid variety of cycling possibilities, from gentle family rides to challenging two-week expeditions. If you avoid the cities (where cycling can be nerve-racking), Spain is also a cycle-friendly country, with drivers accustomed to sharing the roads with platoons of Lycra-clad cyclists. The excellent network of secondary roads, usually with comfortable shoulders to ride on, is ideal for road touring.

Cycling Destinations

Every Spanish region has both off-road (called BTT in Spanish, from bici todo terreno, meaning 'mountain bike') and touring trails and routes. Mountain bikers can head to just about any sierra (mountain range) and use the extensive pistas forestales (forestry tracks).

In Aragón, the valleys, hills and canyons of the Sobrarbe district around Aínsa in the Pyrenees foothills are a mountain-biking paradise, with 500km of off-road tracks, many of them waymarked for riders. Here, the Zona Zero project provides masses of information and brings together service-providers such as bike-friendly accommodation, repair shops, guides and bike-transport services. Most riders bring their own bikes but there are a couple of rental outlets in Aínsa.

Galicia has set up several Centros BTT in rural areas with bikes and helmets for rent, and signposted routes in the local areas, including one in the very scenic Ribeira Sacra area. For more information, check http://www.turismo.gal/que-facer/centros-btt.

One highly recommended and challenging off-road excursion takes you across the snowy Sierra Nevada. Classic long-haul touring routes include the Camino de Santiago, the Ruta de la Plata and the 600km Camino del Cid, which follows in the footsteps of Spain's epic hero, El Cid, from Burgos to Valencia. Guides in Spanish exist for all of these, available at bookshops and online.

For something a little less challenging, head to the Senda del Oso, a popular, easy cycling route in Asturias. Mallorca is another popular cycling destination, with cyclists ranging from ordinary travellers to Bradley Wiggins, 2012 Tour de France winner, who trains on the mountain roads of the Serra de Tramuntana.

Information

Bike Spain in Madrid is one of the better cycling tour operators.

Most of the cycling guidebooks in publication are in Spanish:

  • España en bici, by Paco Tortosa and María del Mar Fornés. A good overview guide, but quite hard to find.
  • Cycle Touring in Spain: Eight Detailed Routes, by Harry Dowdell. A helpful planning tool; also practical once you're in Spain.
  • The Trailrider Guide – Spain: Single Track Mountain Biking in Spain, by Nathan James and Linsey Stroud. Another good resource.

Feature: Vias Verdes

Spain has a growing network of Vías Verdes (literally 'Green Ways', but equivalent to the 'rail trail' system in other countries), an outstanding system of decommissioned railway tracks that have been converted into bicycle (or hiking) trails. They're usually terrific cycling routes with their gentle gradients, many pass through scenic countryside and there are many bikes for rent at various points along the routes. There are more than 2400km of these trails spread across (at last count) 111 routes all across the country, and they range from 1.2km to 128km in length. Check out www.viasverdes.com for more information.

Hang-Gliding & Paragliding

If you want to take to the skies either ala delta (hang-gliding) or parapente (paragliding), there are a number of specialised clubs and adventure-tour companies here. The Real Federación Aeronáutica España (www.rfae.es) gives information on recognised schools and lists clubs and events.

A few good places for paragliding are Castejón de Sos in Aragón and the Parque Natural Sierras de Cazorla in Jaén province.

Skiing & Snowboarding

For winter powder, Spain's skiers (including the royal family) head to the Pyrenees of Aragón and Catalonia. Outside the peak periods (the beginning of December, 20 December to 6 January, Carnaval and Semana Santa), Spain's top resorts are relatively quiet, cheap and warm in comparison with their counterparts in the Alps.

The season runs from December to April, though January and February are generally the best, most reliable times for snow. However, in recent years snowfall has been a bit unpredictable.

Skiing & Snowboarding Destinations

In Aragón, two popular resorts are Formigal and Candanchú. Just above the town of Jaca, Candanchú has some 60km of runs with various pistes (as well as 35km of cross-country track) and 25 lifts. In Catalonia, Spain's first resort, La Molina, is still going strong and is ideal for families and beginners. Considered by many to have the Pyrenees' best snow, the 72-piste resort of Baqueira-Beret-Bonaigua boasts 30 modern lifts and 104km of downhill runs for all levels. Nearby, Masella is another fine ski resort and linked to La Molina by a lift. Espot and Nuria are two smaller Catalan ski resorts.

Spain's other major resort is Europe's southernmost: the Sierra Nevada, outside Granada. The 106km of runs here are at their prime in March, and the slopes are particularly suited for families and novice-to-intermediate skiers.

Information

If you don't want to bring your own gear, Spanish ski resorts have equipment hire, as well as ski schools. Lift tickets cost between €36 and €48 per day for adults, and €24 and €35 for children; equipment hire costs from around €20 per day. If you're planning ahead, Spanish travel agencies frequently advertise affordable single- or multi-day packages with lodging included.

Scuba-Diving & Snorkelling

There's more to Spain than what you see on the surface – literally! Delve under the ocean waves anywhere along the country's almost 5000km of shoreline and a whole new Spain opens up, crowded with marine life and including features such as wrecks, sheer walls and long cavern swim-throughs. The numerous Mediterranean dive centres cater to an English-speaking market and offer single- and multiday trips, equipment rental and certification courses. Their Atlantic counterparts (in San Sebastián, Santander and A Coruña) deal mostly in Spanish, but if that's not an obstacle for you, the colder waters of the Atlantic will offer a completely different, and very rewarding, underwater experience.

A good starting point is the reefs along the Costa Brava, especially around the Illes Medes marine reserve, off L'Estartit (near Girona).

Southern Spain's best diving and snorkelling is around Cabo de Gata in Andalucía, followed by Cabo de Palos in Murcia. On the Costa del Sol, operators launch to such places as La Herradura Wall, the Motril wreck and the Cavern of Cerro Gordo.

Paco Nadal's book Buceo en España provides information province by province, with descriptions of ocean floors, dive centres and equipment rental.

Surfing

The opportunity to get into the waves is a major attraction for beginners and experts alike along many of Spain's coastal regions. The north coast of Spain has, debatably, the best surf in mainland Europe.

The main surfing region is the north coast, where numerous high-class spots can be found, but Atlantic Andalucía gets decent winter swells. Despite the flow of vans loaded down with surfboards along the north coast in the summer, it's actually autumn through to spring that's the prime time for a decent swell, with October probably the best month overall. The variety of waves along the north coast is impressive: there are numerous open, swell-exposed beach breaks for the summer months, and some seriously heavy reefs and points that only really come to life during the colder, stormier months.

Surfing Destinations

The most famous wave in Spain is the legendary river-mouth left at Mundaka. On a good day, there's no doubt that it's one of the best waves in Europe. However, it's not very consistent, and when it's on, it's always very busy and very ugly.

Heading east, good waves can be found throughout the Basque Country. Going west, into neighbouring regions of Cantabria and Asturias, you'll also find a superb range of well-charted surf beaches, such as Rodiles in Asturias and Liencres in Cantabria; Playa de Somo in Santander is another good spot.

Galicia's beaches are an increasingly popular surfing destination. Even so, if you're looking for solitude, some isolated beaches along Galicia's beautiful Costa da Morte remain empty even in summer. In the Rías Altas, Praia de Pantín, close to Cedeira, has a popular right-hander and in late August or early September it hosts the Pantín Classic, a qualifying event in the World Surf League. There are also some summer surf schools in the area.

In southwest Andalucía there are a number of powerful, winter beach breaks, particularly between Tarifa and Cádiz; El Palmar, just northwest of Cabo de Trafalgar, is the pick of the bunch, while weekdays off Conil de la Frontera, a little further up the coast, can be sublimely lonely.

Information

In summer a shortie wetsuit (or, in the Basque Country, just board shorts) is sufficient along all coasts except Galicia, which picks up the icy Canaries current – you'll need a light full suit here.

Surf shops abound in the popular surfing areas and usually offer board and wetsuit hire. If you're a beginner joining a surf school, ask the instructor to explain the rules and to keep you away from the more experienced surfers.

There are a number of excellent surf guidebooks to Spain.

  • Lonely Planet author Stuart Butler's English-language Big Blue Surf Guide: Spain.
  • José Pellón's Spanish-language Guía del Surf en España.
  • Low Pressure's superb Stormrider Guide: Europe – the Continent.

Windsurfing & Kitesurfing

The best sailing conditions are to be found around Tarifa, which has such strong and consistent winds that it's said that the town's once-high suicide rate was due to the wind turning people mad. Whether or not this is true, one thing is without doubt: Tarifa's 10km of white, sandy beaches and perfect year-round conditions have made this small town the windsurfing capital of Europe. The town is crammed with windsurfing and kitesurfing shops, windsurfing schools and a huge contingent of passing surfers. However, the same wind that attracts so many devotees also makes it a less than ideal place to learn the art. Nearby, Los Caños de Meca is another fine kitesurfing spot.

If you can't make it as far south as Tarifa, then the lesser-known Empuriabrava in Catalonia also has great conditions, especially from March to July. Speaking of Catalonia, there’s also a bit of kitesurfing in the Delta de L’Ebre area and in Castelldefels. Further south, the family resort of Oliva near Valencia and Murcia's Mar Menor are worth considering. If you're looking for waves, try Spain's northwest coast, where Galicia can have fantastic conditions it.

Information

An excellent guidebook to windsurfing and kitesurfing spots across Spain and the rest of Europe is Stoked Publications' The Kite and Windsurfing Guide: Europe.

The Spanish-language website www.windsurfesp.com gives very thorough descriptions of spots, conditions and schools all over Spain.

Kayaking, Canoeing & Rafting

Opportunities abound in Spain for taking off downstream in search of white-water fun along its 1800 rivers and streams. As most rivers are dammed for electric power at some point along their flow, there are many reservoirs with excellent low-level kayaking and canoeing, where you can also hire equipment.

In general, May and June are best for kayaking, rafting, canoeing and hydrospeeding (water tobogganing). Top white-water rivers include Catalonia's turbulent Noguera Pallaresa, Aragón's Gállego and Ésera, Cantabria's Carasa and Galicia's Miño.

Zamora Natural, which is known for its wolf-watching excursions, also does kayaking trips to the spectacular Parque Natural Arribes del Duero (north of Ciudad Rodrigo) and rafting at the Parque Natural Lago de Sanabria (northwest of Puebla de Sanabria). But the real highlight of its calendar is its eight- or nine-day kayaking descent of the Río Duero (or Rio Douro on the Portuguese side of the border), from close to Zamora down to Porto in Portugal, on the shores of the Atlantic. You camp by the river bank along the way and departures take place between June and October, depending on demand. Trips cost a bargain €680 per person. It has a separate website dedicated to the expedition: www.douroexpediciones.com.

In Catalonia, the Pallars Sobirà area in the Catalan Pyrenees is a big adventure sports spot, with rafting, kayaking, canyoning, horse-riding, rock-climbing and canoeing.

For fun and competition, the crazy 22km, en masse Descenso Internacional del Sella canoe race is a blast, running from Arriondas in Asturias to coastal Ribadesella. It's held on the first weekend in August.

In the Picos de Europa, kayaking and canoeing is very popular, on both the Sella (Asturias) and Deva (Cantabria) rivers.

Patrick Santal's White Water Pyrenees thoroughly covers 85 rivers in France and Spain for kayakers, canoeists and rafters.

Spain's Top Beaches

Spaniards argue for hours about which is their district's finest beach, so picking favourites from 5000km of coastline is a controversial, albeit mighty pleasurable, task. The Mediterranean's gentle strands and pretty coves contrast with the rougher beauty of the Atlantic coasts.

  • Illas Cíes A protected archipelago off Galicia, with beaches so stunning you'll gasp in disbelief.
  • Aiguablava/Fornells Neighbouring Costa Brava coves near Begur, so divine that we couldn't choose between them.
  • Cabo de Gata A series of stunning beaches, all distinct, on this memorable peninsula in Almería province.
  • Playa Torimbia Walking down to this sheltered fingernail-shaped cove laid out below you is an Asturian classic near Llanes. Clothing optional.
  • Playa del Silencio Backed by a natural rock amphitheatre, this Asturian jewel between Cudillero and Luarca is hard to beat.
  • Playa de la Concha A scallop-shaped stretch of sand in the heart of San Sebastián, and possibly Europe's finest city beach.
  • Bolonia A stretch of pristine sand, the finest of Andalucía's unspoiled Costa de la Luz. Nearby Zahara de los Atunes and Playa de los Lances are spectacular, too.
  • Playa de los Eucaliptos Wild, long and windy, this spot near Amposta in Catalonia's Delta de l’Ebre is perfect for beachcombers, kiteboarding and wakeboarding.
  • Praia As Catedrais The unearthly rock formations at this Galician strand near Ribadeo are such a drawcard that daily numbers are limited.

Wild Spain

Intro

Spain is one of Europe’s best destinations for watching wildlife. Most of the excitement surrounds the three flagship species – the Iberian lynx, the Iberian wolf and the brown bear – but birdwatchers also rave about the twitching possibilities in Spain. Other possibilities include whale-watching off the south coast, especially from Tarifa, and Europe's only primates, the Barbary macaques, in Gibraltar.

Iberian Lynx

The beautiful lince ibérico (Iberian lynx), the most endangered wild cat species on Earth, once inhabited large areas of the peninsula, but numbers fell below 100 at the beginning of the 21st century. A captive-breeding program and the reintroduction of captive-bred lynx into the wild have seen the wild population reach an estimated 500 individuals, with a further 150 in captivity.

The two remaining lynx populations are in Andalucía: the Parque Nacional de Doñana; and the Sierra Morena spread across the Guadalmellato (northeast of Córdoba), Guarrizas (northeast of Linares) and Andújar-Cardeña (north of Andújar) regions.

Iberian Wolf

Spain’s population of lobo ibérico (Iberian wolf) has been stable at between 2000 and 2500 for a few years now, up from a low of around 500 in 1970. Though officially protected, wolves are still considered an enemy by many country people and the hunting of wolves is still permitted in some areas. The species is found in small populations across the north, including the Picos de Europa. But Europe’s densest and most easily accessible wild wolf population is in the Sierra de Culebra, close to Zamora. Riaño, close to León, is another possibility.

Brown Bear

The charismatic oso pardo (brown bear) inhabits the Cordillera Cantábrica (in Cantabria, Asturias and northern Castilla y León) with a further, tiny population in the Pyrenees – close to 250 bears survive, spread across the two populations. The last known native Pyrenean bear died in October 2010. The current population in the Pyrenees, which is on the rise thanks to intensive conservation measures, is entirely made up of introduced bears from Slovenia and their offspring.

The best place to see brown bears in the wild is the Parque Natural de Somiedo in southwestern Asturias. There is also a small chance of seeing bears in the Picos de Europa. A bear enclosure and breeding facility on the Senda del Oso, also in Asturias, is a good chance to get a little closer.

Birds

With around 500 species Spain has easily the biggest and most varied bird population in Europe. Around 25 species of birds of prey, including the águila real (golden eagle), buitre leonado (griffon vulture) and alimoche (Egyptian vulture), breed here. Although the white stork is everywhere (its large and ungainly nests rest atop electricity pylons, trees and towers), much rarer is the cigüeña negra (black stork), which is down to about 200 pairs in Spain.

Spain's extensive wetlands make it a haven for water birds. The most important of the wetlands is the Parque Nacional de Doñana and surrounding areas in the Guadalquivir delta in Andalucía. Other outstanding birdwatching sites around the country:

  • Parque Nacional de Monfragüe, Extremadura The single most spectacular place to observe birds of prey.
  • Laguna de Gallocanta, Aragón Thousands of patos (ducks) and grullas (cranes) winter here at Spain's biggest natural lake.
  • La Albufera, Valencia Important coastal wetland for migratory species.
  • Ebro Delta, Catalonia Another important wetland area.
  • Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, Andalucía One of Europe's two main breeding sites for the flamenco (greater flamingo), with as many as 20,000 pairs rearing chicks in spring and summer.
  • Garganta de Escuaín Excellent site for spotting vultures.
  • Centro de Interpretación de Aves Arcaz at Riglos Home to an impressive colony of griffon vultures.

Tour Operators

In addition to numerous local operators, the following operators run recommended wildlife-watching tours:

  • Birdwatching Spain (www.birdwatchingspain.net)
  • Iberian Wildlife (www.iberianwildlife.com)
  • Nature Trek (www.naturetrek.co.uk)
  • Wildwatching Spain (www.wildwatchingspain.com)
  • Wild Wolf Experience (www.wildwolfexperience.com)

Other Species

One of Spain's most eye-catching species is the cabra montés (ibex), a stocky mountain goat species whose males have distinctive long horns. Almost hunted to extinction by 1900, the ibex was protected by royal decree a few years later (though is still subject to controlled hunting today). There may now be 50,000 in the country, chiefly in the Sierra de Gredos and in the mountains of Andalucía.

More common beasts – all widely distributed – include the jabalí (wild boar); the ciervo, corzo and gamo (red, roe and fallow deer); the gineta (genet), a catlike creature with a white-and-black coat; and the ardilla (red squirrel). The chamois (rebeco, sarrio, isard or gamuza), a small antelope, lives mainly above the tree line in the Pyrenees and Cordillera Cantábrica. Southwestern Spain is home to the Egyptian meloncillo (mongoose). Gibraltar's 'apes' – actually Barbary macaques – are the only wild monkeys in Europe.

Twenty-seven marine mammal species live off Spain's shores. Dolphin- and whale-spotting boat trips are a popular attraction at Gibraltar and nearby Tarifa.

Resources

The following online and book resources will help guide your steps and provide fascinating background information when watching wildlife in Spain.

  • Fundación Oso Pardo (www.fundacionosopardo.org) Spain's main resource for brown bears.
  • Iberlince (www.iberlince.eu) Up-to-the-minute news on the Iberian lynx.
  • Iberia Nature (www.iberianature.com) An excellent English-language source of information on Spanish fauna and flora, although some sections need an update.
  • Wild Spain, by Teresa Farino (2009). Useful practical guide to Spain's wilderness and wildlife areas.
  • Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain & Europe, by Lars Svensson et al (2009).

Stand-up Paddle

Stand-up paddling (SUP) is widespread in Spain. You'll find it happening anywhere there are water sports around the Spanish coast, but it's a particular trend in Santander, Cantabria, along the Catalan coast (Sitges, Costa Brava), in the Balearics, and at plenty of spots along the Andalucian coast. There you'll find surf schools that run SUP outings, courses and there’s even SUP yoga.

Alternative Activities

Want to try something a little more unexpected than plain old hiking, biking, kayaking or board-riding?

How about a few hours jumping, sliding and abseiling your way down a sheer-walled canyon? Look no further than Alquézar in Aragón, one of Europe’s prime locations for the sport of canyoning – also possible around Torla (Aragón) and Cangas de Onís (Picos de Europa), in the Sierra de Grazalema in Cádiz province, and in the Pallars Sobirà area in the Catalan Pyrenees.

Or take to the skies as a paraglider. Top flying locations include Castejón de Sos in Aragón and El Yelmo in Andalucía's Parque Natural Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas. The Real Federación Aeronáutica España (www.rfae.es) lists clubs and events. Algodonales on the edge of Andalucía's Sierra de Grazalema is another top flying location. Paragliding Map (www.paraglidingmap.com) is good for current information on conditions at flying spots.

Though Spain doesn't have the teeming warm seas of tropical diving locations, there's still plenty of marine life in its seas, plus features such as wrecks and long cavern swim-throughs. Mediterranean dive centres cater mostly to an English-speaking market. A good starting point is the Illes Medes marine reserve, off L'Estartit near Girona. Southern Spain's best diving and snorkelling is around Cabo de Gata in Andalucía, followed by Cabo de Palos in Murcia. Atlantic dive centres (in San Sebastián, Santander and A Coruña) deal mostly in Spanish: their colder waters offer a completely different, and very rewarding, underwater experience.

Like to stay on top of the water, standing on a board? Stand-up paddling (SUP) is a trend in Santander, along the Catalan coast (Sitges, Costa Brava), in the Balearics, and at plenty of spots along the Andalucian coast. There you'll find surf schools that run SUP outings and courses and there’s even SUP yoga.