A Los Pirineos Andorranos

Mayo 2022 — 

Have you ever heard of Andorra? Perhaps yes, perhaps no haha. It is one of those super small countries beholden to treasures galore, starting with the fact that it is nestled in the heart of the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France! By winter, this haven is a ski lovers paradise and by summer, it is an eden for hikers and climbers alike. I have desired to visit the heart of the Pyrenees for some time now, and as a female solo traveller I could not recommend it more! 

A visit to Andorra is like taking a walk back through time for several reasons. Firstly, there are in-service phone booths in many many places. Secondly, the cobblestone buildings and streets are very nostalgic handmade works of art. And thirdly, the terraced valley slopes that encircle the capital city are littered with mini farm fields and patches of green that give the land a sort of hardy resourcefulness. Overall this is super safe and friendly destination that is reminiscent of the Swiss Alps while still neither being predominantly Spanish nor French, but somewhere in between. Ohh and Catalan as the official language. I know what a mixture, right? Tis’ those things that fill this tiny country with robust life which extracts the best parts out of Spanish and French culture to form something in between. 

To get to this little slice of the world, one must fly from Madrid to Barcelona, approximately one hour, and then pre-buy a bus ticket from the airport to the capital city, Andorra la Vella, which is about three and a half hours from Barcelona. I flew with Iberia airlines to get to Madrid and overall it was very pleasant and fluid. I used Andbus and I couldn’t have received a more personalized experience! I would absolutely recommend this company, though I believe Alsa bus also offers service to Andorra. I suppose some would say it is a bit tasking to arrive, but I was rather delighted by the lovely ride and the views of the rural Spanish countryside. The round trip cost of the flights and bus rides was quite reasonable too, at about $130 door to door. 

For this trip I pulled into the main bus station in Andorra la Vella, Estación Central de Autobuses, just after midnight, and was then taxied to the drop off point near the hostel I stayed at, Hostal Cisco de Sans, in the historic city center. I should point out that they offer this service free of charge! I reserved three nights here and planned to leave midday on Monday to arrive back in Madrid around 8:30 p.m.. This hostel was very homey and authentic since it was converted from an original stone built house. My room was on the third floor and had a private bathroom. I paid about 30 euros per night and I feel the value was appropriate. They have a unique self check-in online and a code that they send you to access the building which was sent to me through Booking.com, where I reserved the room. It has a very low key but quiet and friendly atmosphere! Also, there is a common area in the entrance with a refrigerator and minor kitchen tools to facilitate eating on site. Overall this is an excellent value if you are on a budget, and I would definitely recommend checking it out if you find yourself in Andorra la Vella.  

While I wasn’t planning on trekking with all of my belongings for this trip, I still felt it prudent to use my REI Outfitters 46L Osprey Kyte. Given that I was flying for the first leg of travel and thus needed an appropriate carry-on sized bag, it was naturally the most logical choice. Additionally, I had enough room for a lunch-pal full of snacks, dinner for my first night, and an extra sandwich for the next day. To ensure a good nights sleep, I also could fit my Puffle Vegan 40 degree Adventure blanket from SierraMadre and my Westhikers inflatable sleeping mattress pad.

Did you know?? -->>> The total population of Andorra is smaller than that of most smaller sized cities @ just over 77,000 people :) 

the tour I chose

Day 1: 

To maximize my time, I started out my Saturday morning at about 7:30 a.m. and prepared my mini backpack with all I’d need for a full day of hiking. I made sure to bring plenty of water, lunch, snacks, a first-aid kit, a compass, sunglasses, camera lenses, a battery pack, and my LL Bean packable Trail Model rain jacket, etc.. The important thing to ensure is that you have plenty of layers because being that high up in elevation leads to drastic changes in weather and temperature, so being prepared for all is a must! Another important tip is to wear good supportive hiking boots because keeping your feet happy equals happiness all around. I recommend Merrell brand because they really give you excellent value for your buck! I have an excellent pair of these boots that are practically weightless, waterproof, and super duper comfortable. Additionally, I wore hiking pants with shorts underneath, short wool socks for extra comfort in my boots, and an aerated 3/4 sleeve top to protect my shoulders from the direct sunlight. If you do your homework prior to arriving, you’ll see that most websites suggest that the UV rays aren’t super direct but nevertheless we only get one body in this life haha. 

Leaving the hostel and walking outside to have a 360 degree view of my surroundings was one of the most enlightening moments of my life! Since I arrived in the dark of the night I hadn’t yet taken in the magnitude of the pristine peaks that stood towering above the city. What a sight to see let me tell you! Just in view of the hostel there is also a miniature scenic lookout which made my morning a ten out of ten right off the bat. There is so much life and movement going on in the intricately shaped city valley. Just a short walk from there I proceeded to encounter a lovely cafe for a bit of breakfast, Fleca Font, where I devoured two giant coconut magdalena muffins and a ‘café con leche’ or coffee with milk. I also purchased a small 50 cent loaf of bread which I knew would be splendid later in the day. 

What is unusual about this city is that there is an immense amount of wealth in a small condensed area. For example, just by walking down main street towards the Tourism center, you will see Gucci, Cartier, Dolce Gabbana, and most other expensive name brand stores, meanwhile if you peer around almost every street corner there are loads of Mercedes Benz and BMW cars. Yet if you head just a hundred meters to the left or right there are terraced hill farms. Unusual to say the least, but I will say that the people are soo beyond friendly! When passing a stranger on the street or trail almost everyone says ‘Buen día’ which means ‘Good day.’ The city is really easy to navigate too, as there is a good sized river, Riu Valira, which runs directly through the city center and a large portion of the country to aid in directions. The tourism center is very clearly marked with signs and symbols. The lady in the office helped me to identify the various trekking routes and options throughout the entire country. Whilst I really could only do routes that are reasonable accessible from the capital city by foot, I will say that the national parks are stunning and with a car it would be possible to go to any part of the country within a days worth of driving around. 

From the city center I decided to do the route Escaldes-Engordany, primarily because I really wanted to see the mountaintop lake, Llac de Engolasters, and to explore part of the Vall de Madrid-Perafita-Claror national park. If you do this entire route, be prepared for about three hours of hiking fairly vertical up and downs to arrive to the lake. The first twenty minutes after leaving the city follows a steep switchback road with clearly visible markers directing you. From there you enter the forest and soon after several rock slide zones with a few precariously perched wooden bridges. At first, I was skeptical about dropping something and having it be lost and gone forever because they are literally cemented to the cliffside but in reality they are quite safe. I really loved how clear and refreshing the air is here, and especially along the trail where the elevation is between 1,100 to 1,700 meters or 3,600 to 6,000 feet. Once I reached the destination of this trail, I came upon a lovely site for picnicking or camping, which looks super cool if you have said gear. Suddenly I came upon a road where I had several options, head towards the mini church steeple I could see, take the route to the mountain lake, or continue trekking upwards to the next peak region. 

Firstly, I chose to scope out the church, Saint Miquel d’ Engolasters, which is super intriguing architecture wise, and about ten minutes from the lakeside trail starting point. The rooftop is made with a complex staggered slate pattern for optimal rain shed. The coolest and perhaps most ecological part of Andorra is that legit every building rooftop is made with slate or stones that came from nearby quarries or deposits. This means that the natural appearance of many buildings has originated from the natural resources that are abundant. Something that you don’t see too much nowadays, but that has a much larger environmental impact than one might realize. The lake trail, also known as Circuit de les Fonts, leads to the Llac de Engolasters, and takes about thirty minutes depending on your pace and the temperature. Interestingly you start out by walking on a path between a few stone cottages and then it converts to a pine forest area where you get a glimpse of the sheer vertical below you. Upon arrival to the lake, there is what used to be a super active hydroelectric dam, but now since the lake is significantly smaller than in past years, is no longer in service. This is where the trail is dissected and one can continue around the lake in whatever way one prefers. 

After having already burned through what I ate for breakfast, I stopped to eat lunch, a PB & J sandwich with cashews, aside the lake. Once finished I proceeded to round the lake and return to the damn end to begin the descent back to the church. On the other end of the lake there is an extremely remote restaurant for those that are fortunate to have driven all the way up to the summit area. Just before catching this trail there is also an old cablecar building and assorted facilities that are no longer in use. This is where I saw the most beautiful Lilac bushes, both white and purple. These are some of my favorite flowering bushes and the scents just cannot be beat! 

Fun Fact: The tallest peaks of Andorra reach upwards of 3,000 meters, that’s just under 10,000 feet! 

@The_Traveling_Guapa

I absolutely loved these trails because they offered a wide variety of scenery: from rock slide zones, to pine forests, to leafy oak glades, to rustic hillside farms, to grassy plains with stone houses, to deep blue lakes. To return back to the city center where I was staying, I had to walk along the side of a very narrow switchback road that winded down the sides of the mountains. Then about halfway down I was able to hook into the downhill part of same trail I started on, Escaldes-Engordany, but that I had not yet descended. After a full day of being in the sun and sweating more than I could believe, I arrived back to my room about 6 p.m.. I found a little marketplace where I bought some lovely tomatoes, cheese, bananas, cranberry juice, and yogurt all for about 8 euros while in route. For my dinner I ate most of the items I had bought, along with some cashews which I had already. The remaining juice and bananas lasted me throughout my stay. 

 

Day 2: 

The next morning I finally began to realize the extent of my activities from the day before. However, I had downed lots and lots of vitamins and water the afternoon before in hopes that my recovery would be ample for a second long day out and about. As it turns out, I had only two potential blisters that I was able to curtail with bandaids and Neosporin. I ate my lovely breakfast of yogurt, juice, and bananas in the common area of my hostel. Another very well thought out part of the capital city is that on both sides of the valley are laid in with stone walkways and rails that line the whole length of the main city area, called the Rec de Solà on one side. This is particularly lovely if hiking is not your thing but you want to enjoy the scenic views that this beautiful country has to offer. The route can be accessed in several places from the city center, and as such I climbed the stairway most near to my hostel. Once you begin climbing it is a lot more steep than it looks, and although it only took about 10 minutes to reach the upper railed part, my legs were feeling it haha. The coolest part of this ascent are the terraced mini garden and farm plots that dot the valley hillsides. Additionally, all along this path there is a natural spring flowing irrigation system with various drains that provides water to said plots. I was in awe by the resourcefulness and intelligence of this setup, plus it is hand laid in with cobblestones. Even if you are not a nature or garden lover as I am, you have to appreciate how they have taken advantage of any and all spaces available. 

Once above there was a splendid breeze and I walked towards the other end of the walkway and then spun around again to have the complete experience. If you do the entire Rec de Solà, it will probably take about 30-40 minutes depending on how fast you go. But if you are looking for a more complete trek, the same route then turns into the Camí Ral, which roughly translates to railed walk, and leads to La Massana and Ordino, two super well known and ornately laid out towns. Ordino is especially popular due to the Romanesque architecture that scatters its’ streets. If you do this route, as I did, it will take about 2 hours of constant walking to reach Ordino. I would absolutely suggest it because it runs along the river, Riu Valira del Nord, and is fairly flat. This trail is super peaceful and whether it be the ledge like cliffs above, the hand placed stone bridges for crossing, or the trickling crystal clear waters, you just can’t go wrong! As you walk, you pass by others going this way or that way, and above you is an occasional bridge and mountain tunnel road system which connects the many localities of Andorra. 

In La Massana, I continued on in the direction of Ordino and happened upon a gas station where I bought a protein smoothie, some crescents, cheese, and veggie chips for lunch. Since the temperature was already about mid 70s Fahrenheit, it was nice to sit down outside in the shade for a bit. Only a short way further I came upon the crossroads to enter Ordino, and just before you enter the town along the river you can spot the cutest little church you’ve ever seen! It is called the Santa Bàrbara Chapel. I then decided to walk about the historic part of the town and stop into the Ordino Tourism Center to get some more information about the area. They have literal mini books about mountain routes, culture, art, etc. that are completely free, and the lady was super kind. After grabbing an ice cream cone at a local shop, I decided it was was time to head back to the capital. At this point, walking all the way back was not an option for my feet and my body, so I hopped on the L6 bus and arrived back to the historic center of Andorra La Vella about 4:30 or 5 p.m.. When I got back to my room there was nothing else I wanted more than to shower and lay down for a bit before dinner. 

Since most things are relatively close in the city center it was easy to find a decent place to eat dinner. Curiously, I no sooner arrived back to my room when a super strong thunderstorm hit out of the blue. This storm was really quite formidable as they tend to be more rambunctious in higher elevated less stable environments, and there were even hail stones to prove it! The Piscolabis Tapas bar where I dined about 6:30 p.m., was legit a block from my hostel. They have a wide variety of hamburgers for good prices, and even had a veggie burger substitution. So for about 13 euros, I enjoyed a veggie burger, fries, and a Nestea. Shortly after, I returned to the hostel to organize for checking-out the next day and of course I went to bed early to prepare for the journey back. 

 

Day 3: 

On my last morning, I prepared all of my things, got dressed, and went for breakfast at this cute cafe near my hostel called Granja Pastisseria La Grandalla. The pastries here were just fabulous looking, and so naturally I proceed to ask for a trio of the best looking ones with a café con leche. It topped off my morning and as one of the last things I did in before heading back to my hostel for checkout at noon. In the historic center the church, Església de Santa Esteve, is also a highlight of Romanesque architecture and given that it is freely accessible, is worthy of a visit. Just to the left of the main entrance there is a small foot bridge which leads to an elevated plaza where main city events happen. There are nice lookout views here as well, and two elevators to take you down to the streets below because believe it or not the difference in height is about four stories. Once you exit the elevator you are on another principal street which is quite close to the Parc Central and as the name depicts, you are amidst it all. It was about 10:30 a.m. when I got here and by chance I spotted another elevated railed walkway section about hundred feet or so away on the opposite hillside. Since I like to optimize my time, I chose to explore this last mini route. The trail up to the walkway is quite nice and took about seven minutes to hike each way. This side is much more shady in the morning, so it was a last minute refresh before I would begin my long journey back to Madrid. 

The hardest part about being an investigative soul as I am, is being constricted by time haha, thus, I had to head back to my hostel just a short bit after arriving. But alas, I enjoyed the brief exercise to boost my heart rate. I got back to the hostel about 11:30 a.m., tidied up the room I was in, threw on my backpack, and went to the common room to eat some snacks prior to rendezvousing at the same bus stop where I arrived to be taxied down to the bus station. I will say again, that the people in Andorra are soo outwardly friendly, for example, when the bus arrived to taxi me, the driver got right out and assisted me with my backpack. Then when I got to the central bus station, the other bus driver was already awaiting for my arrival. They didn’t even ask for my ticket, just asked if my name was Briana. Talk about a small town vibe!?

My return to Madrid started about 12:45 p.m. when we departed the station and ended about 8:30 p.m. when I finally arrived back at my apartment in Madrid. The ride back of just over three hours was incredibly thrilling since I hadn’t been able to take in the rad closeup views of the sharp magma like rock formations with my midnight arrival on Friday. The Pyrenees are partially like seeing magna frozen in time, and legit there are places where you can see the jagged molten crust pieces coming out of the earth like they were just formed. Amidst these tectonic fragments the only way to surpass them by car efficiently is with an elaborate tunnel system. Many of the passes in Andorra and the roads leading to the mountain range from France or Spain are built similarly. The Andbus driver will deliver you to the entrance of whatever terminal your flight leaves from, which is really nice. My experience with security was one of the fastest I have ever had at 10 minutes. I was then immediately in route to the same gate from which I arrived. Since it was almost 5 p.m. I decided to buy a sandwich and smoothie to chow down before my flight, and before I knew it I was back in Madrid awaiting to take the metro from the airport.

 

Tips for the best treks possible 

Even though I have a Spanish phone plan, since Andorra is not a part of the European Union, there is no phone coverage unless you want to pay exorbitant prices. Therefore that is a big this to consider and plan ahead. I will say that somehow my Apple Maps and GoogleMaps worked enough for me to have a sense of direction but not to calculate routes, only for GPS locations. Therefore if you need to make a call to your accommodation prior to arrival you will have to pay a fee of 3-5 euros just to make the call. It is something to consider depending on your mode of transportation and type of accommodation. Also, since the official language is Catalan, a mix of Spanish and French, speaking one or the other is suggested, but if you were to go just knowing English you’d probably be okay. 

Going with a car would afford you the opportunity to access all of the national parks and highest peaks, like Comopedrosa or Pic Negre. However they do have a fairly organized public transportation system of busses. You can’t fly or take a train because the peaks are too high and there is not enough level ground, so by bus or car it is. The scheduling is something to look at though, plus there is no cell coverage unless you pay excessive roaming fees since Andorra is not an E.U. member state. Thus, using Apple Maps or GoogleMaps seemed to work offline but nothing else will work unless you choose to pay said roaming charges. My recommendation is for the best plan is to take time to investigate what you want to see and do, and how to move about beforehand. When I did the calculations of my routes, thanks to my Huawei smart watch, I saw that during the whole time I walked about 60,000 steps! That equated to about 46 kilometers or almost 29 miles. : )

Aside from my large backpacking backpack, I brought only a packable mini backpack for my day trips away from the hostels. This I would highly recommend because for a few euros at Decatholon stores in Spain, you can get yourself a nifty weightless 3 or 5 liter backpack that packs into a little ball the size of two fingers. Therefore, you are not loosing any space and it is super easy to just take the few things you need for the day ahead. Additionally, I always utilize either a small fanny-pack or crossbody when traveling through airports, towns, or cities. Given that this was a trip that involved a lot of walking, I opted for the fanny-pack that I could easily wear with my backpacking backpack for optimal protection of my valuables. Lastly, the layers are so so important, and I cannot stress enough how vital they are! For this journey I had packed my LL Bean packable Trail Model rain jacket, my LL Bean packable Primaloft Vest, a pair of hiking wind pants to wear over my leggings, 2 pairs of wool socks  for added comfort, and my packable lightweight Eddie Bauer jacket just in case it was colder than I anticipated. Sunglasses were also a must with soo much of that delightful Mediterranean sun!

My time in Andorra was splendid! I would definitely recommend planning a visit if you are looking for a drastic change of environment, a cheaper trip with loads of possibilities, and/or a lovely space to clear your mind. 

Don’t forget to check out some of my other tips for a great travel experience!!

  1. Budgeting: Where to Stay & How to get There
  2. Plan Ahead: Do More & Worry Less
  3. Minimize: Pack Lighter & Smarter
  4. Be Smart, Vigilant & Observant

Pictured above: All major hiking routes across Andorra with National Parks /// Pictured below: The capital city, Andorra La Vella hiking routes : )

Day 1: Escaldes-Engordany & Llac de Engolasters 

Day 2: Rec de Solà & Camí Ral

Day 3: Andorra historic center & Madrid return

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