“That monastery looks pretty big. That probably means it’s important,” I said to Chris at around 10:30 a.m. It was late, but it had been a busy morning already. We’d waited for the camp store to open, packed up our tent and had a leisurely breakfast of pseudo cornbread and burnt café con leche in the camp restaurant. I’d cried on the streets of San Millan de la Cogolla about my inability to speak Spanish with the locals. I’d pulled myself together and we were nearly back on the GR-93 for our second day of the hike.
“Yeah. It does,” Chris agreed. He looked at it anxiously.
“Final decision — do you think we should go?” I asked. We’d already discussed whether or not to visit the monastery like 20 times since we’d arrived, and came up 50/50 on it.
The monastery was famous, and big, certainly grand on the inside. But we had a long day ahead and a late start behind us because the camp store didn’t open until 9:20-ish, and Chris was worried about getting to our pick-up poiny before the sun started to set, so timing for the monastery was tight.
“No. Final decision — no,” he said, choking up his pack. “Let’s just get going.”
Day 2: Panoramas, pastures, peñas de tobias and pig face
So we made the steep ascent out of San Millán de la Cogolla, through dusty farm field after field and straight up the side of a mountain into a low forest. At the top of the first climb was a clearing. From the trail, we could see the tiny pueblo leading in San Millán scattered across the valley floor below. To the left, we could see the town and the monastery we just left behind, in the foreground of the La Rioja expanse.
Normally, I’m a total rule follower. I’m a Jr. park ranger in like 10 National Parks. I know you’re supposed to stay on the trail and respect the natural flora and fauna … but I weaved around the thorny thickets covering the pasture to get a more panoramic view. And it was worth it.
An elevation map of the hike showed that the first 10k was all climb, followed by a steep descent, and then another 10k of flat. So we spent the morning curving gradually up backsides of mountains, walking along the crests and then weaving along the face toward another.
We passed through forests of deciduous trees and pines, waded through muddy streams and past the occasional lone flower. All the while, accompanied by the sound of cowbells tinkling down in the valleys and along the mountainsides.
We stopped for a snack at the end of our final ‘big ascent’ of the day. In between mouthfuls of pumpkin seeds and roasted peanuts, I swatted flies out of my face and relished the rolling hillsides with orange and red trees mixed in with the normal green. I think we were there probably a week or two early (October 10) for peak leaf season in La Rioja, but it was what I came for and it was beautiful.
We packed up and started down a hill we sure was going to turn into the steep descent we’d read about. Except we got distracted by beautiful views of a sweeping mountain landscape to the right and a ruined building on the left. It looked like a bulldozer had plowed right into the wall, reversed, and left a pile of stone bricks on the ground. I couldn’t quite figure it out.
Then we noticed the views were getting even better through the trees and I kept trying to poke my head out to see what was coming up. After cruising down the road for about 20 minutes, lost in conversation about that morning’s coffees and whether or not they tasted burned — I said yes, Chris insisted they were delicious. (Hello. Which one of us slaved away in a coffee shop all through college?) — he stopped dead in his tracks.
“Have you seen a marker in a while?”
“No,” I answered, immediately feeling guilty that I’d been talking my head off rather than paying attention to the trail. That’s rule number one of hiking, especially in a foreign country when it’s hard to ask for directions.
As I mentioned in part one of this post, the GR-93 is extremely well-marked. You’ll see paint along trees and rocks, as well as posts where there aren’t natural landmarks to designate the trail. So it was alarming that none were in sight going forwards or backwards.
A quick consult of the trail map and description revealed we were clearly off trail. Long story short, we’d been fooled by the old slight-of-hand trick. So focused on the ruins, we didn’t even look to the hill on our right to see where the trail was clearly posted with a striped strip of fabric tied to a post, pointing us down the side of the mountain. Fortyish minutes later, we were back on track and headed for the most fantastic part of our hike.
The Peñas de Tobías
I’ve hiked in a lot of places, and seen a lot of beautiful landscapes. This one was different than any I’ve ever seen because — for lack of better words — it has this vastness. Chris said it was the next-best-thing he’s seen to the Grand Canyon, but I felt something different.
I appreciated the way the rocks imposed on the landscape, all raw and red. I liked the way the gray stone snaked along the hills parallel. But what I was most taken by was the way it sprawled across everything I could see. It wasn’t just tall, it was deep. It wasn’t just deep, it was wide.
In the Rocky Mountains, you’re surrounded 360-degrees by equally beautiful mountains. In the White Mountains, you climb to the top and see beautiful tree-lined hills rolling out beneath you. In this part of the world, you’re on top of something, but also below something. It was so many things at once and it went on forever. Or at least that’s what it seemed liked.
We stopped for the lunch there, at a point where the trail turned and pointed down toward Tobía, the namesake for the rock formations. From the ground where we sat and ate chorizo bocadillos, we could see a hawk circling in the folds of the rock above the treetops. It was only a little bit magical.
Next, we walked down a trail that probably had a 30–40 degree grade (sans cows — phew!) and made our way through the town. Side note: Tobía only has +/- 70 residents, according to Google. Nevertheless, I found it less desolate and much more quaint than the pueblos from the day before. There were verdant gardens and rooftop patios and homes with woodpiles stacked out front.
However, it was still small and it only took us a few minutes to pass through it completely. Signs warned us the river we had to ford to get to Matute might be too high to cross, but it wasn’t a problem. (Except, Chris almost ate it.)
Another thing I should mention is that the trail markers go through the cities as well. There must be a symbiotic relationship between the trail operators and the village dwellers, because there is paint on everything the sides of buildings, on mailboxes and drain pipes.
As you’re walking through the streets, you worry that you might have made a wrong turn along the way. You scan the perimeter and behold! Some red and white stripes on the sidewalk. There are also x’s to mark the wrong way, too. It’s pretty much like an adult treasure hunt.
Passing through Matute in the early afternoon, we saw a family drinking a bottle of white wine in the street. It seemed like an excellent way to spend a casual Saturday.
On the far side of village, we were already in the shadows of the stone towers. It was during the hottest part of the day and it turned out to be the longest stretch of the trek. Unlike mucht of the day, which we spent high up in mountains with the promise of views and changing terrain around every bend, we were now on a long stretch of farm road, sandwiched between a vineyard and a dusty field with withering vegetation. The road ahead went on for miles (or kilometers, if you will).
The markers were few and far between during this part. The people who maintain the trail must assume you can’t get lost on a straight road, but there were times when it branched off and we were uncertain.
You become frugal with your decisions when you’ve already walked nine miles and have another four ahead.
In retrospect, it went by quickly. But at the time, that portion of the trail seemed to drag. What should have been the easiest part of the hike — a plan ol’ walk down the road — was the most taxing. The sun was blazing, we were running low on water, there were no benchmarks to hit, no signals that we were going down the right path or making progress toward our destination.
It’s easy to stay motivated when you goal is within reach, even if it’s just a small win. It’s easy to get frustrated when you’re traveling on gut instinct with no end in sight (literally).
So it was a relief when we came upon another ruin mentioned in the trail map — which I cooly ignored so as not to get lost this time. Less than a kilometer later, a bend in the trail put us back under the trees. I was grateful for the sound of cowbells on the hilltops again, and before long we could hear and see the river that we followed to our end-point.
‘Till the cows come home
Even when the hillside town of Anguiano was in view, the hike wasn’t over. There was another final ascent up and down a mountain before we finished. Again, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was deliberate. Were the people who first blazed these trails determined to leave no view undiscovered?
It was late afternoon and there were packs of cows above us and below us, just off the trail. At every turn off from the path there were five, six cows. Their bells were jangling and the dirt artery we followed was covered in cow pies.
Sure enough, we turned a curve in the path and four milk cows were laying down right in the middle of the trail. These were not your run of the mill brown vacas, but big old girls that were decidedly taller than me. They continued to lay in the trail and stare as we approached.
I clapped my hands and blew a whistle at them. My only other approach was to yell “Move cows!” which also didn’t work. We considered walking around them, but I was afraid of them charging. Do cows even do that? And besides that, there was nowhere to bail. The hill above us was too high to leap onto, and below us was a steep drop off where there was nothing to hold onto. A leap to the left could mean imminent death.
Luckily, Chris’ Texas instincts kicked in and he began driving those cattle right down the path. All four lined up in a row and moseyed down the trail in front of us. This went on for about four minutes until they turned off and we hurried away.
The final push dragged. From a hilltop on the opposite side of the river, the town of Anguiano splayed out in front of us. It was bigger than I’d anticipated. A soccer field lined the edge of town. A church bell tower stood out above the rest of the rooftops. A large school building interrupted the series of flat-faced two-story apartments. But the trail winds along the entire length of the town before you can cross a bridge to enter.
It’s actually an old aqueduct you have to cross over. And from the top, you can look down the steep riverbed at least a hundred feet below and watch the rapids.
Anguiano, at last!
(This is a video of Anguiano from the pueblo’s tourism website It’s pretty much goats and sheep, of which I saw none while I was in the town, but you get the point — it’s a small farming community.)
We had over two hours to kill in Anguiano before our bus (the last one back to Logroño for the night) was supposed to arrive. Chris and I agreed in advance that we would NOT stop at the first bar we saw, because we first needed to find the bus station.
I was certain that if we plopped down in some chairs at any bar, we wouldn’t be able to get up after finishing +21k. We’d end up staying there until it was time to catch the bus and I had this nightmare of us hobble-chasing the bus down the streets of Anguiano with our packs flopping wildly on our backs. I hoped to avoid this at all costs. I’m not one to run after public transportation.
After confirming with some local old dudes, we learned the bus stop was right in front of the first bar we saw. Go figure.
So we walked down the terrace of La Herradurra, a bar/restaurant that overlooked the river and bridge (mas o menos). There were three young guys sitting outside, drinking and smoking.
One of whom spoke some English. He told us the person manning the grill was making free meat for all the bar patrons (all five of us, plus whoever was inside). Chris shrugged his shoulders and said — sure, we’ll have some. What is it?
He said something like: Caraterra. Hmm weird, I’ve never heard of that.
It’s pig face, he said, drawing big air circles around his face to communicate the meaning. I got it.
So we had pig face. It was one of the most exotic things I’ve ever eaten, save for alligator and cow tongue. It tasted like very fatty bacon with something like a hard pork rind on one side. It was pretty good the first time. But then we realized that the bar was giving out pig face as a free pincho for the day, so we received a serving every time we ordered a beer. We ended up with three rations of pig face, and that was too much.
As it got dark, the bar and terrace filled up with families. Children were eating sleeves of sunflower seeds and climbing in between the bars of the railing. Parents were smoking and pulling up chairs for their friends.
It started to drizzle just as we were waiting for the bus, which arrived exactly on time at 8:30 along the only road into and out of Anguiano. For a mere $3.75 each, we were on our way back to Logroño. And by 9:20, I was back in our apartment with my hiking boots kicked off, under a blanket with a stomachache from too much pig face.
The next day, Chris’ teacher saw our photos from the hike and asked if we went inside the Monestario de Yuso. It’s not JUST another beautiful temple, she explained. It’s where the document containing the oldest Spanish words on record are kept.
Which brings me to the take-home lesson of this post: Don’t be an idiot and skip things. Don’t bypass the beautiful buildings along the way to save time. Go into them. Learn about what’s there every time. You’ll never know what you’re missing otherwise.
Even without the monastery visit, the rest of it was amazingly beautiful and worth the trip. It had more views than I’ve ever seen on a single hike. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes backpacking! Although I’m sure most people won’t check it out, because who’s even heard of La Rioja? See, I told you: you never know what you’re missing!