Bliss is an evening in the limestone hills of Andalucía, when the heat of the day has ebbed and the landscape is bathed in the rich tones of the sinking sun. It’s mid-May and I’m sitting under a carob tree at a quiet finca in El Chorro northwest of Málaga sipping a bottle of chilled Giatenejo, a divine, locally brewed craft ale. I let my thoughts drift back to the fabulous walk we did earlier as I listen to the incessant chit chat of swifts and sparrows and watch a large group of Griffin vultures slowly circling on thermals above some nearby cliffs.
This afternoon, we tackled what has been described as the scariest walk in the world: El Caminito del Rey: The King’s Little Pathway. This runs for around three kilometres some 100 metres above the Guadalhorce River in the Desfiladero del los Gaitanes (Gaitanes Gorge) near the village of El Chorro. Finished in 1906, the Caminito was constructed to service a channel and numerous sluice gates connected to the Salto de Chorro hydroelectric plant. Its royal association came when El Chorro Dam was inaugurated by King Alfonso XIII who walked it in 1921. Over the years, the Caminito fell into a state of disrepair and sections of the concrete walkway had fallen away leaving just the iron girders hanging in mid air high above the deep, steep sided gorge. But this didn’t deter those looking for adventure. In fact the walkway attracted thrill seekers, adrenalin junkies and via ferratists, many of whom, ill equipped and inexperienced, risked life and limb to cross from one end of the gorge to the other. Inevitably, there were fatalities and the walkway acquired the somewhat infamous reputation as the world’s scariest hike. In 2000 the local authority closed it to the public and imposed a maximum fine of 6,000 euro on anyone caught tackling it. Not that this acted as much of a deterrent. People still undertook the route clandestinely and a German climber fell to his death as recently as 2010.
However, the regional government of Andalucía and the local government of Málaga saw the tourism potential of the route and agreed to share the costs of a €9 million restoration project (including car parking and a museum). Work on the installation of a new €2.7 million boardwalk commenced in March 2014. A year later the first tourists traversed the new route mostly constructed right above the crumbling old concrete walkway. Free tickets for the first six months have been advertised online as the local authorities seek to test their new tourist attraction and, although the Caminito is now booked solid until late September, Purple Peak Adventures are among those lucky enough to obtain a couple of those free tickets.
So, after an el cheapo flight with Ryanair from Dublin to Málaga we find ourselves entering a small office, the El Chorro information point, at the southern end of the route which is only a short drive from our finca. We managed to find space to park our hire car by the Garganta Hotel opposite the train station which is on the Málaga to Córdoba line. From there it's a mere ten minute stroll downhill to the information point. Here we produce our online ticket confirmations for our 1.30 pm slot (the only tickets we were able to get) and receive a hard hat and a hair net which must be worn at all times. Along with over three dozen other people, all Spaniards of various ages bar a group of middle aged Dutchmen and a small number of other English speaking people, we are given an introductory and safety talk about the route that totals approximately 7.7 km, divided into 4.8 km long access ways and 2.9 km long boardwalks. This is delivered at great speed solely in Spanish by one of the rangers, but we managed to get the gist that a reasonable level of fitness is required and we should allow around 4.5-5 hours to complete the walk. A maximum of 50 people per half hour are admitted at either end of the gorge, no children under eight years of age or pet dogs are allowed on the route, no tripods are permitted and only small packs may be carried. As this is a linear route, an hourly bus service costing a few euro has been laid on at either end to take you back to where you started.
On an unseasonably hot spring day, we set off along a track past the milky green water of the Tajo de la Encantada Reservoir fringed with candy-pink oleander flowers and shaded by pine trees whose resin scents the air. The dusty path soon becomes more exposed and an enormous arched railway bridge towers above us. We soon realise that we have chosen to walk the route the hardest way, because from the southern El Chorro entrance a gradual incline is encountered all the way to Ardales at the northern end. As we ascend, the sheer cliffs at the end of the reservoir and the barely visible cleft marking the entrance to the gorge loom into view. It is reminiscent of the Siq that permits entry into the ancient Nabataean stronghold of Petra and I can only wonder at what might lie hidden upstream. My eye is suddenly caught by the ant-like figures of people moving steadily along a section of the new pathway clinging to the sheer cliff-face towards the entrance to the gorge. Just inside its narrow entrance, I spy what appears to be a bridge arching high above the river. It’s a pretty thrilling sight.
The path is lined with vivid patches of spring flowers that thrive in calcareous soil, including blood-red poppies and ox-eye daises. After a steepish climb up some steps we arrive at a checkpoint sited on a small terrace close to a commemorative plaque marking the reopening of the route, where a cheery ranger examines our tickets and crosses our names off a computer print out. We now descend down a flight of steps passing above a green metal bridge carrying the railway line to Córdoba that will accompany us up the gorge. As we cross over the railway line, the boardwalk is encased in a chain-link cage to protect the track beneath, which feels slightly surreal. If this place looks somewhat familiar, it should, as the heart-stopping escape scenes at the end of the 1965 World War Two film, Von Ryan’s Express, starring Frank Sinatra were filmed on this stretch of the Caminito and in the railway tunnel right below.
We head down a series of narrow, knee jerking steps onto the flat section of boardwalk clinging to the sheer cliff face that we had earlier admired from afar. Gripping the metal handrail I peer over the edge where, some 100 metres below us, the turquoise water of the reservoir slaps up against the base of the cliffs. I can feel the heat of the afternoon being radiated off the limestone walls and beads of sweat stand proud of my brow. It’s suffocatingly hot as the heat is being trapped by the presence of Saharan dust in the atmosphere; I would certainly not recommend the slots at midday/early afternoon if you cannot tolerate the heat of a Spanish summer.
Martin is relieved as we climb another set of steps into a cooling breeze as we begin to round the cliff face towards the narrow entrance to the gorge. Passing below the atmospheric remnants of rusting electricity poles with their ceramic insulators that formerly carried power up the gorge to the various hydroelectric facilities, we now catch our first close up glimpse of the dilapidated pins and rusty brackets that held the old pathway into place and the remains of the via ferrata equipment formerly used by climbers to access the route. The gentle breeze soon becomes something of a gale as the wind tears down through the gorge that acts as a kind of wind funnel. We pause to peer over the chain link safety fence at the vertiginous view of the narrow cleft marking the entrance to the gorge, where the turquoise water, agitated by the wind, swirls and snarls way below us. Ahead, we can see the old bridge, the Balconcillo de los Gaitanes, taking the original walkway above the concrete aqueduct spanning the gorge and a 30 metre long newly installed galvanised steel suspension bridge now used to cross it.
Officially named the Puente Ignacio Mena, after a local councillor, the new bridge holds ten people at a time and sways and oscillates as I begin to walk onto it. Flashes of the turquoise Guadalhorce River far below appear through the grid decking beneath my feet and, as I approach the centre of the bridge, it really begins to wobble, causing me to grip the metal handrails tightly. Anyone who suffers from vertigo mightn’t be too happy crossing this! Just past the suspension bridge are fine views of the new Caminito built neatly about a metre above the old walkway on the left. But equally impressive is the railway line constructed between 1860 and 1866, disappearing from one tunnel into another on the right, supported on a large arched stone viaduct. The tenacity and ingenuity of Victorian engineers who seemed unwilling to be deterred or intimidated by even the most extreme topography, such as that encountered by constructing this railway through this gorge, never ceases to amaze me.
A more sobering sight is the memorial plaque to three young climbers who fell to their deaths here in August 2000 when the via ferrata cable they had been using broke. The cable, hanging loosely from the rock, has been left in place as a permanent reminder of this tragedy. Indeed, as we progress along the new pathway, we get views of the old Caminito down through the wooden slats and also ahead of us, as the route weaves its way around the rock face, hugging the contours of the gorge. It seems something of a miracle that there weren’t more deaths from inexperienced climbers using inappropriate equipment, as huge chunks of the concrete have fallen away from the old path leaving gaping holes in it; in places it has been reduced to mere iron girders hanging precariously some 100 metres above the river. Some of these look rotten as pears and many pieces have all but rusted away.
Mercifully, we have now entered the shade of the gorge and the relief from the burning sun is welcome. We marvel at the variety of ferns and clumps of pretty spring flowers growing out of the many crevices in the limestone. The route now doubles back on itself as it enters a side gorge carved by the Falla Finca, a tributary of the Guadalhorce River. Here the old pathway can be clearly seen, including a four metre long concrete bridge ‘short cut’ across this small gorge that has lost its safety rail and toe boards long ago and seems to be suspended in mid air. We both agree that leaving the old pathway in situ to be quietly reclaimed by the elements only adds to the incredible atmosphere of the place.
As we leave Falla Chica, we stop to admire the commanding view of the Balconcillo de los Gaitanes and the aqueduct from which a cascade of water is being blown away in the wind, its myriad tiny droplets catching the sunlight like a shower of diamonds. Soon after we encounter a small glass-floored cantilevered viewing platform which is strategically placed to provide perhaps the best and most memorable view back down the gorge, showcasing its sheer-sided spectacular cliffs. Up river, the verdant Valle del Hoyo we have yet to traverse is hemmed in by the high limestone crags of the Sierra de Huma, and the serene turquoise coils of the Guadalhorce River which flow through it glint in the sunlight. In the far distance we can see the continuation of the Gaitanes Gorge which we have to pass through to reach Ardales. We cannot resist the urge to gingerly step out onto the glass platform for the obligatory photo book snap, braving the stomach churning feeling experienced by seeming to hang, frozen, in mid air!
The boardwalk now ends and we traverse a series of wooden stairs that delivers us into one of the concrete channels that brought the water down the Valle del Hoyo from the Gaitanejo reservoir higher up. The water ran through a series of such channels and tunnels towards the Balconcillo de los Gaitanes bridge before descending in a vertical tunnel where it gained sufficient speed and energy to drive turbines at the bottom which generated the electricity to power Málaga. Indeed, we pass by one of the cast iron wheels that operated a sluice gate used to regulate the water flow and peer up one of the dark tunnels before following an old water channel up the valley. This is shaded by pine trees fringed by clumps of spiny leaves sporting pale mauve flower spikes of Acanthus and scrubby bushes of Anthyllis cytisoide bearing lemon yellow flowers.
We pass by several other couples coming the other way who greet us warmly and a large group of Spaniards who set off with us earlier but who are now availing of a long bench amid some pine trees to enjoy a picnic. Permitting just 50 people to enter the gorge at each end every half an hour ensures that the Caminito never feels cluttered, allowing each visitor a leisurely, pleasant experience.
The Valle del Hoyo with its towering limestone crags has something of the ‘lost world’ about it; all that is missing is the pterodactyls! I sit awhile to savour the smell of this hot land: the odour of parched earth, the heady fragrance of the pine trees and the sweet, resinous scent emitted by the mastic trees that grow everywhere. This 'smellscape', an olfactory memory, is permanently hard wired into the brain of anyone who, like me, has ever lived in the Mediterranean and yearns to return. Paper dry grasses interspersed with poppies nod and whisper in the breeze and I watch in fascination as a number of ants busy themselves collecting fragments of vegetation for their colony, one heroically struggling with a grass seed over three times its size. Below my rocky vantage point, stands of Aleppo pine sweep down to the river which has formed large, milky turquoise pools, and on a hot day such as this I dream of plunging into one of these. Away in the hazy distance, a crease in the cliffs marks the spot where the gorge we have just traversed ends with part of the Caminito just visible. I wonder what it would be like to live in this valley, my imagination fired by the sight of some abandoned orange groves and allotments surrounding the derelict farmstead, Cortijo la Hoya.
After some 3 km, a flight of steps leads to another boardwalk that takes us round a huge rock buttress to the sheer-sided and narrow continuation of the Gaitenejo Gorge. I am exhilarated by the thought of re-entering the gorge and we both really regret that we had not discovered this place 15 years or so ago, when it was untamed and less well known. The boardwalk twists and undulates its way through the narrow gorge high above the river which over eons of rushing through this narrow chasm has carved and fashioned fantastical shapes in the limestone. We are delighted by the sight of Griffon vultures circling on thermals high above the cliffs, no doubt eyeing the many collared doves that inhabit the rocky crevices of the gorge. With their huge wings silhouetted against the blue sky, it's not hard to imagine that this really is a 'lost world' and that these vultures are in fact pterodactyls from the Cretaceous period! The vegetation is lush, comprised of oleander, tamarisk and European marram grass.
We soon spot a small bridge, the Puenta del Rey, spanning the river just before a rock overhang where the canal widened to form a mini reservoir to control the water flow, and an old overflow drain discharged into the river. The crumbling stone steps leading down to the river have survived, but the Casa de Guardia de Canal, built below the overhang where the workers who controlled the various sluice gates lived, was inexplicably demolished in 2014, its site now marked by a wooden bench surrounded by blood-red poppies and electric-mauve thistles.
Further along and just before the boardwalk climbs steeply, clinging limpet-like to the towering, sheer cliff face, the route splits into two: the boardwalk follows an old canal and descends into a short tunnel, the other bypasses this by means of a flight of original concrete steps that descend towards the river, only to ascend again to join the boardwalk. The final stretch of the gorge is very narrow and we greatly enjoy passing along the shady boardwalk staring down at the whirling pools and rushing turquoise water far below fig and tamarisk trees sprouting from the craggy cliffs.
As we pass out of the gorge, we spot a series of small waterfalls and the remains of what looks like the Caminito continuing along the cliffs across the other side of the river. With one final, wistful look back towards the exit of the gorge, we pass through the control point and soon spot the Gaitanejo Dam with its towers at each end. After a few minutes we reach a portable cabin which serves as the Ardales Information point where we return our safety helmets. The dusty pathway now undulates through a pine forest above the Gaitanejo Dam before entering a large tunnel where the gusting wind lifts huge columns of dust from the road which follow us through to the other side.
After walking for several minutes in the sapping heat of late afternoon, we find the route confusing as there is a choice of two pathways: one signposting another smaller tunnel and the other marking a route that climbs steeply though the pine forest. Neither clearly signs the way to Ardales where we must catch a bus back to El Chorro. We decide to take the tunnel. With eyes used to bright sunshine, it's pitch black and its floor frightfully uneven; we fumble and stagger our way through a couple of hundred metres of darkness like two drunkards and I'm relieved to see the pinpoint of light growing ever larger at its end. A head torch would have been useful!
The tunnel turns out to be a good choice as it brings us to a main road leading downhill to the bus stop opposite a restaurant named El Kiosko near the village of Ardales. However, our eventual arrival at the bus stop is more luck than judgement as there is also a lack of signage at the tunnel exit to direct walkers to the village. The bus, which leaves every hour and which costs two euro each, is almost ready to depart so we eschew a cold beer at El Kiosko, preferring to wait until we can savour a bottle of the aptly named Giatenejo craft beer once we return to our finca.
Billed as one of the top new travel experiences by Lonely Planet for 2015 will do much to ensure the popularity of El Caminito del Rey, but rock climbers and via ferratists continue to bitterly lament the loss of one of their most risqué adventure playgrounds. And they're not the only disgruntled ones. Some locals we spoke to are appalled at its new ‘Disneyesque’ features and recoil at the thought of busloads of tourists from cruise ships docked at Málaga pouring through there every hour. They doubt that there will be much of a positive knock-on effect for their businesses from such day trippers.
Although it would have been great to have discovered this place long before it became a tourist honey pot, overall, we formed a favourable impression of the Caminito and marvelled at the engineering excellence of yesteryear that has been respected by the installation of the new boardwalk that blends almost seamlessly with the old pathway. Although it is no longer the world's scariest hike, the Caminito isn't a walk in the park by any means, especially in the unforgiving Spanish sun. We agree that those looking for a novel hike offering magnificent scenery and a bit of excitement in this part of southern Spain will doubtless find this 8 km route just the ticket. That is, if they are able to get hold of one...
Watch the video of our May 2015 hike along the Caminito del Rey: