Tag Archives: biking

Bikepacking Spain: Andalusia

Spain is one of my favorite countries – the amazing array of cuisine, music, language, art and traditions. Each region has a distinct culture and history, making exploring the country a rich experience. The natural side of things is just as diverse; Spain is home to lush forests, winding rivers, rugged coasts, natural sandy beaches, expansive savanna, snow capped mountains, an island volcano, and even a desert. On top of that, most of the country is at a high altitude, which, combined with the Mediterranean climate, means very strong distinct seasonal changes.

I wanted to travel Spain by bike in order to cover more ground than a hiking trip but also remain in close contact to my surroundings. Although I have visited many times before, I had never made it to Andalusia in the southern area of the mainland. After looking at a few sample itineraries pulled from commercial cycling tours (I do this a lot – a great way to get a template), I decided on a route hitting major historic cities (Seville, Córdoba and Granada) and mixing in a variety of landscapes (orchards along rolling hills, curving river valleys, arid plains full of cacti, rugged mountains and maybe even some snow in the Sierra Nevada). Sticking with about 80 km a day, I would have the freedom to stop and linger in a place, wander a bit off course and keep enough time to camp and hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains all in eight days time, a realistic international vacation length for an American. The route gains about 2,400 meters in elevation, the bulk of that on day five, the second half of the leg between Córdoba and Granada.

Seville to Córdoba

I took off from Seville where I arrived the previous evening. One night was enough to eat a delicious dinner, walk about the old city center and get to know a few other travelers in my hostel. I departed from the beautiful city in early afternoon after zipping around the old quarter for sightseeing by bicycle before a Friday tourist crowd began to build. Seville is very bright and cheerful with a classic historic area, picturesque narrow and crooked streets and a massive bull fighting arena. The most interesting place for me was the Plaza de Toros, the famous bull ring and museum. I’ve visited much of Spain over the last few years yet haven’t seen an active bullring. Within the building, sits the Museo Taurino, a small museum decorated with old posters and images of past events and I enjoyed the photographs and artistic renditions of bullfighting.

The Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza

As predicted getting through the suburban build up of Seville was a bit of a pain using roads suitable for a road bike. However, once out of the city, the 90 km route to Palma Del Rio felt easy on the legs and pleasantly flat, winding through farm fields and orange groves the entire way. Cacti grow aside the dusty roads along with colorful wildflowers adding some variety to the scorched fields. The area reminded me very much of southern California.

Many of the fields looked empty but I eventually passed a large orange grove in harvest with workers filling massive bins. Many wore a plain blue baseball cap to protect from a strong May sun. By early afternoon the air was thick with serious heat and my white t-shirt was soiled from sweat the dusty air. After battling to keep dry and warm in Portugal, Spain felt entirely different and like a whole new world.

My camping spot for the night was supposed to be in a park near Palma Del Rio. However, after arriving to the site around dusk, I found that camping was no longer offered and the park closed. Due to fatigue I just spent the night wild camping on a river bend just outside of the city. I had no interest in roaming around looking for guesthouses so late an in a transitional season.

Castillo de Almodóvar del Río.

Day two continued from Palma Del Rio to Córdoba after lazily drinking coffees at a cute cafe in the city watching elderly people out on walks, playing dominoes on picnic tables and just enjoying their Friday morning. After an hour or so resting in the town I started back along highway 431 headed straight to Córdoba.

It was foolish to start the day so late and I ended up feeling the heat quickly. Inland Spain doesn’t have a lingering spring like Portugal and leaps right into summertime heat. At round three in the afternoon when the sun was strongest, I noticed a bright blue baseball cap in the ditch near the road. I stopped to pick it up and gave it a once over and noticed what looked like some paint stains and minor use but it looked clean enough to be my new cap! My previous hat was lost to the sea winds between Sintra and Lisbon a week earlier and I very happy to shade my face with my harvester cap.

Some very friendly goats decided to investigate my bicycle.

Not long after, looking into the distance I was able to make out a very steep and high hill with a castle almost cartoonish in its size and appearance; it looked like something out of a movie. As I cycled closer a very well-preserved castle with Moorish details came into view. I decided to check it out and take a break to lunch in Almodóvar del Río. Through a brief conversation with the local townspeople, I found out the castle is 1,300 years old and got some major retouching about 700 years ago. The good condition of the structure has allowed it to be featured as setting for some television shows.

About 25 kilometers after my lunch break I reached Córdoba and went directly to one of the many squares for cake, coffee and people watching. Afterwards began a very difficult and long ascent to Los Villares Park for a night of organized camping. Only nine kilometers out of the heart of the city, the road to the park was incredibly steep and took any remaining energy I had left. I reached the hilltop park at about 9 pm and felt immense relief seeing cars in the parking lot and a small lit building. However, I was a month too early for camping season! The night workers were very kind and said that since I came all the way up on bicycle and darkness was fast approaching, I could pick a spot in the park for the night free of charge. Although that meant no amenities like a shower or a bathroom after the park closed at 10 pm, it was a welcome comprise. The park looked like a gorgeous place to explore and I tried to see as much of it was possible before heading back down to Cordoba the next morning.

A shot from historic Cordoba.

Spain ended up being a tricky place to camp on-the-fly: sometimes “camping” signs with tent icons really meant a site just for RVs or caravans. Many campsites with full websites online didn’t have information about when their season would begin or had possibly never been updated since the previous summer, making it seem open for business. Overall the camp accommodation scene felt a bit disorganized, especially coming from Portugal, where every location was up and running and any campsite located on major mapping apps were in fact campsites. I wrongly assumed camping and outdoor sports would be more common in May before the brutally hot Spanish summer set in. I ‘d recommend planning to stay in guesthouses, hotels or some other form of accommodation in this area in April and May.

I enjoyed grabbing a coffee and just walking the streets and seeing the Moorish-inspired building details in Granada and Cordoba.

Córdoba to Granada

After spending a full day wandering Córdoba and successfully camping (yay!) in El Brillante, actually in the city, it was time for a two-day challenging ride to Granada. Approaching Granada was like entering a magical world. For the first several hours of riding, olive tree fields hug close to the road and go on as far as the eye can see. The terrain slowly changes from flat to dramatic slopes with sudden sharp peaks. On these peaks usually perch fortresses and castles with little medieval towns below. The white red-roofed buildings sit in crooked rows along streets softy coiling around the hill. Highway 432 route passes many of these picturesque towns-Alcaudele, Alcalá al Real, Espejo, Baena. Only in Granada would I hear the term “pueblos blancos” used to describe these places, which apparently makeup a tourist route of sorts, connecting the major cities of Andalusia. I had no idea to expect this kind of scenery and really enjoyed the surprise.

The enchanting Sierra Nevada mountains are visible from far very away and provided a sort of motivation for the toughest part of the trip. It did take a while for me to notice them because snowy white peaks against a very bright sky create an illusion of jagged clouds. It is a strange visual but when you know to look for mountains, it becomes clear. The area between Cordoba and Granada is beautiful and it’s a lot of fun to just ride while enjoying the view.

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Scenes from a wonderful few days in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The feel of Granada was unique among the Spanish towns. The “old town” is fairly spread out so although the entire neighborhood is dependent on tourism, there is no claustrophobic feeling or huge crowds like the old parts of Seville or Barcelona. There is a small shopping area in the center but it’s less youthful and trendy than Madrid, so there’s a bit less madness. I fount it clean, inviting, relaxing and characteristic of much of Spain, and especially Andalusia.

I initially passed through on the way to the Sierra Nevada but would return to Granada to close out the journey. The first three nights in the area were spent up in the mountains at Los Lomas sitting about 500 meters above Granada near a large reservoir with a wonderful view. Cycling up was tough but very much worth it. The area was just beautiful, refreshingly cool and near a nice network of hiking trails (some going deep into the mountains). Camping for a few days provided a bit of rest and recharging after five days of cycling.

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An archway in the Alhambra. I highly recommend a visit if you are near Granada.

After a few days it was time to go down to the city and see some sights. Andalusia is full of Moorish architecture but Granada is the single best place to see these buildings, along with many courtyard gardens and quaint homes along little streets winding up the hillsides. Even the adorable hostel where I stayed had an open central courtyard! In Granada I really took it easy. I spend a day visiting Alhambra, a palace with an amazing display of 14th-century Moorish architecture located on al-Sabika hill. I normally don’t do things like visit the inside of palaces, temples, etc. but I had a feeling this would be special, dazzling and different. The Alhambra was just lovely and each area had detail and color to appreciate; the visit took a long time and was a great experience.

Two days in Granada went by quickly and thus brought an end to a wonderful journey cycling through Andalusia, Spain.

Thanks for reading!

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Thailand in Pictures

My first visit to Asia, originally a five week trip, turned into twelve and has kept me too busy to update this blog. Now that things are coming to a close I am able to finally share what I’ve been doing in Thailand and the other places that have been a part of my winter.

Thailand was a mixed bag for me. It was full of trash, smoggy cities and the sky was smoky from crop fires. I felt a constant stress from being badgered by peddlers or needing to salvage a situation after a business promised something it couldn’t deliver – not something you want on a holiday. On the positive side, I met many kind and amazing travelers and Thai people who I hope will remain friends into the future. I ate the variety of delicious food found throughout the country and every city felt generally safe to be a woman traveling alone. Like most visitors to Thailand, I really enjoyed the colorful nature and animals.

The following are images of Thailand that best highlight the journey – there is so much to recap and it was hard to pick just and a few memories.

Seeing wild elephants was an experience I will remember forever. I skipped seeing captive elephants, deciding it best to spend money on parks and infrastructure keeping these creatures living free. For about $30 I traveled to Kui Buri National Park and, with a guide in a truck, played “elephant hide and seek,” driving slowly in the park with binoculars glued to my face. We were very lucky to spot a few small groups including one with a baby (!) and a few solo elephants – one was an aggressive male that spotted us from 300 meters away and stamped around a bit to show who is in charge.

A friend and I had a great time biking around the forest and roughly 200 ruins that make up Sukhothai Park. The structures date from the 13th and 14th centuries CE. We enjoyed comparing the differences in architecture and decorative details of the well preserved pieces. Some corners of the park are free of people and make nice places to just relax.

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Erawan National Park hosts a river with a seven tiered waterfall. Each level has clear-blue pools available to visitors for wading or swimming. This was the first major nature area I visited and loved it! Reaching the top tier was challenging as the path became increasingly reclaimed by nature but it was the most fun I had on a hike.

I’m not the biggest fan of Bangkok but the complex of temples around and including Wat Arun is gorgeous and worth an afternoon boat ride across the river. I actually visited twice, once around noon to see architectural details in full sunlight and once again in the evening to enjoy sunset over the city.

A trip to see Huay Mae Sai Waterfall in Chaing Rai turned into a hike in the hills. Behind the waterfall a trail leads into the surrounding mountains with no end in sight. The path zigzags through pastures and forests. I wish I’d had enough time to see where it went.

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Prachuap Khiri Khan, a half day train ride from Bangkok, was my overall favorite location in Thailand. It’s the most beautiful and quiet seaside town. Adorable natural monkeys live aside the gorgeous Ao Manao Lime Bay (inside an air force base! Visitors allowed in for free). Everything is affordable and the few travelers I met were all outgoing and friendly. After a few days the place felt like home.

I’m not a pretentious eater and just dove right into whatever I saw. Street food, evening markets and small Thai cafes helped make my $25 a day budget possible. My favorites were fresh lime juice, coconut ice cream (pictured), pumpkin curries (pictured) and pork larb. Only once did I eat something too spicy and only twice did I get a Thai whiskey hangover.

Thailand has layers in every part of life, just like anywhere else. You can really do anything and build the travel experience that works for you while getting to know the culture. I’m glad I was able to see the huge metropolis that is Bangkok, tiny island villages, mountains, rivers, jungle, 1000-year-old temples, modern arts, take a swim in the ocean, go biking, do aerobics in Limphini Park with 300 other people, eat something totally new, binge on Oreos and other familiar treats, make new friends from every continent, visit English learning classrooms and meet students, and stay with a Thai family. Spending five weeks was enough time to get a feel for the country.

I’ve appreciated some of the challenges of the last few months. It’s an amazing privilege to go half way across the world and see how things work and people live in another place, even if it’s not always wonderful.

Goodbye, Thailand! Maybe I’ll be back again some day.

Thank you for reading!

Ruby

Cycling New Cities

A treat waiting for me in every major city of my upcoming trip: a bike tour or bike for borrowing! I could not be more excited to see Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels from a bike seat.

The first time I took to the streets of a new city by bicycle was on an autumn trip to Los Angeles with my mom. She picked out an amazing bike tour of L.A. public and street art, which became private tour as everyone else in the group dropped out due to threat of rain.

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View of Madrid bike lanes at night

Our guide was young and completely immersed in the art scene and did a fabulous job taking us 10 miles or so around the city over the course of 4 hours (more about that tour here). He got a bit carried away with his own enthusiasm for his city, and also took us to see historical buildings and even tried to sneak into a studio of a well-known former street artist – and I mean literally sneak in. Maybe because we could have so easily fled on our bikes if we were seen? It was a ton of fun and revealed a side of the city that we did not know was there.

Because we were a group of three, all cyclists, we were a nimble and compact group able to zoom through traffic and across neighborhoods of every kind. My mom and I got the feeling that we had seen the city in a way we could never have just on foot or by using a car. Biking gave us freedom of movement while also keeping us open to the noise, smells and sights of the city.

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An afternoon ride in rainy Tacoma

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of cycling in several American and European cities, usually with a bike sharing program or simply borrowing one from an Air BNB or other host. It’s always been a lovely way to get to know a place and very useful in dense urban areas.

At home in Minneapolis I’m a part-time bike commuter, bike for transportation to social commitments and spend time with friends on random rides around the city in a cycle-friendly wardrobe.

Thank you for reading,

Ruby