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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.

SNCOllage

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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Do I Need a Travel Visa?

Visas are a thorn in the side of frequent travelers. Determining whether or not you need a visa for your holiday abroad isn’t always simple and sometimes the visa process isn’t clear-cut; the requirements for a given country may differ according to how you enter (by land, sea, air) or how long you will stay. But there’s good news: US Passport holders can travel visa-free on short holidays to most of our world’s countries. This page can help you decide whether or not you need a tourist visa as a US passport holder headed to common destinations.

Visit Our Neighbors Visa-Free

When you are travelling to Mexico or Canada with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of up to 180 days. You will need to fill out an immigration card on arrival to Mexico.

Visa-Free Europe

Fortunately for US passport holders, visiting Europe is simple and unless you have specific restrictions placed on your individual passport, you can visit Europe for extensive periods visa-free* and achieving free access for long periods if you move around different visa jurisdictions.

Schengen Travel

The following countries are in what is called the Schengen Area which is seen as one jurisdiction without border control and one visa policy: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway (excluding Svalbard), Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. The Schengen Area includes most of the EU, except for Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, and Romania. Non-EU members Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein are a part of the Schengen Area.

*The Schengen Visa is a tourist and business visa but you do not need to formally apply for anything. The”visa” is automatically issued to US Passport holders when they arrive in a Schengen country but is not a visa-on-arrival. If you’re planning to visit say France for 2 weeks (or two months) and you read something about a “Schengen Visa”don’t panic, you don’t need to do anything. The Schengen Visa grants travel to member countries for up to 90 days within a 180-day period. It DOES NOT allow you to become a resident or get a job.

UK Travel

When you are traveling to United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) with a U.S. Passport, no visa required for a stay of up to six months.

Ireland

When you are traveling to Ireland with a U.S. Passport, no visa required for a stay of up to three months.

The Caribbean

When you are traveling to Dominican Republic or  Belize with a U.S. Passport, no visa required for a stay of up to 30 days. Jamaica is visa-free for up to 90 days. No Visa is required to visit The Bahamas.

Other Commonly Visited Countries

Argentina

When you are traveling to Argentina with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days. Be aware that there is a reciprocity fee charged upon entering the country, and a departure tax when leaving the country by air (normally included in your plane ticket).

Australia

When you are traveling to Australia a visa or Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) is REQUIRED. Most U.S. passport holders traveling to Australia for tourism or business purposes for less than 90 days can obtain an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) for a  fee. Airlines and many travel agencies are also able to apply for ETAs on behalf of travelers.

Brazil

When you are traveling to Brazil a visa is REQUIRED and must be  obtained before you visit. Apply for an electronic visitor’s visa here. For more information visit he Brazil Consular website.

China

When you are traveling to China a visa is REQUIRED. Apply for a ten-year multiple entry visa, useful for repeated travel or trips to Hong Kong or Macau with returns to China. Visit the website of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China for current visa information.

Colombia

When you are traveling to Colombia with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of up to 90 days.

Costa Rica

When you are traveling to Costa Rica with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days.

Japan

When you are traveling to Japan with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days.

India

When you are traveling to India a visa is REQUIRED U.S. citizens seeking to enter India solely for tourist purposes, and who plan to stay no longer than 60 days, may apply for an electronic travel authorization at least four days prior to their arrival in lieu of applying for a tourist visa at an Indian embassy or consulate.  Please visit the Indian government’s website for electronic travel authorization.

Morocco

When you are traveling to Morocco with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days.

New Zealand

When you are traveling to New Zealand with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under three months.

Philippines

When you are traveling to the Philippines with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 30 days.

Russia

Goodness, yes, you need a visa! The tourist visa process for Russia is notoriously long. Please begin your research and work on the visa 4-6 months before you intend to visit. Don’t be discouraged though. Just remain organized during the process.

South Korea

When you are traveling to South Korea with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days.

Taiwan

When you are traveling to Taiwan with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 90 days.

Thailand

When you are traveling to Thailand  with a U.S. Passport, no visa is required for a stay of under 30 days. You may leave Thailand and do a “border run” and return one day later to extend your stay but may only visit for a total of 90 days in a 6 month period. I  did this and it is a common strategy for backpackers wishing to stay in Thailand for longer than 30 days or who are starting and ending a long trip to SE Asia in Thailand (usually flying to/from Bangkok).


Whether you need a visa or not, please note that to enter most countries you need a passport valid for six months after your arrival date and two (or more) blank passport pages. Also many countries require proof of an outbound journey. Specifics will vary and some countries require as many as six blank passport pages (when I was bouncing around Asia in 2018, I filled up five pages in three months so plan ahead if space is tight). Check specific requirements before visiting any country and don’t try going abroad if your passport expires within 90 days or you have less than two blank pages remaining. You could be refused entry to your destination. That’s a sign it’s time for a new passport.