STEP BY STEP
What was once a dangerous hike is now a family-friendly pathway filled with scenic wonder
Imagine balancing on a metal bar barely wider than the palm of your hand while you cross between two steep cliff walls. You’re so high, vultures circle above your head while the emerald green river rapidly flows far below. Every step is crucial.
This is what thrillseekers craved when they walked what was once known as the most dangerous pathway in the world – the Caminito del Rey, hidden high in the mountains about an hour from Malaga in Spain.
The hike was shut down in 2000 after a number of deaths but reopened in 2015 with extensive safety improvements.
As I stand on the new walkway staring at the remnants of the old worn-out path below me, the wind takes hold of my body. It’s easy to picture how this scenario might have played out when there wasn’t anything there to save my life.
More than two million euros were invested into making the path a safe tourist attraction that now includes mandatory hard hats for all visitors.
The years-long redevelopment was a vital way to preserve the path’s century-old past while allowing its historical significance to be cemented into the future.
It was first built by sailors in 1901 before it was developed into an access point for villagers and workers to reach the nearby hydro-electric plants. King Alfonso XIII opened the path in 1921, giving it the name of the King’s Pathway after he walked part of the track. Over the years it deteriorated and crumbled away, attracting the attention of daring adrenalin junkies looking for a thrill.
Today, it’s a family friendly 7.7km trail made up of bush tracks and the infamous cliff-side boardwalk.
The reputation around it has shifted to one of sheer beauty, with striking natural scenery around every corner. Canyon walls tower 300m either side, closing in to a width of just 10m in parts.
The trail’s peak is a perilous footbridge about 100m above the ground and is one of the most scenic spots along the way. Turquoise water channels flow between the supreme Desfiladero de los Gaitanes gorge, where the sunlight reflects a vibrant hue. As you walk around the walls of the gorge, the waves of mountains are seemingly endless.
The track is lined with surprises as our guide Marcello points out wild carob trees and a whale fossil encrusted into the walls. He explains that millions of years ago the rock walls were part of the ocean bed.
As the vultures circle above, an alpine ibex peers down from high on the tip of the cliff ’s edge. When I look down at the old path that remains directly below the new, there’s barely enough room for two feet and in some parts it’s non-existent.
Nailed into the cliff wall are reminders and tributes to victims, including a large memorial to three friends who died swinging from a zip wire in 2000.
The Caminito del Rey is one of the main drawcards of the Andalusia region but there’s much more of this corner of Spain to explore.
Known for its bigger cities such as Granada, Seville and Cordoba, Andalusia is home to ancient villages, endless rolling hills, beaches and lush national parks.
Away from beach hot spots such as Costa del Sol and Malaga are a string of lesser-known towns including Jerez, the home of sherry, and Juzcar, a tiny village that was painted entirely blue to promote the Smurf movie a few years ago – and stayed that way.
Among the most spectacular is Ronda, one of Spain’s oldest towns, set above a stunning deep gorge with one of the most photographed structures in the country, the Puente Nuevo bridge.
Nearby, breathtaking swimming holes are some the region’s best spots to cool off on a hot Spanish day.
About 45 minutes outside Ronda is the La Playita, or little beach, of Zahara de la Sierra.
From the road, you would be forgiven for thinking it’s the opposite setting for a beach. Thick, bushy mountains swallow the ground with not a drop of water in sight.
But through a clearing of trees you see the first glimpse of the man-made beach, glistening out of place in a large natural park.
Families have settled into the park for the day, unpacking elaborate picnics in the sunshine and then heading into the water to float on their inflatable toys.
The artificial beach was formed from a small dam and has captured a striking image of manufactured beauty in the most natural of surrounds.
While I sit on the edge of the “beach”, I get lost wondering what else is hiding in the depths of these valleys.
We drive along the empty roads lined with rolling sunflower fields, which lead to another hideaway just 20 minutes from Ronda.
The Cueva del Gato or the cat’s cave is the most recent addition to the region’s list of natural monuments.
The place is entirely ours as we catch the last hours of sunlight and revel in the crystal-clear waters of the spectacular river pool where there are flowing waterfalls and fish swimming around us.
Having arrived in Andalusia in search of a thrill, I didn’t expect to uncover so much beauty bubbling beneath the surface.
The Puente Nuevo bridge spans a 120m-deep gorge that divides the city of Ronda; and the Caminito del Rey pathway takes walkers along steep walls of the El Chorro gorge (below).