Aigüestortes i Estany De Sant Maurici – National Park
The Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany De Sant Maurici is astonishingly beautiful, completely unspoilt and, rightly described as “the jewel of the Pyrenees”, should not be missed! Although the two main areas of the Park have facilities for casual visitors they are in no way ‘touristy’. Indeed a recent survey by the Environment Ministry described the Park as the most ‘Yellowstoniano’ of Spain’s seventeen National Parks. That is to say, it embodies the virtues of the original ideology, dating from the founding of the United States’ Yellowstone National Park in 1872, of maintaining wild spaces in pristine condition whilst making them accessible for humans to seek their own interpretations and meanings. More than any other of Spain’s National Parks the sheer sylvan beauty of the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici never fails to add a spiritual quality to the visitor’s experience.
The Park consists of two principle sectors after which it is named, plus various more remote areas and a large peripheral zone. In the western arm, Els Aigüestortes, the effects of glaciation are very apparent in the near perfect ‘U’ shaped valley. Various moraine features, consisting of barriers of huge boulders left by the retreating glaciers, are home to numerous babbling brooks and waterfalls, hence the name Aigüestortes, which means ‘Twisted Waters’ in Catalan. As the streams meander across the flat floor of the valley they form a unique high altitude wetland environment – raised boardwalks allow visitors to observe this area at close range without damaging the fragile soil structure. The valley sides are heavily wooded with both evergreen and deciduous species. The main walk to Estany Llong (Long lake) is a useful excursion and suitable for walkers of all abilities (see trail 1 in the English language guide), whereas and extended walk as far as the Estany Redo (Round Lake) is well worth the effort although it involves quite a climb.
In the eastern zone, around the lake of San Maurici the scenery is far more dramatic with towering peaks and abundant rock formations made up of the original granite dating from the formation of the Pyrenees. Numerous tarns and corries, where glaciers were formed, are readily accessible via the network of marked paths. The lower slopes are densely wooded with newly eroded features and large waterfalls. Towering above all, however, are the twin peaks of the Encantats, or ‘Enchanted’ mountains. Local folklore has it that two hunters and their dog were turned into pillars of stone after cocking a snoop at the faithful celebrating Saint Maurice’s day (September 22nd), it is claimed that one can still see the three outlines at the fateful spot near the summit! What is certain, however, is that one can readily see examples of their likely prey, Pyrenean Chamois, called Izards locally, gambolling on the rocky slopes or sometimes plunging through the forest undergrowth. The walk to the Mirador de l’Estany (Lake Viewpoint, see trail 2) is a stunning introduction to the Park – be prepared to encounter snowdrifts even in May!
As mentioned above, the main zones of the park are in no way ‘spoiled’ by the facilities provided for visitors; the strict control of vehicular access sees to that, while a short stroll away from the taxi drop-off points gets one away from the ‘crowds’ even during the high summer. For the more adventurous or independent visitors, however, there are three more areas to explore which more or less guarantee solitude!
To the west and north of the Aigüestortes area the valleys centred on the Estany Negre form a recent addition to the Park’s 14,119 hectares (see trail 3). Although the first section along the banks of the Cavallers reservoir proves rather tedious hiking along a rough scree slope, the array of secondary valleys fanning above the Casacada de Riumalo waterfalls are well work the effort.
The southern lobe of the park is a high bare mountaintop region with numerous glacial features such as drumlins, corries and tarns, access is from the head of the Val Fosca (see trail 4). Despite, or perhaps because of, the long exposure to the sun’s rays numerous flower species brighten water courses in an otherwise hostile environment. Accessing the Park by using the cable car adds to a sense of drama already heightened by the setting of the hydroelectric power installations, which are reminiscent of the sets of early James Bond movies! A walk suitable for all, especially children, is the ‘Carrillet’ walk along an old wagon way, which follows the contours of the mountainside for about four miles (see the Val Fosca and Walking Routes guides).
Finally, accessible directly from the eastern portal at Espot is the Estany Negre (Black Lake) area; glacial activity here was especially marked as it faces north NB this is another Estany Negre!
Visiting the Park
In Spain National Parks are totally wild nature reserves with limited access, so you have to leave your car at the boundary where a warden will supply you with a bag for your litter and a map/guide/rule-book. But once inside you are on your own. Having said that it is wise to get there early, especially at weekends and during August, as the parking is strictly limited at the boundary and it is a long walk otherwise. Note that the trails featured in the enclosed official guides begin at these marked boundary car parks.
Alternatively, fleets of Landrover taxis operate from the villages of Espot (for Estany de Sant Maurici ) and Boí (for Planell d’Aigüestortes). The fare is quite reasonable and one gets dropped off high up in the Park saving a lot of time, especially if one wants to walk way up to the peaks! The taxis wait outside the visitor centres. Excellent maps and guides are on sale at the centres as well as displays of free information, exhibitions, etc. The Institut Cartogràfic de Catalunya produce a superb 1:25 000 scale topographic map for advanced walkers as well as series covering the geology, flora, etc. which make excellent souvenirs. The shop in Tremp’s science museum also sells ICC maps.
Once inside the Park one must be reasonable self-sufficient and the TOPLOF rule applies (Take Only Photographs – Leave Only Footprints), so please be particularly careful about litter, etc. However the various refuges provide limited catering services which varies in accordance with the remoteness of the location: definitely no ice creams!
The western approach is via the Boí (Bohi in Spanish) valley; either take the road behind Figols over to Pont de Montanyana and head north on the N230, or alternatively follow the N260 from la Pobla de Segur via the Col de Perves. Both route converge at the small town of Pont de Suerte, beyond which there is a well sign posted turn off to the right. The park entrance is towards the head beyond the turning into the Val de Boi, which is where to go for the taxi. NB Pont de Suerte is an excellent place to buy walking boots.
The approach to Estany De Sant Maurici is via the village of Espot. Take the C13 from Tremp to beyond Llavorsi (NB the section La Pobla de Segur – Sort is part of the N260 ‘Eix Pirineus’ route) and turn left at the sign for Espot and the Parc. It’s quite a climb. Both of these villages have shops although by nature they are rather ‘touristy’.
Cavallers Reservoir and the Estany Negre
Beyond the entrance to the Aigüstortes, past the thermal springs at Caldes de Boí, there is access to the Estany Negre area, which is a recent addition to the Park proper. Here there is parking at the dam at the very head of the valley.
This is a very unspoilt Access to the southern arm is via the head of the Val Fosca where ‘motorised’ access is by cable car (July – September. Hours: Up:- 09.00 & 15.00 Down:-13.00 & 18.00. (NB During August the car runs whenever there is a quorum of passengers). dead end valley which also give one access to the National Park, although most likely for serious walkers. There is a bar/restaurant at the bottom where one buys the tickets and also a large hostal/restaurant at the top with a visitor centre to the park.
Estany Negre de Peguera
Go to Espot (see above). Walk towards the main Park entrance, but shortly after leaving the village take the left turn as signposted.