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Deep in the Aragonese Pyrenees lies an area of natural wonder so breathtaking it seems to have jumped straight out of a fairytale: the Ordesa y Monte Perdido Parque Nacional. Verdant glacial valleys, studded with beech, fir and pine trees, wind their way around snow-capped peaks—the highest of which, Monte Perdido, soars to 3,355 metres. The vivid contrast of electric blues, luscious greens and white mountaintops is so sharp that this Disney-esque scenery comes alive in high definition.

Situated in the province of Huesca, the national park sits in the central Pyrenees along the French border and is part of the Pyrénées-Mont Perdu UNESCO World Heritage Site, which spans the two countries. The Ordesa y Monte Perdido Parque Nacional comprises four valleys and a central limestone massif, and is divided into three sections: Ordesa (west), Añisclo (south) and Escuaín (east).

Torla, a small town located three kilometres south of the park’s south-west border, is one of the more popular gateways to it. During peak times, no vehicles are allowed into the national park itself, and shuttle buses are provided from the surrounding towns. Strict codes of conduct within the park safeguard this exceptionally beautiful place, keeping it litter-free and spotless, with many outstanding, yet accessible hiking routes. Late spring is the ideal time to visit the region, as the snow melts, fresh ice-cold water surges down the mountains and honeysuckle, primroses and irises are in bloom. COLA DE CABALLO HIKE

The 17.5-kilometre return route leading to the Cola de Caballo (horsetail) waterfall is the most popular hike in the area. It encapsulates all the park’s natural highlights and can be completed in one day with a little motivation. The paths are in good condition and there are no specific technical challenges, although the hike is considered moderately difficult due to its length—it takes six to seven hours to complete (approximately three hours each way).

The hike starts at Pradera de Ordesa and follows the GR-11 path up through the Ordesa Valley along the banks of the Arazas river, until it reaches the Circo de Soaso—an amphitheatre-like basin surrounded by steep walls of rock—where the waterfall is located.

The first part of the hike is varied, passing through pine and beech forests and meadows. Each twist, turn and rise in elevation brings a change in scenery, as the immense beauty of this deep glacial valley reveals itself. Gushing waterfalls provide ample spots to stop and take in the view, such as the Mirador Cascada del Estrecho or the Gradas de Soaso—a series of natural pools that step down the mountainside.

Following the ascent alongside the Gradas de Soaso, the Faja de Pelay path flattens out as it crosses the wide mountain plains of the grand cirque. Here, ice-cold water cascades down through limestone crevices and snowy peaks seem almost within reach as the path finally leads to the Cola de Caballo. The waterfall itself is beautiful, but no more impressive than the many others encountered en route; this hike is more about the journey than the destination.

The national park is home to a rich variety of flora and fauna that evolve and change with the altitude. The valley floors are carpeted with beech, silver fir and Scots pine woods. Willow, birch and ash trees line the banks of the icy rivers, which abound with trout, desmans and the Pyrenean brook salamander. Higher up, marmots and herds of chamois deer roam the subalpine meadows, while at the uppermost reaches, only the snow finch, the alpine accentor and the ptarmigan are able to withstand the harsh climate.

With more than 1,500 species of Pyrenean flora, Ordesa y Monte Perdido is like an immense botanical garden, where common species exist alongside others that are endemic to this mountain terrain, such as the Pyrenean honeysuckle and the bear’s ear primrose. There is also plenty of wildlife to keep an eye out for: four fish, seven amphibian, 13 reptile, more than 50 mammal and 80 nesting bird species have been catalogued in the region. These include the Pyrenean frog, the golden eagle and the lammergeier, an endangered vulture species that feeds on bone and cartilage, among many others.

Situated at the confluence of the rivers Ara and Cinca in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the medieval hilltop town of Aínsa keeps a watchful eye over the surrounding countryside and makes a good base from which to explore the mountains beyond.

Once the capital of the Kingdom of Sobrarbe, which later became part of Aragon in the 11th century, the beautiful historic centre of Aínsa is a splendid example of medieval construction. Narrow streets of stone-built houses unwind into the extensive porticoed Plaza Mayor, presided over by the Romanesque church of Santa María, which dates from the 11th century.

Just west of the square are the remnants of the 11th-century castle, built to defend the town against the Moors and later adapted as part of the defensive system along the French border. During the eighth century, Aragon marked the northern boundary of Al-Andalus, although it’s not clear whether Aínsa itself was conquered by the Moors. Legend has it that the Christian troops, led by King Garcí Ximénez, saw a vision of a burning cross on top of a holm oak tree that drove them to victory in the year 724. To commemorate this, the town celebrates a local festival every two years in September called La Morisma, when the Plaza Mayor becomes the scene of a dramatic reenactment of the battle.

Besides the charming architecture, Aínsa’s spectacular natural surroundings also add to its wonder, located on a hilltop surrounded by three natural parks (Ordesa y Monte Perdido, Sierra y Cañones de Guara and Posets-Maladeta). Breathtaking views cause visitors to pause at almost every turn throughout the town, framed by stone archways and medieval facades that are eminently photogenic. Tags Archive 2018 May 2018 Nature Spring Travel Weekend