Spain is a paradise for activity lovers where health and wellness go hand in hand, discovers Heidi Fuller-Love
From close encounters with wildlife and white-water rafting along emerald-green rivers, to hiking remote shepherd’s trails or bathing in mineral-rich hot spring waters, Spain is a paradise for activity lovers who will discover that health and wellness go hand in hand in this stunning country famed for its lofty mountains, glittering seascapes and year-round sunshine.
Fans of nature who long to get off the beaten track, while getting up close and friendly with some of Spain’s spectacular wildlife, should head for the little-known Asturias region, dubbed the ‘Capital of Green Spain’, which is renowned for its sidrerías cider houses, sumptuous sheep’s cheese and abundant wildlife.
The capital Oviedo, at the start of the 9th century Camino Primitivo – which was the original Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route – makes a perfect base for your stay in this lush and lovely region. Book into a casonas Asturianas boutique hotel, or one of the local rural houses, known as aldeas, and hike out along panoramic trails – via dense forests, dramatic gorges and lofty mountain peaks – to explore the Picos De Europa National Park. Alternatively, take a leisurely stroll around the region’s emerald green Covadonga lakes, or follow hiking trails deep into the Unesco Biosphere designated Somiedo Nature Reserve to spot immense griffon vultures, bulky Cantabrian brown bears and other rare species that dwell here.
Keen ramblers will also want to visit neighbouring León province, or head across to Catalonia on the opposite coast to hike along one of the ancient transhumance routes used by shepherds to take their cattle between the high and lowland pastures. The Navarre region is also home to a thrilling labyrinth of ancient smugglers’ paths where you can walk in the footsteps of resistance heroes who used them as an escape route during World War II.
Those set on a longer exploration of Spain’s landscapes will be in good company this year, which marks Xacobeo 2021, also known as the Holy Year or Jacobean Year. Around 600,000 people are expected to take part in the Xacobeo 21 Pilgrimage Way to Santiago de Compostela, which celebrates the transfer of the remains of Santiago the Apostle to Galicia on July 25. Pilgrims are expected on the routes throughout the year.
Off the well-worn path of pilgrimage routes, keen hikers will find diverse trails – and ski slopes in the winter – along the Pyrenees, which separates the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe. Try the Portbou to Cadaquès route for rugged coastline and pretty villages. In Granada Province, the Sierra Nevada mountain range is another popular destination for hiking and skiing.
Criss-crossed with cascading rivers and studded with mighty mountains, Spain’s Cordillera Cantábrica is a paradise for adrenalin sports activity lovers, too. From white-water rafting or canoeing along the foaming Sella River, to paragliding from the peaks of the Picos de Europa or climbing vertical walls and crossing death-defying bridges along the Via ferrata, thrill seekers will be spoilt for choice.
For those who prefer to see the world on horseback, the Iberian Peninsula’s vast network of bridle paths has plenty to offer, too. Strung out between Madrid and the province of Ávila in central Spain, the Sierra de Gredos, topped by the 2,592m Pico Almanzor, is dotted with glacial lakes and forested slopes that are perfect for horse riding, as well as mountaineering, climbing, hiking, and – in winter – ski touring. Here you can hack out for a day along forested tracks where you can spot Iberian ibex and other rare wildlife, or spend a leisurely week riding through remote villages where you’ll hardly see another soul.
For warmer horseback adventures head for Andalusia’s Sierra Subbéticas Natural Park near Córdoba, home to one of the largest colonies of griffon vultures in Southern Spain, where you can canter through dramatic landscapes following a web of trails to discover charming villages such as Priego de Córdoba, dominated by its 14th century castle and the pretty white pueblo of Iznájar, with its vast lake where you can cool off after your ride.
Since Spain is also renowned for its lack of light pollution, stargazing is another activity that can be enjoyed here. In Andalusia’s Sierras de Cazorla Biosphere Reserve and National Park you can even camp out for the night in a bubble dome and watch the night sky from the comfort of your camp bed. Further afield on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, the night sky is one of the clearest in the world, so if you head for the Teide National Park, dominated by the 3,718m Teide-Pico Viejo volcano, you’re guaranteed to witness meteor showers and other spectacular phenomena with ease.
Spain is also renowned for its balnearios or mineral rich springs. Gushing out of the earth at temperatures between 38 and 48 degrees Celsius, these healthy hot tubs are the perfect spot to unwind.
In the north, Galicia’s 300 or more hot springs, which have been in use since Roman times, are said to cure everything from eczema to arthritis. The stylish island of Toxa, linked to the seaside resort of El Grove by a bridge, is a haven for health seekers who can relax in one of the island’s balnearios while enjoying some of the succulent seafood for which this region is famed.
An hour’s drive from Barcelona on the opposite coast, Spain’s beach-strewn Costa Daurada also bubbles with hot springs and you’ll find several near the Vermouth-producing town of Reus. There are also luxurious balnearios in the cities of Murcia and Archena further along the coast and the charming city of Lanjarón, an hour’s drive from the Alhambra town of Granada, was once a magnet for celebrities, including writer Virginia Woolf and philosopher Bertrand Russell, who came here to take the waters that are said to ‘endow eternal youth’.
Those looking for wellness within their hotels are also spoilt for choice. Mallorca in particular offers a good selection of spa and wellness-focused resorts in urban and natural settings, or visitors can enjoy a focused wellness retreat in the Balearics. Options range from detox breaks and yoga retreats to medical spas and emotional healing, all curated and led by wellness experts and tailored to the individual needs of guests.