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Exploring Spain’s Natural Parks: Planning a Safe Hike as a Solo Female Traveler

Exploring Spain’s Natural Parks: Planning a Safe Hike as a Solo Female Traveler

Written by: Breanna Wilson

It’s not everyday that you find yourself lost, missing your next trailhead, in the rolling mountains of southern Spain with no roads, people or villages in sight. But it certainly makes for a day that you won’t ever forget, I can tell you that. And that’s coming from someone who travels a lot. Like 335 days a year a lot.

Not just because I love traveling (which, I absolutely do), I travel at this insane, and often times grueling pace because it’s my job. You see, I’m a freelance travel journalist. I’ve written for publications and brands such as Forbes, Airbnb, MTV Travel, Leatherman and Nuun, documenting my adventures through some of the remotest and hard to reach places around the world in hundreds of travel guides and personal essays. My life is an open book, almost quite literally.

Woman walking down steps in front of a historic statue of columns

But despite having done just about everything as part of my research – camping next to Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan, paragliding in Oman, horse trekking across Mongolia, hiking and bouldering up snow-covered mountains in Kazakhstan – I by no means consider myself an adventure traveler. In all truth, I actually despise that term – I think a curious traveler is more accurate. Because when people hear the word “adventure traveler,” they get the wrong idea. They get intimidated – thinking, “wow, I would love to do all of those things, but I’ve never climbed/paraglided/thru-hiked before. I could never do that trip myself.” And I hate that.

Because, guess what. I’m no expert at any one of those things either. In fact, my whole premise for covering them is to try them for the first time myself so that I can open people’s eyes to ways that they can do those things as a beginner as well. I don’t have loads of experience climbing. Or riding a horse. Or thru-hiking. But that hasn’t stopped me from trying any one of those things.

Because adventure is for everyone and it doesn’t look any one way.

So, why am I telling you all of this? Well, because I just completed my first solo hiking trip. I wasn’t on a tour, I didn’t have a local tour guide leading the way for me, I wasn’t even on an assignment. I was completely on my own, free to make my own plans and create my own adventure, at my own pace, and it was absolutely exhilarating.

I decided that I would make the trip through one of Spain’s natural parks – Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche Natural Park – located in the southern part of the country, near Seville, and I had a lot to plan.

What were my trail options? Would I be able to find water along the trails – or would I need to carry a backup portable purifier with me? How much time would I need to complete the different routes? What would the weather be like this time of year? Would I have cell phone reception in the natural park in case I got lost, or worse – in case of an emergency??

But also, where would I stay? What would I need to pack in my Fairview 55? And how would I do this trip as a solo female traveler?

Here’s where I started.

Woman sitting on a rock looking at a map

Planning a Week-Long International Hiking Trip as a Solo Female Traveler

Planning a trip when it’s just you can be daunting. Especially as a female. Where will you feel safe staying? How will you get from point A to point B? What do you do if something goes wrong? Is the communication barrier going to be a huge hurdle?

It’s a lot to think about, even if you are a seasoned traveler like I am.

So, where did I start? Well, Google.

I knew I’d be flying into Madrid and that I wanted to head south. So, what were my options as far as places to explore went? I soon learned that Spain has both National Parks and Natural Parks, the latter being an area protected specifically for its biology, geology, or landscape, with ecological, aesthetic, educational, or scientific value – all things that sounded right up my alley (I mean, unique geology and landscapes, hello!).

There is a strict regulation of the activities that occur in these areas (i.e., no camping) with conservation and maintenance of flora, fauna, and terrain being a priority. They range from mountainous areas to coastal areas to deserts. And something that I learned pretty quickly was that Spain has an incredibly diverse landscape and some pretty incredible national and natural parks to choose from. (Teide National Park in the Canary Islands was the most visited national park in Europe in 2013, and the sixth most visited National Park in the world at that time.)

But heading out to the Canary Islands or the Balearic Islands, and one of Europe’s most visited national parks, was a little too overwhelming for me for this first trip. Instead, I knew that I wanted a park a little bit less traversed, opting for a smaller natural park over a popular national park, which would really give me the chance to get to know, and be comfortable, in the area. A park where I could go at my own pace without eyes being constantly on me – noticing that I was traveling alone – where I wouldn’t be passing large groups of other hikers or campsites along the way. An argument could certainly be made for the opposite – that more heavily trafficked parks are safer for solo female travelers – but I don’t necessarily find that to be true. When I can take my time and not feel pressure, I find myself making better, smarter, and often times safer decisions.

Woman hiking through a dry forest

Image via Breanna Wilson

After a few hours of research, I found that if I could make it to Seville, and then get out to Aracena, this part of the country (Andalusia) would make for a great base for something just like this, especially when I started to find out that hiking tours are actually quite common in this area.

I soon discovered that Wikiloc would be a great asset as far as planning my trail routes would go. The mobile app All Trails would also turn out to be another great resource, in addition to the physical trail maps and local hiking books that I’d find at Finca Buenvino, a local family-owned and run guesthouse right in the Natural Park. The guesthouse is quite popular with hikers who make their way through the area, which also meant that the family who owns it would be another great resource when I had questions that I couldn’t find the answers to in the guidebooks and online.

Getting to Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche Natural Park

Landing in Madrid, I’d take the speed train to Seville (2.5 hours) and then a bus to Aracena (1.5 hours), arriving at Finca Buenvino, which would be my starting and ending point for each day.

The trails I would follow would be:

  • Sendero Alto del Chorrito Trail
  • Sendero Linares de la Sierra-Alájar por “El Caracol”
  • Sendero El Caracol
  • Sendero de Gran Recorrido “Tierra del Descubrimiento”
  • Camino Santa Ana-Castaño del Robledo

And what can you expect to see along these trails? Well, incredible views of the rolling mountains of Andalusia, for one. Plus, sprawling plots of chestnut trees, the occasional Iberian pig farm, a secret waterfall and the incredible “pueblo blanco” white villages such as Los Marines, Linares de la Sierra, Alájar, Castaño del Robledo and Fuenteheridos.

With well-marked trails, friendly locals and beautiful year-round weather, my decision to explore Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche Natural Park turned out to be one of the best decisions I could have made.

View of a dry forest

Image via Breanna Wilson

How to Plan Your Trip and What to Know Before You Go

There are a few crucial things to know before you go. And how to plan accordingly. These are my top pieces of advice, and the steps I took to plan this hiking trip.

Choose a place to stay that makes sense for you

Finding a good place to stay and call home base was important to me. Traveling so much, I’m very particular about where I stay. And, as a solo female traveler, who I stay with is even more important. Since I was hiking through a natural park, camping wasn’t an option – they don’t allow it in the natural parks as a way to protect that local geology and protected flora I mentioned earlier. So, I chose the charming Finca Buenvino guesthouse as my home base, taking off from there each morning. The family that owns the guesthouse will even drive you to some of the trailheads that are farther away. And – my selling point – the mother and son are both trained chefs, so the meals are absolutely spectacular and a nice reminder that you’re in Spain.

Find the best resources for navigating the area and the different trails

Once I arrived I used a combination of Wikiloc, the All Trails mobile app, Google Maps and physical maps, to make my plans. Whether you plan to check out different trails each day, or challenge yourself to do all-day hikes, the natural park has a great mix of small villages to hike through, elevation gains (and descents), and is well-marked with trail markers. I found Wikiloc to be my most useful resources for planning – it told me trail difficulty, length, exact elevation gains/descents, and even GPS coordinates.

Pack smart

Because I travel with Osprey’s Fairview 55 backpack, I was able to pull off the front pack and use that as my daypack for the hikes. I would pack snacks, a hydration bladder, an extra pair of sneakers, an external battery pack to charge my phone, a first aid kit and the physical maps and local trail book that was available to borrow from Finca Buenvino.

View of a backpack from above sitting in the grass

Image via Breanna Wilson

Have an emergency plan

While the trails were well groomed and well-marked, and I had made very good plans, I still got lost on my final hike. Which, it happens. The key is to not freak out. And I knew that I had a backup plan had something gone terribly wrong (I had cell service and the local emergency phone number, as well as Finca Buenvino’s phone number, both written down). Looking at the physical maps that I had with me, I knew that I could follow one of the nearby backroads to get to the start of my next trail, which is exactly what I ended up doing, getting my hike back on track.

Ask locals for additional tips

This is something I live by no matter what I’m doing – always ask locals for tips. (Always!) It’s how you find the stuff that guidebooks and websites don’t mention. And that’s exactly how I learned about Chorros Waterfall, a place I would have otherwise missed since it wasn’t exactly on, but wasn’t far off either, from my trail.

I can’t recommend this area for hiking enough – especially if you’re a solo female traveler. I never once felt unsafe. It’s not common for the locals in the villages to speak English, but that was never a problem – they’re accustomed to tourists.

Planning and navigating the trails in the natural park was extremely easy. And even when you get lost or in the case of an emergency – you don’t feel a sense of panic – there are farms, roads and plenty of villages in the area. Each village is only a few miles from the next, so you’re not out in the park for hours or miles at a time by yourself, and the villages are great places to find food and water throughout the day.

And – my favorite part – the trails (including the other trails around Finca Buenvino) are not overrun with other hikers. Yes, you will see the occasional other hiker, but, for the most part, you have these incredible views of Andalusia and the natural park all to yourself.

So, for my first big solo hiking trip, this area was perfect. And, whether you’re getting ready or thinking about planning your first/next/100th adventure, just remember that the outdoors welcomes everyone, no matter how much adventure travel experience you have.

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