A Four Day Road Trip through Northern Spain

Prior to pulling out an atlas that had been collecting dust on my bookshelf, I had never even heard about Spain’s Picos de Europa National Park.  Located just inland from Spain’s northern coast, straddling the provinces of Cantabria and Asturias, the park features stunning landscapes ranging from green valleys to snowcapped alpine peaks, with tons of things to see and do in between.

Trip Overview and Detail

  • Costs
    • JFK to Madrid: $398 (37,000 points on Chase
    • Madrid to Santander: $80
    • Audi A3 Rental Car: $120
    • Diesel Fuel: $50
    • AirBnB: $275
  • Itinerary:
    • Day 1: Land in Santander – explore coastline
    • Day 2: Depart for Potes, stopping in Santilla Del Mar
    • Day 3: Hiking and Exploring Picos de Europa National Park
    • Day 4: Road trip to Cares Gorge, Bulnes Funicular
    • Day 5: return flight (Santander -> Madrid -> JFK)
  • Dates:
    • Mar 31 – April 5

I had a short timeframe – just over four days and four nights, and knew that there was no chance that I would get to see the entire park. Rather, I just set out to explore and see what I would find along the way – little expectations gave me the freedom to go at my own pace, and not have any serious FOMO about not being able to take in every vista or tiny village.  If you’re thinking about a quick trip to the Picos de Europa park – here’s what I did, where I went, and about how much I spent over the trip.

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Santander Coastline

Before heading towards the park, I actually stayed one night in Santander – which was a quick 45 minute (and $75) flight from Madrid.  After a quick 15 minute drive from the airport, I found myself in the heart of downtown Santander.  Parking ended up being about $20 per day in a nearby garage, but it was worth it for the convenience.  Santander felt like a ‘little big city’ with tight streets and some larger buildings, but overall a much quieter vibe than Spain’s larger tourist cities.  I spent a few hours driving along the coast in my rental, stopping along the way for various views and a quick drone flight.

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The next morning, I woke up and quickly got on the road towards the National Park, but pulled in for a quick pit stop in Santillana Del Mar, a medieval town dating back to the 12th century.  With cobbled streets and a variety of little shops (and a torture museum), it was a great place to kill a few hours of time, but I don’t think I would want to spend more than an afternoon there. There is a famous nearby cave system, but I didn’t find out about it until after my trip.  After an eerie pit stop in the torture museum, I got back on the road towards my next stop – Potes.

Once again, I had sort of just picked the town of Potes from a map, due to its central proximity to the nearby national park. Technically, my airbnb was actually in a village just outside of Potes called Cobena, but with only about 20 other inhabitants and no businesses/restaurants, I considered it more of a neighborhood than a separate town – just a quick 10 minute drive up a scenic mountain road.  More on that in a bit.

I ventured through the town of Potes, along the river that dissects the town and contains the famous arches that are often seen in pictures.  First mentioned in historical documents around 847 AD, the town’s strategic position along the intersection of two rivers helped it turn into a thriving city and later the capital of Liebana.

I ventured around the town a little, wandering the small streets and taking in all of the architecture – and the views of the mountains in the background.  Parking was easy to find, and the city was pleasantly quiet, with just a few other tourists wandering around. At night, the streets and restaurants would get a little busier, but once again, with just over 4,500 residents, the town would never become loud or busy.

Finally, I set out for the place I had been most excited for – the Picos de Europa National Park – covering 646 square kilometers and spanning the three provinces of Castille de Leon, Asturias, and Cantabria, the park had so much to offer.  Just driving through the winding roads offered serene landscapes ripe with the smell of cow manure and fresh soil carried along by the mountain breezes.  And – as I chose dates between two tourist seasons and took some chances with a rain forecast – I saw no crowds, tourists traps, or large buses of people.  Heaven.

My first stop within the park – well, my first actual stop, as I was continually pulling over throughout the drive, was the Fuente De Cable Car.  This ‘funicular’ has one of the steepest grades in Europe, quickly catapulting you to near the top of the mountain range. – In early April, this meant a change from warm and green to cold, windy, and covered in snow.  Not at all what I had initially expected when booking another trip to Spain.

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Twisting through the mountain road that cut through jagged peaks, tunnels, and steep grades to eventually get me to the valley that is home to the Fuente De Funicular – one of the tallest in the world. While I could have taken a much longer route (ie actually hiking) up into the mountains, the short duration of my trip and the fact that I was hiking alone led me to choose the cable car instead. I don’t regret the decision at all (and hey, they gave me a discounted ticket for having a hiking guide license). Click here to get more info about the cable car from its official website, and purchase tickets ahead of time. This was actually the only place during the entire trip where I felt a little crowded – there happened to be a school trip that day – still, not bad at all compared to the crowds that we encountered waiting for Barcelona’s Telerifico connecting its port and Montjuic.

To the right, you can see the view of the car taking you up into the mountains. It looks incredibly steep as you stare up at the wires at a seemingly impossible near vertical angle. Your ears will pop a few times on the ride up.

Upon arriving at the top, you’re going to step out onto an incredible platform looking out at the mountain range across from you – looking down through the slatted floor of the platform should also get the stomach butterflies moving too. This was another spot that felt slightly touristy for a moment, but it quickly cleared out, and I got a few moments to myself.

I continued on, slipping on microspikes as I watched many others slipping on the snow and ice, as they were scrambling to the accessible spots for the token picture of the day.

As you can see, it was hard not to get that epic shot here – with the Picos de Europa mountains in the background, it was a hard spot to walk away from, but I knew I wanted to get a little deeper into the park. Despite a questionable weather forecast and some ominous clouds in the distance, I ventured out for a few miles, and once I passed the first turn around a bluff, I once again had the place to myself.

The hike wasn’t particularly challenging, but hiking in a place so serene and my first time hiking alone internationally made this quick hike one to remember. Since it was early April, the snow was getting icy, as there hadn’t been much fresh snowfall in a few weeks, but there were a few spots when I inadvertently stepped off the trail and sunk in up to my hips. I can only imagine how wicked this place can get in the dead of winter. I continued on for another hour or so, stopping here and there to take in the peace and quiet of the mountains, and once or twice to trudge up a steep slope solely for the purpose of a great buttslide back down. Its the little things sometimes.

After coming back down from the mountain (mostly thanks to the cable car), I headed back to the AirBnB in Cobena, just outside of Potes. A normal person might have been able to make that drive in about 40 minutes, but since I often had the roads to myself, I drove at a slower pace to take in the views (as well as get some shots). Just in the middle of this picture to the right, you can see the blue house that served as my base for the three days. There were only about 20 other villagers there, and I only bumped into two (aside from my host family) during my time there – and only used my broken Spanish!

The next day (and my final full day in Spain), I headed off for the Cares Gorge – about a 1.5 hour road trip from Cobena (which probably could have been completed quicker had it not been for my frequent stops). The Cares Gorge – an incredible canyon carved through Asturias, above the rambling Rio Cares. I had heard about it from a few places while doing a little googling, and despite it being a common tourist attraction, I was lured in by its claims of being ‘one of the best walks in the world’.

Unfortunately, just as I was arriving at the start of the hike (after some help from the Civilian Guard to find the trail head), some bad weather set in – heavy rain and wind, as well as some sleet and snow. With the area already prone to flash floods, I decided not to risk a solo hike. Instead, I sort of stumbled onto the Bulnes Funicular – a train that travels nearly 2,000 vertical feet through an underground tunnel to a tiny village in the mountains.

After the 8 minute train ride (in which I only shared the train car with two other travelers and the conductor), I arrived in the tiny mountain village. There happened to be a small restaurant open amongst the remote buildings, and we even happened to bump into the mayor of the town. It was pretty tranquil to walk through the town without any other tourists chattering or wandering the empty streets.

Finally, I returned to my AirBnB for the night. To my horror the next morning, I slept through several alarms, and woke up at 7:36 am on the morning of a 9:15am flight. Keep in mind – I was about 105 km from the airport at that point in time – I had never driven with so tactfully and swiftly through mountain passes and backroads, to make it to the gate at 9:12 am, out of breath and soaked in sweat – but they let me on that plane.

And so that concluded the 4 day road trip through Spain’s northern provinces of Cantabria and Asturias. If you need to explore some incredible scenery without suffering the crowds of some more popular places (or the prices) – you need to check out this itinerary!

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