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Wild and without: Aigüestortes i Estany of Saint Maurici National Park

In the heart of the Pyrenees, we wake up from a cosy nights sleep in our tent, it was cold but not excruciatingly so. Wide awake, freshened and energetic to explore. We came to Espot to experience the mighty Pyrenees mountains. We decided randomly on the national park Aigüestortes i Estany of Saint Maurici. Well we say randomly, it was in the direction we wanted to go and from a quick explore on Google Maps, it looked incredible.

The previous evening we had a stroll around the small village of Espot and found a surprisingly nice cafe. We had our first taste of Catalonian tapas and it was glorious. We’ve been looking forward to Spanish food for a while now, our experience of budget French has been pretty dire. We managed to order 3 or 4 different vegetarian dishes which were perfect. The cafe is named Cafè & Bistro E BO and you can find it here. We ate our food and drank a refreshing beer, it had been a long day of travel.

National park taxi

The first problem of the day is that the road to the national park from Espot is not open for the public. Cars are prohibited. However, they do offer a taxi service next to the tourist information centre. In order to get all the information we need we head over to the tourist information center. We ask about taxis, maps, hiking routes, shelters and so on. The lady in the tourist information center is super helpful and speaks perfect English. We get all the answers we need! So far everything in Aigüestortes i Estany of Saint Maurici national park is organised, like well a greased machine.

The taxis are jeeps which fit around 6 people in and they tend to go when they are full. We pay €10.50 for both of us one way (November 2017). Before we get in the taxi though we need to go and grab some food and snacks. There are a bunch of grocery stores around where you can buy bread, noodles, chocolates and lots of other stuff. We settle for Aioli and bread, which soon becomes a favourite of ours. The Aiolo is proper here, none of that mayo crap.

After stocking up on snacks we head back to the taxi for the ride in to the national park. At this point we don’t really know what to expect. We sit in the back of the jeep and enjoy the ride, gaining about 600 metres along 8KM’s of road. The taxis drops us off near by the Sant Maurici lake, which is around 1900 metres in elevation.

Aigüestortes i Estany of Saint Maurici

The lake is absolutely stunning, the day is incredibly dark, moody and cold. Deep blues, greens and yellows all around, the palette is softly muted, much different from the summer months. Low hanging fog sweeps over the hills and floats above the lake. A dusting of snow on the high peaks creates the perfect contrasting balance of colours. We’re already in disbelieve of the beauty and we’ve barely started yet. Aigüestortes i Estany of Saint Maurici national park is a hidden gem.

Low fog over lake Sant Maurici

There are quite a few people around the lake and like us most of them plan to either do a short walk around the lake and then maybe hike up to a large waterfall which pours in to the lake. The waterfall is very close to the lake and from the taxi drop off point it is about a 2KM walk with a bit of up towards the end. Quite easy.

The waterfall is huge and powerful, roaring and crashing over huge boulders with fallen tree trunks scattered over them. If you are careful you can climb over the rocks and get in the middle of the waterfall for some awesome views. The weather and fog are so thick it is quite hard to take photos and we don’t get any great shots of the waterfall. The path zig zags up and meets the waterfall various times, so there are lots of opportunities to stop and admire.

Waterfall near lake Sant Maurici

Thirst for more

Since we get to the waterfall in a relatively short amount of time we begin to wonder if we can see more. There is still plenty of time and the beauty has already blown us away, we are thirsty for more. We consult our map and see there are more and more lakes as the trail ascends. Figuring we can just follow the trail and turn around when it starts to get late, we continue.

The trail weaves up and over the waterfall and then alongside the river through the forest until it meets the next lake, around a 30 minute walk away. Welcome to lake Ratera.

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The water colour is just incredible, so clear and green, perfectly reflecting the mountains and forest. At this lake we are the only people, no one else came this far, and it is not really far at all. It feels like we have the whole national park to ourselves already. We sit on a huge rock by the shore and enjoy the view. Thick clouds of fog stream in and out of valley, each time revealing a new spot of beauty we haven’t yet noticed. In the middle of the other side of the lake is a waterfall seemingly in the middle of the forest.

Green lake Ratera with waterfall falling in to it

Deeper into Aigüestortes i Estany of Saint Maurici

We consult the map again and see that further up the trail is a mountain hut. We decide we’ve got time and set off on the trail again, we are enjoying the scenery too much, we don’t want to leave yet.

What a great decision that was because the next scene just blows us away. We feel like we are in dinosaur territory, a land before time. The board walk crossing the marshy scorched grass, winding directly up to the smoky mountains in the background. Giant boulders scatter the land and no sound other than the cold wind whistling can be heard. This is one of my favourite photos of our whole hitchhiking trip.

After we traverse the marshes, we walk through some forest and then make a quick scramble up a bit of a steep path where a huge rock overlooks a tiny lake. We decide to have a bit of lunch here and crack open the Aioli. The name of this lake is Estany de les Obagues de Ratera. Estany means lake in Catalan but we’re not quite sure how to translate the rest!

Shortly after this lake the path begins to ascend a bit more steeply with a few switch backs. The lake is in a sort of rock bowl so the path traverses the lake rock sides. At the top, the path turns right and then crosses the mountain slope where it joins back with the larger dirt road. There are some scree patches to cross and the path is quite small with some high drops, so take a little care if the weather is bad.

Mountain hut

With one last switch back we reach the mountain hut Refugi Amitges. In total the hike was around 5KM with a 500M ascent, very doable we think. And when you reach the hut and witness the huge panoramic vistas of the valley below and the snow capped peaks, you will fall in love with this national park.

Check out our hut to hut hike through the Karwendel Alps in Tirol, Austria part 1, part 2 & part 3.

We explore near the hut, walking around yet another lake and enjoy the views back down into the valley, reflecting in tiny little lakes. The weather seems to be worsening, a storm is brewing on the mountains opposite us. We are quite high now and there is a bit of snow around, not particularly fresh but it adds a beautiful contrast to the landscape, all the greens and yellows are coming through. The colours are just phenomenal, it’s really one of the most unique landscapes we’ve seen. Aigüestortes i Estany of Saint Maurici national park has been incredible so far.

We take a look at the hut, it seems like a nice place but it is closed during the winter. However, there is a winter room that is open. We take a look inside and to our surprise there are beds and a gas heater. We are immediately gutted that we didn’t bring more food and clothes so we could sleep up here. That would have been incredible, we debate staying anyway, but it can’t work, we will starve.

Back to Espot

With heavy hearts we start our decent. To keep our spirits high we decide that we will do another hike here in the national park, we will either come back here to this hut and stay the night or we will hike to another hut and stay the night there. It’s settled. It’s too beautiful to pass up on.

The path down is easier and wider, wide enough for a 4×4 to drive up. The views back down to the valley are just insane, but the weather worsens still and the temperature drops. The day is drawing to and end, it’s almost five o’clock and it will get dark soon. We are nowhere near the end…

We can see a wall of mountains whichever way we look. All with a dusting of snow. The rest of the bare jagged mountain rock glows in the afternoon light. In the distance we can see one of the lower lakes, still and silent, a deep turquoise colour. The thick fog idling around it, accentuating its colour.

We pass another new lake, a tiny one in comparison to the others. It’s surrounded by orange grass and reeds, it seems to be a pit, swallowing tumbling rocks from the mountain. We count six lakes so far, all in around 7KM’s.

The path flattens out a little and as we walk through the valley approaching the second lake, another beautiful scene unfolds. A river connecting the lakes shines like a mirror, scarily still. The mountains and fog reflect perfectly, only the scene is almost too big to be captured by my lens. I fumble around, looking for a composition, knowing that we need to hurry out of here if we want to make it back to our tent.

Last minute magic in Aigüestortes i Estany of Saint Maurici

It doesn’t quite work landscape, but I am really happy with the portrait shot, the reflections are perfect and the mountains fit with ease. The small rock lying in the river adds a bit of foreground interest. For me it’s the colours that make it, the orange reeds and muted greens. It feels so mysterious here. The waters are all so still, but the storm rages on.

Aydin taking photos of mountain reflections

We get a move on, stopping occasionally to admire the lakes. We pick up the pace, hoping to catch the last taxi but also not so confident that we will. First we pass lake Ratera, the waterfall and then finally lake Sant Maurici. We snap a few last minute pics of the boardwalk through the forest. What can we say, we are suckers for boardwalks. There is just something about them, winding and twisting around the boulders and trees. Like something from a fairy tale.

Missing the last taxi

We get back to the taxi drop off point and of course we missed the last taxi. Never mind, at least we will save ourselves 10 euros. It’s quarter to 6 now so it’s most likely going to be dark by the time we get down, but at least we are walking on a road instead of a hiking trail, which would get a lot darker.

Consulting Googlemaps, it seems to think it will take us just over one hour and thirty minutes, 8KM’s and 600M down. We get a second opinion with maps.me (it’s not very good for estimations in our opinion) and we see there are a few shortcuts we can take to reduce the time and distance.

The walk is nice, but fairly uneventful in comparison to the magical beauty we just witnessed higher in the national park. Much of the walk down is through dense pine forest and when we finally get a view of Espot, the lights are flickering and the stars are out. Our feet are tired now, we ‘ve hiked almost 20KM’s, a rest is well deserved.

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Snow storm incoming

When we get back to our campsite the friendly old lady there tells us that the snow will fall tonight. We can’t be bothered camping in that so we move to one of her rooms instead and then head on back to our favourite cafe for more beer and tapas. The snow begins to lightly fall as we watch through the big glass windows. We are cosy and blushing from the heat, it feels like Christmas. As the night draws to and end we frolic in the snow on the way back to our room. What a great day!

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get there

Easier said than done. You will have much more success with your own car. Hitchhiking works great too. Failing that you can at least get close to Espot with some public transport. In summer there is a national park bus connecting some of the smaller towns around the Pyrenees. See here for more information.

Things to do in Espot

Hiking, hiking and hiking! There is nothing to do in Espot itself apart from a few cafes so grab your hiking boots and get in to the mountains!

If you are in Espot in the winter you can also go skiing.

How to get to the national park

If you’ve got a car you can drive to the national park car park and walk to the first lake from there. It’s around a one hour walk, the walk is nice, often over wooden boardwalks and river crossings.

If you don’t have a car or you don’t want to walk to the lake, take a taxi. You get the taxis from next door to the information centre. The taxis take you directly to the first lake. They only go when full, but even in November we waited no more than 10 minutes. You will probably have more luck if you go early.

If you need maps or any other information, head in to the national park information centre, they are very helpful and speak great English.

Accommodation

We stayed at the campsite Camping Solau which was nice enough. They also have rooms, which we stayed in for one night when the snow came. The lady running the place is helpful.

Check out some deals on Booking.com below

Booking.com

Pro Tip

Visit in the winter, it’s absolutely gorgeous. One of the prettiest national parks we have ever visited, in all of our travels!

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