Sweat. Heavy breaths. The numbness in our legs and feet. The snow feels 3 feet deep and with each step, our boots sink and the snow reaches our thighs. We’ve been “hiking” for an hour and we’ve only gone 0.3 miles. Surrounding us are high, snow-covered peaks, with a blanket of snow engulfing us. We feel lost, but we feel free. The crisp mountain air revitalizes us as we make over a small peak as an Andorran valley opens below us. The previous senses of struggle and cold vanish as we get to appreciate the Pyrenes Mountains. However, we realize our journey is not over…. we have to go down. The path forward seems impossible; we don’t know how much long this waist-deep snow continues, and our previous pace rules out the way we came. We slowly realize the best option is to go straight down the mountain, at a seemingly 45-degree slope, with snow covering any trees or rocks that could cause us harm. It’s our best bet, so we start running, jumping, and rolling.
Andorra is a tiny country with huge mountains. We had arrived late in the evening from Paris, expecting very little from the 40 euro hotel we had booked without much research. Much to our surprise, our hotel room was unbelievably spacious, almost a suite with one room with bunk beds, two bathrooms, a pullout couch, and a queen bed in the main room. This was our first tip-off that coming to Andorra in the off-season would lead to some very grateful wallets. In the morning, we had a complimentary breakfast buffet, overflowing with yummy baked treats, Spanish tortilla, fresh fruit, and even champagne and wine. As we had a full day of hiking ahead of us, we opted to turn down a mimosa and instead filled our bellies before heading out to take on the wilderness of the day.
Now the plan was to spend the entire day hiking with our packs the roughly 12 mile distance between the hotel we stayed at in Andorra la Vella to the next hotel in the small town of Sant Julia de Loria. It involved an extremely steep 3.5 mile hike to the top of a small mountain followed by about 9 miles of traversing and culminating with us hiking down into the town and into the coziness of a warm bed and a hot shower. Seems pretty straight-forward, right? Doable at least?
Well, lady nature had other plans for us. We had set out in the crisp, clear 30 degree morning and found as we started climbing what turned out to be an extremely steep first 3.5 miles, some light snow starting to dust our packs and our heads. “Oh, how lovely!” we said as we continued the slowly climb upwards. Light snow turned eventually to just snow which turned eventually to heavy snow which then became a light blizzard as we gained more and more elevation. We somehow made it to the top of the small mountain, having come across 3 other people and a deer that emitted a scary and strange screech as it ran, and we were in total white-out conditions. The quiet beauty that we had taken in at the start of our hike, the small frozen waterfalls, the vast mountains around us, and the bounty of conifer trees, had been replaced with nothing but endless white landscape.
Thankfully, at the top the mountain there was a small stone hut where we were able to take shelter from the snow and have a nice lunch of bread and cheese and oranges. Looking out at the snow from the inside of the hut, we concluded there was no way for us to continue onwards and still make it to our hotel at any reasonable hour so unfortunately we turned back and went down the way we came. We encountered a deluge of rain when we got back to Andorra la Vella hours later, but with the assistance of some kind strangers, we were able to get on a bus that took us to our hotel in Sant Julia de Loria and to those much-needed hot showers.
The following day we took another bus to a different beautiful tiny township called La Cortinada, where we had another new hotel and we only had to walk 1.5 miles to get there. We spent the day relaxing, walking around, meeting some nice people, and eating paella. It was a calm, simple, beautiful day.
We had another full-day of hiking ahead of us on our third day in Andorra, this time from our hotel in La Cortinada to a sweet-looking 4-star hotel in the ski town of Arinsal. The hike was much shorter, consisting simply of climbing up the side of a mountain and down the other side and Voila!, we would be at our hotel. The day was warm and sunny and after one slight mishap where we were hiking for about ten minutes in the wrong direction, we made good progress throughout the day and were able to enjoy lunch at a grassy lookout on the mountain (see the featured image), where we had bread and jam and climbed trees for fun. Inevitably, in the afternoon we got high enough that our surroundings again turned to snow and as we got closer and closer to the top our hike became less of a hike and more of a trudge. We trudged valiantly, however, and were given a serene, mountain-top view as a reward. We spent some time on the mountain top, where Mike lost a bet that he could make a snowman, and then started downwards to the other side. At around 4 pm, we made it to our fancy hotel, put on our terry-cloth robes, and relaxed our tired legs.
The next day of hiking culminated in us running/sliding down a mountain thick with waist-deep snow as described in our opening, but being out there felt like being in a bottom of a sugar bowl; enormously tall mountains encircled us and glittery, diamond-like planes of snow were all that we could see at eye-level. It felt sweetly liberating to hike with no trail visible.
The following day was the ultimate payoff for our days of outdoor activities—a day at Caldea. Who knew that Europe’s largest spa resided in one of its smallest countries. As we were given our robes and left the changing rooms, we were immediately greeted with hot jets that got us ready for an experience outside of our current economic status. Inside the main area of Caldea was a vast thermal pool, with 4 smaller pools shooting out of the water. Additionally, the indoor pool was connected to an outside pool, which had stunning views of the city and mountains, while allowing us to stay in the warmth of the pool. Back inside, we discovered the “Icelandic bath”, which consisted of a cycle of placing ice cubes over your body, soaking your feet in hot water, then cold water, and then repeating the cycle. Additionally, there were aqua-massages which allowed for high-pressure jets to massage us. And of course, there was a sauna and a hammam style rooms. The most intriguing experience we had was when we entered the grapefruit bath, which consisted of a pool with, you guessed it, grapefruits! We, along with the others in the pool, didn’t seem to understand the concept, as there were just a bunch of whole grapefruits floating around in lukewarm water, until we decided to just pick up the grapefruits and massage each other. Others followed suit, and we all assumed this was the purpose. After feeling refreshed and relaxed we headed back to our hotel, preparing for our ride to Toulouse.
Our trip to Andorra, this tiny, land-locked country sandwiched along the border of France and Spain, has been one of the biggest surprises of our trip. We didn’t have much expectations aside from comments that the country is very cheap. Upon leaving, our appreciation for this country could not be higher. The cities and infrastructure are clean and work quite efficiently, the people are wonderfully nice (and commonly speak 4 languages), and the mountains and area that surround it are gorgeous. Every moment we had was greeted with wonder from our eyes and a warmth in our souls. We hope more people get to experience this beautiful country.