We always thought that the five day bike ride across the Badlands from Granada to Cartagena would be the biggest challenge of this trip. And it didn’t let us down!
The first test was to get through the mountains of the Sierra Nevada or at least the edge of them. It was a long climb up to the Puerto des Blancares pass (1297m high) but a clear blue sky, autumnal colours and cool, fresh mountain air brought back many happy memories of our first mountain journey through the Pyrenees … exactly five years ago.
Descending the other side down to Guadix felt like landing on a different planet! This high plateau is El Altiplano de Granada otherwise known as the Badlands.
Protected by the mountains which act as a natural rain shadow, the Altiplano is an arid semi-desert … stone dry and slightly forbidding.
Once covered in water, different rates of erosion between sandstone and clay have created deep gullies and folds in the earth. It’s an otherworldly landscape of yellow, orange and brown.
Some of the earliest fossils and bones have been discovered here, indicating that humans were hunting and gathering in this area over a million years ago.
The layers of sandstone and clay create perfect conditions for tunnelling out cave houses. Today there are several thousand cave homes in the area, the highest concentration of anywhere in Europe.
The main cave district of Guadix is an extraordinary sight. The whitewashed outer walls of cave homes nestle into the hillside. Stumpy chimneys and TV aerials indicate which mounds of earth are inhabited. A spiders web of pathways lead up and over many of the houses.
Once shelters for poor migrant workers, cave houses are currently enjoying a renaissance, as practical and trendy homes. Cool in summer, warm in winter they have many advantages. Need a new room? Then just dig one out!
Leaving Guadix for Baza, the N-342 Autopista rudely blocked our path and made for a very tricky day. Built on top of the old road, it’s now the only way to get from one town to the other… and we humble cyclists aren’t allowed anywhere near it.
Instead, we found ourselves climbing up a dried-up river bed, taking long deviations on remote country roads, riding down a bumpy service road beside the motorway and sliding in the fresh, chunky gravel of a Via Verde that was really designed for mountain bikes.
This Via Verde came to an abrupt halt after tunnelling under the motorway just outside Baza. The only way back was up a steep track. So steep that we couldn’t push the fully loaded bikes up it and were forced to leave our panniers at the bottom, before climbing back down to retrieve them.
A new challenge for our bicycle touring CV!
The ride that day was only 65km with 800m of climbing … but it was slow going. By the time we eventually hobbled into Baza we were utterly exhausted!
The following day was just as epic but much more rewarding. We pedalled across the remote desert wilderness of the high Altiplano for over 90km, climbing gently back up to a height of 1300 metres.
There didn’t appear to be any vegetation worth eating, yet several times we passed a classic biblical scene of a shepherd guarding his flock of sheep as they squeezed every drop of nutrition from the dried stalks of grass.
At lunchtime we bumped into Sandy and Chris, two fellow cyclists who now live in the unspoiled village of Galera where they have built a beautiful cave house on the hillside above the village. In an extraordinary coincidence they moved to this area from Bath, our own hometown.
It was interesting to learn more about the area from them and reassuring to hear that they had often cycled the remote road that lay ahead of us that afternoon, despite the threat of rain.
Luckily the mountains protected us from a weather system that was stirring up storms across the rest of Spain, although the brooding skies only added to the sense of isolation. That same weather system also presented us with a strong westerly wind to push us along for mile after mile.
There’s nothing quite like riding ahead of a powerful, sustained tailwind on a bicycle. A rare pleasure in our experience, it literally feels like you’re being pushed forward by an invisible hand. And it’s completely calm … there’s no hint of a breeze on your face because you’re travelling at roughly the same speed as the wind.
After two of the most dramatic days we’ve had on our bicycles, we really enjoyed relaxing in Velez Blanco that evening, a pristine mountain village capped by an imposing fairy-tale castle.
The last two days from Velez Blanco to the Mediterranean port city of Cartagena were mainly downhill. We were riding on a Sunday and then on All Saints Day, a public holiday in Spain when families gather to remember their ancestors. This meant the roads were almost deserted.
Empty roads, a tailwind, a downward false flat and a sense of euphoria from making it through the badlands unscathed all combined to make us a little giddy. We took turns at pretending we were Mark Cavendish or Marianne Vos, surfing each others wheel before sprinting to an imaginary finishing line.
Perhaps the Badlands had made us a little mad?
But we felt we deserved a bit of fun. On our way to Cartagena, we passed 2000km and 20,000m of climbing for this trip.
Not too bad after all!
Clare and Andy
Stats to Cartagena
140 hours in the saddle
Featured photo credit: Sandy & Chris Hicks