A crown of lakes
It had been a while since we had done a proper hike, one without a guide, in real nature, one where we could escape civilisation. So when we had the opportunity to spend a week somewhere in Europe after Jean and Kathryn’s wedding, we grabbed it with both hands.
Jon had found a 5-day hike in Andorra that looked great. A total of 93km, not quite 20km on average per day, it sounded perfect. It was called Coronallacs, a crown of lakes, as we would hike past quite a number of them at high altitude.
We arrived on Sunday afternoon in Andorra, and drove straight to our hotel. We did some shopping for lollies and the compulsory chocolate for our hike (no need to buy alcohol on European hikes as they give you wine at dinner!), and went to bed early. We were both tired after a late night at the wedding.
Day one of our hike was easy despite the fact it was just going up the hill, nearly 1500m vertical. We loved the stunning meadows, the shady paths, and the tranquility. We saw a few tiny birds, and many marmots. They were super cool to watch, and looked very cute. We assume they don’t carry the plague like in Kyrgyzstan.
Refugi de L’Illa was modern and run with military precision, and even offered showers. Hot showers! What a luxury (coin-operated, one-minute long shower, free with lodging). As we arrived early we played games, dried some stuff and drank lots of tea. Dinner was excellent, with Jude getting her own veggie meal and two desserts as Jon doesn’t like flan. It was bedtime (room with 4 bunk-beds, two-high, shared with five others) straight after dinner as day two was a long day.
According to our map, the hike to refuge de Jucla would take us 10 hours and 35 minutes. It would take us across the Collada de Pessons, at 2810m the highest pass of our hike, as well as past seven out of the twelve Pessons Lakes. It was another day with glorious sunshine, making it quite hot at times to hike, even at these altitudes. After leaving these stunning lakes behind, and exiting the Unesco world heritage site that attracts many day-hikers, we thought we lost the trail. We ended up hiking through a deserted ski resort, re-joining the route again in a small village along the main road. Later we realised we had actually followed the intended route.
The last section of the hike was tough and technically the most challenging of the route. Not what you need after a long day already. After going down some sketchy bits with chains, boulder-hopping across some major scree slopes and ascending another section, we finally reached our destination. This time an older, stone-built hut, where we shared our room with a young German couple who were hiking the Grand Route Pyrenees (GRP) in one go, starting the GRP on the Atlantic Coast, and they will end it in a few more weeks at the Mediterranean Coast.
After our lovely shower (again coin-operated, but this time a generous 4 minute-shower which was long enough for us both, one coin for 3 euros) we sat outside and talked to a Frenchman, Michel. After a good meat dinner for Jon, and pasta for Jude, we went straight to bed again (room with 2 bunk-beds, each 3-high, occupied by just the four of us).
The hike from refugi de Jucla to refugi de Sorteny was supposed to take us ten hours and 18 minutes, but luckily we managed to get there a little sooner. Not soon enough though as the heavens truly opened on the last kilometer or so, completely drenching us, and some of our gear, in a proper mountain thunderstorm.
The rain made for a tricky descent on slippery rocks, but soon we were in the valley and under the pine trees, occasionally giving us a bit of respite from the heavy rain. The trail turned into a small creek and sogging wet we arrived at the hut. We were given a room (again 4 bunk-beds) to share with Michel, and quickly jumped under the showers to warm up and get into our dry gear (no coins needed, free included with lodging). This refugi had the best vegetarian meal of all, a huge slice of quiche with a delicious side salad. Jon wasn’t complaining either with a huge pasta dish for him.
Unfortunately two old French guys who had walked 50 minutes joined us later in our room. They kept us awake most of the night with their snoring and coughing. We both ended up moving our bedding to the dining room upstairs for some rest…
Not a great start for our biggest day of the hike being exhausted through lack of sleep, this section was supposed to take us 11 hours and 13 minutes… It would take us to refugi del Comapedrosa. After a short descent we were in a tiny village called El Serrat. Here we had been told by the lady of the hut to take a bus to the next village (Llorts). It would save us walking 3-4km by the side of the main road which was under construction. The bus fare was an amazing 20 euro cents. We shared the bus with two groups of Spanish hikers, and zoomed passed the 2 Irish hikers and Michel who all had opted to hike this section anyway.
We hiked through some amazing scenery, many more lakes in stunning valley settings, and enjoyed a few brief breaks. We didn’t dare to stop for too long though as we were a little worried about the estimated time for this section of the hike… The first two days we had walked only slightly faster than the estimated time, although the day before we had knocked off nearly two hours of the estimated ten and a bit. We didn’t know which scenario described us better, but had to err on the side of caution. We didn’t want to arrive too late.
We needn’t worry, but we weren’t to know until we reached the top of the long last climb of the day. Tired, but dry this time as the sun had been shining all day again, we reached the hut. We checked in and were told to wait until someone would show us our room. Michel was already waiting too. Twenty minutes later, getting cold from drying sweat and standing still, we were still waiting for someone to show us our room… The lady who had checked us in could be seen on the ipad at the kitchen table, pretending to be very busy…
Eventually we were shown our room, we were sharing it with seven others, including Michel again, and the Spanish group of five hikers. Little did we know that there was again a snorer in our midst… Jude left the room in the middle of the night and found a much quieter room to continue some snoozing.
We had been puzzled by the number of people coming down the Obaga dels Aspres path the previous day. It was a significant climb, which took us to our last hut, but many people were coming down as we were heading up. The majority didn’t look they had ever been on a hike before. Many didn’t carry water or anything else, often not wearing hiking shoes, or even runners. One middle-aged, toothless man sporting a huge beer belly was even carrying a tiny dog in a half-open backpack in his hand… But as we reached the top of the pass out of the valley where the hut was located we understood. On the other side, not much further, was the end station of a gondola…
Others had told us their tales of where they lost the trail, often adding many hours to their day to rejoin again. We had managed to avoid getting lost until the last day. There may have been a sign when we had to get off the short section of road we had to descent, but we never saw it. Maybe the bus and truck in front of the building where we were supposed to turn off had blocked it, we will never know. All we know is that we lost the trail and it took us a few hours to find it again. We didn’t add too much time to our day though as we just took another trail down the mountain, but we probably missed some of the nicer trails in exchange for walking through a bike park. Never mind. We picked up the trail again shortly before arriving in the village of Sispony, where we decided to hop on the bus back to Escaldes-Engordany. It saved us walking beside the road again for another 4km or so.
Our friendly bus driver dropped us off near the tourist info centre (and the hotel where we had been allowed to store our suitcases), which was closed. We bumped into some of the Spanish hikers who told us you could have a shower in the sport hall about 150m from our hotel. Perfect. After collecting our suitcases in the hotel, having a shower and eating an Italian ice cream, the info centre was open again and we could collect our pressie – a buff each.
It had been fantastic to be out hiking alone again. The trail had been tough, but rewarding, although some more markers in critical locations would possibly stop more people from losing the trail…
This hike is one we can recommend, but only if you are fit (we weren’t, so struggled a bit at times). Most days are long, and there is plenty of ascent and descent each day to give your legs a good dose of exercise. We enjoyed it, and loved the freedom, the vistas, and the exercise!
The nitty-gritty of our hike:
Day 1: 12.6km from Escaldes-Engordany to Refugi de L’Illa, +1473m -40m estimated time 6hrs 38 min
More on Refugi de L’Illa:
Refugi de L’Illa (50 people max) was a large, wooden and modern hut and is open year-round. A strict no-shoes-inside policy applies to keep it all clean, inside you wear their crocs. It uses solar energy and you are only allowed to use their soap to protect the environment. They have their own chickens, serve a great breakfast, and have super friendly staff. You can freely get as much hot water as you like for cuppas. Our room had four modern wooden bunk-beds, only two high. Showers were coin-operated, hot and powerful for one minute. You each get a coin. Breakfast was great, with plenty to eat. Half board will set you back 55 euro per person, and you can get a picnic for 12 euro (sandwich with fruit).
Day 2: 19.4km from Refugi de L’Illa to Refugi de Juclà, +1350m -1527m estimated time 10 hrs 35 min
More on Refugi de Juclà:
Refugi de Juclà was an older-style stone-built hut, which appeared smaller, but sleeps a similar number of people (45). They also provide fake crocs for inside the hut, but seem less strict on it. Staff was a bit weird and uninterested, but generally friendly. The showers were also coin-operated, but here you had to buy the coins (3 euro). One was enough for both of us as one coin gave you 4 minutes of hot water. Our room had two bunk-beds, three-high. You had to ask for hot water for a cuppa in the kitchen. This hut is only open from 1 June for four months. Breakfast was fine. Half board here costs 38 euros, and a picnic 11 (couscous salad).
Day 3: 16.9km from Refugi de Juclà to Refugi de Sorteny, +1425m -1771m estimated time 10 hrs 18 min
More on Refugi de Sorteny:
Refugi de Sorteny also sleeps 50, and is built from stone, but inside there was a lot of wood. This hut is also open year-round. Here you can have showers as long as you want, no coins needed. They also give you fake crocs for inside wearing. You have to ask for a cuppa behind the bar again. Staff is friendly. The food here was amazing, although dessert was a bit strange (dry cake with 2 bits of milk chocolate on top…). Breakfast was good, but no cheese for the vegetarian, plenty of meat though for Jon… At this hut you pay 40 euros for half board, 10 for a picnic (huge sandwich).
Day 4: 21.9km from Refugi de Sorteny to Refugi del Comapedrosa, +1904m -1608m estimated time 11 hrs 13 min
Not long after the start of the day we took a bus from El Serrat to Llorts for 20 cents each. It saved us hiking along the main road for about 4km. We were also a little worried about the estimated time for the route of this day. By taking the bus we had hopefully cut off a little of the time needed.
More on Refugi de Comapedrosa:
Refugi de Comapedrosa sleeps 48 and is an old-style mountain hut, it is only open during the summer months. Staff is very rude and unprofessional, leaving people waiting up to 20 minutes before they are shown their room. Rooms differed in size a lot, all had metal bunk-beds, two high. Showers were only made available after 6pm, so we didn’t use them (3 showers in a tiny room about 30cm apart without privacy screens). You had to collect a free coin from reception. Breakfast was disappointing, not enough and no cheese, meat or egg. They didn’t seem to provide hot water for a cuppa. They have cut-off wellies for inside the hut, but we decided to use our own crocs as theirs looked uncomfortable. Dinner was fine, nothing special, but the next day it appeared the vegetarian option wasn’t 100% vegetarian and Jude was feeling sick… This hut was the cheapest for half board at 37 euro per person, picnic also 11 euro for fruit plus a pasta salad.
Day 5: Refugi del Comapedrosa to Escaldes-Engordany, 21.4km +716m -1922m estimated time 9 hrs 17 min
We took a bus from the main roundabout near Sispony to Escaldes-Engordany to avoid a section of roughly 4km along the main road. We were also keen to get back as we still had to drive to Barcelona airport that afternoon as we were staying in a nearby hotel so we would be on time to catch our very early morning flight.