Bikepacking the Empty Mountains

by Matt de Neef


Words and photos: Tomás Montes

There’s a region in north-east Spain they call Serranía Celtibérica, the Celtiberian Range. More commonly known as Spanish Lapland, this region covers 13% of the country’s total landmass, but is home to just 1% of its population. It’s sparsely populated, vast, imposingly mountainous, and undeniably beautiful — perfect terrain for a bikepacking adventure.

Tomás Montes is a Barcelona-based freelance photographer who’s been riding bikes for as long as he can remember. He started bikepacking long before the word “bikepacking” existed, with his first trip coming at the tender age of 14 when he had help carrying his gear. Many years later, Tomás certainly hasn’t lost his thirst for adventure. Along with a couple of friends he recently ventured into the Spanish Lapland to trace a route that’s become known as “Montañas Vacías” — “Empty Mountains”. This is the story of that ride.


My two good friends, Poke and Uri, had been scheming a bike trip for months. I am the one who often hesitates when committing to dates because my freelance schedule is subject to constant change. However some mental fatigue led to a need to explore.

I was not fully aware of what the proposal entailed. I just had some dates and a website. I confirmed via WhatsApp: I’m in.

The plan was to ride 700 kilometres through rural Spain, discovering isolated landscapes and paths out of the ordinary. Where to sleep, where to refuel, and how to navigate in case of any unforeseen circumstances: these were all crucial considerations.

The Montañas Vacías route was designed by Ernesto Pastor. He has put lots of love into creating a circular route with plenty of options and shortcuts — you choose how difficult you’d like the ride to be. His wonderful website provides enough data to get lost in the most unpopulated region of the Spanish Peninsula.

Image: montanasvacias.com

Pastor suggests breaking the route into four stages, each comprising approximately 150 km with a great deal of up and down. To make things a little easier on ourselves, we opted to divide the route into six days, alternating nights in hostels with nights in mountain huts. We carried extra food with us to allow for possible changes to our plan. That would eventually prove to be a key element in our survival.

After three hours by car from Barcelona, we arrived in Teruel where we stopped for a brief meal. Soon afterwards we were on the pedals. In our minds we couldn’t wait to leave the city behind and slip gradually into our adventure.

Our first night didn’t require us to unroll our sleeping bags — we had beds at a hostel in Albarracín where we were also able to enjoy some local dried meats.

The morning felt lazy and none of us were in a rush — we knew these were some of our last moments of comfort.

The day was smooth. Our expected stops at Bronchales and Griegos came around with ease and we arrived with enough time to prepare supper and set ourselves up for the night at the mountain refuge, El Monolito (1,550 m).

That first sleeping bag night was a clear warning that, in this region, summer was over before we had anticipated. The crude confirmation came the next morning when we started pedalling with the temperature sitting at 5ºC.

None of us had a smile on our face that morning. We dug into our bags for extra layers. I wore gloves, sleeves and a wind jacket.

The wind proved to be gruelling. After 40 km of riding we arrived at Checa, feeling frozen. We paid a visit to the local bar and shop to warm up and buy provisions. As we ate hot sandwiches, we checked the weather forecast. Rain was on the way. We were hoping that the wind would drop in intensity at least …

Back on our bikes we continued with the longest stretch of the trip. Before night arrived we wanted to sleep at a hotel in Zaorejas, but the wind was still going strong and cold. Before we reached the town we’d have to endure a 5 kilometre mountain pass. Hungry, cold and trying to escape an imminent thunderstorm, we started climbing.

The hotel in Zaorejas was shut. The only bar in town was also shut. The streets were empty. After a few minutes of indecision and time spent reconciling with reality, the pouring rain found us heading for shelter at a nearby bus stop. Our only option was to pull on a raincoat and pedal until the next refuge. It might only have been 12 km away, but those 12 km seemed to take an eternity.

At last, at the Sima de Alarcón, with no will for any further exploration, we prepared a hot meal, taking comfort in the knowledge that, tomorrow, we’d have fewer kilometres to cover.

Upon arrival in Beteta the next morning, we replenished our pantry and stomachs and paid a quick trip to the pharmacy to get some aid for our aching bodies. The bar was full and the town was full of activity. That very night the local festivities were starting, but we wouldn’t be there to dance along.

We got back on our bikes and headed down a deserted road. Towns were the only points along the path where we found people; the only place where locals kindly assisted us with our queries, and the only place where we could buy food. But even that was not guaranteed. We also found our share of seemingly uninhabited, ‘all shut’ towns. They taught us an important lesson: It is important to replenish well when you can.

Our ride took us through woods of pine trees where we saw deer, birds of prey, foxes, snakes and crickets. And that’s just what we could see — perhaps there were more hidden animals, but we didn’t recognise them or even see them. After all, we are just big-city people.

Our time in nature made us forgetful about our water supplies. We arrived in La Halconera, a refuge at 1,470m, with not enough water to cook supper and breakfast for us all. We would have to ration what little we had. But then we had a lucky strike: we bumped into a family from Cuenca that was already burning a generous fire and that had an extra three bottles of water they were able to give us. That night we would sleep warm enough for as long as we kept the fire going, and with enough warm food. Still, the experience had us keen for a bed the following night.

The next day we didn’t want any surprises. The moment our phones connected to the mobile network we rang to book our lodge. The day was short and quite relaxed but later rain threatened from the sky. It seemed that would be the norm for the next few days.

Once in Laguna de Marquesado we discovered what felt like a palace. It was a small rural house, with more rooms that we needed, bathrooms, WiFi connection and the luxury of a washing machine. If anything, this helped us to stop smelling of whatever we smelled of after four days of no more hygiene than a few wet wipes.

Because this one was a short day’s ride, we even had time to enjoy some beer at the only local bar and to negotiate dinner with the owner. She prepared Spanish omelette and some ribs for the three of us. Without planning it, our meal served as a goodbye dinner to our six-day trip through the Montañas Vacías.

Heavy thunderstorms were forecast for our final day of riding. A cold wave had struck the region and the route ahead of us went high up into the mountains. We changed plans and made the decision to take a shortcut back towards Teruel, where we’d started our ride six days earlier. The drastic change sent us 93 kilometres down a national highway. Still, it seemed better than riding into the mountains with thunderstorms on the horizon.

After a five-hour fight against relentless wind we arrived back at Teruel before driving back to Barcelona for a warm night’s sleep in our own beds.

Our time in the Spanish Lapland was over, but it hadn’t ended the way we wanted it to. We hope to return with better weather conditions and finish the entire route at the Sierra de Javalambre. I guess you could say we have unfinished business with the Montañas Vacías.

You can find more of Tomas’ photography at his website and at his Instagram page.

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