The world is full of daredevils who will sink their grimy nails into any piece of vertical rock, with or without safety. El Caminito used to be one of the places where human spiders with suction cups for hands used to convene to dare each other into virtually walking on air. Some did it, their hair-raising videos going instantly viral, while others were not so lucky, ending their climbing careers and lives at the bottom of the gorge. Andalucía’s Caminito del Rey (The King’s Little Pathway) reopened after major reconstructions last year. It is still a spectacular and thrilling experience to most. What used to be known as the world’s most dangerous boardwalk is now literally a walk in the park.
El Chorro lies about 45 minutes inland from Malaga off the Campillos road, near the town of Ardales in southern Spain. The breath-taking three-kilometre Gaitanes gorge, at some points only 10 meters wide and 700 meters deep, was carved into the limestone and dolomite cliffs by the Guadalhorce river. It was not until the 1860’s that the canyon gained importance, when the Málaga-Córdoba railway was constructed along 17 tunnels, 8 viaducts and 18 bridges with the most spectacular part going through El Chorro gorge. (The railway is still open today and is absolutely worth the trip.)
In the early 20 Century, hydroelectric power plants and dams were built on either end of the gorge to provide electricity to the area. The original walkway, built between 1901 and 1905, was constructed to give the workers a means to move between the plants. The one-meter-wide steel enforced concrete walkway was built into the rock face on the opposite side to the railway about 100 metres above the river. It was crossed by Spain’s King Alfonso XII in 1921 and have carried his name ever since.
As years passed and roads became a faster way to get between the dams, the walkway fell into disrepair. The original handrails gradually fell off and in many sections the concrete top collapsed, leaving gaps bridged only by rusty, narrow steel beams. These open-air gaps were exactly what attracted the climbers to the place. The local authorities tried to discourage use, removing entire pieces of the path at the entrances to make it ‘impossible’ to get onto it. Of course, the more difficult they made it, the more attractive it became to climbers. The authorities closed the path to the public in year 2000 after several people lost their lives there. Even after the closing, four other climbers died attempting to cross the gorge.
With such a dark history, it is strange that any of us mere mortals would even dream of venturing onto the path. Yet, El Caminito del Rey was listed as Lonely Planet’s ‘best new attractions’ in 2015 and the reconstruction received EU’s Nostra Award and Grant Prix for Cultural Heritage Sites and various other awards. To me, it is a great marriage between an alpinists dream, safe engineering and sleek aesthetical adaption to the landscape. Of course without the dangling off a cliff thrill, daredevils now must go elsewhere.
My husband and I had heard about El Chorro prior to moving to Spain, but as neither of us was inclined to throw ourselves off cliffs, we, as many, excitedly awaited the opening of the refurbished boardwalk, which after many delays happened in March 2015. As soon as we heard, we made a booking. When we went one could walk in either direction, so we left and came back to the same point to see the gorge twice. Now all entrances are from Ardales, with a bus service taking one back. Actually, this is the best way to see the gorge anyhow, as you start out less steep and save the most spectacular (and to some maybe the most scary…) parts to the very end. The roads to get there are narrow and winding, so take it easy and do not have too many beers at the charming restaurant on either side of the gorge. The path itself is a short hike of a total 7.7 km, divided into 4.8 km of access paths, 1.4 km of forest paths and 1.5 km of the famous boardwalks.
Knowing that I have the occasional bout of vertigo, I was a bit nervous, especially when we were handed helmets at the official entrance points of the boardwalk. But it was completely unfounded. One, the helmets are an assurance against falling rocks from above, not in case one should plummet down below. Secondly, this being Spain, of course most of the locals, and especially the Spanish females with their perfect manes, take off the helmets and the unsightly hairnets that accompanies them just around the first bend. Naturally, being foreigners, we doggedly follow the rules and wore them throughout, vanity be damned! Thirdly, getting back to the fear factor, I was actually too awed by the mind-boggling views to even think about the sheer drops. Besides, the new boardwalk and railings are so well made that one feels completely safe. This being said, you can expect that about a dozen people will step onto the glass-floor viewing balcony which in large letters says that only 4 people should enter at a time.
The path itself, going right above the narrow old cement path, is beyond words. It is really a thing one has to experience. Just before the end of the walkway is the piece de resistance, a steel suspension bridge crossing the gorge next to the rusty old aqueduct that the sure-footed climbers used. Hold onto your hat, no, actually forget about your hat and hold onto the steel railings, as the bridge will move. This too has a warning sign that no more than a dozen people should cross at a time, but who is counting…
During the first year the entrances were free. The site indicates that they charge 10 euros now, yet when I tried to book today, it said that the charge was 0 euros. It is probably advisable to call directly or to go with a guide. Anyhow, do not let these technicalities discourage you, as it is really worth the walk. Just check the weather before you go, as the path closes if it rains or is too windy for safe passage.
Whether the king actually walked the entire span of the gorge or only stepped onto it for a photo-op and was quickly whisked back into his chauffeured car, we will probably never know. He is not the hero of this story or the one whose name should adorn the emblematic walkway. What struck me while crossing the gorge was the thought that this was not only the singular way for the workers of the hydroelectric plants to move from one dam location to another. It was also the only way for their families to get to the neighbouring village, crossing the boardwalk on foot, bicycle or horseback. Even the local children used the Caminito to get to school, walking on the narrow cement path with a single iron railing, some 100 meters above the gorge! To all of them the new boardwalk should be dedicated.