How do I know this? I recently consulted the Walk the Earth Institute. Membership in this highly exclusive think tank is limited to me and my wife, photographer Kathy Copeland.
Both of us are self-appointed experts on everything to do with foot travel, and our methods are rigourously scientific: if we agree, it must be so.
At the Institute’s last convention—yesterday’s hike in the Serra de Tramuntana Mountains of Mallorca—I said “This is one of the most amazing trails we’ve ever hiked.”
Kathy enthusiastically agreed, just as I had agreed with her when she said something similar the day before. And this exclamation/affirmation banter has been a daily occurrence since our first hike on Mallorca a couple weeks ago.
So it’s unanimous and therefore indisputable: Mallorca is one of the world’s supreme winter hiking destinations.
Mallorca is best known as the Spanish isle where Europeans beach themselves for sun-and-sand therapy. Long swaths of the Mallorcan coastline are horrific. Not just overdeveloped but badly developed: a soul-crushing wall of towering, tasteless, tacky hotels and apartments.
The capitol, Palma de Mallorca, has a handsome, historic center. Wrapped around it, however, is an obese belly of crass commercialism where traffic moves like sludge and finding a parking spot is akin to winning the lottery. Fortunately the airport is well outside the city, enabling you to immediately veer into the heart of the island.
But Mallorca is not big. And most of its 3,638 sq km (1,405 sq mi) is not dramatic but merely undulating or simply flat. Pretty? Yes. Fill-your-camera-card gorgeous? No. Though agriculture is prevalent (olives, almonds, oranges, tangerines, lemons), and the remaining, historic wind-pumps are romantic monuments, the island feels urban. It’s peppered with towns and small cities, most of which are bland by French or Italian standards.
Mallorca is also strewn with motorways and roads that are in constant use by a population that seems to be in perpetual motion. The motorways are world-class. All the other roads are smoothly paved but alarmingly narrow—even when bordered on both sides by level farmland. Plus they’re shoulder-less, with abrupt edges. If you swerve 20 cm (8 in) too far (and you must swerve frequently to avoid colliding with these aggressive, road-hog Mallorcans) you’ll plunge. You’ll likely total your vehicle. You might need an ambulance. Definitely pay for the full insurance option when you rent a car here.*
“Narrow” is a petty criticism, however, given the sensational terrain these roads traverse on the island’s mountainous northwest coast. This is the Serra de Tramuntana. And here, Mallorcan roads are marvels of engineering prowess. So what if you have to slow down to cede the road to oncoming drivers? Slow is essential to appreciate the phenomenon of 1400-m (4600-ft) peaks rising directly from the Mediterranean, and the spectacle, the seeming miracle, of exquisitely paved roads switchbacking from sea to summit.
After hiking in the Serra de Tramuntana daily for nearly two weeks, we’re in awe. The stature of this range, given that it rockets skyward from the surf, is difficult to comprehend. Imagine seaside French Alps. Paved access to Tramuntana trailheads is luxurious. Imagine the Canadian Rockies laced with high-altitude roads. Ancient trails in the Tramuntana allow easy hiking in rugged, vertical terrain that would otherwise require scrambling or climbing. Imagine Patagonia with an extensive network of trails—signed and mapped.
As much as we loved Spain’s Costa Blanca range (see previous posting), we’ve been even more impressed by the Tramuntana, which resemble the Costa Blanca’s major peaks (Puig Campagna, Serra Bernia, Sanchet, Montgo) crushed together into a great massif and pushed out to the beach at Benidorm. To see the Tramuntana, go to the photos/videos page of our website. Click on Spain, then skip to photos 53 through 89.
The Tramuntana, however, occupies only a portion of a relatively small isle, so dedicated hikers can thoroughly sample the range in about two weeks—even with a few rain-enforced rest days. Ideally, devote a month to the Costa Blanca and the Tramuntana. Both are too hot to hike May through October. Come in December, January or February. Winter in Alicante Province (the mainland region comprising the Costa Blanca) and on Mallorca is sufficiently mild for comfortable hiking.
It does rain that time of year, however, and some days will be very windy. Daytime high temperatures at 200 m (656 ft) above sea level will probably average 12°C (54°F). At mountain elevations, daytime high temperatures will rarely exceed 10°C (50°F). On Mallorca, the humidity always has a chilling effect in winter. Hope for sun and warmth. You’ll get it occasionally. But be prepared for cloudy, cool weather, because you’ll surely get that too. From mid-January to early February we hiked one day in shorts, a few days in lightweight long pants, and most days in Schoeller-fabric pants. Our toques (wool beanies), neck gaiters, and windproof gloves were occasionally necessary, particularly when were still hiking at sunset (about 6 p.m.).
We rarely encountered other hikers, even on the trails near Deia, Valldemossa and Soller—the island’s most beautiful and popular towns. That’s another advantage of hiking here in winter: serenity. Mallorca is inundated with tourists the rest of the year. Accommodation is substantially less expensive in winter, too.
We were lucky. We stayed at Finca Vista Levante. Go to http://www.ownersdirect.co.uk/balearics/B4090.htm for photos and details. Our hosts, Brian and Inga Drewitt, are paragons of hospitality. Both are constantly beaming with positive expectancy. They’re among the happiest, most good natured people we’ve ever met. And their guest house is very comfortable. By the time we left, we felt Brian and Inga were our relatives who’d retired on Mallorca. Though it’s neither in nor near the Tramuntana, Vista Levante allows reasonably easy access to the entire range. It’s outside Santa Margalida, surrounded by agricultural land, so it’s peaceful. You can reach Brian at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. You’ll find him a lively and helpful correspondent.
Though the signposted GR (Grand Randonee) 221 runs the length of the Tramuntana—from the southeast end of the island, to Pollença in the northwest—only portions of it afford superb trekking. The over-hyped section of the GR between Pollença and the famous monastery at Lluc, for example, was historically important but will severely test your patience where it skulks in dark forest and lingers beside a paved road. So don’t assume the GR obviates trail research.
Aim for the big summits on clear-sky days. Hike the premier sections of the GR 221 when the weather is less favourable. See our list of suggestions below. Before leaving home, buy and study the 1:25,000 maps published by Editorial Alpina. If you’ll be hiking on Mallorca ten days or less, get only Tramuntana Nord and Tramuntana Central. For a longer stay, also get Tramuntana Sud. The scale of these maps makes them much more accurate than the 1:40,000 Mallorca North & Mountains Tour & Trail map published by Discovery Walking Guides. Check mallorca-camins.info for updates on trail improvements and closures.
Here are some of the hikes we enthusiastically recommend. These brief notes are intended only to motivate and orient you. You’ll need a map, and perhaps a guidebook, before you begin hiking.
Cami de s’Arxiduc
14-km (8.7-mi) loop / 530 m (1740 ft) gain / 5 hours
An archduke commissioned the construction of this astonishing bridal path so he could admire the scenery from the edge of sheer cliffs rising 900 m (2952 ft) from the sea.
Ascend from Valldemossa to Mirador de Ses Puntes, then follow the archduke’s path to 931-m (3054-ft) Puig Caragoli. From the cairned junction, you can attempt to summit nearby 1062-m (3483-ft) Teix, but the stile allowing hikers to surmount a high stone wall might be gated and locked. (This is a nuisance you’ll sometimes encounter on Mallorca, where trails often cross private land.) Descend the old road from Font d’es Polls, through Cairats Valley, back to Valldemossa.
Puig de Massanella
15-km (9.3-mi) loop / 860 m (2820 ft) gain / 6 hours
Start on the unpaved road just south of the petrol station near the Lluc junction. Ascend to Comafreda, where the land owner’s gatekeeper will probably be there to demand a usurious fee. Pay it, so you can complete a beautiful loop over the mountain. A relatively easy ascent leads to Masanella’s 1392-m (4566-ft) summit.
Hikers confident on steep, loose rock will want to descend the cairned, southwest ridge. Head for the obvious trail in the valley. Ascend to 1205-m (3952-ft) Coll de’s Prat, the island’s highest pass. At the signed junction with the GR 221, go toward Galileu and Lluc. Descend a broad, switchbacking, stone trail to the highway. Then turn right and walk 2 km (1.2 mi) back, past the petrol station, to your vehicle.
Barranc de Biniaraix
12 km (7.4 mi) round trip / 800 m (2625 ft) gain / 6 to 7 hours
Start just east of Soller, in the charming village of Biniaraix. Hike the ancient, cobbled, streamside, mule path through Barranc de Biniaraix. (A “barranc” is a canyon.) The time, labour and skill that the original inhabitants invested to create terraced olive groves here make this craggy niche a wonder to behold. You look up, see cliffs, and think “this trail can’t continue,” but it does, all the way to the summits above.
At L’Ofre farm, follow a rough, bouldery path through forest to a junction in Coll de L’Ofre. Do not continue east on the dirt road descending to Cuber Reservoir, visible ahead. About 15 meters from the trail sign, look for a feint trail veering right (south). In 30 m it broadens to road width. Ascend through forest southeast to Coll des Cards.
The tourist hiking brochure suggests you resume ascending L’Ofre (right) whose summit ridge is bushy and unappealing. Instead, go left (east) up L’Ofre’s sister summit: 1067-m (3500-ft) Franguera. It’s bare limestone, allowing you to enjoy a freelancing ascent with constant views. Sporadic cairns offer guidance but are not necessary. Mallorca’s highest mountain, Puig Major, rises from the far side of Cuber Reservoir and dominates the view northeast. Tossals and Tossals Verds are east. Much of Mallorca is within view. Return to Biniaraix the way you came and appreciate the barranc again.
Torre de na Seca
8 km (5 mi) round trip / 500 m (1640 ft) gain / 4 hours
From C-710, between Lluc and Gorg Blau, just east of the tunnel, drive spectacularly serpentine Road 214 down to Cala Tuent. This is where the ancient, stone path to sa Costera begins. Follow it, contouring around the bay, then ascend an old road to Col de Biniamar. Look for the cairned trail ascending right (west, then north) to the stone tower of Torre de na Seca. The small summit grants distant views along the rugged coast.
Mortitx Gorge and Rafal D’Ariant
11-km (6.8-mi) loop / 780 m (2560 ft) gain / 6 to 8 hours
You must be a confident scrambler and skilled at cross-country navigation to attempt this exciting journey through one of Mallorca’s wildest, roughest backcountry areas. You’ll descend a steep, bouldery gorge nearly to the sea. From Rafal D’Ariant you’ll ascend an ancient trail that soon deteriorates to a cairned, blazed route. You must then traverse gorgeous but complex (i.e. potentially disorienting) terrain back to Mortitx. There are many criteria by which to judge a hike. We give this one five stars for “exhilaration.”
Between Lluc and Pollença, park at the Mortitx vineyard gate. Follow the unpaved road down to the vineyard, fork right and continue beyond. In about 25 minutes look for a route veering right (northeast). It’s marked by a cairn and a few red paint daubs on boulders. After briefly winding across a level, grassy, boulder-studded flat, the route plunges into Mortitx Gorge.
The sometimes scrambling descent leads, in about two hours, to a pool that blocks passage. Bear right here and ascend on loose rock, then through tall grass. Where the grade levels, look for a cairned path. It leads to the ruins of what was once a shepherds’ hut. But once the hut is visible, well before you reach it, slow down. Look carefully for a cairned-but-easy-to-miss, right fork that immediately begins ascending toward what, at first glance, might appear to be an impassable wall but actually affords a gradual, ramping exit up and out of the barranc. The path soon broadens into a well constructed, ancient trail—supposedly a smugglers’ path.
Locating this exit point tested our ability to read the land, decipher an inadequate map, and quickly make vital decisions a mere one hour before sunset. Should we return via the barranc? It was challenging but familiar, because we’d just descended it. Or should we attempt to continue navigating the loop return?
The barranc would require a two-hour ascent, so we’d spend half that time in the dark, wearing headlamps. We knew the rest of the loop would be a route-finding puzzle, but we were confident the terrain would be less physically demanding than the barranc, so we could hike faster and probably reach the vineyard before dark. We also wanted to see what was up there.
The longer it took us to find the smugglers‘ path, the more the pressure mounted. It seemed we were wasting our precious remaining daylight on a futile search. We did find it, however, and we were able to navigate the entire loop at high speed. We passed the vineyard with a little time to spare. We reached our car before dusk.
We tell you this so you won’t make the mistake we made. We started this loop way too late in the day (after 1 p.m.), which forced us into a potentially dangerous predicament at the bottom of the barranc. Our excuse is that our absurdly vague and inaccurate guidebook did not describe the severity of the terrain. We urge you to start by 10 a.m. so you’ll have plenty of time.
We’re very glad we completed the loop. It’s a fascinating tour of limestone crags and ridges—a swath of the original, untouched Mallorca.
Mortitx to Coll des Vent
11 km (6.8 mi) round trip / 492 m (1615 ft) gain / 3 hours
This a road, much of it paved. Yet you’ll encounter no vehicle traffic, because it’s gated year-round. And the final stretch is closed even to foot travel between February 1 and July 1, because, according to the sign, this is sensitive black-vulture habitat. “Then why build a road here?” we wonder. Whatever the reason, it was no doubt very compelling, because this is tumultuous terrain. Building the road must have been hugely expensive. All we know is that it accesses scenery as magnificent and uniquely Mallorcan as any on the island. And because it’s a road, the hiking requires no more effort or ability than do the steep sidewalks of San Francisco.
Between Lluc and Pollença, park at the Mortitx vineyard gate. Follow the unpaved road down to the vineyard, fork right and continue beyond. Stay on the road. At a fork, bear right to cross the dam retaining a deep, crystalline, spring-fed pool. At the next fork, ascend left where right descends to a rifugio.
Proceed on the road up and over 502-m (1647-ft) Coll des Vent, then down to 410 m (1345 ft) where the road ends in a large, cleared field at Les Basses. The field itself is utterly anticlimactic, but it’s not a destination. The reason to hike all the way to road’s end is to see as much of the national-park-quality scenery as possible.
9 km (5.6 mi) round trip / 570 m (1870 ft) gain / 4 hours
Tomir’s 1103-m (3618-ft) summit offers a panoramic view of bays, peninsulas, and the eastern end of the Tramuntana. The initial ascent is on a gated road. The upper ascent is on solid limestone. This is one of easiest peaks to surmount on Mallorca. After passing it numerous times while driving west from Pollença to Lluc, we couldn’t resist the friendly, “Come on up!” invitation it seems to extend.
12-km (7.4-mi) loop / 470 m (1542 ft) gain / 5 to 6 hours
From CV-710, beside Cuber Reservoir, this trail circles 1047-m (3434-ft) Es Tossals and 1097-m (3598-ft) Tossals Verds. Initially follow the service road on the east side of the reservoir. At its southernmost point, descend 450 m (1476 ft) through the gorge beneath the dam.
The rough route follows an old canaleta (water conduit) down to terraced orchards. From there, ascend to the substantial Rifugio Tossals Verds. Follow signs for the GR 221 to Coll d’es Colloms on the east side of Tossals Verds. Then, on its north side, the trail follows another canaleta west, back to Cuber Reservoir.
Passing the Rifugio Tossals Verds on this engaging and varied loop, a girl of about seven years old asked us “Donde va?” At first we didn’t understand. But by the time she followed us up to the next switchback, we realized she was asking, “Where are you going?” So we said, “Lago Cuber.” Then she said, “Esta bien,” and queried “Por que?” We liked that she was so open and curious, so Kathy dug into our paltry Spanish and said, “Es muy divertido, y interesante, y buen ejercicio.” “Comprenda?” Craig asked. She and her brother smiled and nodded. So off we went with their unspoken but very evident blessings.
*Full insurance with Gold Car, the Spanish rental-car company we recommend, will even cover the cost of replacing the ignition key, should you lose it. I know this because in an absent-minded moment I (Craig) dropped the key to our chili-red Citroen C30 into the marina at Palma de Mallorca. I’d previously never lost a car key—ever, anywhere. And wow, are remote-entry keys expensive. It cost 150 Euro ($225 USD) to replace ours. I later imagined how I might retrieve the key and earn back the replacement fee: go fishing with a magnet. But our time was limited. We were busy hiking. Where was I going to find a magnet? I thought no more of it, until one evening after hiking all day, Kath and I were strolling through the town of Soller. We passed a large hardware store. She said, “Maybe they have a magnet.” I walked in and met a clerk who spoke excellent English—a rare skill among Mallorcans. I humbly told him my story. He lit up. “Yes, we have a strong magnet!” he said. This magnet was huge, at least 10 kg (22 lb). It had been in the store for 30 years and was currently employed as the door stop. He generously offered to loan it to me, along with a 20-m (66-ft) rope, in return for a 50 Euro ($75 CDN) refundable deposit. The serendipity was too miraculous to ignore. So at 9 p.m. Kath and I drove across the island, far out of our way, into the traffic of Palma. I spent an hour dredging the marina precisely where I’d dropped the car key. Nada. It remains in the muck, 15 m (50 ft) below the dock. But we gained from the experience. We met Joseph, the muy sympatico clerk at Bernat, the hardware store (ferreteria) in Soller.