Bicycle Touring Spain’s Montañas Vacias Route: A 35mm Photo Essay

Created by Ernesto Pastor, the Montañas Vacias offers interested bike tourists route options ranging from 100 miles to 430 miles through the Spanish Lapland. Photographer Carlos Blanchard Nerin recently made a second voyage to the country’s southeastern region, remote in nature and characterized by countless miles of forest roads on a high plateau. In the photo essay below, he reflects on connecting to a place you thought you knew more deeply and sharing moments of beauty on the bike with friends.

Of course, there is a difference between where you choose to live later in life and the place you grew up, but in my experience both places have a unique impact on how you develop as a person. Still, it’s often hard to pinpoint how a place has impacted you until you leave and, if you’re lucky, get to go back with fresh eyes. And by coming back to the “Montañas Vacias,” or the “empty mountains,” that is exactly what happened to me.

It’s funny to think now that just a vague memory comes to my head when I try to remember the first time I heard about the Montañas Vacias bikepacking route. The area, long known and nicknamed in our region as a “non-existing” place, has surely had a rich past and played a role in this region’s history. For some reason, in our most recent past, it’s fallen into serving as “space in between” or an empty space if you wish.

It is remote and only sparsely populated. It does seem that these days the search for open spaces is gaining more and more followers in our society. Trying to escape, clean up, check out, detox from life, or whatever you want to call it. But no, I did not turn to the Montañas Vaciasare for any of those reasons, simply put; it was just time for me to better get to know this part of the area I’m from.

The route itself starts and finishes in Teruel, Spain and creates a loose ~430-mile (700km) loop. I saw loose because the route features a few “atajos” or shortcuts and add-ons. You can make it what you want. The right bike for the job is also up to you and while neither a gravel bike nor a mountain bike will excel on all of its varied terrain, either would serve as a capable steed.

With enthusiasm and joy, while feeling the burden of responsibility more than usual as the organizer of the trip and only area local, I enjoyed a lot the back-and-forth communication between the members of the group during the weeks before leaving, not to mention the correspondence I had with Ernesto Pastor, father of the route and an always ready to help kind of guy.

Even though the doubts were a constant, I knew everything was going to be fine but I wanted my friends to feel the same excitement I felt coming into this trip. Little did I know that this second, and longer, voyage to Montañas Vacias  was going to be just as much of a surprise as my first trip the year before.

I close my eyes and I can only think about the spectacular landscapes, thinking they don’t belong there and I’m sure a lot of people won’t believe you if you tell them. Those photos must be from somewhere else, not Spain, not Teruel, not Cuenca. How blind have I been, growing up nearby and never showing interest in this direction…. Shame on me!

All the moments stored in memories left by this trip are the invaluable souvenirs we earned. Being able to see places you thought you knew with different eyes is an extra. At the end of the day, a lonely tree at the top of a hill is nice sight here. But the moment you are in, rolling with your bike and a group of friends, thinking about all these familiar landscapes that maybe once upon a time you would have overlooked but now fully take in and appreciated more than ever. Is it the bike? The company? I think everyone is there for themselves in a way, but also connecting to others and with the environment. And the balance here is key for me.

Since the memories belong to moments spent with my friends there, laughter, joy, exhaustion, and admiration, but also the people we encounter along the way, their lifestyle, the places and area they live in. Feeling like I knew where I was going was actually the biggest mistake I did make this time and taking time to understand it helped me to give the value I needed to give, not only to this trip, but to the place, my area, my home. Knowing where you come from is as important as knowing who you are. While you are the one moving on, evolving, and growing, home will always be there, the same as the lonely tree.

Is this a route you want to do? I’ll answer that for you: yes. But you also want to go look for that lonely tree around your own home and appreciate its beauty, with a group of friends if possible ;) Thank you again to Ernesto Pastor for sharing this route.