Long known to the rich and fabulous as a winter ski playground and a trusty tax haven (but just the answer to a trivia question for the rest of us), the microstate of Andorra also happens to be a backpacker’s dream. Nestled in the southwestern Pyrenees between France and Spain, just over 100 miles from Barcelona, Andorra is easy to get to via bus (there are no trains or planes). And with a total area of just 180 square miles, you can hike across the entire country in just seven days. There are countless peaks to climb, icy mountain lakes to swim in, streams to fish and, in stark contrast to what you’d experience in most of the U.S., the option to stay for free in a series of stone mountain huts the entire way.
Take a redeye flight from JFK to Barcelona and then hop on a bus and you’ll be in Andorra by lunchtime, snacking on delicious local sausages, cheeses, and flavored flat cakes called coques at a lakeside café. After lunch, a few hours hike from capital city Andorra La Vella and you’ll encounter your first refugio. Literally meaning “refuge,” these stout stone structures (click here for a list of them) of traditional European mountain hut design blend easily and unobtrusively into the rocky Andorran landscape. Usually located near lakes, along streams, or at the base of high peaks, they offer a sturdy, if at times spartan, shelter (light comes from candles, as there’s no electricity) with basic bunk bed frames for sleeping bags and fireplaces stacked with wood to keep you warm during the cold nights. There are 26 different refugios in Andorra, and some are bigger than others, but most sleep from four to 10 people and are rarely full (naturally, don’t expect to make reservations). During our two weeks hiking, we only saw one other person, a Polish guy who had been staying in different refugios for almost two months.
Wherever you plan to wander, for sure don’t miss the Vall de Madriu, the crown jewel of Andorra’s five mountain valleys and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where wild horses drink from streams hemmed in by steep mountains. Its accessible only by foot and is considered the spiritual heart of Andorra.
More information: American, Delta, and United offer nonstops to Barcelona (BCN) from various U.S. cities including New York, Miami, and Atlanta. Novatel offers buses right from the airport to Andorra, about a four-hour ride.
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