The mountains of Málaga, Hackney-Spanish & a cold night
The experiences of a bivouacker in Andalucia. On my first night after my first day’s ride in Spain, almost twenty two years ago now, I bivouacked on some land just outside the village of Villanueva de la Concepción, just south of El Torcal in the Montes de Málaga. Mike and I had gotten to the village after dark, it was early January and the days were short. We arrived at a bar, we went in, we warmed up and Mike, using his broken Hackney-Spanish, asked if there was somewhere we could camp for the night. I don’t think his Hackney-Spanish really worked at all in the mountains of Málaga, but we ended up on some scrubland outside the village by design or by default. It was too late to put up the tent, so we bivouacked, in January. I was much more (fool)hardy back in the day.
When I have been cycle touring through Andalucia I have always preferred to bivouac when possible. When I am with my mates and we are on our way to somewhere which is over there and far away, the possibility of bivouacking is favored. It means you get out the roll mats and sleeping bags when it’s time to do so, when time & place & lack-of-energy coincide and you think, `well that’s it for today, we´ll see what happens tomorrow´.
When Mike and I bivouacked outside of Villanueva de la Concepción we had no idea if we had any right to do so, we didn’t even think about it much I suppose, we were tired and it was cold and dark. As it happens any such activity is not permitted in Andalucia. However there are a few tricks to the art of bivouacking, or camping-down just wherever you feel like, and it’s good to know the law and these tricks in advance. Pleading ignorance against the man only gets you so far sometimes.
bivouacking, mule trains & the adventure cyclist
Wild camping (acampada libre) or bivouacking (vivaquear, or pernoctando as it is better known in Spanish), is not permitted in Andalucia. Pernoctar means to spend the night or stop over and does not only refer to bivouacking. You can pernoctar by staying a night at a five star hotel if that is your thing, and that’s not illegal.
The national law in Spain regarding this issue of wild camping is slightly more bending, but the regional law takes precedence. (2) However it’s all in the semantics, to a certain limited extent, but then again, I would never push these semantics with a representative of officialdom in a friendly conversation. If it all goes wrong you can be fined and told to move on.
However, with a little finesse bivouacking, or pernoctando, can be done if need be.
In olden times to pernoctar was understood thus:
“There I was, just traveling along on my way from A to B when I got caught short by the night fall. As there was no tavern or coaching inn nearby, and as the night started to pull-in, I was forced to camp down for the night so as to rest my mules and my good self as well. Everyone has the right to a night’s rest ! I promise I will be up and out before the cock crows”.
Of course pernoctando like this was intimately related to the shepherds and cow herders, and the mule trains and traders who crisscrossed the peninsula on the veredas in times gone by. ( see my previous blog on the drovers roads of Andalucia here,)
This understanding still stands, that the weary traveler needs to rest and rest where they can when need be, and as a cycle tourist or adventure cyclist you can make shrewd use of this, so long as you mix it with a healthy dose of common sense. This blog is based on my own experiences that I have had over the years, where I have bivouacked or pernoctando in many parts of Andalucia whilst roaming around on my bike.
The basic rules
The most basic rules about bivouacking are, and I paraphrase in layman’s terms;
Never on private property.
Never in a National Park or a Natural Park.
Never on or near a beach.
Don´t put up a tent.
Don´t light a camp fire or use camping gas or use any naked flame at all under any circumstances.
Don’t stay in one place for more than one night.
Bed down when the sun goes down and start packing-up when the sun is rising.
Remember, you are pernoctando because you got caught short by nightfall. So for example, don’t try to pernoctar if you happen to be an hour’s ride down the road from a campsite which is open to all. Water won’t hold if you get pulled-up and asked what you are doing. If there is a campsite within reach then you will be obliged to use it.
You can put up a tent if need be but only after the sun has gone down, and on the understanding that you will take the tent down again before the sun has risen. Use a small tunnel type tent as it signals that you are pernoctando and not on a family camping holiday.
Just don´t light any type of flame under any circumstances, and don’t even contemplate a campfire. For me this rule goes for all year round even if the law states the ban is in the spring and summer months. The threat of forest fire is always present here in these climes and the authorities are more preoccupied with this than almost anything else and they come down heavily on those who trespass against.
National Parks and Natural Parks are no-go zones as far a pernoctando is concerned and you will be fined if caught. However usually there are campsites within these parks where you can camp up nice and comfortable.
Common sense says don’t try to pernoctar on private property but sometimes in the middle of nowhere it is not always obvious what is private property. So bear in mind that just about everywhere is private property – this is a good premise to begin from. Property may not be marked by a sign, or a fence or wall or hedge, it may well be a stream which marks a boundary for example. Or quite simply there may be nothing at all which marks a boundary, but that is not an excuse for not respecting `it´ however invisible it is.
Bivouacking or pernoctando is always done best far away from touristy areas, away from the coast, away from larger towns and cities and away from areas of intensive agriculture or main roads. Thankfully Andalucia is largely empty, in that I mean it has huge vast areas of open spaces far far away from everywhere, and these are the places that the adventuring cyclist wants to be. Away from it all !
Some tips, a bit of experience and tales
With a basic knowledge of the law, some common sense, a bit of patience and a good eye you can almost always find a place to kip for the night.
Some basic tips would be
Take a good look close to the road or the track that you are on. You can often find a patch of grass or scrub which probably belongs to nobody or is of no bother to anyone. Check for signs on the roadside or next to the track you are on. You may find one side of the road is marked as Natural Park, but the road itself actually marks the boundary. That means the other side of the road is not held to the same restrictions and may provide a place to kip. Signs that state `Coto de Caza´ are no-go zones.
Look for nooks and crannies near the road which are a bother to nobody, for example an entrance to a service road which quite obviously is no longer used, or a section of road which has been abandoned to due realignment of the actual road or a stand of trees for instance.
Be aware of the amount of traffic around you. If you only have seen only one van and a tractor all afternoon then that is a good sign. Also be aware of the amount of residences around you. Are there just a few sporadic houses or is there nothing in sight ?
If you find an option of going off track without bothering anybody, then tuck yourself away. Out of sight out of mind is a good adage to go by.
Old ruined buildings or other structures are always an option. They can provide cover, they get you out the way and can keep you discreet. Then again this is dependent on where the ruined building is as you cannot trespass to get to it. All the same I have seen and used all sorts of abandoned places which crop up in the strangest of places, old mine buildings on a disused road, behind an abandoned road builders house (1) or even in a whole abandoned hamlet !
Give yourself time to find somewhere to kip down for the night. Keep an eye on the time and an eye on the evening sun and give yourself plenty of room to find somewhere adequate to bivouac. Finding a space can take some time on occasions as you ride along the road keeping an eye out for a suitable place, discarding bad options and continuing to look for better options. You don’t want to be caught out by sun down, and you may want to keep in mind that you may have to double back on yourself to a place which you have previously crossed off your list. We once went to recce an old well and fountain deep in a gully in the Alpujarras as a suitable spot, but we got a powerfully strange voodoo feeling from that dark place and we, two forty year old men on their bikes, ran away. We slept somewhere else that night.
Don’t put yourself in danger. Before bedding down make sure you are out of harm’s way. Seems basic, but just have a good look around you and the area nearby and make sure there are no accidents waiting to happen. Be aware of wild and domestic animals. Be aware of passing traffic even if you are in the middle of nowhere.
Be polite !! I have been questioned on a couple of occasions by officaldome about what it is I am doing when pernoctando. It can be unnerving when in the middle of the night when you are woken up by a man in a peaked cap and a touch. But, if you have used your common sense and have not broken any rules then you will usually be left in peace. I have always been treated politely by officaldome in these situations, who are often more concerned about possible sources of forest fire than anything else. Once things have been clarified you will be given a polite “cuídate, buenas noches” and reminded that if you yourself need any help then they are also at your disposition.
Just ask ! When you are in a bar in a town or village just be upfront. Whilst you’re enjoying that well earned beer state your intention to the barman or those nearby and ask if there is anywhere recommended to camp-down for night. It almost always works. This is probably the best option if you are in a small town or village because you will find most people are very happy to pass on their local knowledge and lend a hand.
Once, in a small town a day’s ride from Granada, we asked an ancient old lady with a cane, dressed in black from head to toe with her long silver hair tied into a bun, if she could recommend a place for us to sleep. She sent us to the cemetery ! We slept camped up against the wall of the cemetery without any problem, at least not one from this world.
In fact just asking can get you a place to bed-down on private property. This once happened at a roadside restaurant in the middle of a Natural Park. It was late into the evening and we had few other options remaining open to us. We were invited by the restaurant owner to camp up in the bar´s own car park.
In the same vane, a touring companion of mine once walked into an official building, politely stated our intention, and was given helpful advice and directions from officaldom as to where to camp-down nearby without causing problems. Really this is only recomendable in the smallest towns of villages as certain intimacy is required between officialdom and the town and the surrounding area for this to work.
Do try and keep out of sight. Even if you are sure that where you are bivouacking is of no problem to anybody, and you know that you are not causing any problems, just don’t make yourself overly visible. Be circumspect. This may include not using head torches after dark for example. In the open country or in the sierra a head torch may bring your presence to the attention of others.
The art of finding random places
Just like in many places, here in Andalucia there are laws and rules related to how you cannot wild camp, and of course, they should be respected. But if you are a slow moving traveler, winding their way across the sierra, then maybe you will need to improvise a place to rest your weary head. Then you will need to learn and enjoy the art of finding random places.
I have bivouacked on a grassy knoll, and on a mountain side (various), in a carpark, and in a scrub (various). I prenoctado in an abandoned hamlet where we were rudely awakened by a herd of curious cows, by the side of a peaceful reservoir and next to a stream where I had my first and only tai chi lesson. Under a bridge in torrential rains and next to an old railway line have been a temporary abode. I have overlooked sierras far below whilst sat upon my sleeping bag, and I have admired the bright sparkling night lights from across a vast valley. I have camped up next to the cemetery wall and I have camped-down in an abandoned layby with its abandoned play park of rusty swings and roundabouts. I have even hunkered down in a stand of trees, at night, whilst I repaired someone else’s bust hydraulic disc brake by torch light – but enough said about that one.
(1) For an interesting page (in Spanish) about the road builders houses see this link https://historiasdecarreteras.com/casillas-de-camineros/
(2) If you really must see the of law, see here: https://www.juntadeandalucia.es/boja/2018/27/1https://www.juntadeandalucia.es/boja/2018/27/1