The geology of the Pyrenees: Spain

Journey through the beautiful landscapes and amazing geology of the central Spanish Pyrenees while sampling the best in local culture and cuisine.

Highlights

  • New Scientist Discovery Tour in partnership with GeoCultura.
  • Uncover the amazing processes behind the formation of mountain belts as you’re immersed in the spectacular scenery and geological structures of the central Pyrenees.
  • Discover ancient mountain villages, sample Pyrenean and Spanish cuisine, and visit a little-known wine region.
  • Walk a section of the historic Camino de Santiago and visit a location portrayed in The DaVinci Code.
  • Stay in beautiful and welcoming hotels, each a unique reflection of its locality.
  • Travel with organisers who pride themselves on providing expert guides and a personalised service. Please enquire directly with any special requests or further questions.
  • The tour begins and ends in Barcelona, Spain.

Overview

Explore the mountain landscapes, geology, culture, food and wine of Aragón, one of Spain’s distinct and unique Autonomous Regions in the Pyrenees.

The forces generated by the collision of the Iberian and European geological plates created the Pyrenees. The process exposed a fascinating mosaic of rocks and structures in the mountain range’s beautiful landscapes.

Throw in a sunny climate, superb local cuisine and fascinating culture, and it’s no wonder the Pyrenees are a glorious natural laboratory seemingly tailor-made for demonstrating the anatomy and evolution of a mountain belt. The area’s enthralling history and local culture are an integral part of your tour, with the carefully chosen hotels you stay in completing the experience .

Your tour begins in Barcelona, then takes you through the Sobrarbe region and the Pyrenean foothills. The town of Boltaña will be your base for three nights. After that, you’ll spend two nights in a beautifully restored historic hotel in the ancient town of Alquézar. Activities en-route to the mountains from Barcelona include a visit to an incredible mountaintop monastery, and wine tasting in the Somontano wine district.

You will travel to the higher ranges of Aragón, immersed in the landscapes, culture and science behind the origin of these spectacular mountains. You will visit medieval villages, cathedrals and mountain communities, and trace the path of the famous pilgrims’ way: the Camino de Santiago. Before your return to Barcelona, there will be time to visit the spectacular landforms of the natural towers at Riglos.

This tour’s activity level is rated as moderate (most walks are <2km, but a few are 3-4km). There is an optional longer walk along part of the Camino de Santiago. Transport will be in a comfortable vehicle suited to the number of attendees.

Tour Map

 

Day 1 – Arrival in Barcelona, Spain

Settle in and meet your group.

The Arc de Triomf, Barcelona, Spain

Explore Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, with attractions ranging from the iconic Sagrada Familia Cathedral to galleries of modern and historic art, and everything in-between. Gather in the evening to meet your Tour Expert and the rest of the group, followed by drinks, dinner and a review of the trip ahead.

Check into the centrally-located Hotel.

  • Overnight Barcelona
  • Group dinner

Day 2 – Barcelona to Boltaña: mountains, monasteries and sects

A leisurely journey into the Pyrenean mountains, pausing to take in key cultural, scenic and geological highlights in Montserrat, Somontano and Sobrarbe.

Monastery at Monserrat

Your first stop will be Montserrat, an iconic and distinctive mountain, important to Catalan culture and with geological significance. Here you will visit the lavish mountaintop monastery, which dates to 1025 CE, and take the funicular to see magnificent views of the surrounding region. The spectacular cliffs were created by the formation and erosion of the Pyrenees during continental collision.

You will then move to the vineyards of Somontano and visit a bodega for a winery tour, tasting and an overview of local Spanish wine.

The next stop is a view of the Monasterio de Torreciudad, the seat of Opus Dei, a Catholic sect founded in 1928 and controversially portrayed in The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. It’s an excellent location from which to observe and discuss the evolution of the Pyrenees, and appreciate the colossal forces that led to nearly 100km (62 miles) of crustal shortening. These geological upheavals also provided natural locations for dams built after the Civil War, not without controversy and cost to local populations.

Lunch will be taken en route, after which you will pass by Abizanda and its spectacular examples of Moorish architecture.

In the late afternoon, you will arrive in the village of Boltaña, in sight of the towering mountains of the axial zone of the Pyrenees . You’ll be checking into the well-equipped Barceló Monasterio hotel, your base for the next three nights.

  • Check in to Barceló Monasterio, Boltaña
  • Group dinner

Day 3 – Folded mountains and village life in Aínsa

Learn to ‘read the rocks’ as you travel back to deep time, find out what life was like here in the early 20th century, and discover how the former helped shape the latter.

View of Peña Montañesa from Guaso

Your day begins with a visit to the village of Santa María del Buil. There is an optional short walk to the viewpoint above the village – a 3km (2 miles) round trip with an ascent of 80m (260 ft). From above, we’ll take in views of the Axial Zone of the Pyrenees to the north, including the distinctive peaks of Las Tres Marias and Monte Perdido (the Pyrenees’ third highest mountain), and a superb view of the Boltaña Anticline, a famous geological structure that shows how mountain building compresses and folds once-flat rock layers.

Back in the village, we will visit the church where a photo exhibition reveals early 20th-century village life, and will discuss the use of local building stones, formed from massive gravity-driven submarine flows from local mountain ranges. Some of these building stones are packed with beautiful, small fossil shells, called nummulites.

We will have a picnic lunch at Guaso, a picturesque village with panoramic views. The bell tower is a useful landmark for orientation as we explore the village and its surroundings, including stone-wall-terraced slopes with stunning rows of ancient olive trees.

Next is a visit to the nearby Campodarbe to observe one of the geological secrets of the Pyrenees. We will see how to ‘read the rocks’ and uncover the story of the drowning of a carbonate platform back in deep time: a superbly exposed rock contact records the onset of the sinking into the deepwater and shows the origins of the Pyrenees.

Finally, we will explore the medieval town of Aínsa, a major city of the ancient kingdom of Aragón and a magnificent example of medieval urban development. We will regroup for drinks and a group meal in Aínsa’s atmospheric medieval square.

  • Return to Barceló Monasterio in the evening
  • Group dinner in the old town of Aínsa

Day 4 – The formation of Aínsa

Home in on the geology, scenery and architecture of the Aínsa region, through a hermitage, dramatic views, and a beautiful church.

San Vincente de Labuerda

Today you focus on the spectacular scenery and geology of the Aínsa area. The Aínsa basin provides excellent examples of preserved deepwater rocks deposited by submarine flows driven by gravity as the Pyrenees formed.

The day begins with an optional walk (4km/2.5 miles round trip with a climb of 210m/690 ft) above the village of Samitier to visit an ancient hermitage perched on a limestone ridge. This vantage point has a view of the entire Aínsa region, key landmarks and geological structures and, on a clear day, the high Pyrenees. There are dramatic views of the Mediano reservoir and dam, where you can see the top of the bell tower of the flooded village of Mediano – a poignant reminder of the human cost of development.

We will then “zoom in” to several more locations to examine the architecture of the ancient Aínsa basin. This will include recognising ancient submarine channels, and discussing how these migrated around the sea floor.

As a welcome break, we’ll lunch in Escalona midway through the day, before exploring additional places of interest in Aínsa over the afternoon.

Links between the geology and the history of the area will be made throughout the day, from the location of dams and fortified towns, to the specific rock types and their different uses as building materials.

Rounding off the day, we’ll travel to the village of San Vicente to visit a beautiful Romanesque church, before an evening with local history expert Angel Cheliz to discover the history of Sobrarbe; or an optional viewing of The Way, a film depicting modern day travellers along the historic Camino de Santiago path.

  • Return to Barceló Monasterio in the evening
  • Group dinner

Day 5 – Aínsa to Jaca: lost mountains, tapas and a pilgrimage

Today starts with spectacular views and geology and culminates in the Camino de Santiago and more incredible scenery.

Alquazar

This morning, you will explore the deep gorges and mountains north of Aínsa in the Parque de Ordesa and Monte Perdido. Depending on weather and road access, we plan to visit the Valle de Pineta and/or pass through the Cañon de Añisclo. Pineta will include spectacular views and, with luck, a glimpse of Monte Perdido, the ‘Lost Mountain’, and finally a walk to view La Larri waterfall cascading over red beds. The Cañon de Añisclo walk provides a spectacular journey through a slot gorge cut by the Bellos River through limestone and passes ancient bridges and abandoned monasteries.

If we can’t pass through Añisclo, an alternate westward route will be taken through the Ara River gorge that cuts through another classical geological feature of the Pyrenees: the Boltaña Anticline, formed of folded rock layers where the now near-vertical strata provides a natural location for dam and reservoir construction. You will view the abandoned village of Janovás and discuss the social implications of industrialisation, before a tapas lunch in the town of Fiscal.

Continuing towards Jaca, you will traverse the western extremity of the Parque de Ordesa, through stunning scenery and mountain communities. Between Sarvise and Broto, time permitting, there will be a brief stop at the Bol de Broto to visit a local artisan cheese maker to sample some typical Pyrenean fare.

In Jaca, we will visit the star-shaped citadel (the last of its kind in Spain), and the cathedral, where you can obtain Camino de Santiago “passports” – originally the letter of safe-conduct given to pilgrims in the Middle Ages.

After lunch, the tour continues westward, with spectacular views and a final stop at Fuente de Torrijos, where the group can review the signs of submarine processes essential to the development of the mountain belt. Your hotel in the area will be the charmingly-restored Villa de Alquézar, sitting comfortably on the edge of Sierra y Cañones de Guara Natural Park.

  • Check into Villa de Alquézar for the next two nights
  • Free evening

Day 6 – Riglos and Sierra de Guara Park

See awe-inspiring natural towers then watch climbers do the hard work as you relax with a coffee.

Eocene Conglomerates

The day begins with a hike of Alquézar's scenic Pasarela trail, followed by a visit to the famous Mallos de Gallego natural towers near Riglos. These astonishing rock towers and cliffs are formed from resistant pebble beds (conglomerates) that rise up to 300m (1,000 ft) above the Ebro Plain.

After observing the towers, we will visit the town for a coffee while observing climbers attempting to scale the vertical walls above, then enjoy a wine tour and lunch at a nearby vineyard.

We then travel on to Sierra de Guara Park and later return to Alquézar, where there will be more time for an exploration of the town.

  • Return to Villa de Alquézar in the evening
  • Group dinner

Day 7 – Return to Barcelona

Say goodbye to your new friends as your tour ends in Barcelona.

Barcelona as seen from Park Güell

In the morning, the group will depart by coach for Barcelona Airport, or you can be dropped off in central Barcelona if you want to continue your visit. Alternatively, if you prefer to travel on to Madrid, you may take a train from nearby Huesca (a 45-minute taxi ride from Barbastro).

 

Note: this provisional itinerary is subject to change.

Single Supplement

There is a charge of £375 / $469 in 2024 and £398 / $498 in 2025 for solo travellers.

Activity Level and Terrain

The activity level is rated as moderate , requiring a fair level of fitness (view activity level definitions). The tour will include three moderate walks (3km / 2 miles on day 3, 4km / 2.5 miles on day 4 and 3km /2 miles on day 6, with 80m / 260 ft, 210m / 690 ft and 160m /520 ft elevation gains, respectively). Elevations are between 50–1,000m (165–3,280 ft).

Please note, some paths will be uneven and loose underfoot so sturdy footwear is required.

Autumn weather in Aragon is generally good with warm conditions during the day (18–28°C/65–82°F) and cool at night (10–18°C/50–65°F), although changeable weather conditions should be anticipated, with rain possible.

Transport will be in a comfortable vehicle suited to the number of guests.

The Tour Includes/Excludes

The Tour Includes:

  • The services of your tour expert(s), who will be with the group throughout the tour, providing pre-visit briefings, walking seminars and available to answer questions.
  • A Tour Leader, who will attend to logistical matters, oversee the group’s health and safety and assist with queries.
  • All transportation costs from the start to the end of the tour, including the services of a professional coach driver.
  • All accommodation costs for the nights stated, assuming double occupancy rooms. Single occupancy rooms are generally available for a surcharge. Please contact GeoCultura for details.
  • All breakfasts, lunches and dinners, except for the one dinner marked “free evening”.
  • Entry fees, local guide fees and activity fees, where arranged as part of the tour.
  • Most gratuities and all service charges.

The Tour Excludes:

  • Alcoholic drinks with meals.
  • Optional activities as described in the tour itinerary or extra activities that are not described in the itinerary.
  • Personal expenditures, including bar bills, laundry bills, and the cost of meals on one free evening.
  • Transportation to the start venue or from the end venue of the tour (air fares are not included).
  • Passport and visa fees.

Guests are required to carry their own health and travel insurance in case of accident or unforeseen circumstances.

Alternate Activities

For those who may not wish to join the longer walks, there are options to relax in Aínsa including: an afternoon visit to the local Monastery Hotel Spa (built around the ruins of an 11th-century monastery), and an outing to the GeoParque and Naturaleza Museums in Aínsa. There are various options for visits to outlying villages or short hikes in the evenings and our Tour Leaders will be happy to discuss alternative arrangements with you where they fit with the itinerary.

Suggested Reading

Roads to Santiago (1992), Cees Noteboom

The Battle for Spain (1989), Antony Beevor

The Sun Also Rises (1926), Ernest Hemmingway

Accommodation

Night 1: Hotel in central Barcelona

Nights 2-4: Barceló Monasterio de Boltaña, Boltaña

A spacious, well-equipped and well-positioned hotel for your journey, the Barceló Monasterio de Boltaña has a suite of comforts including a spa and swimming pool (additional fee), and even a 17th-century church on the grounds.

Nights 5-6: Villa de Alquézar, Alquézar

A restored historic building in the heart of the village, Villa de Alquézar is full of traditional decoration, welcoming staff and includes garden and lounge areas to relax and read.

Note: If required for reasons beyond our control, GeoCultura reserves the right to substitute alternate accommodations of equal or higher quality.

Deposit and Payment Terms

Deposit: A deposit of 10% of the tour price is due upon registration for a tour.

Final payment: Full payment is due 60 days before a tour begins, or upon registration if within the 60-day window.

Cancellation by participant: A participant may cancel a registration after securing a confirmed place on a tour for any reason. The following refund terms will apply:

  • Greater than 60 days before tour begins: Any monies paid plus half of the deposit will be refunded
  • 30 to 59 days before tour begins: 35% of tour price will be refunded
  • 15 to 29 days before tour begins: 25% of tour price will be refunded
  • Within 14 days of tour or during the tour: No monies will be refunded

Cancellation by GeoCultura: GeoCultura reserves the right to cancel any tour due to low enrolment, inability to run the tour or concerns about the safety, health or welfare of participants. If a tour is cancelled before it begins, all monies paid will be refunded (including any deposit).

Please refer to our Terms and Conditions page for additional details.

Henry Pettingill

Henry Pettingill

Henry Pettingill has homes in Texas, and in Aínsa, Spain and is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic expert linking Spanish geology, landscapes and local culture. Henry manages his own geological consultancy, and is a Senior Associate at Rose & Associates LLP. 

His home in Spain is in an area of outstanding landscapes that is a world-class destination for examining sandstones and Henry has been leading groups through Aínsa for many years. The town (not necessarily the home!) is on the itinerary of the Aragon tour Henry leads for GeoCultura. 

Henry has been a professional geologist since 1983. One of his more recent job titles was Director of Business Innovation, where he was responsible for looking into the future to discern upcoming trends. The “outside the box” thinking required for this role led Henry to develop a training course on “Creativity and Innovation”, where participants discover that these are skills that can be learned. 

Henry was recognized by the American Association of Geologists as one of the “100 Explorationists Who Made a Difference” (2017). 

 

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