Hiking La Concha

Marbella wouldn’t be my first choice for a holiday. Probably wouldn’t my 30th choice if I’m being honest. I’ve got a couple of friends who live out there though and I was long overdue a visit. Luckily, my dark visions of drinking Sangria in beach bars with the TOWIE cast were quashed when my friend sent me a link to something that filled my heart with joy. Marbella had big mountains right next to it. Thank heavens.

I’d been on holiday to Spain a couple of times with my family when I was a teenager and a few times as an adult. For some reason I’d never thought of the place as being particularly “mountainy”, save for the Pyrenees. In fact, I actually thought it was pretty flat. Absolute nonsense. The place is covered in mountains to the extent that there’s one right near Marbella that’s 200 metres higher than Snowdon. Nobody even mentions it they’re that common. Imagine a 1,200-metre-high mountain near London. It’s all everyone would talk about. There’d be a theme park at the top of it, TFL would build a tube line to get there.

So yeah, pretty cool. The holiday had suddenly taken an exciting turn. We spent weeks reading up on La Concha and how to get up there. We worked out how to get there, what route options there were and spend a lot of time watching videos for any useful tips.

The mountain itself is located about five miles from central Marbella, as the crow flies (a lot longer in actual travel terms). There appeared to be just a few clear routes that would take us to the peak. One (apparently the easiest climb) starting 780 metres high at a place called Refugio De Juanar, another at 274 metres at the town of Istan and one beginning in Marbella itself. Based on the fact we wanted to be down at a reasonable time to go out for dinner, we opted for the Refugio De Juanar route. At 780 metres, that would mean a nice 400 metre climb. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours surely. Er yeah, we were pretty wrong about that bit.

Getting to Refugio De Juanar

First of all I should mention that we decided to climb La Concha in June on a day where there were hardly any clouds and it was about 29 degrees. We, very cleverly, took with us a load of sun cream and some water. We definitely didn’t take enough water – more about that later.

From our apartment over near Elveria, we set out at about 9am and requested an Uber to pick us up. There are loads of them in Marbella, so that was the easy option. The drive took about half an hour through Marbella and then up through the quiet, winding roads around the mountain range. Probably cost about £35. Refugio De Juanar is a sort of hotel presumably popular with hikers. Outside in the car park is a big board which shows you the various routes around the range. La Concha is just one of them. Take a picture of them before you head up as you’ll probably need them later.

Heading up to La Concha

The route up to La Concha at first glance seems pretty simple. Basically you follow the path to the left of the car park as it winds its way fairly sharply upwards. Considering you’ve only just started, it’s a pretty tough hike initially. We were both panting and covered in sweat by the time it levelled out again. As we made our way to the higher point we saw just how big the expansive mountain range was. Ruddy lovely in fact and a massive difference from the Snowdon attempt a few weeks before. I had expected it to be a bit more arid based on some of the photos I’d seen of Spanish mountains, but the views were covered in greenery.

We continued to follow the path for a while until we hit a wooden post with an X marked on it. Now, at the time we had no idea what that meant, but logic suggested to us that this was a bad route. To the right was another path with a = mark on it. We opted for the second.

After about 15 minute we began to question the landscape, as we appeared to be going downwards. This is the first time the photo of the board came in handy. We were indeed on the wrong path. The route from Refugio De Juanar actually forks two ways after about half an hour. One route leads to La Concha, the other to Istan. If you take the wrong one you’re actually on a completely different mountain and a hell of a long way from where you want to be. This would suggest that the previously spotted X was actually a marker for the correct route. On later returning to the apartment and having the internet my researched found the following sign breakdown, which basically means I’m still none the wiser as to how to use the markings (there’s a pretty good overview of the signs here). Definitely order yourself a topographical map (this is the one you need) as it’s ridiculously easy to get lost in the mountains here.

Once we’d found the correct route, we started heading back upwards in the right direction. Things were going nicely, albeit in ridiculous heat, until we began another descent. From about 980 metres we dipped back down to 700 again, both demoralising and a bit confusing. This is a general theme of the hikes in this area. Unlike somewhere like Snowdon, where you basically head upwards, you end up skirting around extremely pointy peaks. It’s then we realised that the walk was going to take longer than we initially thought.

A few more ups and downs, and through some pretty overgrown tracks, we eventually headed up a very steep climb which hopefully would mark the ascent to La Concha. In the 29 degree heat a 300-metre steep climb is an absolute killer. We had to keep stopping to catch our breath under the shade of trees every 50 metres or so.

When we finally reached the top of the climb we saw what we thought was La Concha. A massive peak in the distance. We heaved a sigh of relief as it was already two hours in. After a bit more walking and a couple of mini chain via ferratas (more of a nice aid than a safety necessity) we actually met a couple more walkers. A pretty welcoming event considering all we’d seen so far was one runner and a couple of guys with hedge strimmers. Presumably we were of the handful of people stupid enough to hike La Concha in this heat.

After a brief chat it appeared that what we thought was the peak was in fact nothing of the sort. La Concha was actually another hour an a half past it. Things were looking a bit tougher once again. We we’re also given some advice on what lay up ahead. Apparently the area after the peak we could see was a long ridge connecting multiple peaks leading to La Concha. We should avoid trying to clamber across the top and take the path with leads parallel but a bit lower down.

It was good advice. The ridge leading the way was actually pretty scary, far beyond anything I’d attempted in the UK. The sharp rocks which marked the spine of the four peaks that led to the final viewing point have got a pretty steep drop. Definitely not good for a beginner. Even the path the side isn’t without its peril, with us having to keep edging up and down at bits where the track seemingly disappears into a massive chunk of brambles.

Still, after a fair bit of snaking up and down the path we saw the end of the route. This is the bit of the mountain you see sticking out when you view it from Marbella itself. Apparently the shape of the peak resembles a shell, hence the name La Concha. The last bit has a bench on it, which is in fact one of the most impressive locations for a bench I’ve ever seen. After three and a half hours of walking it’s an odd site to see sat at the top of a mountain, but one hell of a welcome one. You can even see the Rock of Gibraltar and the Atlas mountains on a good day.

It was at this point we pulled out the drone to have a bit of fun and make our way through a bag of trail mix. To be honest, without any shade it wasn’t that relaxing a spot to stay, so after twenty minutes we picked up our stuff and made our way back.

Now, this is where things go a bit interesting. To the point where I put my camera back in my bag for fear that I may drop it because of the fact we’d have to scramble down the way we came up. I therefore have minimal pictures of the next bit.

The way back down

Basically, if you’re climbing La Concha, make sure you follow a path. Don’t go rogue. Seriously. On two occasions I literally had no idea what I was looking at or which direction we going in. Something about the way the peaks all look the same makes it pretty disorienting.

Anyway, we did go rogue. A couple of guys, a pretty rare site for the day, walked past us and we had a bit of a chat. We told them the way we came and they told us that they came up from Istan and it only took them an hour or so. We decided to stick to our original route as they walked off until the point where we thought we saw a pretty clear path leading straight down. Bear in mind we knew the path we took meant a lot of ups and downs, and we were pretty tired by this point with no water, a steady climb down for an hour sounded pretty good. We took the risk.

As risks go, it was a bad one. We followed to path for about twenty minutes and all was well. It felt like we were dropping very quickly and could see houses in the distance. Shortly afterwards however the path stopped and we really didn’t want to go all the way back up again. Instead we kind of shuffled, scrambled and pushed our way down a completely overgrown hillside than seemed to be getting steeper every minute. At this point we didn’t have a lot of water left, it was hot and we appeared to be a long way from any sort of path.

It really wasn’t fun. We got down to the bottom with all the elegance of Bernard Manning as we scratched our arms and legs to bits. Eventually however, we hit the valley at the base. From there we eventually got back onto a path which we hoped marked the way back to Istan. It did, but not easily. The track kept disappearing, we were so hot we kept having to hide under trees or wait for clouds to appear. We also only had a tiny bit of water left.

The next hour or so was a really slog back. We could see Istan, but it took a hell of a long time to get there. Because we were tired we kept slipping over loose rocks and generally feeling pretty weak. As we hit the town at the bottom and found a tap, the sense of relief was palpable. It had taken us about eight hours. A fair bit more than the two or so we’d expected.

In Conclusion

So yeah, we were idiots. We underestimated a mountain, we underestimated the heat and we underestimated our useless sense of direction. We also lost the map I’d bought at some point down the ridiculous scramble. We weren’t really prepared at all. Did we enjoy it? Well, yes, some parts more than others. But we knew we should have planned it better. There’s a good reason not many people went up in 29 degree heat as well. It’s at this points that I should probably say that there are guides available, which may be a good option if it’s your first time up there. We probably should have got one.

The mountain range and the walk itself, if you do it properly, are both quite beautiful, and the bench view at the end really is the sort of thing which makes any sort of hardship worthwhile. The fact that so few people who see that mountain peak every day, will never get to actually sit on it, makes you feel like you’ve done something quite special. We did spend the rest of our holiday looking up at it wistfully as we chugged down questionable and expensive cocktails.

Oh, and Istan is a beautiful town. Well worth a visit if you get a chance. Apparently it’s where all the water in the area comes from. There’s a man-made stream which winds its way through the levelled town which is pretty cool indeed.