30 Days in Spain, and the Beauty of Unplanned Travel

The Spanish countryside whizzes by me as I write this. I’m three weeks into a one-month tour of the southern half of this beautiful country. It’s hard to believe it has been so long already.

This train nearly left without me. I missed my first train by seconds. There was another train, 30 minutes later. I would arrive at 12:55, the exact time my 2nd of three connections was scheduled to leave. I think that’s the last time I want to run 1/5 of a mile with 55L on my back.

Many thousands before me have made similar trips. I’m not charting many new paths. As travel goes, Europe is pretty easy. But for me, this is a huge trip.

My comfort zone used to not extend beyond the US. I rarely reached beyond a few select states until a year ago. Each time I reach beyond that, I’m doing something for the first time. The further I travel, the longer I stay, the greater I extend my comfort zone.

This is the power of firsts. And I have many of them on this trip, so far.

  • First time in Europe. And first time fishing here – more on that in another post.
  • First time going city to city using only public transit and my own two feet. First time backpacking.
  • First time living out of a backpack or suitcase for a month, period.
  • First month-long trip to anywhere…

..All with no prior planning beyond a roundtrip plane ticket.

There is a certain level of chaos to this experience that drives me. It wakes me up. Everything opens to chance. The chance to meet, to discover, to grow, to change – even if I screw up or miss something.

I won’t see it all. I skip many things others come to see. Personally, I prefer to do. I enjoy seeing architecture, but I prefer to see things that weren’t made by man. If there’s a challenging hike to get there, the views are that much sweeter.

I choose my days the morning of, or a day or two in advance. I think the train system likes travelers like me, they charge three times as much for this spontaneous method of travel. For me, it’s the price of feeling free more often than not.

Note: I did not feel so free as I ran to the train, hoping it wouldn’t leave without me. “Idiot” would better explain my feeling as I ran and watched the clock tick away.

Even that experience brought potential for positive change. I learned to leave for trains earlier, in case the conductor is feeling like having an “early day”. I almost got to learn how to reschedule my 2nd and 3rd connecting trains without cell service or wi-fi. I was spared that lesson this time, but something tells me it will happen eventually.

I got to exercise my improving Spanish while running towards a train and asking for directions as the track had been changed. I got lucky they saw a confused man sprinting through a train terminal for what it was, rather than someone up to no good.

They probably thought I was an idiot, too, but that’s ok. I sense they assume that about most American tourists already.

My next stop, Malaga, presents some firsts as well. It will be my base for five nights as I explore hikes and treks in the surrounding area.

I’m walking Caminito El Rey. It is a narrow hike, most of which hugs a cliff high above a river gorge. It was considered the most dangerous hike in the world, until renovations two years ago. Now it’s safe for most people. It makes me wonder if I would have done it two years ago. Probably not. I was raised to have a deathly fear of heights, and I’ve been overcoming it gradually.

A photograph from part of the Caminito Del Rey in Spain

Part of the Caminito Del Rey in Spain

Before that, I will hike the mountains near Malaga with a group of people I only met yesterday, through an online travelers network called Couchsurfing.

When I’ve exhausted the hikes near Malaga, I think I will head to Granada. I want to do some trekking in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and I have a few days to figure out how to do that.

Planning these things without any prior connection is a huge challenge. It’s also a big part of the fun. I haven’t been able to make everything happen. I was disappointed when I couldn’t find transport to the mountains outside Valencia, for example.

Circumstances change, and you find something different. In lieu of a hike, I found another outdoorsy traveler in my hostel, and we biked 60km along the beach and through a wooded park. It was a refreshing trip and an experience in navigation. I feel I made a friend as well.

That same traveler kindly pointed me towards a hostel I hadn’t been able to find – in the foothills of the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountain range. I booked it, and just like that, I’m way closer to the Sierras than I was just a day ago.

The order of events highlights the dynamic that makes this form of travel so much different from my usual road trip. In a good SUV, van, or RV, you can pick your destinations and go. If you have the gas (or petrol :)) to get there, you go. Relying on trains requires more resourcefulness. Even in Europe where there are large rail and bus networks, you have to figure out a puzzle to travel in the short term.

I’m staying in the Sierras, and I have no idea how I’m going to get there. I know it won’t be easy, actually – I’ve already looked.

I guess I will find out.

Note: This was published after I actually walked the Caminito Del Rey (darn you, train wifi). Read the post about the walk here: Caminito Del Rey: a Modern Marvel With Ghosts of the Past

View from the hike leading to the entrance of Caminito Del Rey near Malaga, Spain

Enjoying the view along the hike to the entrance of Caminito Del Rey