I can understand why people risked their lives, up until recently, to walk across the remains of El Caminito del Rey – a century old concrete pathway that skirted around the stunningly beautiful Los Gaitanes Gorge, sixty kilometres north of Malaga in Southern Spain.
The pathway was completed in 1905 to give workers access to the then newly built hydroelectric dam and stations – which are still in use today – found in and around the gorge. Yet, locals also used the pathway as a short cut between the villages of El Chorro and Ardales either end of the gorge, and thanks to King Alfonso XIII’s insistence on walking along it whilst on a visit to inaugurate the dam, the pathway became popular with the Spanish monarch’s subjects who wanted to literally follow in royal footsteps and walk “The King’s Little Pathway” for themselves. This created a steady but large volume of footfall that the pathway was never designed nor maintained to take. When the electricity company behind the dam no longer required the pathway as an access route, it withdrew all funds and responsibility to maintain it. From thereon the pathway rapidly deteriorated, becoming too dangerous to walk across without proper safety equipment.
Bizarrely, the pathway was not entirely closed off to the public, and far from discouraging visitors to it, this new risk factor only encouraged the more adventurous to try their luck along it. Pre-2015 videos on YouTube clearly show how dangerous the pathway had become with only the original metal tracks – themselves, in a terrible state of disrepair – bridging the gaps where the concrete had completely perished. Just watching these YouTubers navigate across and around these obstacles can bring on a nervous sweat.
Unfortunately, not everyone who tried to conquer the original Caminito del Rey lived to tell the tale. During the 1990s and 2000s, a handful of adventurers lost their lives along it. Unsurprisingly, it was this that gave the original pathway its notoriety in recent decades as the most dangerous hike and pathway in the world.
The collection of deaths finally forced the Spanish Government to intervene. It successfully closed the pathway in 2013 and injected over nine million euros into a project to build a much safer replacement, turning El Caminito del Rey into a major tourist attraction that would generate employment and much needed cash for an area still suffering heavily from the fallout of the 2008 Credit Crunch. The new Caminito del Rey was opened to the public in the Summer of 2015 and hundreds of visitors now walk across it daily and safely.
Yet, the new pathway still has the capacity to pump the adrenalin, hovering only metres above its predecessor, and one hundred metres above the Guadalhorce River.
To visit El Caminito del Rey requires a little bit of planning and good time-keeping. Tickets have a strict entrance time of half-hour intervals and only fifty people are allowed to pass through its entrance at any given time. It is advisable therefore, to book tickets online and at least a few weeks in advance, particularly during the summer months. The official Caminito del Rey website is improving all the time but some pages are still difficult to navigate, are only in Spanish or are badly translated. Persevere. The ticket purchasing page can be found here (just click on any of the ‘Caminito del Rey’ boxes to bring up available slots, or click on one of the ‘Canjeo por Cierre’ boxes to book a guided tour).
When selecting an available date and slot, there will be the option to purchase a solo ticket (Entrada General) for €10 (2017) or a ticket with a bus ride included for €11.55 (2017). If reaching El Caminito del Rey by public transport, then it is worth purchasing the latter. El Caminito del Rey can be reached by train from Malaga or Seville via the little village of El Chorro. There are two direct trains daily from Malaga’s María Zambrano to El Chorro and the journey takes around 45 minutes (train times and ticket purchasing can be found on the Trainline website here). From El Chorro station, which is where the Caminito del Rey route officially ends, there is a bus stop directly beside the platform. Coach-like shuttle buses depart here every half an hour during the day (a little less often first thing in the morning) and go straight to Ardales which is where the journey by foot to El Caminito del Rey begins. The non-stop journey takes around 25 minutes so board it at least one hour before entrance time to El Caminito del Rey. Tickets for the shuttle bus can be bought when boarding if not part of the Caminito del Rey ticket. The timetable for this shuttle-bus service can be found (in Spanish only) on the Caminito del Rey website here.
The bus passes through the village of Ardales and stops in front of what appears to be the only building in the surrounding area – a large, dark brown, wooden panelled restaurant/souvenir shop. It is worth taking advantage of the facilities here to top up on supplies, albeit overpriced, and use the public toilets as there are no such facilities along El Caminito del Rey.
When ready to go, walk through the tunnel that doubles as a car park alongside the restaurant and follow the path along the river through the forest. This is not the start of El Caminito del Rey, but leads to its north entrance which is still 1.7km away. This part of the journey can only be done on foot, so depending on stamina it is worth setting aside at least half-an-hour before one’s ticket entrance time to walk from this point to the entrance. The path along this stretch is a little uneven but reasonably easy to tackle.
Eventually, the path leads out to what looks like a patch of waste land waiting to be developed, with a portakabin in the middle of it. This is the northern end control cabin. Here, officials will check tickets, visitors’ shoes – suitable walking shoes are compulsory and visitors can be turned away if their footwear is not deemed adequate – and supply hair nets and hard hats which must be worn at all times whilst walking along El Caminito del Rey. Last minute entrance tickets can be bought here, if there are any available. When I visited in 2016 there were no other facilities here other than a toilet cabin to take that one last comfort break before the journey began. There are plans to build an information centre here, so maybe in the future there will be more services available at this point.
When entrance time arrives visitors queue up in single file and finally enter El Caminito del Rey. Once on the first set of boardwalks, visitors can go along them at their own pace, unless with a guided tour.
Once over the train line, visitors pass through a gate that signals the end of El Caminito del Rey. However, there is still a 2km walk ahead along a dusty track towards the southern control cabin where hard hats can be returned and well-earned toilet breaks can be taken. This control cabin is back in El Chorro, where visitors can catch the train back towards Malaga or Seville depending on the timetable, pick up their cars if parked here, or catch the bus back out to Ardales (if they are still running) to do the walk again or pick up parked cars left there.
If one has any energy left, it is worth walking a few kilometres more around the El Chorro dam and along the road to Ardales to see the last section of El Caminito del Rey from ground level.
A few extra points to consider:
- the whole journey on foot from outside the restaurant at Ardales to the south cabin station at El Chorro is just under 8km.
- plan plenty of time to reach Ardales and to then walk from there to the north cabin station and entrance. There is only a 15 minute window allowed with timed tickets. If more than 15 minutes late to one’s entrance time, officials may deny entrance to El Caminito del Rey.
- the journey along El Caminito del Rey is from north to south, from Ardales to El Chorro. Entrance to the main pathway is from the north cabin station outside Ardales only. Visitors cannot turn back once they start, but they can take as long as they need to complete the journey, as long as it is within opening times.
- the route is not circular so visitors will not end up back at Ardales at the end of it, unless they take the bus from El Chorro back to Ardales afterwards (if it is still running).
- as well as sensible walking shoes, visitors are only allowed to carry a small rucksack/cross-the-chest hold-all with them. Visitors can be turned away if they do not meet requirements.
- bring plenty of food and water, and also sun screen and/or a floppy hat to protect skin from the blazing sun.
- I would recommend, if possible, staying the night either in Ardales or El Chorro and complete the walk at least once more to enjoy the scenery at a different time of day. The light in the canyons is particularly spectacular in the early morning and late in the afternoon.
Finally, the new pathway is completely safe. However, if heights are a problem for you, then do not attempt the walk it as it may be too much to cope with.
The one thousand year old ruins of Bobastro, Malaga