The valley of Améscoa: enchanted forests, caves and ancient villages

Navarre can—and should—be visited throughout the year, no matter the season, but many people agree that autumn goes particularly well with it. More than a half of this land is covered by a blanket of plants and trees that dress with shades of russet during the months of October and November. This autumn dream also flecks places like the Irati Forest, bringing them closer to a fairy tale than to reality. It is difficult to believe such a large amount of beauty, but it is real: it is the beauty of Navarre.

There are some corners, like the forest we already mentioned or the valley of Baztan, that get crowded with curious travellers. However, others remain hidden, concealed in the calm that comes from the certainty that massive tourism will not erase them. They rest surrounded by a sweet silence that, just as their beauty, bears the very essence of Navarre. The valley of Améscoa is one of those places, and we invite you to explore it with us.

Discovering the unknown

A village in a valley

Larraona, in the valley of of Améscoa. | Wikimedia

The valley of Améscoa belongs to the territory called Tierra Estella in Spanish, and Lizarrerria in Basque, one of the five merindades Navarre is historically divided into. With a size of 120 square kilometres, resting between the mountain ranges of Urbasa and Lóquiz, this valley has been inhabited since the prehistoric period.

There are several landscapes in the area where humankind has barely left a trace. Only nature rules over those lands. Its peace has only been disrupted to build lovely paths and hiking routes for all to enjoy, as well as the buildings they needed for everyday life, always at an altitude of between 900 and 1100 metres.

We can find countless interesting corners there, but these lines will focus on a specific spot: Améscoa Alta, framed by the mountain range of Urbasa and the mountain Limitaciones to the north, the mountain range of Lóquiz to the south, and the valley of Arana (Araba) to the south. We will leave its neighbour Améscoa Baja, to the east of Améscoa Alta, for another time.

All the possibilities in the valley of Améscoa

A village in a green field

The village of Larraona. | Wikimedia

One of the most remarkable spots in Améscoa Alta is Larraona, a village that is about a thousand years old. It lies near the border, only a few minutes away from Euskadi, which greatly shapes its personality. Like always, it is interesting to learn its past before visiting it. When it comes to Larraona, the visitor will find out, among other things, that this village was looted by the French troops during the Peninsular War.

In Larraona, we can visit the parish church of San Cristóbal, one of the oldest temples in the area. The church dates back to the 12th century and it displays a Romanesque architectural style, although posterior reforms added new elements to its structure. In the past, Larraona gathered a wide variety of chapels, but now we can only visit Nuestra Señora de la Blanca, from the late 18th century, and the chapel of San Benito, from the 16th century, in the village’s surroundings.

A chapel and some trees

The chapel of San Benito. | Wikimedia

If we walk through Larraona, we will be able to admire its traditional houses, with the coats of arms still standing out on their walls. There are also fascinating remnants of the past, like the old lavoir. Moreover, its rich gastronomy makes it worth it to stay there for lunch or dinner.

Once we leave Larraona behind, all we have left to do is walk. Dive into the forests and mountains of Navarre, enjoy the water flowing through them, and this way, we will truly find the most hidden spots of the valley, like the cave of Los Cristinos. They say the origin of its name is related to the Carlis Wars that marked Spain in the 19th century. This place was used as a shelter, a prison, and even a graveyard for those who fought on the side of María Cristina de Borbón-Dos Sicilia, also called “cristinos”.

The cave’s entry lies on the floor, almost hidden from our sight. We should carry a torch or a similar device with us in order to access it, and be careful when we walk down the stairs. Most people share the feeling of immersing themselves into a wild, forbidden realm. There is something in the cave of Los Cristinos that some of the most popular caves in Spain lack: apart from the usual rock formations, the stalactites and the stalagmites, there is a beautiful blue lake.

We can enjoy another great adventure in the enchanted forest of Artea. Its peculiar rock formations, along with the rich vegetation of the forests of Navarre, conform a wonderful landscape. This forest might be small, but it nonetheless extraordinary. It becomes even more charming in autumn, when the fallen leaves blanket the ground where, from time to time, one unearths a moss-covered trunk. It is easy to feel insignificant in such an immense natural landscape.

Why we did not know it before

The valley of Améscoa

The valley of Améscoa. | Shutterstock

There are several beautiful corners hidden in the peninsula, for example the charming Sálvora Island, which tends to go unnoticed among its neighbours in the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park. Due to their beauty or their history, other places in Navarre have been on the spotlight so far, and this valley has remained a secret for most travellers. It makes sense that the Pyrenees attract so much attention, which makes this corner between Navarre and Euskadi a land yet to explore. Like always, we suggest going beyond the most popular landmarks and giving a chance to the lesser known, hidden jewels that have so much to offer. This is, of course, the case of the magical valley of Améscoa.

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