The human race has always walked a tightrope.
We tread a fine line that separates the ingenious from the absurd and the courageous from the outright reckless.
The decrepit footpath of Spain’s El Caminito del Rey floats like a broken chain of islands in the sky. The jagged mosaic of steel and concrete is precariously tacked onto the vertical cliff faces of El Chorro canyon. Clinging thousands of feet over the teal waters of Río Guadalhorce, the remnants of the old “king’s little path” is as much a testament to human bravery as it is a monument to our foolishness.
A HISTORY LESSON
Built in 1901 on the orders of King Alfonso, the caminito was originally used by construction workers as a quick way to pass between two power stations at opposite ends of El Chorro gorge. Alfonso’s plan for a hydroelectric power project required a creative solution for navigating the rugged terrain between two reservoirs. The walkway was thrown up piece-by-piece for five years, using metal beams, sand and concrete. And in 1921, King Alfonso himself took a ceremonious stroll on the path to celebrate the opening of one of his dams. Thus, the walkway earned its name – the king’s little path.
Alfonso’s hydroelectric project was an ambitious and groundbreaking achievement at the turn of the 20th century. But following a civil war and dictator Francisco Franco’s rise to power in the 1930s, the path was largely ignored and fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the caminito began to regain notoriety. The one-time maintenance walkway would soon become a folk legend among extreme hikers. Thrillseekers flocked to the area to walk “the world’s most dangerous path.”
The title wasn’t hyperbole. It was well-earned.
Near the end of the walkway, a monument stands in memory of three men who plummeted to their deaths in 2000. A zipwire attached to the safety cable that lined the pathway broke free from the canyon wall, sending the three hikers to early graves. Another memorial found at the north end of the trail honors a canyoneer who drowned after his foot was trapped under a rock. The rushing waters of the canyon quickly rose above his head, dooming him to a watery grave. Five deaths on the path were recorded from 1999-2000, but a historic death toll is undocumented.
Because of that series of deaths, the walkway was officially closed by the Spanish government in 2000. Still, despite the danger, the walkway’s reputation only grew among fool-hardy hikers. Thrill-seekers from all over the world were attracted to the adventurous nature of the decrepit path and chose to ignore the government warnings by illegally traversing the path. The pathway claimed the lives of four more trespassing hikers in the decade that followed its closing.
Check out this video to see what it was like to hike the old caminito.
Things have changed.
The imminent danger and thrill of the former caminito is no more, but it’s arguably for the better. The stunning vistas of the rugged Andalusian wilderness are now safe and accessible to hikers of all ages and skill levels.
After four years of renovation by the Spanish government and the regional municipality of Málaga, the pathway reopened to the public in 2015. The new wooden path runs directly above the former, allowing tourists a glimpse of why the caminito earned its deadly reputation.
Along the refinished path, visitors will be able to navigate the gorge safely while gazing off vertigo-inducing precipices and viewing platforms. Signs (in Spanish of course) serve to inform visitors about the flora, fauna and wildlife in the gorge, while hired guides can provide more historical details and anecdotes about the area.
Near the south end of the gorge, hikers will find the most adrenaline pumping portion of the trail – a suspension bridge that dangles over 100 meters above the river below. Throughout the 2.7-kilometer trek, you’ll see towering rock faces, pine forest thickets and crystal blue reservoirs. If you’re lucky, you might even spot some of the many species of birds that call the canyon home.
BEFORE YOU GO
Since it’s reopening, the caminito has quickly become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Málaga province. The park limits visitors to 600 per day so it’s important to purchase tickets well ahead of time.
Tickets cost €10 for general admission and €18 for a guided tour. The path is NOT circular, so I’d recommend adding a bus pass to your purchase for an extra €1.50. You can begin the path at either end of El Chorro gorge as the bus regularly runs back and forth between each entry/exit point. Tickets are available for purchase at reservas.caminitodelrey.info. It’s best to bring a printed ticket, but you can also show a receipt from your smartphone and a valid government ID.
Click here to see a timetable for the shuttle bus.
Entry times are available every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Tuesday-Sunday. It’s best to arrive at the pathway entrance at least 30 minutes before your scheduled entry time. This will allow you ample time to hike to the entrance of the gorge.
*All guided tours enter from the path’s northern access point.
The official caminito is only 2.7 kilometers in total, but you can expect to add another five kilometers to your hike to account for the distance between the entry/exit points and the access control cabins. Aside from vertigo inducing heights, the trek shouldn’t be too difficult – even for inexperienced hikers. Even so, the path can be physically taxing, especially during the scorching Andalusian summer.
WHAT TO BRING
Water and sunscreen are must-bring items for a trek on the camino. There are bodegas near both the north and south entry points of the park, but there are no restrooms or water fountains along the full 7-kilometer trail. You also may want to consider a protein bar or other trail snack.
Large hiking backpacks are not allowed on the path due to its narrow walkways and two-way traffic. (There’s no indication of size limit on packs, but I brought along a 26-liter daypack and was granted entry with no fuss). You’ll absolutely want to bring a camera to capture amazing some stills or videos of the natural beauty surrounding the gorge. Tripods and drones are technically prohibited, though you may be able to obtain permission if you contact the office in advance.
Click here for more info on public safety and prohibited items.
HOW TO GET THERE
The closest major city to El Chorro is Málaga, which is also the location of Spain’s largest airports. If you plan to travel by car, there are several options for rentals at the Málaga airport.
For most travelers – especially budget backpackers – the best option for transportation to El Chorro is by train. Spain’s RENFE rail system is comfortable, modern, affordable and highly convenient. RENFE’s app – available on both Google Play and the Apple App Store – makes scheduling trips and purchasing tickets a stress-free process.
Trains to El Chorro (Line C-1) depart daily from Málaga’s María Zambrano station to El Chorro at 10:05 a.m. (Be sure to check the RENFE website in case of changes or delays). Travel time to El Chorro is approximately 42 minutes.
Hiking the full caminito takes around four hours. That means it’s possible (and recommended) to make your trek in El Chorro a day trip. The return train to Málaga departs El Chorro daily at 6:02 p.m. Therefore, you’ll have approximately seven hours to complete the caminito and explore El Chorro if you purchase a round trip ticket from Málaga for €10.
It’s also possible to hike the caminito on a day trip from Seville. Trains depart Seville daily at 7:40 a,m., while the return train leaves El Chorro at 5:30 p.m. This option gives visitors eight full hours to complete their trek on the king’s little pathway. A round-trip ticket from Seville to El Chorro costs €32.
Click here for a full schedule of both routes.
In Málaga and Seville, you’ll find plenty of excellent lodging options – ranging from budget hostels to 5-star resorts. You’ll find far fewer options in the tiny town of El Chorro, however, there are some highly-rated Air B&Bs in the area.
Click here for a free $40 credit when you book your first stay on Air B&B.
Have you taken a walk on el Caminito del Rey? What was your experience like? Any advice or tips I may have missed? Let me know all about it in the comments below!
Also published on Medium.