Sunday 22 November 2015

Elephant Hunting in Cabárceno, Spain

Spain, 19th – 22nd November 2015

We’re currently parked up writing this from a campsite on the northern perimeter of the Picos mountains.  This marks the end of our 52 day No Campsite streak, during which period we’ve only been on electric hook-up once.  We could have lasted longer but after waking to bleak drizzly skies we knew we were going to be spending the day indoors, and the thought of getting somewhere where we could have electric and free WiFi suddenly became rather appealing.  The weather here has taken a real turn for the worse, with the past two days being a mixture of hailstorms, van-shaking thunder and temperatures in the single digits.  However, looking at the poor forecast for the UK, it doesn’t look like we’re missing a great deal back home. Before this though we've had a good couple of days at an Aire by a wildlife park and spending time with more new friends.

The current skies are a far cry away from Thursday, when we made the 9km journey over to Cabárceno.  Over the past couple of months we’ve had three different couples recommend Cabárceno to us, or as I’ve taken to calling it ‘The Elephant Place’.  After hearing about it so many times we couldn’t help but have a drive over to investigate and see what all the fuss was about.  Why The Elephant Place?  Well, when you get to the Aire (GPS: 43.35862 -3.81882, free with service point), if you are willing to walk all of 100m, you’ll find yourself facing onto a huge enclosure full of, amongst other animals, elephants.

A much more pleasant living space than a zoo!
Cabárceno Natural Park, or Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabárceno, is a space of around 1900 acres based on what was once an old mining pit.  Today it is used as an animal park, with over 100 species from five different continents, all in huge enclosures where, other than having food provided, they can live fairly wild lives, with some enclosures being cohabited by multiple species.  We didn’t go in the park itself, but from the Cabárceno village where the Aire is located, there is a fantastic view over the enclosure that homes the African elephants, water buffalos, and a species of antelope I believe are gazelles.  At times you get to see the different animal species interact with each other which is fascinating to watch, with the elephants chasing the herd of buffalos away, ears spread wide and mouths trumpeting to scare them off.  We didn't pay the €18/person entry fee to see the rest of the park, but judging by the €14 million cable car they're in the process of constructing, they must be doing alright for business.  We'd definitely be tempted to visit once the cable car is completed as it looked like it would be a good experience to get an aerial view of the vast park.

Ethel had had enough of Egbert's boisterous courting attempts and charged at him to stop his pursuits - or, as my mum phrased it when I told her on the phone, "A bit like Mansfield on a Friday night"

In the actual village of Cabárceno, all was peacefully quiet.  The official Aire is a bit of slightly unlevel parking tucked out of the way near a large parking area overlooking the lake, but being out of season there was no-one in the Aire, and the main parking by the lake was empty of all vehicles other than a Swedish motorhome when we arrived.  A quick chat with the man from the Swedish van—who was outside in a chair sunbathing in the lovely 24 degree heat—revealed that he’d stayed in that spot for three days with no problem, and then went on to stay for a fourth, so it seems that outside of peak season they’re a lot less strict about parking in the designated area.

Matt, Ellie, and their van Heidi the Hymer
We stuck around in this spot for two nights, having a while relaxing in the van.  Amazingly, even Matt found some time for leisure reading!  On the second night we were joined by fellow travellers Ellie and Matt of, who we first met a couple of days ago at San Sebastian.  We had some interesting experiences helping them navigate to the same place, when Ellie called (our) Matt to say they were at the entrance to the park and weren’t sure where to go next.  I got out of the van and jogged a circuit of the village looking for them, including past the entrance to the park, with no sign.  It turns out there are multiple entrances to the park, several km apart!  When they arrived we joined them in their van for the evening, where they very kindly offered to cook dinner for us with some nice fajitas on the menu.  Having been on the road a bit longer than they have we (hopefully) managed to impart some useful information on them, and introduced them to our budget Lidl lager and wine cartons with, erm, mixed degrees of success – I like to think that (their) Matt saying maybe he would consider Argus if it came in a bottle is better than a flat-out no! It was a great evening of food, wine, lager and talking about travels, plans, vans and more that continued until we retired to bed at almost midnight.

During Friday night the weather finally tailed off, lashing the van with downpours throughout the night.  We needed a supermarket in preparation for Sunday closures and we had numerous electronics in need of a drive around to top them up, so we said our goodbyes to Ellie and (their) Matt, but we’ll catch up with them again some time as we’re all Portugal bound for winter.  Onwards we went to the town of Torrelavega, where the Saturday afternoon rush of shoppers made the Lidl resemble something of a cattle market, with queues at every checkout and the cashiers losing their usual composure to bicker amongst themselves, chief among them the unlucky staff member with the only working PIN machine who was gathering a backlog of customers sent other from other tills to pay at her machine, including us.  It was certainly a bit more stressful than our usual shopping experience, and combined with my slight hangover—why can I not handle my booze when we meet other motorhomers?—the McDonalds just down the road suddenly seemed very inviting.  Despite our stocked cupboards inside we went, marking the third McDonalds meal of our travels, and the first where we got one because we genuinely wanted it and not just because it was convenient.

All fed up on salty, sugary bad-for-you goodness, it was back to the coast road, with our average MPG slowly falling in the crosswinds pelting against the van.  We drove to the medieval town of Santillana sur Mer, which looked like it would have been a very attractive place to visit under other circumstances, but with the cold and bitter wind I honestly just couldn’t be bothered and Matt didn’t put up a fight.  Onwards we went towards San Vicente de la Barquera, where we’d previously spent the night three years ago in September 2012 on a two week journey that inspired our plans for long term travel.  Back then we were in a self-built camper where water was provided by a foot pump and lighting was a collection of Poundland LED lights stuck around the interior, so there was something very strange about returning in the comfort of a fully equipped motorhome with a fixed bed, hot water and a standing height ceiling.  It would have been nice to stay the night at our spot from back then (GPS: 43.38944 -4.38422), which is a grass parking area by the beach, but it seems that now that spot (as well as a lot of the other beach parking we passed along the coast) has anti motorhome signs in places warning of €40/m2 fines.  If there had been other vans there we might have chanced it, but having not spent very much time in Spain yet we haven’t figured out how strict the police are on freecamping out of season, so don’t know whether the lack of other motorhomes was due to enforcement or whether everyone has just moved south now for the better weather. We instead stayed in a parking area a little closer to the town by the waterfront near a couple of other vans (GPS: 43.38305 -4.39761) where there weren’t any warning signs.

Today, with it being raining again, we moved straight from San Vicente to our current location, Camping Picos de Europa (GPS: 43.33460 -4.94603, €16 with ACSI discount).  As nice as it would have been to bring our No Campsite streak past the two month point, we’ve got too many online jobs we want to take care of before we have to visit the UK in two weeks’ time to do it all on the laptop’s battery life and within our mobile internet allowance.  Ferries need to be researched and booked (Dunkirk-Dover is currently winning the fight), internet purchases made, devices charged and beyond that it’s nice just to have somewhere to relax a bit out of the way whilst the weather is too naff to be exploring.   We came to Camping Picos de Europa because the next open all year campsite we found en-route for us in the ACSI book is 450km away, but so far it’s proving to be pleasant enough.  The man at reception is friendly and speaks good English, and checked us in whilst fighting a losing battle with an endearingly playful cat intent on destroying his paperwork and chasing his computer mouse.  There are a couple of caravans dotted further down the site and a rather drenched looking tent, but other than that it’s pretty quiet.  We’ve yet to plan our next destination; we had intended the highly recommended Picos de Europa National Park, but average forecasts of -3°C for the next week reduce the appeal somewhat.  But here in van-land, hot chocolates have been consumed, hoodies and fleeces are in abundance, the fridge is stocked and we’re within booster aerial distance of the campsite’s WiFi point.  Life is good.

- Jo

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