The Cantabrian Mountains are famous for their recently thriving brown bear populations (Ursus arctos arctos). Autumn is a good season to spot them. They go through a little binge-eating episode before hibernating and spend the whole day rummaging for food. No risk of accidentally running into one though, as they are shy and cautious animals who know how to avoid us! Today, we enter the territory of brown bears in Somiedo Natural Park, in southern Asturias.
Visiting Somiedo with an experienced guide
Visiting bear territory with an experienced and knowledgeable guide highly increases your chance of spotting bears. Therefore, today we choose to visit Somiedo with Javier Pedrosa. He is the owner of Geoface, one of intoAsturias’ partners, who amongst others offers bear-sighting tours.
What I find particularly interesting about Javier’s tour, is that he talks about all living and non-living elements of the bear’s habitat. Not only that, but he explains the relationship between the different landscape elements, vegetation, human land use and other animals. This way, you get a much more ‘holistic’ understanding of the bears living in Somiedo.
Ruta de la Braña de Mumian
We leave Oviedo around 8:30am to arrive in Pola de Somiedo, the natural park’s main village, at 10am, where we meet Javier. He drives us to the start of the “Ruta de la Braña de Mumian”. As we get off the car, the cold air unsettles us. We were told to bring warm clothing, but the frost covering everything around us is still a pleasant surprise.
The reason for this is that, although it is now way past 10am, the sun is still behind the surrounding peaks. We start our morning hike and as we progress, Javier gives us more details about our environment. He first shows us the striking geological features that make up the landscape. We are in a cirque, a valley formed by a glacier that slowly eroded the rocks for thousands of years. The weight of all that ice molded the rocky ground into all sorts of shapes. We even see a seemingly smooth hill abruptly ending in a steep cliff. Here and there, colossal limestone, dolomite, slate and sandstone formations spring out of the ground and their diagonal geological layers take us millions of years into the past.
Then, Javier asks us to look at the vegetation and to try to understand how it came to grow like that. Growing on the north-facing or the south-facing side of a mountain determines the plants present in a habitat. And so does the altitude! A beech forest grows on the mountain slope in front of us. The trees growing a few hundred meters higher are already trading their green leaves for the fiery autumn colors. Brown bears are not fierce hunters, their diet consists mostly of plants, berries and seeds. Knowing where and when to find certain types of vegetation is essential to spot them!
Living along humans
It is easy to forget that humans have inhabited this natural paradise for thousands of years and learnt how to share it with their four-legged neighbors (and vice versa!). As we make our way to the south-facing (and warm!) slope of the mountain, we spot a few cows. They are grazing peacefully at the bottom of the valley, unfazed by the snow just a few hundred meters above them.
Human activities such as agriculture also played a big role in shaping Somiedo’s landscape and traces of century-old farming techniques are still visible. As we progress and reach a rocky ridge, a village of teitos comes into view. Teitos are traditional Asturian shelters with thatched roofs entirely built out of natural resources found nearby. We take a look at the teitos’ doors. They are all locked and in good condition. Indeed, although the village is uninhabited, it is not entirely abandoned! Shepherds and farmers still use it to stock their tools for the summer season.
Lunch in Valle del Lago
Now that the sun shines high above us, we walk back to the car and drive to the small village of Valle del Lago for a typical and delicious Asturian lunch. Just as we get off the car, a cow herd appears and casually walks past us on the way to their farm. They are so used to the daily roaming that they barely need any guidance from the farmer. One of the most famous hikes in Somiedo Natural Parks starts in this village, the ‘Ruta al Lago de Valle’. This is an easily accessible route to a beautiful, partially dammed lake in between the mountains.
The challenges of spotting brown bears in Somiedo
After lunch, we head out to three brown bear viewing points. Due to the fragility of the species and to minimize accidents, the Somiedo Natural Park has restricted bear-watching to certain areas only. Moreover, our period of visiting is not the best time to see bears. As Javier explains, the brown bears in Somiedo follow different eating and moving patterns depending on the month and even the year.
This year, most of their energy comes from the abundance of beech nuts. Many plants don’t produce the same amount of nuts and berries every year. Sometimes, a species needs two or more years to gather enough energy to produce seeds! Next year, the bears need to find another source of energy. Since the trees have not shed their leaves yet, the canopy hides what’s underneath. Thus, there could be bears enjoying a nutritious meal of beach nuts right there, in front of us!
At one of the viewing points, we see, just a few hundred meters away from a village, a cave where a bear is known to spend winter. Who would have thought that these discreet creatures live so close to us! This is a testimony of the age-old cohabitation between Asturians and bears. Because they tend to avoid coming across humans, some areas are restricted to let animals roam freely there. It’s useful to know where those passage points are to have a chance to spot an animal.
Red deer and Chamois
Unfortunately, we don’t see any brown bears in Somiedo today, as we already expected (or feared ;)) a little bit. However, we spot a male red deer (Cervus elaphus) crowned with magnificent antlers, a chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), and a busard (Buteo buteo).
There is never a 100% chance of spotting wild animals, but after this experience, I realize that it would be even harder without the material and the trained eyes of a guide. Wildlife watching can be frustrating, even for people with some experience! On the other hand, earlier this year, 8 bears, including 2 adorable cubs, were spotted on the same day from one viewpoint in Somiedo. Thus, a bit of luck also comes in handy when you wish to see these wild creatures!
I spent 14 months in the Alps and did my fair share of wildlife monitoring for the Mercantour National Park. And yet, I almost overlooked the three animals we saw today! It is also easy to overestimate the size of bears and scanning the mountain slope without seeing them. So, if you don’t want to spend long hours straining your eyes in the same spot, I highly recommend going with a guide!
Your trip to Asturias
Do you want to join our guided tour to search for bears in Asturias? Check our tour ‘Observe Cantabrian Brown Bears in Asturias’ Natural Parks‘ for more information. We also offer other guided tours and customizable trips to Asturias, customized guided tours and guidebooks. You can always send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!
If you want to plan your stay in Asturias, make sure to take advantage of these useful links to book your trip:
- If you want to book this particular bear watching tour, transportation is included in case you come from Oviedo, Gijon or Aviles. However, since most places in Asturias can only be reached by car, we advice you to rent a car from Asturias Airport and Asturias’ main cities Oviedo and Gijon.
- Book your accommodation in, for example, Pola de Somiedo. This village is an excellent starting point to explore Somiedo Natural Park. In particular, we recommend the rural hotel ‘Palacio Florez-Estrada‘.
- If an Airbnb experience is more your style, here’s a list of different accommodations in the vicinity of Somiedo Natural Park.
By booking through these sites, the small commission we earn – at no cost to you – helps us maintain this blog so we can continue to offer you valuable travel tips and advice.