Aisa Valley vacations in the Pyrenees

On the jagged border of France and Spain lies the rugged Pyrenees. And in the heart of the Spanish Pyrenees, lies Western Valleys Natural Park. In the deep hush of the Western Valleys Natural Park, a valley cut by a long-gone glacier sits under a slumbering spell that makes it hard to believe that you’re in Huesca, an Aragonese province that also houses some of the most popular ski resorts in the region. But this is the Aisa Valley: one of the least-visited areas in one of Spain’s least-visited national parks.

The best vacations to the Aisa Valley keep on zooming in, until you find yourself staying in a cottage in a village surrounded by mountains and the distant clatter of cowbells. If you’re from further afield, you’ll probably be some of the only international tourists here; the few visitors that ramble through are usually Spanish walkers and cyclists on their way to the mountain trails.

Make your escape

Villagers like Julio and Natalia Escribano, owners of our Aisa Valley vacation specialists Estarrun Travels, are your key to exploring the area. The husband and wife team moved from Madrid to start a new, more peaceful life in the Aisa Valley. Over the years, they’ve transformed their family’s 19th-century stone cottage into a guesthouse.
But what is it that tempts guests away from more accessible parts of the Pyrenees? “The quiet of the valleys,” Julio answers, immediately. “Guests love that quietness – that peacefulness.”
The world of the Aisa Valley is a sublime one. Julio and Natalia live in Aisa, a slip of a village a 30-minute drive north of Jaca. The ‘Aspe trilogy’ guards Aisa: the mountain peaks of Aspe, Llana del Bozo and Llana Cantal. The River Estarrun streaks past the village while stone streets snooze for most of the day. Aisa’s church looms above it all like a hulking Romanesque watchtower.
Villages in the Aisa Valley are isolated communities reliant on farming and occasional tourist visits. It’s an area still bruised by the exodus of people looking for better prospects in the cities in the 1950s. The migration was a countrywide trend triggered by rural poverty – but the Aisa Valley was one of the worst affected areas, with farmers abandoning over 75 percent of the cultivated land. Skeletal ghost villages still sit like memorials. Your vacation will directly support those who’ve chosen to remain.
When you stay at a small guesthouse, you learn to live like a local. You’ll start the day with freshly baked bread and fruit preserves. Your day’s explorations will be self guided or led by local guides who can take you further into the Aisa Valley. “David [our walking guide] lives in a town near here,” says Julio. “We’ve known him for 10 years and we know that he knows these valleys very well. He’s been around these valleys for 15 years, guiding different people... He has the knowledge to show the cultural stories and natural part of the area.”
Food is from the farms in the valley, or from towns and city markets within a few miles of it: Aragonese lamb (ternasco) and asparagus-like borrajas; fish plucked from Pamplona market; Navarra beans with walnut sauce; mushroom cannelloni; leek and bacon quiche; and sweet junket or ricotta from mountain dairy farms. It’s a taste of this part of the Pyrenees.
Evening entertainment comes courtesy of the night sky. “If the skies are very clear then the astronomy possibilities are very good here,” says Julio. “You move 100m, and you can see the sky very clearly.”

Walking the Aisa Valley

A quiet A-road runs through the Aisa Valley, but there’s only so far it can take you. Other, narrower roads zigzag up the valley walls until they, too, stop. From there, it’s just you and your hiking boots.

“The valley where we live,” says Julio, “is one of the valleys that belongs to the Western Valleys National Park – a compound of four valleys. It has three very rocky summits; it has an old glacier valley with a lake on the top. And it’s not very busy if you compare it to the other valleys of this park. You also find original forest that’s difficult to find in other parts of the Pyrenees now.”

Julio says that hiking is the best way to explore the Aisa Valley, which is full of surprises. A little-known branch of the Camino de Santiago trails past Aisa on its pilgrimage along the Aragon Way to Jaca. In May and June, pyramidal orchids, starry spring squill, crimson Pyrenean vetch, narcissi, rockroses, angelica and ladies’ bedstraw paint the alpine meadows beyond the roads. They draw clouds of butterflies in summer; hikers have reported seeing 65 species in one walk in the Aisa Valley, from white admirals and Spanish purple hairstreaks to silver-spotted skippers and Mazarine blues – which in turn reel in ring ouzels, pipits, Alpine citril finches, black redstarts and striped northern wheatears. You’re not imagining that whistling shriek, either. Golden eagles and vultures surf the air currents of the Aisa Valley.
It’s not all about the long days of summer, though. “When you see these mountains in winter, with the snow, it’s very different than from the summer,” says Julio. “But you can reach some lakes and forests that in other parts of the Pyrenees you’d need a bit of knowledge for. Here, with snowshoes, it’s easy to get the tourists there and show them some parts that are very, very nice.”
A good guide will get you exploring the rest of Western Valleys Natural Park (El Parque Natural de los Valle Occidentales) – a peerless patch of the Pyrenees. “It’s not a very known national park,” says Julio, “but it has diversity: valleys, forests and high mountains.”
At around 3,000m high, the mountains are taller than those in neighbouring Navarra. Aragonese forests of beech, oak, spruce and black pine harbour rare European brown bears. The shape of the land is an otherworldly mix of U-shaped valleys, amphitheatre-like circuses, and crenelated mountain peaks that fends off all but the most determined of hikers – and those who have a knowledgeable guide.

Beyond the Aisa Valley

You could easily spend several days on hikes in the Aisa Valley – but a vacation specialist will also fill you in on what else to do in this part of the Spanish Pyrenees. You could drive through the more-frequented Hecho Valley next door, with its soaring mountain pass. Canfranc Station – a grand abandoned train station built to transport gold for the Nazis – is a half-hour drive away. So is Jaca, the nearest city. The Cathedral of St Peter the Apostle looks like it was carved out of a cave and there’s a star-shaped citadel. Hop the border into France and you’ll enter the trail-webbed world of the French Pyrenees National Park.

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Pyrenees hiking holiday, Spanish Pyrenees

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Practicalities

Most Aisa Valley vacations are small group trips of 6-8 people. They usually include accommodation (a traditional B&B in a stone cottage in Aisa, perhaps), breakfasts and the occasional dinner (so that you have the freedom to restaurant hop and picnic), transfers from Jaca, and some activities such as guided hikes and cultural tours. Vacations here tend to be particularly solo traveler friendly; solo supplements are often kicked to the kerb, as guesthouse owners are keen to welcome all. You’ll need a week to get the most out of the region. Pack a two-litre water bottle for hikes. Tap water is drinkable. Vacations usually run in spring, summer and autumn. March is best for snow shoeing; May to September for summer hiking; October for autumnal photography trips.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Julio Escribano - Estarrún Travels] [Make your escape: Turol Jones] [Local farms and villages: Juan R. Lascorz] [Walking in winter & practicalities: Julio Escribano - Estarrún Travels]
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