Yes, you do not have to fly for hours or go to the other side of the world to find yourself in a real desert! There are two deserts in Spain, one of them near the border with France, just behind the Pyrenees mountains, between Navarre and Aragon : the Bardenas Desert. It is a natural park classified as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2000. This desert is the result of thousands of years of erosion and water work with the Ebro River flowing alongside. The Bardenas Reales are divided into three distinct areas: Bardena Blanca, Bardena Negra and Bardena del Plano. The most visited is La Blanca, in the center, Plano being in the north and Negra in the south.
How to get to the Bardenas desert?
To get there, we chose to travel the road by car from Paris but it is quite possible to shorten the travel time by combining aircraft and car rental. The nearest airport is Bilbao (Spain) but you can also arrive in Biarritz (France) and you will have a 2h30 drive in both cases to get to Tudela. The Bardenas desert is located between Pamplona and Zaragoza.
Discover the Bardenas Reales
The park covers 42,500 hectares but you will not be able to cover all of it either on foot, by mountain bike or by car. Large spaces are closed to all human activity, prohibited especially between February and early September to allow the Egyptian vultures to reproduce in peace. There is no inhabitant in the desert but you will find regularly small huts sometimes abandoned. They belong to families of the area who go there on Sundays or to shepherds who graze their flocks there. The peculiarity of the Bardenas is that this huge area does not belong to the Spanish government but to the 22 towns and municipalities that surround it like the Monastery of Oliva. The area is managed by these municipalities which also share the revenues generated during the filming of movies and series, like Game of Thrones (think about Daenerys and the Dothrakis), The Counselor (with Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz) or The world is not enough (James Bond) not to mention a few.
I can not recommend too much the visit of the park in a 4×4 with a professional guide as Inaki of the Company of Guides of Las Bardenas. He is fluent in English and his explanations will help you to better understand this unique place. Inaki does not count his time and answers all questions with a lot of passion and professionalism. In addition, the prices are very reasonable for a tour that is so qualitative. I recommend the tour that leaves around 15h to enjoy the beautiful colors of the setting sun.
We spend our first hours in the Bardenas desert with a stunning sunset on the emblematic place called Castil de Tierra, the most famous « chimney » of the Park. What a great way to start our discovery of the Bardenas !
Accommodation near the Bardenas desert
Our first accommodation was located in Villafranca, a small town north of the Bardenas, 15 minutes from the entrance of the Natural Park by car. We slept in a former monastery called Hospederia de Alesves run by Angel and his wife, lovely people always willing to help or give advices. The place is truly beautiful and very clean and the evening menu unbeatable at 16 euros with starter, main course, dessert made with the good food produce from the area.
Aire de Bardenas: an oasis in the middle of the desert
We spent a night in an unusual accommodation, the flagship hotel of the area: Aire de Bardenas. It is a 4 star design and minimalist boutique hotel, lost at the southern entrance of the desert that leads to the Bardena Negra. You can sleep in cube houses with huge window that offer panoramic views to the Bardenas or like us in a bubble. Beware, it is very hot in the early hours of the morning and if you choose this option in summer, you can not settle there before 18h. Rest assured, there is air conditioning in the bubbles but the ventilation system, essential to keep the bubble inflated, is unfortunately a bit noisy. All of this is quickly forgotten when you fall asleep under the stars – with a pair of earplugs for me! Dinner in the elegant restaurant is excellent and affordable! The breakfast is very good but a bit expensive for my taste (20 Euros). The hotel offers its customers to rent of Polaroïd for 10 euros (you are asked to leave one of your photos on the Wall of Fame) and you have also the possibility to send a free postcard to the person of your choice.
This hotel is amazing and blends in completely with its surroundings.
We made many car trips with stops to take pictures at the authorized places: El Rallon, the road to El Paso, the area around the Cuartel Militar.
Alfaro : a paradise for storks
We did not have to suffer these consequences but we learned that the Bardenas are sometimes closed without warning due to military exercises on the barracks located in the heart of the park. It is a little strange to see soldiers in a natural park doing exercises with real bombs but you have to remember that these military settlements pay a very high rent to the owners of the area and help to make the whole area live. With the influx of tourism in recent years, municipalities seem to no longer want these noisy tenants who sometimes prevent visitors from venturing into the desert. Try to make inquiries at the tourist information center before visiting the Bardenas or plan several days in the area. There are a few things to do in the area : castles to visit, amusement parks, hikes, wine tourism and a short tour through the paradise of storks: Alfaro. They are found everywhere in the city that has even installed nests at the top of the cathedral, la Collegiale San Miguel.
Do not hesitate and start planing your trip to another world : the desert of the Bardenas !