It was famously once the world’s most dangerous footpath. Nobody seems to know quite how many people died trying to walk it, but there were plenty – at least four deaths just in the four years leading up to 2013.
Now though, the Caminito del Rey is one of the most spectacular tourist attractions in Spain – and you can hike it safely in your trainers.
Yes, they do give you a safety hat at the start, just in case anything unpleasantly hard falls on your head from the rocks above. But as long as you’re physically able to put one foot in front of another for three or four hours, you can do it. Warning – it’s not a place for vertigo sufferers though.
So what is the Caminito del Rey and why does it have such a scary history?
The literal translation is “Little Footpath of the King” and it started life as a footway for construction workers and their pack animals working on a hydro-electric project in the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes (Gaitanes Gorge) in the mountains behind Málaga in southern Spain. Work started in the early 20th century, back when hydro-electric power was a revolutionary new technology.
King Alfonso XIII came by in 1921 for the formal opening ceremony and even walked some of the way along the path (though exactly how far he managed is unknown; royals didn’t do much hiking back then). Which is where the ‘del Rey’ bit comes from.
However, as the decades passed the footpath gradually fell into disrepair. And this is really not a footpath that you’d want to fall into disrepair. Even when it was freshly built, the path must have been more than a little scary, clinging precariously to the vertical sides of the gorge. It’s a very long way straight down to the rocks and the river Guadalhorce below.
Apparently, the project engineers hired unemployed sailors off the sailing ships in Málaga harbour to build it in the first place, on the grounds they were used to working at the kind of heights that would scare the pants off most people. Astonishingly, given the health and safety standards of the time, only two men died during construction.
By the 1970s and 80s, El Caminito had become a bit of a daredevil tourist attraction. Handrails had completely disappeared from long sections and great holes had opened up in the path itself as the concrete rotted. The authorities closed it off, but in a rather half-hearted way. Climbers ran safety ropes through the gorge, so that fellow thrill-seekers could clip on their karabiners and navigate through the trickier sections. Take a look at this video to see how hairy it really was back then.
But then came the restoration, a completely brilliant idea. It cost around €5.5 million from start to finish and finally opened in 2015. All the dodgy old cliff paths were replaced with safe, modern boardwalks, though you can still see hair-raising sections of the old trail above and below the new path.
There’s a see-through platform over the gorge near the end (warning – not for the faint-hearted) and a rather bouncy suspension bridge to finish with, 100 metres above the river. But as long as you have a reasonable head for heights, you’ll be fine.
Between the sheer gorges at the top and bottom of the Caminito, the path opens out into more gentle scenery, where we saw speckled vultures soaring on the updraughts and mountain goats coming down to the river to drink.
Somewhat bizarrely, on the other side of the gorge is a full-blown railway line, considered an engineering marvel when it was built from Cordoba down to Málaga in the 1860s. It’s still working today. It’s distinctly odd to be treading carefully along a narrow boardwalk on one side of the gorge and then looking up to see a modern passenger train rattling by just a few metres away on the other.
And that brings us neatly to the best way of getting to the Caminito del Rey. You can get the train up from Málaga in around 45 minutes, getting off at El Chorro station. There are also trains from the north, as far away as Sevilla. El Chorro – literal translation ‘the Jet’ – is named after the gout of water that shot out of the gorge when the river Guadalhorce reached flood levels.
From El Chorro station, you take the nearby shuttle bus up to the acceso norte – the northern entrance – as El Caminito has a one-way walking system from north to south.
Alternatively, come by car to the acceso norte near the village of Ardales – it’s around an hour’s drive from Màlaga. Park up (beware – parking spaces run out quickly and you may have to walk a bit from your car to the northern entrance). Take the shorter route (we did) of 1.5km through the tunnel, or there’s a 2.7km long alternative which starts next to the Restaurante el Kiosko. Both take you down to the start line, where you get your hard hat and wait to join your group.
The trail is open all year round, though spaces are limited – up to 1,100 people go through every day – so booking in advance is vital. You need to reach the start of the walk 30 minutes before your start time. It’s a good idea to check the weather beforehand; our first visit had to be cancelled because of severe storms and flooding. Take water if it’s hot – you can buy a bottle from the vending machines at the start. Insurance is included in the ticket price (€10). Children under 8 years old are not allowed. Link here.
I’d really recommend a guided tour in English or Spanish (€18), as you get to find a lot more about the Caminito del Rey, its history, its geology, its flora and fauna, from someone who really knows the place.
Take a look at a few highlights of our walk in this video.
© Guy Pelham 2020