Do you fancy a challenge that will take you to some of the best views within Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park? Well, the route to Coll de Contraix is pretty perfect. You follow the Carros de Foc trail between two Refuges Ventosa and Estany Llong. This hike will take you near azure-blue lakes, up spectacular rocky slopes, past countless waterfalls and show you more spiky-topped Pyrenees than you can count.
This was easily the most impressive adventure we had in Catalonia so I am really keen to show off how blooming beautiful it is.
Coll de Contraix in Aigüestortes – route map
Coll de Contraix in Aigüestortes – The basics
Distance: 25 km (for the whole walk) or 19km (from the Ventosa refuge)
Elevation Gain: 1435m
High Point: 2748m (at Coll de Contraix)
Time: 10.5 hours (whole walk) 7.5 hours (from the Ventosa refuge)
What to bring:
Water, snacks and your camera!
Hiking sticks are helpful as there is a LOT of elevation loss!
The 10 essentials.
I wouldn’t bring a dog on this. The boulder-field would be a nightmare for puppy paws.
How hard is it?
Very challenging. We found the boulder-field especially tough!
Maps: Spain has fantastic maps that you can download or use the Mapas de España app. We used a mixture of that, Maps Me and hard copies of maps that my mum brought.
Carros de Foc
Firstly, for hiking friends, have you heard of the Carros de Foc? In Catalan this means “Chariots of fire.” It is a truly epic mid-distance hike that connects the 9 mountain refuges in the Aigüestortes i Llac de Sant Maurici National Park. It covers 55km with 9200m of elevation gain(!) Most people take 5-7 days to walk it, but some Sky Runners do the entire thing in a day.
The path we took between Refugi Ventosa i Calvell and the Refugi Estany Llong followed this epic (and very tough) route. Part of the trail around the Coll de Contraix does not show up on the Mapas de España, but I promise, it is a real path! You can see our route on all trails here. It was amaaazing to get a taste of this fantastic hike. But it was also harder than anything else we did this summer!
Leaving Refugi Ventosa i Calvell – Getting started
This walk wasn’t the longest hike we did in Catalonia, but I took hundreds and hundreds of photos. For this reason I split up the hike into more manageable chunks. The first part of our walk from Cavallers Reservoir to Estany Negre is described in my previous post. It involved conga lines of cows, plenty of gorgeous lakes and finished at the Refugi Ventosa i Calvell refuge.
Coll de Contraix via Carros de Foc
We started this section of the walk after lunch. Follow the path East from Estany Negre. The first blue-green tarn is Bassot de Colieto. I loved the bonsai-like tree hanging over it.
Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park is such a strange mix of reflective lakes and rocks! This view is looking back towards the Ventosa refuge.
This is the way we’re heading along the Colieto Vally.
At this point, I had never heard of the Chariots of fire path. We had made up our route using a mixture of various maps and tourist brochures. We had picked two walks rated “difficult” on the tourist maps, then joined them together. This meant we were not entirely sure how high the path would climb, or how hard it would be.
The path began to slope upwards towards our high point for the day, Coll de Contraix at 2748m. If you look in the photo below you can see the Pic de Contraix, the large mountain on the right. We needed to reach the saddle in the sky down to the left of that.
We were very happy to see sign posts pointing to Estany Long Refugi. It showed our route was definitely possible.
Estany Gran de Colieto
We stopped to take a look at the beautiful Estany Gran de Colieto Lake at 2206m. At this point the hike was easy, and our surroundings were stunning.
This is the view backwards with the stegosaurus-like Agulles de Travessani Mountain and Estany Gran de Colieto Lake. We met two other hikers at this point (the only people we saw the entire time on the Carros de Foc trail!)
Carros de Foc – Getting tougher
After that, the path became more difficult as we needed to navigate our way around plenty of large boulders. Still, it wasn’t too bad as there are clear cairns (piles of rocks) to follow.
Boulder Field to Coll de Contraix
To reach the high point at the Coll de Contraix saddle, you need to gain about 550m elevation in 2.8km (from the low point in the Colieto Valley.) We are used to steep ascents, but this was a totally different beast! My photos are mostly of the clearer parts, as I needed to use my hands (and wits) to climb along the rocks.
This is the massive boulder-field that you need to traverse while climbing up to the saddle.
We lost the path quite a few times and had to be super careful to keep spotting the cairns. It was fun, but by the time we were close to the top, it was starting to be type 2 fun.
It’s hard to judge the scale from these photos. Many of these rocks are as big as cars, so it’s easy to clamber along them. Some of them wobble and there are lots of gaps where you might fall and trap your leg. I think it took us around an hour to go 1km on the toughest section.
As you get closer to the top, the boulders give way to scree, so it is slippy, dangerous and incredibly steep. Still, when you stop to look backwards the views are spectacular.
Coll de Contraix Views
Once you have reached the saddle (woot woot!!), you’ll be treated to gorgeous views of the other side of Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park. And down to Estany de Contraix Lake. The path down to that lake was super steep.
Estany de Contraix Lake
It may have been steep, but we found this section much easier. There were plenty of switchbacks. The path was obvious half the time (with scrambling the rest of the time.)
Estany de Contraix Lake is at an elevation of 2,573m. You can see that the whole area around the lake was a huge cirque, carved out by glaciers into a giant bowl.
Down at the lake we were slightly alarmed to see signs that said it should take a few more hours to reach the Refuge at Estany Llong. The sun was already starting to hide behind the mountains so we had to really speed up!
At least the next steep mountainside had a good path to guide us through the rocks. This area must be prone to avalanches in winter as rock-slides obscure the path quite a few times. We appreciated the bright yellow wooden posts that guided us down.
We followed the river (and several waterfalls) down the steep sides of Contraix. The path flattens into a beautiful plateau, before descending again down another steep slope.
Views down to Estany Llong
We ran along the path each time it was safe, so we seemed to zoom through this beautiful section of the trail. You can just see the Estany Llong lake below. This is where the next refuge is located. It didn’t take long at all for us to zoom down to that valley.
Ribera de Sant Nicolau
If you fancy a more relaxed walk, rather than gallivanting in the high Pyrenees, there is an easier way to reach this area. You can take a 4×4 taxi all the way up to the Aigüestortes Plateau and do a gentle hike from the car park up to the refuge by Estany Llong lake. That hike is 3.8 km and gains 165m in elevation. It’s what my parents did on this day while we were up high.
Race the sun
As you can probably tell from my photos, the sun was starting to fade by the time we made it down to the Sant Nicolau stream and Aigüestortes Plateau. It was too late to take a taxi, and we still had 10km with an elevation loss of 550m. Eep. My phone predicted it should take us 3 hours to descend, but once we started running, we managed to cut that in half.
The paths are well made, and not too steep at all. We recently learned that we both find it easier on our knees to run downhill if the roads/trails are good. You don’t need much puff to run down a gentle slope as gravity does most of the work.
This whole area is gorgeous. I have to admit, it is not really what I expected from hiking in Spain. Instead of a dry, brown landscapes, the whole of Aigüestortes is covered by lakes and streams. It is green and lush, surrounded by beautiful mountains; It’s a pleasure to hike through. We may have been running, but we still stopped to catch our breath and take photos.
Aigüestortes is cow heaven. The road had plenty of switchbacks that allowed us to admire the golden hour views and listen to the musical cow bells. It not a bad place for cows to live eh!?
Mirador de l’Estany Llebreta
The views continued to be gorgeous on our run down. First we got to see a fantastic viewpoint of l’Estany Llebreta Lake. Then lower down there was a waterfall, the Cascada de Sant Esperit.
Estany de Llebreta
This is the view looking back from l’Estany Llebreta Lake. There was still plenty of light (looking in that direction)
The cliffs above the lake were marvelous too.
Once we’d made it past the lake, we realized we had less than 4km (and 300m elevation loss) to go. The path is through trees, so there is normally less of a view BUT the sun started to set with spectacular colours framing the Pyrenees above us. Every few minutes it would be brighter until our world looked like this…
It was a fantastic end to an amaaaazing walk. My dad kindly came and fetched us from the car park and drove us back to Boí (where we’d left our car.)
Once again, hiking in Aigüestortes had exceeded all our expectations. If you like a challenge, I cannot recommend this highly enough. Or, if you prefer walking at a more leisurely pace, you could take it slowly and stay in one of the two refuges along the route. This area is perfect for creating your own adventure.