Vizcaya Natural Reserves
Urkiola Natural Park
Surrounded by wonderful landscapes, with rugged limestone peaks, meadows and woods, Urkiola is a favourite among all nature lovers throughout the year.
Over the centuries, the Sanctuary of Urkiola, dedicated to the saints San Antonio Abad and San Antonio de Padua, and located at the very centre of the Park, has been the destination of pilgrims from near and far.
The peaks of the Urkiola mountain range have long been a favourite among mountaineers and hillwalkers. The precipitous rock faces of Atxatxiki, Urrestei and Alluitz are perfect for rockclimbing and have been the training ground for many of the great Basque mountaineers. Anboto, the highest peak in this range, is very popular among climbers but only the most daring visit the cave on its northern face. According to Basque mythology, this cave, which climbers call Mari, is the home of the "Lady of Anboto". There are other important caves such as Bolinkoba, Gentilkoba, Baltzola and the bridge of the Gentiles, etc.
There are a large number of recommended routes through the Park: These are marked as GRs and PRs, the didactic or specific routes of the Park, and these are described in brochures that can be acquired at the Toki Alai, the Parketxe or Information Centre.
There are a number of areas equipped for picnics and leisure pursuits. As it is forbidden to camp here, there are also two shelters in the Sanctuary for those who want to spend the night in the Park. The villages in the surrounding area contain a large number of restaurants and offer traditional Basque cooking and accommodation at reasonable prices and there are a large number of rural guesthouses and farms.
Gorbeia Natural Park
This Park, located at the foot of Mount Gorbea, contains landscapes of great beauty. You can enjoy seeing the local flora and fauna in their natural habitat. A visit to the Oro Sanctuary and the Gujuli waterfall are well worth the trouble, as are the local crafts workshops that produce a range of different products.
This Natural Park is located between the provinces of Vizcaya and Álava, around Mount Gorbeia, and is part of the mountain range that forms a watershed between the Cantabrian Sea and the Mediterranean. Due to its great height, Gorbeia Natural Park has a typical mountain climate and acts like a huge barrier stopping the damp winds from the Bay of Biscay. It is largely responsible for the major climactic differences between its north and south faces.
Gorbeia is a traditional reference point for Basque mountaineers. The attraction of peaks such as Gorbeiagane, Aldamin, Oketa, Berretin... , the quality and spectacular nature of its landscapes, together with the strategic situation of this mountain range which is close to a number of neighbouring population centres, have made Gorbeia one of the most frequented mountain ranges. The tracks and paths of this mountain range are used by hykers, mountain bike enthusiasts and horse riders. These activities are made much easier by the existence of a network of signposted paths in the Park, in addition to the GR and PR designed by the Mountain Federations.
Inside the Natural Park or on its edge, there are a large number of well-equipped recreational areas. Pagomakurre is the main one on the Bizkaia side, while on the Alava side there is the recreational area of the Baias Centre, with the recently created Parketxe or Park Reception Centre.
These rugged mountains are crowned by steep limestone cliffs or by the rounded silica peaks of the provinces of Alava. The many rivers and streams in the Park have sculpted deep, craggy ravines. The uppermost reaches of these streams run through areas of open grazing land and heather and only on the steep mountainsides are their banks covered with trees and other vegetation, dense woods of beech, Pyrenean oak, chestnuts - as well as plantations of conifers..
The great diversity and extension of these woodlands has allowed the reintroduction of deer into the Gorbeia Natural Park. There are large numbers of these animals distributed in the Alava sector and today they hae become an emblem of the wildlife in the Park.
The Itxina massif is found within the Gorbeia Natural Park and represents a key element in its landscape. It comprises a large outcrop of limestone of the Urgonian complex, formed by coral reefs that grew in shallow seas 110 million years ago.
Rainwater dissolves the rock causing depressions (dolines) and breaks up the rock in the form of grooves and channels (lapiaces). These are the so-called Karst formations. Among the most noteworthy of these is the famous Ojo de Atxulaor, the central Gran Grieta, the Axlaor doline and the Supelegor cave.
The filtered rainwater forms a large, enclosed subterranean basin that feeds the main spring, which is called Aldabide, to the north of the massif. One peculiar feature is the use of some of the deep Karst cracks as refrigerators to keep snow well into summer. In fact, in Itxina, one of these, in Neberabaltz, is in perfect condition.
The flora in the Park is extremely varied and is of great interest to moss experts. There are more than 175 species of mosses and catalogued hepatics. One aspect which has contributed to this abundance of species is the large amount of rotting wood in the Park, something which is difficult to find in other places in the Basque Country due to the massive forestation in this region. This wealth of flora is increased by the presence of singular species on the crests and vertical rock faces. Some beech trees grow in the harshest and most unexpected places and today there is still evidence of the use of these trees for producing charcoal.
With regard to fauna, one curious detail is that there are at least eight species of bats. In years gone by, these animals were associated with witchcraft and evil practices, but they are beneficial to man as their main diet consists of insects.
Urdaibai Biosphere Reservation
Unesco declared Urdaibai a biosphere reserve in 1984. It comprises a large marsh formed by the river Oca as it flows into the sea, thereby providing a rich source of food for a large variety of seabirds. Inland, Gernika is situated at the vertex of this enormous delta. Gernika is the town immortalised by Picasso in his painting of the bombing raids perpetrated during the Civil War. It is also the town where in ancient times the Lords of Vizcaya took their decisions in the shade of a large oak tree, the Oak of Gernika.
Nearby, you can visit the Santimamiñe caves, well known for their prehistoric paintings. And on the coast, you can visit Elantxobe at one end of the river estuary and Bermeo at the other. Both towns have a long seafaring tradition and celebrate festivities in remembrance of centuries-long disputes over the island of Izaro, which is situated halfway between them.
You should not forget to take a walk through the forest of Oma, where the Basque artist Agustín Ibarrola has created picturesque shapes and figures in several colours in harmony with this natural space. In short, Urdaibai represents an important part of the history, culture and natural heritage of the Basque Country.