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Hiking Sierra de Aitana in Spain

I never had an interest in visiting Spain or even knew there was decent hiking in this country, until my favorite hiking friend, Betty, suggested we meet there during her time in Europe.

We joined a group with Exodus Travels which works with a local team of guides from Aitana Adventures. Our German guide - now based in Spain, Sara, was wonderfully hilarious and informative about the local mountains and fauna growing among the sharp-edged mountains.

Group trips can go one of two ways: you either find the positive in everything or you dwell on the features that fall short. Betty is the most positive, thoughtful, and easy-going person I know, so even if we were served cockroaches for dinner, she would still have a bright smile! I am lucky to have her as my +1 during this group trip. Her positive radiance influenced my time in Spain.

Experiencing our 6-day hiking adventure with random strangers in a family-run hotel almost sounds like a setting for a reality show. I took Betty’s attitude of living in the moment and appreciating what we have instead of complaining about what we didn’t. Sure, the food wasn’t great. The rooms were very basic. Most of us couldn’t sleep well - none of us had any idea why! The mountains were not the most impressive. The landscape was mostly rocky and bare.

With the help of Betty’s rosy-colored vision, all those negatives became positives. I’m glad the food wasn’t tempting. It enabled me to eat light and be light on my feet during the long hikes instead of being weighed down by heavy meals. I actually started to see ab definition and toned arms after one week! I was also becoming more flexible from moving all day. Now, I see the trick in balancing my body. Hike/walk at least 7 miles a day, stretch in the morning and night, do not eat any processed/packaged foods and my mind and body are in harmony.

I was hoping to get more fit and lose weight, and that’s hard to do when you’re constantly surrounded by irresistible food. The daily sandwiches were the best meal of the day and gave me sustenance for the steep hills and long descents. The triple-decker sandwiches were the highlight of our days. They were outstanding and have inspired me to come up with P.S. & Co. sandwiches soon! We did have a fresh salad and paella after our hardest hiking day, which was surprisingly delicious compared to all the other simple meals we were served. If we had something as delicious as that paella every day, I think I would have had a harder time on the hikes with a very full belly.

Not sure why most of us had trouble sleeping, but the wakeful nights helped me bounce out of bed at 6 am in the morning to squeeze in extra stretching and strength training before our daily hikes. If I was in a cushier environment, sleeping in would have been too tempting! I was more productive on vacation than I am at home, and this new schedule inspired me with all the things I can do once I return home.

The rocky landscapes were a great introduction to more challenging hikes such as the Dolomites or GR20. I started to use our daily hikes and terrains as practice for more hiking to come. (Especially to help my feet and legs be used to the ascents and descents for Mont Blanc come July.) The terrain was rockier than I’ve experienced. Some of the paths were walking on the edges of precipices - types of trails you would never see in the U.S.! I was thrilled with each day’s surprises. The climate also produced the most wonderful wild herbs such as asparagus, rosemary, lavender, and curry leaves along our trails. We also passed almond and carob crops on our treks. I couldn’t believe such expensive culinary gems growing wild or easy for someone to pick!

Towards the end, the effort of making conversation was more difficult than the physical exertion of climbing rocky terrain! Our group was lovely by the way. I think I’m just not so much a people person! Dinners were long and leisurely, which was tough for me when I had shop emails to answer. I secretly wished I could have all my courses at once, so I could eat and go about my business. Am I too American?! It was a bit of an adjustment for me to chill out! I have two more group hiking trips coming up this year. I’m curious to see how those group dynamics compare to this one.

Our guide had the tough task of pacing our varied group. We had fast and slow hikers, and Sara tried her best to accommodate all of us. On our free day, Betty and I just wanted to see how far we could push ourselves. We attempted to walk 13.1 miles from the coast back to our homestay. 4.4 miles in, our path was flooded. We didn’t want to turn back to town and join the rest of the group to drive back to our home base. Instead, resourceful Betty found an alternate path along a road to get us back. Yes, we were walking along with cars on the pavement instead of being in nature, but we were able to enjoy cinematic views of Benimantell, Polop, and the Sierra de Aitana mountains in a panoramic way we couldn’t see during our hikes. The best challenge was the 2000 feet elevation change over the final 9 miles against 30mph winds. I was thinking about the Tour de France riders. If they could keep riding up those brutal hills at much higher elevations, I can finish these 9 miles! I remember feeling the pain of smashed toes starting to set in, but my mind took over, and I walked harder and faster. Betty is a speed demon, which motivated me to keep up with her pace. If it wasn’t for Betty’s determination, I would’ve walked much slower and dragged out the ordeal. Betty, if you are reading this, you are a true inspiration! That was the most mileage I’ve ever walked in a single day, let alone in a single shot. We took no breaks to sit. Just one break to pee and one to quickly grab water and fruit out of our bags. Stopping any longer would have made it more difficult to get started again. I was never so happy to see our humble hotel at the top of our final hill. What was once just a homestay with so-so food and not the best sleeping arrangements suddenly felt like a safe refuge and can I even say, a home away from home!

Our “free day” hike was the most exhilarating for personal reasons. If we stayed on course through the forest, I don’t think we would’ve been able to hike such steep hills or see such beautiful vistas. Our rogue hike gave me the opportunity to push through mental and physical limits. I love having those moments to feel like you can do anything! Small victories help me believe in the possibilities of achieving bigger goals.

Betty was a powerful reminder of how perspective changes everything: we are in control to perceive our experiences as positive or negative. Why see things through a negative lens and ruin a vacation? Running a business puts this to the test every day. Very few things ever go smoothly or as planned because so much is out of one’s control. We’re at the mercy of vendors, employees, weather, governing policies, and guests. Rolling with the punches as they say and problem-solving at a moment’s notice are the only two guarantees as a business owner!

Overall, I learned a great deal about myself and maybe a few tips to keep in mind about group travel when we are building our future wellness retreats. Guests want options at the end of the day, not just to retire to their hotel (especially if it’s a simple one without amenities). Guests also want options to be on their own during moments of the day. Sharing a room with a stranger could add to the stress. I think rooms should always be single (and charge more for that privacy) unless someone chooses to room together with a friend, spouse, or family member. We didn’t have our main guide due to a personal emergency, which may have allowed the faster hikers to push it and the slower hikers to take their time. I learned, that usually, there is a lead guide in the front and a sweeper guide in the back to make sure no one gets lost and different levels are accommodated. There was one day when we were allowed to go ahead and feel the burn of our legs and our lungs. That was amazing. I love the feeling of progress and pushing forward. My most satisfying personal development was improving on the descents. I was always very weak and wary of going downhill quickly. I felt unstable and my toes would be squashed after a long descent. I think I figured out a way – not sure if this is correct – by lowering my center of gravity with slightly bent legs as I take wider steps, almost leaping side-to-side. It relieves my toenails from being pressed to the front of my shoes while lowering my center of gravity. I used poles for the first time ever, as well.

Rocky terrain is not my favorite, but scrambling up rocks was very thrilling. Not as self-defeating as rock climbing - ha! It was a nice bonus to hike. I got the bug to finally start training for my next hiking trip to Mont Blanc in July. This trip to Sierra de Aitana was the motivation I needed to continue a training program in Philly to help maintain mileage and get more practice on hills, so when I’m hiking 18 miles on the 8th day, I can feel like I can finish with pleasure instead of pain! Now, all I need is for the business to run smoothly, so I have the flexibility and time to stick to my training.

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