Andorra is one of the world’s most unique countries. A micronation sandwiched between Spain and France, tucked away in the mountains of the Pyrenees, Andorra ranks as one of the world’s smallest and least populated countries. With its high elevation and mountainous terrain, Andorra has long been known as a haven for winter sports. And with very low taxes and duty free stores, Andorra is also a popular destination for budget-conscious shoppers.
But fascinatingly, (and perhaps surprisingly), Andorra is also home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley. So what is it? Where is it? Why is it important? And what’s it like to visit?
Read on for a full guide to the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley, Andorra’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This is a guest post by Joel, the author of World Heritage Journey. Joel will be contributing to a series of posts dedicated to less popular UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Europe. I am very happy, he agreed to share his amazing experience and knowledge with us. All tours and places to stay are recommended by me.
What is the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley?
The Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley is an isolated and largely undeveloped valley, located in the south-east of Andorra. Originally formed by glaciers, the valley covers just over 40 square kilometres. It’s not particularly large, but in a small country like Andorra that’s almost 10% of the entire country! The valley is mostly unpopulated these days, though over the centuries it has been home to various small hamlets, settlements, and farming communities. Fascinatingly, the Valley is still only accessible on foot – there are no roads leading into the valley, so it’s largely stayed unchanged over the centuries.
Why is the Valley on the World Heritage List?
It’s mainly due to its undeveloped nature that the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley was added to the World Heritage List in 2004. With its narrow walking trails, isolated settlements and scattered pastures, the Valley is considered a fantastic example of what’s known as a pastoral landscape. It reflects a rural way of life that was once common across much of Europe’s mountainous areas, but has almost vanished entirely.
Fun fact: There is a similar UNESCO World Heritage site in France with unique aggro-pastoral landscape – the Causses and Cévennes. Read here how to discover the area with this 7-day road trip.
It’s extremely well preserved as well, with trails criss-crossing the valley – some leading out as far afield as France and Spain! Over the centuries, shepherds moved their flocks around the area, farmers constructed small terraced fields to grow wheat, rye and hay, while other inhabitants supplied basic necessary trades like mining, blacksmithing and logging.
Surprisingly, two small settlements still exist within the valley, with a total of about 12 houses. But as you might expect, nobody lives there year-round anymore. The houses are only populated during the warm summer months. These days, the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley is the last remaining undeveloped area in Andorra, and is traditionally considered the “spiritual heart” of the country. The Valley’s protection on the World Heritage Site is a clear reflection of that pride and importance.
What is visiting the Madriu-Perafite-Claror Valley like?
These days, visiting the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley is a fantastic experience. As mentioned, there’s no roads into the valley, so you have to get yourself there on foot – just like in centuries past. It means that once you’ve left behind the carpark and its surroundings, you’re immediately in the middle of nature. Although you’re right near Andorra’s capital, Andorra La Vella, the gorgeous environment makes it very easy to forget.
The Valley itself is quite beautiful. We visited on a hot summer’s day under radiant blue skies and dazzling sunshine. The snow-capped mountains of the Pyrenees towered above us as we pressed along the walking trails into the valley. Thick green pine forests surrounded us, while the trail plunged down steep inclines and back up even steeper hills. Every now and then you’ll pass a small terraced farm plot, or cross over a rapidly flowing stream with icy cold mountain water. With binoculars, or a good camera zoom lens, you can pick out isolated stone shepherds’ huts, but generally they’re located in the further reaches of the valley and difficult to visit.
Given that the pastoral landscape is one of the main reasons for addition to the World Heritage List, it’s not surprising that the Andorran government has laid out a series of impressive walking trails that follow the shepherd and farming routes laid out over the centuries. These are all generally pretty well signposted, though it’s highly recommended that you’re in reasonable physical shape, as most of the routes have strenuous ascents and descents, and can take most of a day to complete. It’s difficult, and certainly a thorough workout, but the views and the incredible nature are absolutely worth it!
How can I visit the Valley?
Naturally, the first step in visiting the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley is getting to Andorra. There’s an airport just across the border in Spain, though flights aren’t particularly common or cheap. A better option is flying to either Barcelona or Toulouse and driving or catching a bus from there. Once you’re in Andorra, getting around can still be a bit tricky though there’s a pretty good bus network to rely on.
To directly access the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley national park, I’d strongly recommend starting from the Engolasters area. You can catch a bus up here, or drive yourself if you’re got your own transport. Take the Engolasters Road (CS-200) up into the mountains, through the town of Engolasters, and follow it all the way to the end of the road near the lake. Here you’ll find a parking lot which is marked on Google Maps as Aparcament de les Fonts. Directly across the road from here is the well-marked Els Matxos path, which you should follow for about 45 minutes to reach Coll Jovell.
Stop here for a spectacular view back across Andorra La Vella, enjoy the mountain scenery, and the World Heritage Valley stretching out in front of you. This is the start of the World Heritage area, and serves as the trailhead for one of the many walking trails. From here, I’d recommend following either light blue walking route #1 to the Ramio settlement, or green route #7 to Fontverd refuge.
Be sure to take a map with you, and make sure you know your own capabilities before setting out. The trails are well-formed and even, but also very steep in places and surprisingly long too!
Overall, the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley was a real unexpected gem of a World Heritage Site. When you mention UNESCO World Heritage Sites, most people instantly think of genuine world wonders like the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu or the Sydney Opera House. But that’s what I’ve absolutely loved about taking on the World Heritage Journey: discovering the overlooked and under-appreciated World Heritage Sites, like an ancient pastoral landscape in an undeveloped corner of one of Europe’s smallest countries. So next time you’re thinking about skiing or duty free shopping in Andorra, be sure to pencil in some time to explore this gorgeous and undiscovered corner of Europe.