Photo by Jose Rebollar
ASTURIAS, THE PROVINCE on the northwestern coast of Spain just east of Galicia and west of Cantabria, is a narrow strip of mountains and coast line, creating steep cliff drops to the Atlantic Ocean.
The whole coast is a series of cliffs giving way to scallop-shaped sand or pebble beaches.
A province of misty green mountains, blue waters, bagpipes, prehistoric caves, Bronze Age dolmens, Iron Age Celtic settlements, and pre-Romanesque churches, Asturias is unlike other parts of Spain. Amidst this ancient smorgasbord, there are dozens of surf spots, some famous but most only known by the locals.
To catch the best waves, you need to travel here in the fall, winter, and spring, which happen to fall in the cheaper off-peak season. There are enough surf spots in Asturias that you can find your own and avoid the localism at the more famous places, like Rodiles and Tapia de Casariego.
Asturians are both sophisticated and earthy people. It is a land of human-scale cities and many, many rural villages set in rolling green hills with views of the big blue Atlantic.
The Picos de Europa, one of Europe’s best preserved natural mountainous areas, sits as a backdrop. City, village, coastline, and mountain are all interconnected by new roads and old footpaths.
It’s the footpaths that are fascinating. At first you may not even see them. I didn’t until I asked for directions many times from locals and kept getting these organic responses with shortcuts through fields and passages along narrow worn paths.
That was when I realized the world of paved roads was secondary to locals. For a surfer, what these footpaths indicate is that the more challenging access to beaches pretty much clears out rabble rousers who might crowd the waters if access were easier.
The true soul surfer can find his or her sweet spot pretty much unmolested.
Part of the fun of surfing in Asturias is discovering the foot paths that lead to little-known surf spots. I’ve been exploring surf in Asturias for over ten years and have found the best ones through patient exploration into wonderfully wild terrain.
I first go out for exploratory walks along footpaths, asking locals for their expertise as I go. Sometimes I’ll fall into a path serendipitously. And sometimes paths are a dead end at a cliff drop, a mislead forged by the ubiquitous free range goats who also use the paths to get to their own slice of nirvana.
Over the years of trekking and surf hunting in Asturias, through trial and error, I’ve also unearthed three indispensable books that help me unearth the wild reality of Asturias, her footpaths and her surf spots. (They are noted below.)
Having located your access route, checked the surf, and talked to the locals for their invaluable local knowledge, you can fall into a joyous rhythm of coming and going from the surf to the village where you’re staying and to the local cafes and restaurants.
Food & Drink
The Spanish are fierce believers in the basic human right to eat and drink well. They are gregarious and generous people and their villages often have no less than four bars and cafes, even in a population of 300 or less.
The offering gets bigger and headier the bigger the town. In all contexts, the food is always locally procured, fresh, delicious, and affordable. You save a lot of money but get the same quality by ordering the fixed price menus (menus del dia), which are three courses (a starter, an entrée, and dessert), often for around 10-12 euros, including wine and bread.
Asturias is in apple country and produces hard cider, called sidra, a crisp, dry, frothy, apple and sun infused elixir. And because wine country is not far away, including the famous Rioja wine country, really good wine is madly affordable.
Villages across the country, including in Asturias, have weekly open air markets, a good time to see what the locals produce as well as purchase fresh, often organic provisions for eating in and picnicking out.
Playa de San Martin
One of my favorite spots is Playa de San Martin.
Just west of the fishing town of Llanes in eastern Asturias, San Martin can be reached only via footpaths from the village of Celorio.
San Martin is set amidst a cliff that opens to an expansive sandy beach with giant stone formations carved by the ocean. It is a beach break that picks up the swell well and is best at low tide. Winds come in from the south, southeast, and sometimes northeast. Waves are rapid and ridable with variable peaks.
Localism is nearly nonexistent even though this is a beloved spot among surfers from Llanes. If you go, act like a good guest so that localism will remain low here. (The fact holds that most localism in northern Spain emerges from arrogant behavior from visitors and as such incites a local counter-response…)
After a session in the water and climbing up the cliff path that got you there, head back to Celorio’s village beach and enjoy frothy beers and local tapas at the beachside café.
Calamares, shrimp sautéed in garlic (gambas al ajillo), chorizo in cider (chorizo a la sidra), and when in season, little fried green peppers with sea salt (pimientos de Padrón).
Most Asturians are environmentalists who love their wild places. Villages and towns have clusters of bins that are for recycling and for trash. Use them.
Respect the wild and human places alike. Asturians are very warm people and if you act with warmth and respect, you will find yourself quickly adopted and will find the life so serene and complete that you’ll be hard pressed to leave.
Camping Sites and Surf Shops
Called “Campings” these sites are sprinkled throughout Asturias. The Guía del Surf listed below tells you when a surf spot is near a camping site. It also lists surf shops and rentals near different spots.
Renting a Rural House
Better than camping, I think, is renting a rural apartment or farmhouse, which in the off-season can be remarkably cheap and much drier and warmer than camping: Asturias is famous for rain in all seasons.
Once you settle on the part of Asturias’ coastline you want to explore (I recommend the area around Ribadesella and Llanes), you can explore the local rentals via Toprural: select Asturias and go in more locally from there.
These sites list rural rental properties by type and price and number of occupants. Each listing shows what it is and tells you how the owner wants to do business. Some owners want an advance deposit while others trust you’ll show up and pay on arrival (so it’s a good idea to do so!). These places often break down to 35-80 euros a day for two to four people.
Top Rural also lists albergues, which are dormitory-style accommodations in rural areas as well as towns. Costing around 8-20 euros a night, these can be bargains for a dry bunk and a great way to meet people.
One-star hotels, hostels, and pensiones can also be bargains in the off-season. Most family run, clean, and simple hostels run from 30-55 euros a night for a double. Spanish standards for cleanliness are pretty high so it is a great rarity to find a cheap place that looks it.
Local Buses and Trains
The main local bus company is ALSA and their buses go pretty much everywhere in Asturias. If you need to get to a little village near the bus route, just tell the driver and he’ll pull over at the nearest stop to your destination.
The website for ASLA only shows timetables for long trips. The more local ones are best discovered at the town bus stations or at village bus stops.
FEVE, the regional train, is a delightful choochoo with room at one end or the other of its two linked cars for boards and bikes. It runs along the coast from Bilbao in the east to Ferrol in the west. You can find the timetables and destinations at their website.
Both ALSA and FEVE run from Asturias’ main cities (Gijón, Oviedo, and Avilés) to the countryside and coast.
Those Three Precious Books for Trekking and Surfing in Asturias:
1. Aeroguía del Litoral Cantabria y Asturias, published by Editorial Planeta, 1999. It now comes in a cheap pocket size version (bolsillo) and is a terrific photographic guide of aerial shots of the entire coastline. It helps locate beaches, their contours and breaks, and if you look closely, the footpaths meandering along the coast. It costs around 11.50 euros.
2. Guía del Surf en España by José Pellón.
This is a great resource for what beaches are good for surfing, where the camping sites and surf shops are, and what each surf spot’s conditions are. Online it goes for anywhere between 18.50 to 24.50 euros.
3. Guía de las Playas de Asturias by Javier Chao Arana.
This little book is packed with terrific detailed information on each of the hundreds of beaches in Asturias.
It breaks it down to a page per beach, going over each place’s physical characteristics, water quality, sports activities, access, camping grounds, and food establishments. It costs around 12 euros.
Okay, so they’re all in Spanish. But surf and water talk is practically an international language and English speakers with a little Spanish dictionary will get lots of information out of these.
You can also find them on the ground, in bookstores (librerias) and surf shops in Asturias.
Two Parting Tips
The tide is dramatic in Asturias so be prepared for dramatic water level changes. In some places, the beach entrance will be completely under water and altered at high tide. Stay aware of the tides.
If you really want to surf Rodiles and Tapia de Casariego, these tips still apply. But be forewarned, if you are going to paddle out when that river mouth left at Rodiles is tubing and the locals are there, you better be damn good and not waste their time when it’s your turn.
Know the rules of the water and uphold them for yourself even if others don’t. Be impeccable. And if you’re not good enough to be out there, get out of the way and surf the smaller but fun stuff peeling down the beach (that’s where you’ll find me).
This article was originally published on May 1, 2008.