From the Monastery of Yuste to Puerto de Piornal
Location and access
Extremadura is crowned by the peaks of Gredos. This granite mass spreads across three regions: Valle del Ambroz, Valle del Jerte and La Vera. The Valle del Jerte is in the centre, forming a large valley of 40 km protected by two large mountainous spurs: Tras-la-sierra and the Valle del Ambroz to the north and Tormantos and La Vera to the south. The high areas are protected by the Natura 2000 network as SCI “Valle del Jerte y Sierra de Gredos”, while a small area of the Valle del Jerte of 6800 ha has been declared a Nature Reserve, called “Garganta de los Infiernos”. La Vera and the Valle del Jerte are unique within Extremadura, as they are the only high mountain areas here and have the best indigenous forests areas, chiefly of Pyrenean oak trees.
Access to both regions is by two roads that run through most of the towns and villages in each region. The Valle del Jerte is crossed by the N-110 between Plasencia and Puerto de Tornavacas, which continues towards Ávila. Most of the towns and villages of La Vera are situated along the EX-203, between Plasencia and Candeleda (Ávila). To start the suggested route in Cuacos de Yuste, it is advisable to first go to Jaraíz de la Vera, either by the EX-203 from Plasencia (32 km) or by the EX-A1, taking the exit at Casatejada. Cuacos de Yuste is 5 km north from Jaraíz along the EX-203.
Description of the route
The suggested route consists of 22 km between Cuacos de Yuste and Puerto de Piornal mountain pass, to be covered by car, then another 5 km on to Peña Negra of Piornal, to be done on foot. The whole route is in the mountains, ascending from Cuacos at 600 m to Peña Negra at nearly 1500 m, across different types of vegetation, mostly oak groves along the road section and heath and broom thickets along the foot trails. The route takes you along narrow roads with little traffic, so you can drive slowly and calmly and easily and safely stop at the curbs.
The starting point is in Cuacos de Yuste, at the crossroads between the main road and the road leading off to the Monastery of Yuste. Follow this small road until you reach the monastery through a dense oak grove. A stop at the monastery or in its surrounding area will afford the first sightings of forest birds that you will see along the whole route (Hawfinch, Golden Oriole, Robin, Common Chaffinch, Great and Blue Tits, Short-toed Treecreeper, European Nuthatch, Eurasian Jay, Mistle Thrush, Long-tailed Tit, Blackcap, Carrion Crow, etc.). After the forest the route takes you through an area of rocky outcrops with low scrubland. In this area you can see Black and Black-eared Wheatears and Thekla Lark, with a spot next to a rock on the left hand side of the road that has a green triangle painted on it being a good place. The route takes you back into another forest, then between cherry and olive trees, interesting in winter for Song Thrush and Redwing and, some years, Bramblings. Further on the route crosses the Garganta Mayor, a mountain stream surrounded by shady alder trees, suitable for seeing Dipper and Grey Wagtail (or for bathing, as there is a natural pool here). Just after this you will reach the picturesque village of Garganta la Olla. Here you will have to pay special attention to keep to the route, which turns right towards Piornal. From here go up the narrow road to Piornal mountain pass for 12 km, which has sharp bends (about a dozen), but is very beautiful, passing through a magnificent oak grove. Throughout this section you must drive slowly and carefully, stopping when you want at picturesque points (springs, waterfalls, large chestnut trees) or when you spot birds of interest. At a certain height you will start to hear a lot of Western Bonelli’s Warblers and the scarce Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Pied Flycatcher (better in areas with old trees) and if you are lucky you’ll see birds of prey such as European Honey Buzzards and Eurasian Sparrowhawks. Once you have reached the mountain pass, beyond the forest and open ground, the route by car ends.
The section you have to do on foot starts with the first trail on the right after you have reached the top of the pass, which has a wide entrance and a cattle grid (kilometre point 16.7; coordinates 30-266050-4445600). However, we recommend you to go towards the small pine forest some 500 m to the left, where you may see Azure-winged Magpie, Coal Tit, Crested Tit and Firecrest during the breeding season (and sporadic sightings of the breeding Crossbill) as well as Firecrest and Siskin in winter (and occasionally Brambling and Fieldfare). Common Whitethroat is common in the area around the pine forest and Garden Warbler and Iberian Chiffchaff occasionally breed here. Returning to km point 16.7 the foot trail begins with a paved section and then continues for about 3.5 km along a dirt track to the reservoir. It crosses heath land at first and broom thickets at the end, dotted with oak trees. In spring it is easy to see Dunnock, Woodlark, Nightingale, Wren, Dartford and Subalpine Warblers, Common Whitethroat and Rock and Ortolan Buntings. You must keep to the same track until you reach a small house (“Villa Martín”), where you should turn left. At this junction you can see Spectacled Warbler if you carry straight on, and even Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush in the rocks to the south. In spring and summer Lesser Kestrels come up from Jaraíz de la Vera to hunt in this area and in August and September you can see Montagu’s Harrier on passage. The path to the left will take you to the reservoir, behind which you will see a large rocky formation, Peña Negra, which you will have to reach cross-country as there isn’t a path. From here there is a magnificent view of the Valle del Jerte and you can see Rufous-tailed and Blue Rock Thrushes, Spectacled Warbler, Black Redstart, Common Kestrel and, if you are lucky, birds of prey such as Eurasian Sparrowhawk, European Honey Buzzard, Peregrine Falcon, Booted and Short-toed Eagles and Hobby. The route ends here and you must go back along the same path. If you go back by the village of Piornal look out for swifts, as large numbers of Pallid Swift breed here.
The regions of La Vera and Valle del Jerte are home to unique species of birds within Extremadura, with the best regional representation of forest and mountain birds. They are mostly birds of northern areas (Carrion Crow, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Dunnock, Hawfinch, Mistle Thrush, Pied Flycatcher, etc.), but are complemented by certain Mediterranean mountain species, both forest (Western Bonelli’s Warbler) and, in particular, scrubland (Dartford, Spectacled and Subalpine Warbler, Ortolan Bunting, Woodlark) and rock species (Crag Martin, Rufous-tailed and Blue Rock Thrushes, Black-eared and Black wheatears). Amongst the birds of prey, it is easy to find European Honey Buzzards, with a small presence of Peregrine Falcon, Hobby and Eurasian Sparrowhawks and the curious appearance of Lesser Kestrel and Montagu’s Harrier in the high mountains.
Best time to visit
Unlike most of the routes of ornithological interest in Extremadura, this route is highly suitable to being done in summer. The best months to visit are between April and October, with May, June and July being particularly good. However, winter can be a good time to do the first part of the route, bringing new species (Siskin, Goldcrest, wintering thrushes). However, at this time there aren’t usually many species in the final part, on foot, over the mountain scrubland. Another winter attraction is the presence of snow, which is common here then. In this instance you have to plan ahead and get information beforehand, as the Piornal mountain pass is normally closed to traffic when it snows.
Other environmental and cultural interest
Both La Vera and Valle del Jerte have places of great scenic beauty and many bathing areas. Just a couple of places we would recommend you to visit are Los Pilones (Garganta de los Infiernos) and the Cascada del Caozo waterfall (going down from Piornal towards the River Jerte). There are also several special trees: the large chestnut trees of Casas del Castañar (along a sign-posted route starting in this village), Solana oak in Barrado and Prado Sancho oak in Cabezuela del Valle and the Aldeanueva de la Vera pine tree. The Puerto de Tornavacas mountain pass is very interesting to see other breeding birds such as the Skylark, Northern Wheatear and Red-backed Shrike.
The towns and villages in the area, particularly those of La Vera, have good examples of traditional architecture. We recommend visiting Garganta la Olla, Cuacos de Yuste and its monastery (the final residence of Carlos V), Jarandilla de la Vera and its castle, converted into a National Parador, Guijo de Coria and Madrigal de la Vera. In Jerte, Tornavacas, Jerte and the Cherry Museum in Cabezuela del Valle are interesting.
As for typical products, any visit would be incomplete without trying the famous Jerte cherries, La Vera paprika and chestnuts. La Vera’s goat’s cheeses are also well-known, as are Piornal’s sausages, trout and farmhouse sweets and liquors. Notable festivals include “El Peropalo” in Villanueva de la Vera (during its carnival), “Los Escobazos” in Jarandilla de la Vera (7 December),“El Jarramplas” in Piornal (20 January), “Los Empalaos” in Valverde de la Vera (Holy Thursday, during Easter) and “El cerezo en flor” - the cherry trees in blossom - across the whole of Valle del Jerte (date varies each year).