If you like nature, walking and birdwatching, Monfragüe National Park should be on your list of places to go during your trip to Extremadura. It’s located in Cáceres province, only a 30-minute drive from Plasencia, and it also makes a good day trip from Cáceres and Trujillo.
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The first time I visited Monfragüe I must have been around eight. I remember the walk (which seemed too long at the time), the educational talks about the Mediterranean forest and the vultures.
After more than two decades of that visit, last February I organised a nice day excursion with my family during its Birdwatching Fair.
Brief overview about Monfragüe
Monfragüe is one of the biggest and best examples of Mediterranean forest. Crossed by two rivers – Tagus and Tiétar, it’s said to be one of the best sites in Europe for birdwatching. This protected area was declared a National Park in 2007 and is also included in Unesco’s Biosphere Reserves list. Among the many different bird species that you’ll be able to spot here are the Spanish Imperial eagle, the Egyptian vulture, the Griffon vulture and the black stork.
We set off from Don Benito on one of those winter mornings where the fog is so thick you can’t see the cars coming. This mystery fog is a classic in my hometown area and I don’t know exactly why that happens (it’s not in the mountains, it’s not in a valley, and rivers are a good few miles away). The thing is, you drive for thirty minutes and the fog suddenly disappears, but it’s still there when you drive back. Weird.
As expected, we drove out of the fog before reaching Trujillo and brought out our sunglasses soon afterwards. Little did we know temperatures would rise to mid-20s by noon and we’d be having ice-cream in the afternoon. Extremadura winters can be quite strange sometimes.
Our first stop was the viewpoint opposite Salto del Gitano, the iconic sheer rock face by River Tagus where vultures have nested. It’s a favourite place for photographers to set up their tripods. If, like me, you aren’t a good photographer, make sure you at least take binoculars with you!
The only inhabited place within Monfragüe National Park is Villareal de San Carlos, a hamlet of only 16 people. That’s where the main parking area for the birdwatching fair is located, as is the visitor centre. Parking in Monfragüe is free, but it was very busy when we went, as the birdwatching fair was taking place. That is not usually the case, though.
In the hamlet, there are two bars and a little ‘shop’. I write it in inverted commas, because it isn’t a shop, but a big room (probably set up for the fair) where different groups of people sell goods on plastic tables. You can buy cheese, cured meats, local bread and traditional sweets and pastries for next to nothing. As the bars were packed, we decided to buy water, some chorizo-style sausage (patatera dulce) and a big loaf of bread to make bocadillos for four people. All that cost less than €5, so it was ideal.
There are four routes to choose from, with a length ranging from 8 km (2.5-h circular route) to 19 km (one way only). As none of us had a hat and it was too hot to walk in the sun for long, I suggested the short walk up to the castle, which is part of Route 1 (16 km).
We left the car in the parking area and walked for about 25 minutes on an incredibly steep road all the way up to the castle. After the big turn to the right, there’s a surprise – a rock face with several vulture nests. It was great to see vultures flying in circles and perching on the rocks. They’re so big and you’re so close to the rock that you can hear them flapping their wings before their splendid landing. You can also see some cave paintings there.
If walking that steep road in the heat is hard, riding a Vespa isn’t much better. We were surprised to see a man on a motorbike (that was clearly struggling) carrying a big board between his legs. When we arrived at the top we recognised him. He was the man that (thankfully) was selling water, ice cream and snacks next to the castle tower!
Don’t get too excited about the castle itself, as it isn’t particularly impressive. It was built by the Moors in the 9th century, and today not a lot of the old fortress remains. Two towers are open to the public and accessible – a five-sided keep and a smaller circular tower. You can also visit a small chapel located next to the keep.
The castle may not be impressive, but the views… Oh, the views! Walking up is worth it when the reward is a 360º view over most of Monfragüe Natural Park.
If you are birding lover, visiting Monfragüe during the fair is a good idea. You’ll have the chance to meet people, attend talks and request information about ecotourism to companies from all over Spain. You can watch last year’s video here.
Monfragüe on a map
Monfragüe National Park: practical info
Open 24/7 throughout the year
Distance: 27 km from Plasencia; 55 km from Trujillo; 69 km from Cáceres.
Visitor Centre at Villarreal de San Carlos
Opening times: (winter) Mon-Fri from 9:30 am to 6 pm, Sat-Sun and holidays from 9 am to 6 pm; (summer) Mon-Fri from 9:30 am to 7:30 pm, Sat-Sun and holidays from 9 am to 7:30 pm.
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