What is it?
Monfragüe National Park is an area of well preserved scrub and woodland in western Spain, home to endangered fauna and a haven for bird life. In 2003 it was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, recognising its incredible biodiversity and historical heritage.
How to get there
The village of Villerreal de San Carlos serves as the gateway for visits to Monfragüe. For independent visitors arriving by car, there are plenty of car parking facilities both in Villarreal and throughout the National Park.
It’s also possible to reach Monfragüe by public buses. This is easiest from the nearby city of Plasencia. Buses leave Plasencia at 1:30pm Monday-Friday, arriving in Villarreal de San Carlos at 2pm. Returning buses depart Villarreal at 8:45am Monday-Friday and arrive back in Plasencia at 9:20am. One way tickets cost €2.4 (£2.1/US$2.9). Click here for Plasencia to Monfragüe bus schedules.
Coming from Cáceres is more difficult however, as it would involve an overnight stay in Torrejón el Rubio; buses from Cáceres to Torrejón el Rubio only run twice per week and the connecting buses from Torrejón el Rubio to Villarreal de San Carlos don’t depart until the following morning. Click here for Cáceres to Torrejón el Rubio bus schedules (refer to the first link for Torrejón to Monfragüe timings).
Where to stay
As the only inhabited settlement inside the National Park boundaries, Villarreal de San Carlos is your sole choice for accomodation. In fact, there are only three properties available, two of which you can easily book online. Nightly rates start at €45 (£40/US$53) per room for a single person and around €63 (£55/US$75) per room based on two people sharing.
There are three main walking routes within Monfragüe National Park. Each one starts in Villarreal de San Carlos and leads out to different sites of interest before returning to the village either in a loop or via the same track. The routes are signposted and colour-coded making navigation fairly simple. In the information centre you can pick up a map that corresponds to the colour-coded signs.
➲ Type: loop
➲ Length: 16km (5hr)
➲ Difficulty: medium (one steep ascent to the castle, rest is relatively flat. Quite a long route)
This is the most varied and interesting walk out of the three. After weaving through scrubland and crossing a small bridge, it follows the course of the River Tajo along to Monfragüe’s most iconic landmark – an imposing cliff gorge known as Salto del Gitano. This is a prime spot watching the incredible bird life so factor in extra time to take a break here.
The route then continues uphill towards Monfragüe Castle where you can enjoy panoramic views in every direction. Not much of the castle remains today but the views more than make up for it. Keep an eye out along the sides of the ridge as the birds of prey swoop past – closer than you might think! Again, factor in extra time to take a break up at the castle. Once you’re done, it’s a gentle descend down the other side of the hill towards the river.
➲ Type: loop
➲ Length: 7.5km (2.5hr)
➲ Difficulty: medium (rocky uneven ground & steep in places)
Winding through rocky hills and river valleys, this walk leads to Cerro Gimio – a hilltop lookout with fantastic views. It’s a particularly good spot for watching Black Vultures as they soar on the thermals above the distant Salto del Gitano as well as Cerro Gimio itself – you’ll be craning your neck to watch them!
Also visible from here is Monfragüe Castle and the River Tajo. The views are so good and it’s perfectly peaceful but for the occasional animal noise.
➲ Type: return
➲ Length: 8.5km (3hr)
➲ Difficulty: easy (quite flat & short as it follows the course of the river)
A gentle stroll through the open scrubland and occasional patch of forest leads to La Tajadilla lookout. Here there are seating areas to take a break and watch the cliff face on the opposite bank of the River Tiétar where many birds make their nests.
You can also carry on a little further, crossing over a dam to reach the Malavuelta viewpoint. As this route follows the course of the river it’s possible to see deer grazing on its banks or taking a drink at the shoreline.
Nature at its most natural
One of the best attributes of Monfragüe is the way in which it enables visitors to experience the park; unlike some National Parks, Monfragüe’s walking routes and lookouts merge into the surrounding terrain, as though they’re part of the environment itself.
There are no multi-million dollar viewpoints or wheelchair-friendly concrete paths – just subtly created trails through the forest and scrub, indicated by small painted way-markers, and natural tree clearings or hilltop rocky outcrops. This approach not only benefits the local flora and fauna but also creates a more immersive and indeed natural experience for park visitors.
One of the more common species of animal in Monfragüe is the Red Deer. If you go hiking along the any of the walking routes then spotting them shouldn’t be too difficult – as long as you keep quiet to avoid scaring them off.
In the autumn, locating them is made far easier by the bellowing mating calls made by the males; I was lucky enough to visit during this period and could hear the stags calling from miles away. Simply seeing a fully grown stag in the wild though – with its antlers standing tall and no fences, windows or doors between you – is a truly magnificent site.
When I say birds, I’m not just talking about pigeons (worldwide nuisances) or white ibis (the bane of Australia), I’m talking about cool, interesting birds – birds of prey, rare species, types you’ve probably never seen before. And when I say galore, I mean GALORE – they’re everywhere, you can’t miss them. From the small swallows, colourful thrushes and unique hoopoes to the rare storks, soaring vultures and speedy peregrines, Monfragüe has them all.
You might also be able to spot David Lindo, a bird enthusiast who campaigned for the robin to be recognised as Britain’s National Bird. I was lucky enough to meet him at Salto del Gitano where he pointed out a peregrine and informed me which other species I could see. Having a professional birder such as David visit Monfragüe just goes to show how great a place it is for birdwatching.
Things to consider/top tips
1. If you’ll be wanting any specific food items or grocery ingredients for cooking then buy them in Plasencia prior to your arrival in Monfragüe. The only amenities you’ll find in Villarreal de San Carlos are a handful of cafe-cum-bars and a tourist information centre.
2. Bring binoculars to view the wildlife up close. For photography, a zoom lens is essential and a tripod is beneficial (I got my shots without a tripod but could probably have achieved better if I’d had one).
3. Book your accommodation in advance, especially during peak summer season, as there is limited availability inside the park.
First and foremost, Monfragüe is a birders heaven. The sheer abundance but also diversity of bird life is what attracts most of its visitors. However, you don’t have to be an avid bird watcher in order to appreciate the nature on display in this wonderful National Park. I had never officially been birdwatching myself yet I was amazed by what I saw and thoroughly enjoyed photographing the sights.
Logistically, if you’re arriving by public bus then I’d definitely recommend the route from Plasencia – it’s quicker, cheaper and far less hassle. You could even spend a day in Plasencia either side of your visit.
I would say 2-3 days is the ideal amount of time to spend in Monfragüe – any less and you’re not doing it justice, any more and you’ll just be seeing the same birds!