The Lakes of Vall d'Incles

What's great about Andorra is that for as small as it is, there's still room to get away from it all. "It all," meaning the shopping, hotels, terribly confusing roads and traffic. You simply have to go up - up into the Pyrenees. There's something wonderful about climbing upward out of the hustle and bustle of a place into a landscape that is so vast and magnificent that you can barely comprehend it, but also somehow feels like it's entirely yours. It's like the adult equivalent of escaping to the attic. There's even that big part of you that wants to move up there, until you realize that you're really far away from the bathroom and the fridge.
We arrived in Vall D'Incles right after breakfast. Andorra is the land of valleys. It's often referred to as The Principality of the Valleys of Andorra, in fact. Vall D'Incles is said to be one of the prettiest. In the summer, its accessibility and proximity to a built up resort town fill it with walkers. But this isn't the summer - nor is it ski season, which is the main draw of greater Andorra. So, we nestled our car into a shady spot on the side of the road and walked up to see some lakes.
The initial hike was steep and the altitude made breathing a little difficult. These aren't the Alps or anything, but it's high nonetheless. A yellow helicopter zoomed back and forth overhead and we were careful not to raise our cameras up too high, as not to give a mistaken rescue wave. Also above us was an enormous eagle and a trio of buzzards. Around our feet were little purple flowers that looked exactly like crocuses, but couldn't possibly be, right? When we reached our first lake, Estany de Cabana Sorda, we found it half dried up and flanked by construction workers. The helicopter had just dropped of some materials. The scenery was so immediately breathtaking, though, that we didn't mind too much - perfectly happy to move on to explore other lakes nearby.
The landscape is drawn more like a soundwave than an electrocardiogram, with ridges that send you down, up and around often enough to put you out of view and earshot from what you've just left behind. So, as soon as we'd turned a corner away from the construction, we heard no noise at all. The same was true for the cowbells that tinkled now and then, strapped to a group of mares grazing near a stream. Even the helicopter made only a short burst into our silence. The first of the two "Salamander Lakes" was, indeed, filled with salamanders and surrounded by cracked earth that was actually wet enough to leave a footprint in. The kept happening, I felt. Something would look a certain way and then complete surprise me upon approach. Like the yellow shrubs that looked like pompoms and felt like porcupines.
I think a huge part of mountain lakes' appeal is the feeling you get trekking toward a body of water, an oases. It feels like the most logical, functional destination point in the world, but also a little bit magical. Because even when you know exactly where one is and are directing all of your physical energy pointedly toward it, a pool of water this high above sea level still feels a little bit surprising. Like you've stumbled upon it. The second Salamander lake wasn't as clear, but the light played off of the murkiness beautifully. We really couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day for our first hike in Andorra.
We soaked it all in over our lunch of herb-crusted Andorran goat cheese, right from this part of the country, Canillo. It had a very similar taste and consistency to cheddar. The thick coating of thyme, rosemary and lavender gave the texture a welcome toothsomeness, like shredded coconut - and, obviously, a flavor complexity. We've decided that cheese makes the best hiking lunch. All you need if the knife you're already carrying and a firm enough selection to hold up in your backpack. It is as simple a meal as can be, but can feel downright luxurious. It's got protein for energy, density for fullness, fat for insulation. Plus, cheese just feels right in the mountains - like shellfish on the coast.
The terrain kept changing from rock to dirt to spongy, green grass mounds. In the distance, it looked like a whole world of surfaces were out there ready to be hiked on - hills of brown corduroy and green velvet. As we spotted our final lake, Estanyo Del Querol, in the distance, we felt like we could keep going on like this for hours. But we've got about ten more days to conquer more of it. Though, sadly, not nearly close to it all. Who said Andorra is too small for a two week stay?
In this climate, the mornings are cold, the afternoons are blazing and the difference between standing in the shade and the sunlight results in a lot of de- and re-sweatering. ItUp above the treeline, we felt like we were having this direct conversation with the sun. Over the four and a half hours, it traveled with us. It shone in our faces during the descent, forcing us to look down and pay closer attention to our footing. It rewarded our hard work by creating colorful light shows in the water and made us understand the scale of it all by casting gorgeous shadows against the larger peaks. It was the sun that finally told us to head home, beating down on our Autumnal complexions.
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