To undertake an odyssey into Spain is to realize that you'll have to be choosy. An abundance (abundance may be an understatement) of activities of all varieties awaits the traveler in search of novel, challenging, and rewarding experiences. You can be a lazy traveler while in Spain and jump on-board the nearest multi-day tour and you'll hit a lot of the highlights of a country with so much cultural cache that it boasts more UNESCO world heritage sites than corrupt government officials (knock on wood). For the rest of you, there is still much that lies off of the beaten path and much that still doesn't have the tourism flag stamped like a wart on Spain's chiseled and refined features.
Spain is a land of many mountains, none of which are too daunting for the seasoned hiker and many of which provide ample reward for your efforts. The beaches are plentiful and often quite pristine and many provide refuge for water-sports enthusiasts, both serious and otherwise. There are caverns with some of the oldest rock art on Earth, scuba diving and snorkeling in Costa Brava that rivals Europe's best, and a natural world that could tempt you into momentarily forgetting that vast vestiges of civilization have snuffed out the rest. To make things easier, we've broken Spain into manageable bites for your adventure consumption; otherwise it's quite a mouthful.
The Balearic Islands, located off of the eastern coast of Spain, don't actually have much of an adventure reputation. Islands like Mallorca and particularly Ibiza have become home to some of the biggest parties in the world and many travelers overlook everything else they have to offer. Ibiza has some exceptional beaches and excellent snorkeling and diving. Mallorca and Menorca both also have more stellar beaches, but are able to complement them with mountainous landscapes and ocean views; the Serra de Tramuntana in Mallorca are a dream-come-true for spelunkers, hikers, and climbers and the Cabrera Archipelago on Menorca is the rare untouched wonder of unpaved roads and endemic species that defines off-the-beaten-path.
Back to the mainland, the Spanish northeast is largely made up of Catalonia and Aragon. The main hub here would be Barcelona, although we encourage you to get out from the city. You could trek north to the Pyrenees Mountains, where the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park and the Val d'Aran are highlights. In the former, rock climbing and moderate-to-difficult hikes are main attractions, while vistas that include Lake Colomers, Sant Maurici Lake, and the Estany de Ratera are majestic. The Val d'Aran is just north and is home to Spain's biggest and best skiing and snowboarding (Baqueira/Beret), although there are at least a dozen resorts throughout the Pyrenees. Lastly, we cannot go without mentioning the gems along the Catalonian coast known as the rugged Costa Brava. There are a number of developed resort areas (Lloret de Mar and Tossa de Mar) where leisure is king, a coastal national park in Cap de Creus known for its idyllic coves and isolated nature, and arguably the best snorkeling and diving in all of Spain near the Medes Islands (just offshore from L'Estartit).
Central Spain, where those visiting Madrid will be venturing, is home to a number of nature parks, although more compelling stretches, like Monfrague andArribes del Duero, are near the border with Portugal. Both of these are a medley of winding river canyons and thickly-forested hilltops, with a castle ruin here and there for good measure. Then again, just north of Madrid, Peñalara Natural Park is ripe for mountain excursions with six peaks that top out over 6,000 feet and plenty of trails worth the ascent.
Spain's northern and northwestern regions, which include Galicia, Cantabria, Castile y Leon, and more are quite varied. Destinations range from the cloud-tipped peaks and glacial lakes ofPicos de Europa National Park to the golden beaches of Galicia. For those who want sun and sand in beautiful surroundings, try Playa de la Concha in San Sebastian, the Playa del Silencio in Asturias, and the Playa de las Catedrales in the Galician town of Ribadeo. Just be aware that the weather only gets warm in summer this far north. Also, despite the fact that Altamira put the area on the map by being the first place where prehistoric paintings were discovered, there are a lot of other caves in the Cantabria region that are worth the interest of an inquisitive traveler.
If you thought there was already so much to do in the rest of Spain, then you'll consider Spain's southern regions (Andalucia, Murcia, and Valencia) to be more icing than cake. From one of the most beautiful inland mountain ranges in the country to stretches of picturesque coastal wilderness and other stretches of the best water-sports locations in Europe, you'll quickly see why the south is where it's at. The Sierra Nevada Mountains are home to the highest peaks on the Iberian Peninsula, some truly epic hikes, and even Europe's southernmost ski resort, Pradollano. Just east, believe it or not, especially if you've experienced the mountain greenery on both sides and the ocean to the south, is the Tabernas Desert. Scramble through desert valleys and visit the shooting locations of old Spaghetti Westerns, then continue east to Cabo de Gata. This area is another one of intrigue for off-the-beaten-path wanderers, a volcanic range that sidles up to the coast, creating truly wondrous views. Then again, if you follow the coast down to Gibraltar, you'll find yourself in kitesurfing and surfing paradise. The beaches of the Costa del Sol, which runs along the whole peninsula whose center is Tarifa, are highly developed and highly touristed, and yet we can't fault those who are sucked into its vortex of water sports and umbrella'd cocktails.
Lastly, before your eyes dry out from reading, are the Canary Islands, which are actually a world away from mainland Spain and much closer to the coast of Western Sahara, Africa. Here you can climb the third highest Volcano on Earth (Mount Teide) on the island Tenerife is a great centerpiece for an adventure that also could include a lot of mountain biking and scuba diving options.
If you've read this far, we commend you. What would truly surprise us is if you could actually choose just one of these many incredible options. If you're a glutton for more, check out Spain's city-level adventure pages.