The Rock of Gibraltar and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco from Estepona
The Rock of Gibraltar and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco from Estepona

Hiking the GR249: Andalucia's La Gran Senda de Malaga

The Great Malaga Path is a wonderful long-distance hiking route that circumnavigates the province of Malaga in Andalucia and offers the best walking in southern Spain. Whether undertaken as a month-long trek or split into stages, it’s ideal for exploring the riches of an area too often focused on the beach holidays of the Costa.

The discovery

You know that thrilling rush you get when you first come across a new, unexplored route? Do you get a tingle of anticipation, a hunger for more knowledge? When your imagination already has you out there on the trail, impatient for the planning and the reality to catch up.

I can clearly remember when I first came upon the distinctive signs for the GR249 – the Gran Senda – while on a day walk in the Axarquia region from Rio Gordo to Alfarnatejo. We discovered a section of our route was shared not only with the GR7/E4 (Europe’s longest at over 10,000km) but the GR249, a path I’d never heard of before.

I knew that a walk to Greece on the E4 was way more than I could chew, but La Gran Senda de Malaga sounded intriguing. As soon as I could get online I researched it and immediately became hooked.

Map of the route of La Gran Senda de Malaga, AndaluciaGran Senda SignageThe wooded hills of the Sierra from BenalauriaThe Sierra de CompetaThe mountains east of Ojen denuded by forest fireReservoir of Guadalhorce north of El ChorroParque Natural Sierras de Tejeda, Almijara y AlhamaOne of the very few wet days in the sierrasFiesta in Fuente de PiedraClimbing to the Gran Sendas highest point at 1,400m in the Sierra de San JorgeAbove Lake Vinuela2,000m Maroma rising above Canillas de Albaida

It is a 650km-plus roughly circular trail around the entire province of Malaga, with 35 stages over what I knew to be a fantastic landscape for hiking. Malaga council launched the route in 2014 in an effort to entice some of the thousands of visitors away from the coast and to highlight to them and local residents the attractions of the interior of the province. It had been quite a logistical undertaking, passing through 51 municipalities and four natural parks, and a mix of mountain, coastal and agricultural environments and urban, rural and wild surroundings.

With an average stage length of about 20km and an average altitude gain of 450m, it presented enough of a challenge to be exciting, but with the stages nearly always beginning and ending in a town or village there were plenty of opportunities for eating, accommodation and transport links.

I couldn’t wait to get started.

Abandoned for decades the now restored village of El Acebuchal near FrigilianaThe deep gorges of the Arroyo Marin outside ArchidonaStarting into olive country south of ArchidonaOlive millstones in a crumbling cortijoOlive grove in the evening lightOlive groves in the moonlight

The route

The start (and finish) point of the Gran Senda is outside the council offices on the seafront in Malaga city, a few kilometres from the airport. From there, the detailed guides published by the council lead you on a giant anti-clockwise loop, eastwards along the coast on beaches, boardwalks and promenades for the first three stages. Even here there are pockets of undeveloped land and interesting nooks and crannies.

At the caves of Nerja the trail turns its back to the sea and heads north-east, climbing up through the increasingly rugged Sierra de Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama, and a string of attractive villages – Frigiliana, Competa, Sedella, Canillas, Periana and Alfarnate – where, in stage 11, it climbs over the Sierra del Lobo to gain the highest ground on the entire route at nearly 1400m. It’s a relatively easy climb as the overall ascent of 590m is a good deal less than many of the previous, and future, stages.

Once over the massive white spine of the Central Limestone Arch, as the mountain chain is called, the red and white striped trail markers head north, touching the borders of both the Granada and Cordoba provinces and sharing the way for a couple of stages with the Camino Mozarabe as it makes its long journey to Santiago de Compostella.

This is olive country, with the trees stretching in lines to the horizon, although there are also areas of ‘dehesa’, the grain or grassland pastures thickly studded with holm oak, whose acorns fatten the jamon iberica.

Splitting off on its own again at Cuevas Bajas, the Gran Senda continues westwards across the olive groves and flattish agricultural land towards the pink flamingo lagoons around Fuente de Piedra and the grain growing area of the Campina (cultivated rolling hills) beyond.

With half the route completed, it turns south for a day towards the mountains and reservoirs of the natural park of the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes and the dramatic scenery of the gorges and canyons, including the exciting Caminito del Rey walkway.

There are plenty of ups and downs over the next three stages through the wooded sierras on the way to the beautiful and busy city of Ronda, from where the trail follows the rivers Guadiaro and Genal deep into the chestnut and cork oak-cloaked folds of the Sierra Crestellina to Casares.

Turning eastwards, the path covers more high country on the southern slopes of the Sierra Bermeja before swinging south to arrive back at the coast again at Estepona. A day is spent on a 27km promenade to Marbella, past Puerto Banus and all the glittering shops and yachts ahead of a retreat to the wild hills once more into the Sierras Blanca, Alpujata and Mijas.

The track, with the end almost in sight, has some major ascents and descents over the next three stages and passes through a long stretch slowly recovering from a series of devastating forest fires. From Mijas, another busy tourist town that has managed to retain its charm, the trees return for the final climb up the Sierra Castillejos to Alhaurin de la Torre where the 35th and last stage begins, crossing the intensely cultivated areas surrounding Malaga and alongside the Rio Guadalhorce to the coast and finally the finish/start of the GR249.

Sea of poppiesWalkway on the river GenalHigh grain country on the way to RondaLeaving RondaThe jumbled roofs of Mijas and the sea beyondThe Rock of Gibraltar and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco from EsteponaThe side streets of Mijas

The walk

I love hiking in southern Spain. The climate (apart from the summer months) is ideal. The food is tasty, filling and nutritious and, like the wealth of accommodation, affordable. Transport links are normally frequent, fast and cheap. The vast network of trails and paths criss-crossing the sierras and linking the villages are ancient but well maintained and have been more recently joined by gravel tracks for foresters and others traversing the empty mountain ranges for miles. With so much access to the country on offer there is little need for walking on tarmac surfaces and the route is a varied mix of muddy riverside paths, soft pine needles in the forests, earthen holloways, bridleways, farm tracks, cobbled ways and rugged stony trails over the mountains.

The diverse rocks of the mountains themselves will be of great interest to the budding geologist and the route passes many mines both ancient and modern, built to extract an abundance of mineral wealth.

I love the scents of a walk through a sunlit Spanish pine forest and the heady aroma of resin and needles is a strong memory trigger of past walks when encountered again after time away. The bouquet of the dry mountain herbs – lavender, thyme, sage and rosemary – is another very pleasant companion on the treks through the high ground and steppe, where you will also enjoy the flowers of scrubs such as rockrose, juniper, heather, gorse, broom and the strawberry tree.

The wild flowers in the spring are a multi-coloured patchwork of orchids, irises, gladioli, poppies, sweet peas, oleanders, chamomile, hellebores, gentian and asphodels, to name a few.

The extent of forest without any signs of mankind is extraordinary so close to the heaving Costa. And it’s not all pine species, with immense areas of chestnut and cork and holm oak as well as carob, poplar, eucalyptus, wild olive and even willow.

The Diputacion de Malaga has published a book on birdwatching along the Gran Senda, and twitchers will not be disappointed with the extensive range of bird species to look out for.

You’d be unlucky if, while clambering up the many rugged mountain tracks, you didn’t spot a herd of cabra montes or Spanish ibex, and you would certainly see the rooted-up earth of the numerous wild boar, if not the shy animals themselves. Lizards are another common sight but (perhaps luckily) snakes are rarely seen.

Butterflies often fill the blue sky around you, including swallow tails and the glorious monarchs – not found anywhere else in Europe.

A line of processionary caterpillarsPalm lined promenade east of MalagaA Beachside Restaurant Or Chirinquitos

Alongside the natural attractions of hiking around the Malaga Province are those of the man-made or built environment. Although some of the (over) development along the Costa has been rampant and ill-conceived, even here the walking is pleasant and interesting – passing through layers of historical occupation of the Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs and walking past Medieval watch towers, the brick chimneys of the industrial age and ageless fishing communities on modern, well-designed boardwalks and promenades lined with subtropical gardens and palms. If you didn’t feel you were getting quite enough exercise on these flat stretches the beaches are dotted with exercise machines to work out on and showers to clean up afterwards. And then there is the calm and twinkling sea to cool off in during the midday heat, before a lunch of grilled sardines at one of the many beachside restaurants or Chirinquitos the area is famous for.

Inland, perched improbably atop the cliffs and peaks in the hills, are the beautiful Andalucian white Moorish villages and towns – white cubist blocks tumbling over each other with a warren of steep, winding cobbled streets and alleyways in between. The fine architectural treasures of the towns with their plazas and churches are extended into the countryside in the form of the many fine Cortijos (farmhouses) of both grand estates sitting above miles of rolling olive plantations stretching to the horizon and simple fincas of steeply terraced fruit and vegetables.

Most of the people you will come across on the Gran Senda will be farm workers or Campesinos out on their tractors, or sheep and goat herders leading their flocks to graze across the campo. It is a pretty empty route on the whole and it’s really only on the weekends that you might share the path with fellow hikers or mountain bikers. This only makes it more impressive how well-maintained and waymarked the trail is.

Many kilometres of these tracks and trails are ancient in origin – linking Moorish villages for time immemorial – and they still boast glorious stonework, buttressing and cobbling. They are a privilege to walk on.

Goatherd at workAn ancient cobbled path leads into the hillsSheep dog minds his flock in the campinaWith the cattle in the cork oak forestsCork oak forestLast day on the trail. Crossing the "vega"on the outskirts of Malaga

My journey

It took me a year to complete my Gran Senda de Malaga. Due to work commitments, week-long breaks were mostly all I could manage, so I broke up the route into five sections and had a week in February, May, September and October 2017 and 10 days in the following February. With days spent getting to and from the walk to Malaga and the odd day off, the entire route took me 34 days.

I was usually reluctant to stray too far off route for a bed and frequently wanted to stop for the night between the recommended stages so I took lightweight camping gear and often discretely tucked myself in a tent or disused building beside the trail. On the two weeks that my wife Sally joined me we found pleasant and reasonably priced rooms along the way.

The weather was kind to me and I only experienced rain on a couple of days. I wouldn’t recommend serious hiking in June, July or August, and even in May and September I had some pretty sweaty days. But don’t assume there will be dry and warm weather. It can change quickly, especially in the mountains and to the west of Ronda, so be prepared.

Be prepared also to carry water, which can be in short supply over some sections. The towns and villages will usually have Fuentes or fountains but the rivers and streams are often dry.

The Malaga Province Council (Diputacion de Malaga) has produced a wealth of information on the GR249, including a detailed guide to the 35 stages, and has initiated a Credencial de Gran Senderista scheme similar to the Pilgrim Passports of the Camino de Santiago, where you will be awarded a certificate for the completion of so many stages.

Having been only the second person known to have completed the entire route I was awarded mine by the finish at the council office – a fine birthday present.

The website for all the info is: http://www.gransendademalaga.es

The full story of my Gran Senda hike is buried in my blog: stevebarhamramblingman.wordpress.com

Map of
Steve Barham

Steve Barham

Steve has hiked in most European countries, America, Australia, New Zealand, India and Africa and is currently completing the 650km GR249 circumnavigation of Malaga province in Southern Spain. His microadventures can be followed on stevebarhamramblingman.wordpress.com.

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