Rambles and ramblas in the Cabo de Gata Natural Park

Guy Hunter-Watts, author of Cicerone’s Coastal Walks in Andalucía, describes a favourite walk in one of Andalucía’s most fascinating natural parks

Track leading towards the Cerro de las Hortichuelas
Track leading towards the Cerro de las Hortichuelas

The Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata is the most easterly of Andalucía’s protected areas, with desert-like landscapes that are hugely different to any other protected area in Andalucía.

This is one of the most arid areas in Europe, with annual rainfall that rarely surpasses 200ml and an average annual temperature approaching 20℃.

The region’s warm and dry climate, together with its unusual volcanic geology, has given rise to some of the most distinctive landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula. It also means that this is a fascinating destination for year-round walking.

During the 19th century, Cabo de Gata’s volcanic geology briefly offered it a role on the national stage at a time when iron ore and gold were mined and refined in the area close to Rodalquilar.

But greater wealth would come from open-cast andesite mining for cobblestones, at a time when the streets of the largest cities in Spain were made of stones hewn from the solidified magma of Cabo de Gata. And it was a mineral that gave the region its name: it was once known as Cabo de Agate, or the Cape of Agate, due to the abundance of the stone in its volcanic rock. With time the name became shortened to Cabo de Gata.

The disused gold mines of Rodalquilar
The disused gold mines of Rodalquilar

UNESCO biosphere reserve

The parque natural was created in 1987 and encompasses a 48,500-hectare slice of the province of Almería and includes 12,000 hectares of marine reserve: its waters are home to one of Europe’s best-preserved reef systems and sub-marine tourism attracts divers from all over the world.

The park was given additional kudos when in 1997 it was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The seaboard of the park escaped the development that took place along other parts of the coast due to its isolation and lack of infrastructure: by the time developers became interested in the area, they’d missed the boat.

Thanks to its protected status the park is home to some of Spain’s most pristine beaches and coves, while the coastal footpath that runs across the park numbers among Spain’s best-kept walking secrets. The beaches that lie within the park get busy from mid-June to mid-September but at other times of the year they’re all but deserted.

The abundance of volcanic soils, coupled with the region’s warm, arid climate – most water remains deep underground – has given rise to a unique, drought-adopted flora, which includes several different xerophytes.

On any walk in the park you’ll see fan palm, prickly pear, oleander, rosemary, thyme and wild olives as well as the sculptural agave americana which, as the name implies, was brought back from the New World and which has flourished in conditions similar to those of its native America.

Agave lined rambla
Agave lined rambla

Over 1000 plant species have been catalogued and the park is especially beautiful in early spring when the dark slopes of its volcanic massifs take on a light green hue and wildflowers line the courses of its dry river beds or ramblas.

The walk described below leads you inland via two beautiful ramblas and along a beautiful stretch of the coastal path.

Las Negras circular walk via El Playazo

Las Negras is the least developed of the coastal settlements of Cabo de Gata, a quiet backwater in all but the summer months, with a laid-back vibe in its beachside bars and restaurants.

This walk explores the haunting beauty of the ramblas that run past the northern and eastern flanks of the Sierra de las Hortichuelas before descending to El Playazo’s enchanting sweep of beach, lined by swaying palm trees and deserted for most of the year.

The final part of the walk follows one of the most beautiful sections of the coastal path that runs all the way along Cabo de Gata’s seaboard.

The nitty-gritty

Start point The roundabout with palm trees at the northern entrance to Las Negras
Grade Medium
Distance 16km
Time to allow 6hr with breaks
Total ascent/descent 350m

San Jose
San Jose seen from Loma Pelada on Cabo de Gata's seaboard

The walk

From the roundabout head down Calle Bahía de las Negras. Reaching the beach turn right, passing beneath Restaurante La Barcas then Bar Manteca. Cross a dry river bed then cut right at the end of a wooden fence to reach a tarmac road. Here angle left and follow the track over the brow of a hill into the bay of Caladel Cuervo.

Reaching the second set of bollards angle left to cut a corner then rejoin the road. After 25m cut left again and drop down parallel to a fence. Reaching a sign for Cala del Cuervo bear right and follow a track along the dry rambla of the Caladel Cuervo, passing right of Camping La Caleta.

Passing a white then a pink-coloured building the track arcs right before running up to the AL3106 (50min). Cross the road then maintain your course along the lower of two tracks, which runs on along the rambla, passing beneath a line of houses.

Reaching an open, concreted area angle left then reaching a second more open area and a street light, the centre of the hamlet of Las Hortichuelas, turn left along Calle Mayor. At the end of the street bear right past the last of the hamlet’s houses to reach a Stop sign and the AL3106.

Turn right along the road then after 175m turn left at a sign Atención, Carretera Cortada. The road climbs then angles right along the eastern flank of the Cerro de las Hortichuelas, soon passing left of a white building where the track becomes more rutted.

Levelling the track reaches a wooden post with signs pointing left and right for the E01 footpath. Here angle left down a less distinct track that soon leads across two dry ramblas. Becoming rockier the track angles left, running back towards the sea.

Crossing an era (threshing floor) it arcs right then descends into the Rambladel Granadillo where it runs past an old water tank. Adopting a course higher above the Granadillo’s right bank you pass above a second tank. The track narrows to become a footpath which runs past a group of ruined corrals, hugging the Granadilla’s right bank.

Descending back to the rambla continue along the dry bed for 60m then angle right and continue on above its right bank. The valley widens out as the Torre de los Lobos watchtower comes into sight to the southeast.

Reaching a fork in the track, keep left. The track angles away from the rambla as it runs on across a flat plain, passing right of a ruin. Reaching the AL4200 angle slightly right, cross the road and head down a concreted track following signs for ElPlayazo and Los Patios.

The track bears left, right then left again as it passes an old (vane-less) windmill. Reaching the point where the track crosses the rambla, just before a 30km sign, cut left along the rambla’s right bank. Reaching the buildings of Los Patios angle left then right and continue along the rambla, now heading towards the tower of the Castillo de los Alumbres (marked Castillo de Rodalquilar on some maps).

Reaching the concreted track you left earlier, head straight across, passing left of the castle, to reach another broad track. Here, angling left towards the sea, you soon pass right of a plantation of palm trees. The track passes an old water wheel then angles right towards the buildings of Casas de las Norias.

Here the track bears left and, passing some 75m right of a recently restored water wheel, reaches the palm-fringed beach of El Playazo (2hr 55min). Heading straight across a track and passing between two metal signs, one for Playa El Playazo, the other No Entry, you reach the beach. Reaching the harder sand at the ocean’s edge turn left and head to the far end of the bay where you’ll see two white buildings.

Pass between the two buildings then angle right then left up a narrow, rocky path. Reaching a track bear right towards the Castillo de San Ramón to reach a signboard for Sendero La Molata. Here cut left up a waymarked path. After crossing a gully via a wooden bridge the path passes behind the Castillo de San Ramón.

The Castillo de San Ramón was part of an elaborate line of coastal defences built at the end of the 18th century during the reign of Charles III. A battery of four cannons at the front of the castle controlled access to the bay of El Playazo. After being damaged by the French during the War of Independence it was eventually sold by the state in 1875 for 1500 pesetas. The castle is now a private home.

Reaching a fork keep right and climb steeply past a signboard that details the geology of Cerro de La Molata. Passing a breach in the hillside the path loops down towards La Caleta del Cuervo from where you retrace your footsteps back to Las Negras (4hr 30min).

Guy Hunter-Watts is author of Cicerone’s Walking in Andalucía, Coastal Walks in Andalucía, The Mountains of Ronda and Grazalema and The Andalucían Coast to Coast Walk. He is currently walking the GR7 long-distance footpath across Andalucia for a new guide for Cicerone.


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