The mountains of Nerja in southern Spain
Above the holiday towns of Nerja and Vélez-Málaga on the Costa del Sol lies the mountainous new National Park of the Sierras de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama. Cicerone's Lesley and Jonathan Williams set out to explore this range as a quick getaway from the UK's rainy weather.
Spring arrives early in Nerja. It was mid-February, and the warm air on our faces as we stepped off the plane in Malaga was wonderful after the cool drizzle we had left behind in Manchester. We had escaped the Cicerone office for six days exploring a whole new mountain range, and it felt great.
Fifty minutes later we turned off the coastal motorway and drove into Nerja, navigating the labyrinthine streets in search of our apartment. As soon as we dumped our bags, our hosts promptly marched us off to their favourite tapas bar, filling us in on the local highlights on the way. As we walked, we caught tantalising glimpses of sea and mountains at the end of the narrow streets. The Mediterranean was a wonderful deep azure, the mountains steep, wild, and waiting for us. With only a few days in the area, the plan was to sample a few walks from our new guidebook to the Sierras de Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama. This relatively new Natural Park is only about the size of the Isle of Skye but packs in more than fifty mountains as high as the Munros (over 3000ft). We were eager to get started.
Our first ‘warm up’ walk was in the Sierra de Tejeda, our chosen route a 30-minute drive away just to the north of the village of Cómpeta, starting deep in a river valley. The scent of flowering rosemary and thyme filled the air. The temperature in the mid- to high teens, ideal for walking, with a breeze keeping us comfortable in just a base layer and light gilet. Contorted limestone outcrops and caves broke free from the scrubby vegetation, and as we climbed higher, views opened up looking back towards the coast.
When we reached Puerto Blanquillo, a saddle at the head of the valley, we met the only other walkers we saw that day. They had just returned from climbing Lucero (1779m), having driven their car up the tortuous gravel track to a small parking area to save time and altitude. We sat on a rock, ate some lunch and considered our options for the rest of the day. We wanted to go higher, but it was clear that getting to the summit of Lucero might leave us running short of daylight at the end of the day, and this was only the warm up walk.
We decided to aim for the col instead and moved on, this time up steeper, rockier ground to gain Puerto de Cómpeta (1404m). The views of the Sierra Nevada to the north east, shrouded in winter snow, were our reward. A lot of snow falls on these mountains. With the highest point, Mulhacén, at 3,478m above sea level, the aptly named Sierra Nevada (‘snowy mountain range’) gets an average of 75cm each winter which lingers late into the spring – perfect for winter mountaineering and snowsports.
Lucero would have to be climbed another day. We were starting to learn that these mountains are bigger than they seem. We decided to drop down through the woods, steeply at first, to a track that contoured high above the valley we had walked up through that morning, skirting round and eventually down to where we had left the car. Views to the south over endless interlocking hillsides stretched hazily towards the Mediterranean, an aromatic breeze filling the air.
As we walked down we passed clusters of pine trees peppered with mysterious giant white cocoons. Only later did we work out what they were. We nearly stepped on what we thought was an old piece of rope lying on the track and suddenly realised that it was moving! This four or five metre-long ‘rope’ was made up of thousands of pine processionary caterpillars, slowly but determinedly seeking a suitable site to metamorphose into moths (Thaumetopoea pityocampa).
Better than Manchester airport it may be, but the weather isn’t always great, even in Andalucía. The best time to go walking in these mountains is in late April and early May, when it is not too hot and the winter rains have eased. The flowers will be in full bloom and the landscape verdant. From November through to April walking conditions in Andalucía are still good but it is the main season for rain. Snow on the Almijaras is rare, and snow never settles on Lucero because of the high winds.
So, being in the middle of the rainy season, we did have a couple of cold wet days and spent them visiting Córdoba – a couple of hours’ drive away and well worth the trip – and exploring Alhama de Granada (another route from the guidebook) on our way back. It’s an easy circular walk up through a deep sandstone gorge, where you can return either the same way, or along the path along the eastern rim of the gorge. There had been torrential rain the previous day, but it had cleared, leaving cold damp air filling the gorge. It wasn’t a day for a long walk, but this short route was reasonably sheltered so fitted the bill perfectly.
Access into the Sierras is generally easiest if you have a rental car. There are some buses but having your own transport is essential if you’re going to make the most of the mountains. You do need a good head for heights – and that’s just for driving, never mind the walking. The hillsides are steep, almost Nepalese in character. There are some good paths and many are good mountain paths, but just as many are infrequently used, and overgrown with gorse, maquis and other unforgiving spikey things. Add in wild boar excavations, and you can easily find yourself thrashing through vegetation up to your chest, making navigation more a case of heading in a general direction, rather than following a ‘path’.
The underlying geology of the region is interesting too. Jim Ryan summarises it well in his Cicerone guidebook to Nerja:
The mountains of Nerja are largely limestone, but they span 500 million years of geological time. The youngest rocks are the conglomerates that can be seen below the Balcón de Europa, which are only 10,000 years old. The walk to Haza de la Encina, south of Jayena, crosses Pliocene conglomerates that are five million years old. The cliffs of Alhama de Granada are from the Miocene and so are about 15 million years old. Then we jump back in time to the Jurassic rocks, 180 million years old, for the climb at Ventas de Zafarraya.
But the oldest rocks are those that form the main body of the mountains of Nerja and these are 280 to 500 million years in age, spanning geological periods from the Permian back through the Carboniferous and into the Cambrian.
The older rocks were lifted and the mountains formed 30 million years ago during the tectonic collision of a Mediterranean breakaway plate with the land masses of Africa and Europe. This collision caused the formation of the Betic Cordillera of which Sierra Nevada, the Alpujarras and the mountains of Nerja are a part. The mountains of Nerja are in the most active seismic area on the Iberian Peninsula and experience major earthquakes roughly every hundred years.
The limestone varies from white soft chalk to hard, blue calcitic rocks. In the area of Fuente del Esparto there are lenses of black limestone shales, while near Lucero the heat from the mountain building has turned the limestone into marble. There are no volcanic rocks in this region. There are areas where the limestone is friable, reminiscent of the Dolomites, and other areas where they are Karstic, with holes cut into the rock by acidic solution. The entire area is dotted with caves of all shapes and sizes.
Our walk the first day had been just to the north of Cómpeta, and we followed that with a longer excursion to the north, hoping to climb Navachica (1831m). The most direct route starts already some 1200m up into the mountains, at a ‘zoo’, or small safari park, at Peña Escrita.
An initially clear path led away up the hill, but once clear of the perimeter fence, it quickly petered out into ever more dense maquis. Eventually abandoning hope of ever finding it again, we headed towards a small col and some considerable time later we reached it, getting great views north east to the Sierra Nevada, as well as south to the coast, and north west along the ridge which would eventually lead to the summit.
Once again we realised that we hadn’t got enough time for Plan A and it was time for Plan B, which was to head directly up the ridge and get to the top of Cerro del Barranco del Pino, a more modest objective but an achievable one. A steady climb over small boulders and rock led to the top, with yet more dreamy views, the tapestry of hills softening and merging with the haze of the distant Mediterranean.
With the weather improving, and a couple of days left, we next took the car to Lanjarõn, nestling in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Lanjarõn is a delightful narrow village in the Alpujarras and a friend of ours lives there and works as a mountain guide in the Sierra Nevada all year round. Apart from catching up, we wanted to see how Richard was getting on with the winter mountaineering guide that he’s writing for us. It was good to see him again, and to chat over a coffee and tostadas. The last time we had been in Lanjarõn had been two years earlier, when we had walked part of the GR7 between Lanjarõn and Yegen.
On Richard’s recommendation, we decided to drive the ‘pretty route’ back to Nerja, finding our way along more minor roads through the mountains. It was indeed pretty, very pretty. Stopping for a quick sandwich for lunch, we then had our final short walk, to see the petrified waterfall just to the west of the SO-02 road on the far eastern side of the natural park. It’s a straightforward walk, down through a lightly wooded valley with limestone towers thrusting up into a vivid blue sky. There are a number of 1200m peaks – some unnamed – thereabouts, so loads of opportunities to carve out new routes for both walking and scrambling.
Nerja is now on our list of places we recommend to friends. You can have a real break from the dreariness of the UK’s winter weather, and probably spend less than you would holidaying in England. Flights to Malaga are usually cheap, and when you arrive in Spain you’ll discover that prices of accommodation and food are equally reasonable. We didn’t pay very much for our modern apartment but it had a sea view, would have slept four people comfortably, and six at a stretch, and had just been refurbished.
So just 50 minutes from Malaga, you can stay in a quiet seaside town in southern Spain, with lots of great walking nearby, easy and challenging, in near perfect temperatures. And if you need a bit more excitement, you’re only an hour away from the Sierra Nevada, one of Europe’s top winter mountaineering and skiing areas. Roll on winter!
Lesley is the Marketing Director and co-owner of Cicerone, and has a Diploma in Marketing. A geographer at heart and in practice, she is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.View Articles by Lesley Williams