Guy Hunter-Watts fell in love with this region of southern Spain on his first visit. Here, he describes its diversity and history, which make exploring on foot all the more alluring.
A journey of discovery and diversity
My first taste of Andalucía came when, as a much younger man, I crossed Spain’s southernmost region on a rickety old push bike. The journey served up many an alluring image to a young and impressionable mind: they were of hilltop castles, towering palm trees, hillsides swathed in groves of olive and citrus trees, along with those unforgettable billboards of bulls – at the time I had no idea that they were advertising cheap Osborne brandy – silhouetted against the backdrop of a cloudless, all-blue sky. What most took me by surprise was the sheer diversity of landscape I encountered during that 1000km traverse. The walking guides I’ve written since that first foray into southern Spain are a celebration of that diversity, providing an on-foot introduction to this multi-faceted part of Iberia.
If Spain, as the advertising campaigns of the nineties would have us believe, is diferente, then so too are its many mountain ranges and protected areas.
Where to walk?
I’m often asked which of the different regions of Andalucía offers the very best hiking. The question, of course, has no obvious answer because where you choose to hike will depend on the type of landscape and terrain that ticks the greatest number of your personal walking boxes. Do you like walking by the sea, through ancient oak forest, through subtropical vegetation or across high mountain pastures? Do you prefer gently undulating hills, jagged karst formations or are you ready to take on peaks that rise to over 10,000 feet? Are you looking for village-to-village walking, a long-distance footpath or do you prefer to base yourself at one place and hike out from there? The good news is that southern Spain has something to offer to hikers of all interests and abilities. And you could, as I have done, spend several years exploring just this one area.
A gentle first taste? Aracena and Cabo de Gata
If you begin at the easier, less challenging end of the spectrum then the two areas at the far eastern and western ends of Andalucía can provide a wonderful introduction to the region’s hiking trails. Just an hour north from Sevilla, running all the way west to the Portuguese border, the Sierra de Aracena is the part of southern Spain that is most reminiscent of Northern Europe. This is a region of gently undulating hills covered in forests of chestnut and deciduous oak. A cluster of tiny villages is connected by cobbled bridleways lined with moss-covered, dry-stone walls, many dating back to the Middle Ages.
When I’m out walking here, Hardy’s Wessex will often come to mind, especially when a light rain is falling and the hillsides and chestnut groves are cloaked in mist.
The region is delightfully bucolic, with superb regional cuisine: think wild mushrooms, pork from acorn-reared pigs and prize-winning Jabugo ham. And there are some great places to stay at about half the price that you might expect to spend in the UK for similar accommodation.
Travel to the opposite, eastern end of Andalucía and you find yourself in a very different world. Almería province’s Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata is a land of desert landscapes, of dry wadis lined with cactuses and towering agave, where enormous ocellated lizards and chameleons scuttle to find shade beneath igneous and sandstone rocks: when hiking the dry gulleys that lie just back from the sea you can easily imagine yourself in the American Midwest. It was here that Sergio Leone filmed his spaghetti westerns, Spielberg filmed scenes from Indiana Jones, while Lean put Almería on the map when he used it as backdrop to many of the scenes in Lawrence of Arabia. Cabo de Gata’s mineral landscapes, punctuated by volcanic craters and dotted by abandoned mines, are unique in both Spain and Europe.
With an average of some 200mm of rainfall a year and more days of sunshine than any other part of mainland Spain, the region is a popular destination for walking during the winter months. One obvious starting point could be to hike the stunning coastal footpath that leads past some of the least known and most beautiful coves and beaches.
Tough it out in the Sierra Nevada
Back west and plum in the centre of the mighty Baetic chain of mountains, the Parque Nacional de Sierra Nevada is cut through by some of Europe’s most dramatic and challenging walking trails. Just 50km back from the Mediterranean the region is home to mainland Spain’s highest mountain, Mulhacén, which clocks in at 3478m. If you’re looking for challenging day walks based in just one or two villages, or prefer tougher long-distance trails, consider exploring the rugged mountains that surround Spain’s highest villages, Las Alpujarras, which lie just an hour’s drive south from Granada. This is where a young Gerald Brenan came to live in the 1930s, immortalising his stay in his book, South from Granada, while in more recent times Chris Stewart’s travelogue, Driving Over Lemons, describes the pleasures of life in an Alpujarran village.
The plummeting gorges (barrancos) that run south towards the sea and north towards the centre of the park – the higher peaks can remain snow-clad for eight months of the year – are criss-crossed by a network of ancient footpaths that connected remote plots of land and were used to maintain the water channels, most of which are still in use today. The channels funnel melt water down to the cultivated terraces that surround a string of high mountain villages that cling to the Sierra Nevada’s southern slopes, many of them dating back to the Moorish period.
It’s here, more than anywhere else in Andalucía, that the legacy of North Africa and almost nine centuries of Islamic presence is most in evidence: the villages’ narrow, souk-like labyrinth of flat-roofed, whitewashed houses look as if they’ve been lifted straight from the Moroccan Rif mountains.
The Moors clung on to Las Alpujarras for almost a century after the Reconquest, leaving Spain only after the ill-fated Morisco uprisings were bloodily repressed by a Spain that was fully under the sway of La Santa Inquisición – The Spanish Inquisition.
The GR7 loops all the way across La Alpujarra before running on towards Andalucía’s far eastern border: this is one of the most beautiful and most challenging sections of the Tarifa to Athens footpath. A second long-distance path, the GR240 or La Ruta Sulayr, was created more recently and runs all the way round the Sierra Nevada, coinciding in parts with the GR7. There are also much shorter waymarked routes, the PR trails, which connect the villages. But on any walk in the region you should be prepared for steep ascents and descents and be aware that weather conditions can change quickly at any time during autumn, winter or spring.
The upside of the lower temperatures of the Sierra Nevada is that in summer this is an area where you can escape the worst of the Andalucían heat: this would be my first recommendation if you plan to walk in Andalucía during the months of July or August. Be prepared for snow any time between October and March, always check the weather report if you’re tackling one of the higher peaks and consider overnighting in one of a number of mountain refuges.
An hour northeast from Granada, the Parque Natural de Cazorla can also see snow in the winter months. But here the peaks are only half the height of those in the Sierra Nevada and this is another region for year-round walking provided you’re happy encountering some snowy and icy conditions in winter. Wildlife is abundant: before being declared a national park the area was a hunting reserve and during the first half of the 20th century many species were re-introduced to increase the game count. This is where the Guadalquivir river rises and the park is cut through by a number of deep valleys flanked by high crests of limestone, while hillsides are covered in dense pine forest.
The Cazorla park is home to one of Spain’s most spectacular gorges, that of the Río Borrosa, and the hike up to the high lagoons that feed the river is a highlight of any visit to the area. On most walks you can expect to see deer, foxes and wild boar, along with eagles and griffon vultures. Cazorla, the small town that stands sentinel at the western edge of the park, is a perfect base for walkers, with several small hotels and a beautiful main square lined with bars and restaurants. Game is the speciality on most menus and the legendary Cueva de San Pedro restaurant the place to book a table if earthy, peasant cuisine is your thing.
Closer to Málaga – it tends to be the arrival point of most visitors to Andalucía, with flights to and from all major airports in the UK – Ronda has been a popular destination with travellers since the advent of tourism in Spain.
This spectacular mountain town fans out to either side of a plunging gorge, while its ancient mansion houses cling to a precipitous clifftop: this is one of Europe’s most spectacular urban inventions.
During the middle part of the day the town can get swamped by coach parties arriving from the nearby Costa del Sol but by mid-afternoon they’ve departed and the town regains its dignity: to wander the cliffside promenade at dusk, with the sun setting over the mountains out west, is one of the most narcotic experiences southern Spain has to offer.
The white villages of the Grazalema park
Along with the delights of exploring this alluring city, what places Ronda at the top of most hikers’ wishlists is that it’s within easy driving range of three of southern Spain’s most beautiful natural parks. West of the town the Parque Natural de Grazalema gets the most press and has been a popular hiking destination for some three decades: nearly every major UK walking company offers a holiday based in the park.
The village of Grazalema is the best known of the so-called Pueblos Blancos (white villages) and is plum in the centre of the park. This should be your first choice if you prefer a single base for your walking holiday: half-a-dozen excellent trails begin in and around the village, including the ascent of the park’s highest peak, El Torreón. The park has astonishingly diverse plant life – nearly a third of all the species of Iberia are found here – while the region is also one of Europe’s top birding destinations. There are several different species of raptor, including four types of eagle, and some of Spain’s largest colonies of griffon vultures inhabit the high ledges of its plunging gorges. With generally mild winter temperatures and just the occasional snowfall above 1000m, this is an excellent winter walking destination, although you should be aware that Grazalema lies directly in the lee of the Sierra del Pinar: in spite of being in the far south of Iberia it has unusually high rainfall compared with other villages just five miles distant.
Remote beauty: La Sierra de las Nieves
The same distance east of Ronda as Grazalema lies west, the trails within the Parque Natural de la Sierra de las Nieves are more remote and attract far fewer walkers. Part of the reason is that getting to the trailheads of some of the best hikes can entail a drive along mountain tracks of up to half an hour. But don’t think twice about visiting the park: you’ll meet with few other walkers yet will be hiking some of Andalucía’s most spectacular footpaths. My favourite full-day hike in the park is the ascent of La Torrecilla, a challenging trail that leads up through a huge stand of Spanish firs, Abies pinsapo: these hauntingly beautiful trees can only be found in Andalucía, the Moroccan Rif and the Caucasus mountains. The trails on the eastern side of the park are easier to access and the diminutive village of El Burgo has a couple of hotels that are deservedly popular with the hiking community. Be aware that the mountains rise to nearly 2000m and so get much more snow than the Grazalema park: spring and autumn are the best times to visit.
Through the cork oak forests: the deep south of Spain
Just south of Ronda a vast forest of cork oak stretches south towards the coast, the largest uninterrupted swathe of Quercus suber in Europe. The trees – the annual harvest of their cork is a cornerstone of the local economy – give their name to the park: El Parque Natural de los Alcornocales. Three of Andalucía’s best long-distance paths pass through the area: the Andalucian Coast to Coast Walk, the GR7 and the Gran Senda de Málaga. This is another superb destination for birding, with one of the main migratory routes between Europe and Africa running along the western side of the park. If you can plan a trip here to coincide with the spring or autumn migrations, don’t think twice.
The area is easily accessed by rail, with the British-built Ronda to Algeciras railway cutting through the centre of the park: it’s one of Europe’s most spectacular train rides. If you prefer a one-centre holiday, check out Jimena de la Frontera, where there are a number of trailheads and a couple of charming small hotels. A little further to the north, Gaucín has an even more spectacular location and is also close to the best of the park’s trails. On nearly all walks in the area you’ll be treated to soaring views south to the Bay of Algeciras and Gibraltar and, on clear days, across the Strait to the mountains of northern Morocco.