Walking on the wild side – Andalusian Wilderness
Pack your hiking boots and bring a healthy appetite for an adventure in natural Andalucía
Zooming along the sweeping new motorway viaducts that span the valleys north of the Granada coast almost offers the sensation of flight. It’s a privileged, elevated view, letting you look down at the emerald green water of the reservoir below, and across to pine covered mountains. This new A-44 highway that races traffic north and south, to and from Granada, has undoubtedly marked the landscape, but it provides a memorable journey.
It affords us spectacular views whilst speeding us away from the coast and swiftly bringing us to the edge of wilderness. This is the first day of our journey through two of Andalucía’s most fascinating natural spaces, Sierra Nevada, and Cabo de Gata.
Beyond the tourist trail
The western foothills of the immense Sierra Nevada mountain range that spans both Granada and Almeria provinces are no longer a secret to visitors. Chris Stewart of ‘Driving over Lemons’ fame, has through his books, sold the dream of Andalusian rural life to millions around the world. So, like his many readers, we are about to discover the vertiginous villages that cling to the hillsides here. The odd little flat-roofed houses with distinctive chimneys are terraced upon each other, as if huddling together for warmth or security. These ancient, high altitude communities, with evocative names like Pampaneira, Bubión, Capileira, Mecina-Fondales and Trevelez, are thankfully unspoilt from development.
This lush green landscape, punctuated by natural springs fed by pure water that filters through the mineral rich mountains, is the place to walk on the wild side. The hillsides and mountains are there to be explored by a myriad of trails and paths; but at first it is hard to drag ourselves away from the rich home cooked lunches of the local family-run hotels.
Taste the difference
During a short break here, expect to be tempted by local food including wild trout from the rivers swollen by mountain snowmelt; stews of rabbit and chestnuts; or ham, cured here in large stores that are well suited to the dry mountain air. This corner of the Sierra Nevada is the antithesis to the lively seasonal ski bars and hotels of the peaks. If ever it was justified to apply the cliché of the ‘Real Spain’ or the ‘Real Andalucía’ then maybe, just maybe, it is fair here. Yet this is more than just a destination for rural tourism, it’s a gateway to the wild spaces of Sierra Nevada.
Giving the walking boots a rest, the next day we drive east along the winding, precipitous road that takes us across the southern part of the Sierra Nevada national park, deeper into the wild spaces of the less well known eastern Alpujarras.
Look south and catch glimpses of the sun reflecting off the Mediterranean, whilst to the north, peering down on us are the snow clad summits of the sierra. This is known as the ‘Roof of Iberia’, with the highest peaks in mainland Spain. It is already June but spring has just arrived here at this altitude, and the abundance of water keeps everything green.
Sounds of silence
Remarkably, within a few hours’ drive along the south of the park, everything changes. Once at the very eastern edge of Granada province, the climate and landscape alter dramatically. An easterly peak provides a barrier to the moist air from the Atlantic and beyond this point it is semi arid.
This is the beginning of the province of Almeria. Forest clad hillsides have given way to a gently rolling arid landscape, dotted with the distinctive towering flowers of the Agave plant, brought over from Mexico more than a century ago.
After a dinner of organic tapas and mezze, complemented by local Almeria wines, the night is spent at a small Cortijo guest house where we fall to sleep listening to silence.
Despite Almeria being home to Europe’s only desert it also has fertile coastal plains covered in greenhouses, the ‘market garden of Europe’. So the breakfast the next day of homemade breads, Andalusian cheeses, hams, and local honey also included plump local strawberries and sweet organic tomatoes. The ideal fuel for a day exploring the Cabo de Gata Natural Park, Andalucía’s largest protected coastal area, the land of volcanoes and some of the best beaches in Spain. At the famous ‘cabo’ or cape, huge fragments of rock, known as the Arrecife de las Sirenas, pierce through the clear sea waters like mythical dragon’s teeth.
Above and beneath
Heading back to Malaga, via Granada our search for wilderness takes us to Guadix. Well known for its cave homes, this is also ‘BadLands’ territory. Extraordinary eroded river gorges and ancient sea bed canyons go on for hundreds of kilometres, creating one of the most stunning eroded landscapes found in Europe. This is not just for geologists, ornithologist and naturalists; this is a great place for everyone just to walk and take in those views. Even better knowing a wholesome meal and a cosy bed is waiting in a genuine cave hotel.
Well at the end of the day, enjoying the wilds of Andalucía is not just about enjoying nature so much as the generous home cooked meals and delicious wines to be enjoyed en-route!