Hot Lifestyle - Cabo de Gata... A world apart
A leisurely 3-hour drive from Marbella, and it feels like you’re in a different world. A world where time has all but stood still. A world where the sea glistens like molten steel under the searing sun, and where rugged cliffs, spectacular rock formations and soft sand dunes guard pristine hidden coves, while offshore there are countless rocky islets and coral reefs teaming with marine life. Welcome to Mediterranean Spain’s secret seashore – the stunning Cabo de Gata-Nijar Natural Park, whose volcanic origins date back over 15 million years and whose remarkable quality of light and magnificent scenery lend it a sense of other-worldliness…
Designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997, and extending across 460 square kilometres, the Cabo de Gata-Nijar Natural Park is situated in Almería, the most easterly of Andalucía’s eight provinces and the driest place in Europe. In fact it’s so arid that Almería is also home to the only real desert region on the Continent. But more about that later.
Andalucía’s largest protected coastal region by far, you’ll need more than a day trip even to begin to explore Cabo de Gata (its official title is such a mouthful, so let’s keep it simple). But this isn’t the Costa del Sol, where going to the beach usually entails no more than merely parking up and strolling a few short steps to bag your spot on the sand.
In Cabo de Gata, there are of course various breathtaking beaches that do have easy access, but there are other more isolated ones well worth discovering that are rather more challenging to reach – and usually with no chiringuito, ice cream kiosk, or indeed facilities of any kind whatsoever anywhere in sight. But that’s one of the many things that make this extraordinary area of Southern Spain so disarmingly special, because even in high season the chances are you’ll still be able to find a gorgeously deserted little cove to call your own for the day. Only you’ll be in for a bit of a trek, and best not to leave the coolbox behind.
So, if you’re ready to explore some of the most awesome beaches on the planet, let’s get going…
Probably the most famous of Cabo de Gata’s numerous heart-stopping beaches is Playa del Mónsul. Considered by many as the best anywhere in Spain, it boasts shallow crystal clear water, is flanked by dramatically overhanging rock formations, and if it looks familiar, that’s because it was the very spot where Sean Connery famously attempted to bring down a German plane by frightening a flock of seagulls in the 1989 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The picturesque clam-shaped Playa de los Genoveses – which featured in the 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia, starring Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Jack Hawkins – is another favourite haunt of beach lovers, as is the spectacular Playa de los Muertos, and the absolutely unforgettable Arrecife Las Sirenas – with its lookout point next to the landmark Cabo de Gata lighthouse. This mesmerising beach is said to have taken its name from the sadly now endangered monk seals who once inhabited the area and who ancient mariners believed were mermaids (or sirenas in Spanish). Interestingly, the parts of the reef visible above the waves are actually ancient volcanic chimneys.
"... the parts of the reef visible above the waves are actually ancient volcanic chimneys."
Other memorable beaches include La Isleta del Moro (which confusingly isn’t really an island at all), with its two enormous rock formations looking just like a mother whale and her calf; and Cala San Pedro – a perfect crescent-shaped bay dominated by the ruins of a 16th century castle built to defend local farmsteads against Barbary pirates. Accessible only by climbing down a vertiginous track clinging to the near-vertical cliff, the only problem is getting there, though you could always take a boat.
Then again, no trip to Cabo de Gata would be complete without visiting the Almadraba de Monteleva beach with its still functional saltpans, and the charismatic fishing village of Agua Amarga with its adjoining beach flanked by a rocky cliff perforated with once-inhabited caves. Boasting a lifeguard, bars, restaurants, ice cream kiosks and overnight accommodation, this urban beach is one of only a handful in the area accessible to people of all ages and levels of fitness.
"The 12,000 hectare marine reserve extends one nautical mile out to sea..."
In addition to its UNESCO Biosphere status, the Cabo de Gata-Nijar Natural Park took its place on the list of Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance in 2001, joined UNESCO’s Global Geoparks Network in 2006, and is a member of the European Geoparks Network, as well as having been declared a ZEPA Bird Protection Area, and if all that’s not enough, it’s also included in the Ramsar Agreement under the Wetlands of International Importance category. The impressive credentials speak for themselves.
Both a terrestrial and maritime Natural Park, the scenery is every bit as bewitching underwater as it is on dry land. The 12,000 hectare marine reserve extends one nautical mile out to sea and there are some 40 designated dive sites to explore. It’s said that more than 1,400 different species of flora and fauna inhabit the offshore coral reefs and lush meadows of seagrass, including sunfish, snappers, rays, barracuda, conger eels, amberjack and a wide variety of molluscs and crustaceans, while there are also over 260 species of seaweed alone. As you’d imagine, there are various dive centres in the area and some of the best sites to visit are the 50-metre-long Tunel Naranja (Orange Tunnel), the Cueva del Frío cavern and the Cerro Negro underwater chamber.
Meanwhile, the massive Salinas de Cabo de Gata saltwater lagoon is one of Spain’s most important wetland areas for breeding and overwintering birds, with 300 resident flamingos and more than 50 different species making their nests there, including avocets, storks, cranes, oystercatchers, herons, ducks, gulls, terns, shearwaters, razorbills and even the occasional puffin. Elsewhere in the Natural Park, birdwatchers can enjoy spotting ospreys, peregrines, kestrels and eagles as well.
"Europe's only true desert, despite the harshness of its arid conditions, it's home to a staggering 1,100 species of fauna..."
And then, a remarkable sea change, because as you head inland, the undulating cliffs give way to a starkly desolate hinterland punctuated by prickly pear cacti, spiky agaves and dwarf fan palms. Looking more like Mexico or Texas than Mediterranean Spain, this is the Tabernas Desert covering 280 square kilometres of Almería. Europe’s only true desert, despite the harshness of its arid conditions, it’s home to a staggering 1,100 species of fauna including rare Italian wall lizards, grass snakes, ladder snakes, wild boar and the endearing least weasel – the smallest terrestrial carnivore on Earth.
Even if you’ve never visited it, you’ll have seen the Tabernas Desert before, albeit on the silver screen…
The setting for Sergio Leone’s world-famous Spaghetti Westerns filmed in the 60s, and the backdrop to literally hundreds of productions since – including the 2003 Manchester United versus Real Madrid TV commercial for Pepsi, featuring David Beckham and Roberto Carlos; and the 2012 Dr Who episode A Town Called Mercy starring Matt Smith as The Doctor and Karen Gillan as Amy Pond – the original movie studios have now been turned into theme parks. Created for A Fistful of Dollars in 1964 and starring Clint Eastwood, Fort Bravo Texas Hollywood is one of them. Movie buffs will also want to visit nearby Los Albaricoques, a real-life village which featured in practically all of Leone’s sub-genre Spaghetti Westerns.
And only a few kilometres away… you’ll be in for yet another surprise: a gold mine.
Down the ages, the Phoenicians, Romans and Moors were all attracted to the region by its rich mineral deposits, including agate, jasper, lead, amethyst and silver, as is reflected in Cabo de Gata’s many richly-coloured exposed rock faces. In fact ‘Cabo de Gata’ actually translates as ‘Cape of Agate’.
Nowadays a semi-ghost town, Rodalquilar was home to a gold mine which, in 1956 was one of the largest in Western Europe. Opened in 1864 and regularly worked ‘til 1966, and then again from 1989 to 1990, at its peak, 200,000 tonnes of ore were extracted per annum, and 1,400 people lived in the village. Its tunnels and surroundings appeared in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade in 1989, while in 1986 it was converted into a sci-fi orphanage for the movie Solarbabies directed by Alan Johnson and – snow included – was also transformed into a medieval castle for The Reckoning directed by Paul McGuigan in 2003. Since its closure in the 60s, tours of some of the remaining mining facilities are available, while the adjoining Casa Volcano Museum and Botanical Gardens can also be visited.
So whether you’re into mountain biking, hiking, sunbathing, swimming, 4x4 guided tours, underwater photography, diving, snorkelling, sailing, sea-kayaking, windsurfing, fishing, geological tours or birding, we promise you’ll be in your element in Cabo de Gata – it's a world apart.
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