We spent a day in Cabo de Gata Nature Park in the south of Spain.
It’s an otherworldly landscape, created from fire. A moonscape, salty and sandy, unwelcoming and unforgiving. It is one of the last places in Europe that haven’t been conquered by man, because it cannot easily be conquered. It’s a place where survival is not a given, where desolation and failure are part of its story. It is telling that one of its most prominent beaches is called Playa de los Muertos, Beach of the Dead.
Cabo de Gata has long been home to those on the fringes of society, subsistent famers, pirates and gold diggers. People have come to its shores for millennia, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Moors, but few have made it their home. They mined the area for gems, precious agates which are giving the national park its modern name, and left as swiftly as they had come for lack of fertile soils and drinking water.
Today, this vastness is the attraction of the park. There are lots of pretty weekenders here, artist colonies, and a gentle form of tourism, people seeking to escape the demands of modern life, if only for a while.
One of the Most Unusual Places in Spain
Cabo de Gata is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Andalusia, if not in all of Spain. That is, if you have a thing for barren landscapes and abandoned buildings, dramatic coastlines and the arid sound of silence.
It is a place of unusual shapes. Where volcanic activity has formed a scenery of impossibly grated hills and mountains, with round peaks and sharp edges, topsy-turvy and full of surprises. Steep cliffs and rocky outcrops, standing tall in the tide, razor sharp like shadow cut-outs.
But it is also a landscape of colours. Warm earthen tones, with the gentle touch of a dusty haze that covers plains and hills alike. Silken green grass and purple heather, the golden glow of rusty metal and limestone buildings. It’s a place where one-legged flamingos stand lonely and forlorn in the shallow salt panes of Las Salinas near San Miguel, their telling shapes just a blurred outline of a fata morgana, and bleating goats roam around freely.
Even today, Cabo de Gata is not making it easy to take it all in in just one day. There is no pleasant coastal route connecting the few villages, no circular way you could go to spend a day of beach hopping. But that doesn’t mean that you cannot spend an enjoyable day here.
The Salt Panes and Flamingos of San Miguel
You can travel to the lighthouse in the southernmost point, following the route of the salt panes. See the water birds from afar, get blinded by the white heaps of harvested salt at La Fabriquilla, just outside of the small hamlet of La Almadraba. Take your shoes off on the shallow beach and wander among the wooden fishing boats that sit forlorn on the forgotten shores. Take in the silence, the gentle lapping of the sea, the air of abandonment that surround the lonely church and workers’ huts.
Sirens and the Growling of the Sea: Cabo de Gata Lighthouse
Travel further and experience the shift in atmosphere. Climb the coastal route that wind around the cliffs, sometimes dangerously so, to reach the lighthouse. Love the views of the rocks in the water called Las Sirenas, listen to the growling of the sea, the breeze that threatens to take off your cap as you hold your nose into the moist air of the Mediterranean Sea.
But to see the other places, the villages and beaches that are popular with eco tourists, hikers and day trippers like us, you will need to re-trace your steps, and find a new access point.
The Beaches of San José: Playa de Los Genoveses and Playa de Los Muertos
Most beaches in Cabo de Gata are spectacular, but to see two of the most prominent ones, drive to San José. Today a hot spot for tourists, if you can speak of hot spots in this remote place, but a few centuries ago a military outpost to keep the pirates at bay. Past ruined farm buildings and reconstructed windmills we go, leaving the sealed roads to get to Playa de las Genoveses with its white limestone headland.
A chance to leave the confines of the car, we collect shells on the beach and touch the purple heather in the dunes with our fingertips. The sodium-rich soil reveals itself in many ways – from the hardly plants to the white crusts along the path to the beach. On our way back we notice a dried out puddle that had broken up the soil in big shards that look like blocks of chocolate.
We drive a little bit further to see our last beach of the day, Playa de los Muertos. So called because of the shipwrecked pirates who would wash up here every now and then. A place of the dead which couldn’t be closer to paradise. It’s a famous beach too, thanks to the volcanic rock that kisses the surf like the helm of a gigantic ship. The view is open and wide, the winter sun warm on our faces, and we give in to our urge of climbing something, anything, just to take it all in.
From up here, the endlessness of the landscape is real, infinite, defined. Mother and son, together we look around this big world of nothingness, in a moment that is ours alone.
The Abandoned Gold Mine of Rodalquilar
Out last stop, our last discovery of the day, is the abandoned gold mine of Rodalquilar. For a hundred years, gold was hauled out of the nearby mountains, bone-breaking work in a remote location. Today, the gold mines lie abandoned, rescued by the Andalusian government but not restored. We walk around the complex, admire the industrial heritage, the perfect circular shapes for the water tanks, the crumbling concrete revealing rusty iron bars. We treat carefully, mindful that the ruined buildings may not support us any longer.
On the outskirts of Rodalquilar, the miners’ houses are fenced it but still good to explore. Cats in the tall, dry grass, chasing mice, doors with chipped paint standing ajar, revealing glimpses of days long gone. The local council may not have the money to preserve the buildings right now, but they still make use of them. Artists have hung up huge tapestries with bold images – faces and skulls and patterns. It’s like street art in a city that no longer exists.
Cabo de Gata: Varied, Spectacular, Surprising
Cabo de Gata is a place that surprised us in many ways. It’s varied and beautiful in its own way. Yes, there are beaches, but there is more. There is shape and colour. There are human stories told through those things they left behind. There is the sky, the endless sky, and the sound of the winds. A perfect place to unwind and detach, to explore and experience with all your senses.
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