Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park is in the Almería province in the Spanish region of Andalucia. It is Andalusia's largest coastal protected area, a wild and isolated landscape with some of Europe's oldest geological features.
The natural park's arid landscape has long been used for iconic cinema. Major scenes from epics such as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were filmed in the park and, due to the arid sub-desert landscape, there were a great many 'spaghetti westerns' filmed or partially filmed in the park, the most notable example being Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The park is predominantly a landscape of low mountains and cliff-lined coastline. It is one of the driest regions in Europe and as such is extremely arid to the point that it is classed as a sub-desert. Along the coast, there are also sandy beaches and salt flat lagoons. Offshore are numerous tiny rocky islands and extensive coral reefs teeming with marine life.
The Sierra del Cabo de Gata mountain range , with its highest peak El Fraile, form Spain's largest volcanic rock formation with sharp peaks and crags in red and ochre hues. It falls steeply to the Mediterranean Sea, creating jagged 100-metre (330-ft) high cliffs riven by gullies, creating hidden coves and white, sandy beaches.
Flora and fauna
Due to the park's arid climate, all the flora is highly specialised to the conditions. There are few trees and only a little grass but there is an abundance of low-growing scrub bushes and succulents such as cacti and prickly pears.
The most interesting fauna includes flamingos, found in varying numbers throughout the year on the salt flats near Cabo de Gata town, and Bonelli's eagle, usually seen from a distance soaring over hilltops. There is a type of spider called the 'tarantula' (actually the European wolf spider) living in the park, but it is not like the classic 'giant' tarantulas found in tropical regions of the world and is in fact only 2 cm (5 in) across and not dangerous to humans.
The area has an arid climate with an average annual temperature of about 18 °C (64 °F) and an average annual rainfall of 156 mm (6.1 in).
Almería Airport, at 30 km from San José in the heart of the park, is the closest airport to the Cabo de Gata. It is mostly served by low cost airlines from the UK and northern Europe but there are also some internal flights from other Spanish cities operated by Iberia and Vueling.
Fees and permits
At Almadraba de Monteleva are the salt works and lagoons known as Las Salinas de Cabo de Gata. They are still operational. Next to the salt works are the ram-shackle and salt-blasted houses of former workers, some of which are still occupied.
Opposite these houses is the curious Church of San Miguel. The church sits within a perimeter rectangle whose centre is a raised terrace elevation on which the temple was built. The bell tower is attached to the corresponding wall next to the Gospel. The main façade looks southeast, oriented towards the saline neighbourhood, the Sierra de Gata and the lighthouse. Curiously, the churches of Cabo de Gata and Las Salinas open their doors in opposite directions, as if ignoring each other. The set consists of several differentiated architectural zones according to their functionality.
Cabo de Gata has a continuing tradition of fishing, and there are a number of old fishing boats that have been left along the Playa de San Miguel as artifacts of days gone by. These are said to have an important ethnological value and so are left as a "living museum".
A trip to the natural park is not complete without a visit to the goldmines and abandoned miner villages near Rodalquilar.
See the church, take a bath in the beach and the eat fish in a typical restaurant in the area.
Tourism continues as one of the biggest industries in the Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata with huge numbers of visitors from all over the world coming mainly during the spring and summer months. Through sustainable tourism/eco-tourism, visitors can enjoy environmentally-friendly outdoor activities such as bird watching, photography experiences, geological field-trips, and the more established diving and boat excursions.
There are also health retreats that offer holistic therapies, meditation, and yoga.
While the hiking network is not extensive, there are a number of senderos that provide for some good day hikes. The Caldera de Majada Redonda is one such trail that leads to the center of an ancient volcano caldera.
Carboneras has fine beaches. Located just a little out of Carboneras and en route to Agua Amarga, is the popular naturist beach of Playa de los Muertos (the Beach of the Dead), which is reported to have been voted one of the country's top beaches.
One of the more popular "must see" beaches near Rodalquilar is Playa el Playazo. In common with many of the beaches in the middle and toward the western end of the natural park, the sea is normally crystal clear and perfect for snorkelling or diving.
Arts and crafts based on local traditions are still carried out around the Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata and especially so in the little Moorish "pueblo blanco" of Níjar. The traditional arts and crafts include ceramics, pottery, carpet making and woven goods (baskets, hats, shoes, etc.) made from esparto grass. The same arts and crafts are found in many different places around the natural park alongside painting, sculpture, and photography. Also one may find in several of the pueblos, craft market stalls selling hand-made (hecho de mano) jewellery, leather goods, clothing, and incense holders, in addition to local shops selling local produce such as olive oil, wine, almonds, tomatoes, and so on.
Eat, drink, and sleep
Services can be found in the small towns in the park:
- Agua Amarga: a seaside hot-spot for visitors to the Parque, surrounded by many small beaches with cristaline water and great submarine life, perfect for snorkelling.
- Cabo de Gata: the strip of beach known as Playa de San Miguel and the adjacent road stretches from the small village of Cabo de Gata to La Fabriquilla before ascending a tiny mountain pass toward the Arrecife de las Sirenas and the stunning beaches beyond. This coastal strip is generally known as Cabo de Gata although it comprises several little smaller villages (pueblitos) including Cabo de Gata, Almadraba de Monteleva, and La Fabriquila. There are hotels and places to eat and drink along this beach.
- Carboneras: near the easternmost border of Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata, it is a fairly large town. Carboneras has a convivial atmosphere and night-life almost throughout the year as it is a major seaside town. Carboneras is also known as a town of live music due to the Teatro de Musica and a number of other smaller venues hosting live music all year round.
- Las Negras is a little sea-side village towards the eastern end of the natural park and just to the west of Agua Amarga. Las Negras has some rather odd buildings that are very 1970s in appearance because it has been developed in a more modern style than other towns. Despite its size, there is a lively night-life and some great places to eat and drink and enjoy live music. Las Negras is a bit of a haven for the more bohemian type of person and has a lovely beach on which to sit and watch the world go by. From Las Negras there is a footpath to Cala de San Pedro, which takes about 40 minutes to an hour to walk or one may take a boat.
- Los Albaricoques: Any movie buff will recognise Los Albaricoques as being the pueblo of Agua Caliente in the seminal films of Sergio Leone. The final shoot out in the film For a few dollars more took place in the centre of Los Albaricoques. There is only one shop and two bars in Los Albaricoques. One of these bars Hostal Alba, is a mecca for film buffs and a tribute to the village's cinematic history.
- Nijar is located inland and on the northern edge of the natural park. It has many reasonably priced bars and restaurants offering delicious local dishes. There are also hostels and hotels in and around Níjar.
- Rodalquilar sits peacefully in the middle of the Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata and is a haven for the local artistic community. There are a number of unique independent galleries dedicated to showing painting, photography, pottery, and ceramics. Rodalaquilar has some very nice places to eat and stunning beaches.
- San José is a small fishing port in the centre of the natural park. It is an easily accessible town from Almería airport and the A7 autovia. There are several restaurants and tapas bars in San José. The local independently run tourist office is used as a reference point for activities in the Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata.