Costa lava

By John McShane, July 2, 2004

We find a volcanic corner of Andalucia that is almost untouched by tourism

It seems hard to envisage: clear blue waters lapping against a big, beautiful Spanish beach on a warm autumn day, yet no crowds to mar the peace.

Even more bizarre is to stroll over to one of the charming, slightly run-down beach-side bar-restaurants nearby and discover that it’s essential — unless you already speak Spanish — to take a phrase book.

For this is one of the few parts of Spain where the sign “English spoken here” has yet to be seen. It’s also a spot where the locals still outnumber the North Europeans who have conquered the rest of the land, colonising it as their holiday destination, or the site of their home-away-from-home in the sun.

We were in the Cabo de Gata, the national park at the far south-east of Andalucia, where the country — volcanic in origin — has a wild, semi-desolate air to it and the scenery seems to belong to some dusty, forgotten part of the Middle East rather than the sunshine playground of Europe.

This isn’t surprising really because it hardly ever rains and on a clear day — and the days here usually are clear — Morocco’s Rif mountains can be glimpsed in the distance.

The 70,000-acre area, jutting out into the Mediterranean, has been a National Park since 1987 and building is strictly controlled. The result is a coastline almost bereft of new villas and apartment blocks — just mile after mile of cliffs and small — often empty — coves.

This stark, almost harsh, scenery allied to the distance from major airports — Malaga and Alicante are about three hours’ drive away; Almeira and Murcia airports are nearer, but poorly served by European airlines — has given the area a charm that only isolation can bring and left it still very much off the tourist schedules.

Of course it can’t last. Many wealthy people from Madrid already have homes in the area and are prepared to make the long drive south to relax in the quiet and enjoy the typically Andalusian food of the area.

Proposed desalination schemes will increase the water supplies, and word is already spreading about the unique character of the region as well as a climate that is blisteringly hot in summer and still warm in the depths of winter.

And during the Spanish school holidays in July and August the Spaniards — understandably — head to the area in droves. But by September the crowds have gone, and even when autumn begins in earnest the temperature is still in the high 70s or 80s and a swim in the sea before breakfast is a treat, not a challenge to be tackled only by the foolhardy.

But if the charm of the beach wanes, there is more to explore. Most people will have hired a car but a good idea is to park it and enjoy the marvellous walks in the area. Many of the bays and villages, such as Los Escullos, la Isleta and Las Negras, are best reached by clifftops paths that wind along the coastline, thus avoiding long drives inland and back to the coast to avoid the rough terrain.

At the tip of the national park past the salt lakes where pink flamingoes wade and some 80 species of birds can be seen, is the lighthouse, the faro de cabo de gata. It stands watch over the Mediterranean and a couple of delightful sandy bays that can be reached with just a 10-minute walk.

There’s even a tiny, wooden information booth manned during the day by a local who — with the help of several language-dictionaries — gives information on the area.

And being Spain there is a bar for meals and tapas nearby, although unlike the rest of the area, it closes surprisingly early in the evenings.

The really fit can walk around the coast — the “road” is not suitable for most vehicles — to San Jose, the one resort town of size in the national park, with its more familiar multi-lingual restaurants around the marina and English and German newspapers widely available.

But if you decide to head inland, there are even more surprises. The arid, almost lunar-like scenery with its barren, red foothills and desert sands is one of Spain’s big secrets. Film-makers discovered it some decades ago, however. It provided the backdrop to dozens of spaghetti-western shoot-outs and “Lawrence of Arabia” — and more recently “Gladiators” — were filmed there.

There are even two theme parks devoted to the region’s film history. Mini-Hollywood and Texas Hollywood allow tourists to watch shoot-outs outside the same buildings where years ago a young Clint Eastwood achieved fame by sorting out the bad guys while barely seeming to move a muscle.

Tourists can eat in the cantina or have a drink in the Western-style bar while daydreaming they are film stars for a park entry price of about £8 (or a fiver for the kids).

And after watching the entertainingly re-enacted shoot-outs, you can visit the nearby mountain village of Nijar, famous for its blue-and-white pottery. The main street and village square are crammed with tourist shops specialising in all types of pots and jarapas, the locally made rugs in vibrant colours.

Even in such a tourist-orientated little town, English speakers are few and far between, but many of the shops have the prices of carpets clearly marked on the walls to avoid confusion. Prices for small rugs can be surprisingly low — £10 or £15 is commonplace.

At the top of this pretty Moorish town, is a delightful square with a couple of bars where they serve tapas or, if you are hungry, raciones — full portions.

There are always a number of fish dishes or salads to choose from if you want to avoid the sausages and stews, and a fine meal, with wine, can easily be enjoyed for around £10 a head.

We based ourselves in the small fishing village of Aqua Amarga —literally “bitter water” because of the salt deposits that give the local water its tang. It is about 30 minutes’ drive south of the larger tourist town of Mojacar with its bar and disco-friendly beach and only about 20 minutes’ drive from the motorway where cars and lorries hurtle to the more famous of Spain’s costas.

There are a few small hotels in the village, three of which double as beach bars, although the beautiful people may be attracted to El Tio Kiko, a new, 28-room boutique hotel built on a southern hillside overlooking the 600-metre long sandy beach

The hotel is all elegant wood, modern art on the wall and beige-coloured sofas among muted colours. The bedrooms, with their matted flooring and modern four-poster beds, ooze style and all have under-stated yet extremely luxurious bathrooms.

Rooms cost around £100 a night or £140 for a suite, all the year round — no off-season discounts here — and include delicious breakfasts of fruit, pastries and one hot dish.

But, remarkably for a modern building, its low, white, Moorish style architecture and elegant swimming pool, fit in well with the older buildings scattered around it.

It belongs to the independent Rusticae group which specialises in mainly small hotels that capture the charm of the country and remind everyone — should it be necessary — that there is so much more to this wonderful country than karaoke bars, discos and English fish-and-chips.

Go quickly, before it turns into Costa Brava Two.

Last updated: 3:01pm, September 10 2008