Going Wild in Andalusia

The western face of El Betijuelo

When our guide first said, pointing up to the rocky face of Sierra de San Bartolomé, that’s where we are going, we thought she was crazy. We were about an hour into the hike and had already been up and down the fairly steep, but manageable trail and we were enchanted by the pine forests and the cool mist swirling around us. But climbing up to that rock face? Really? Laura, our guide, reassured us we could do it. And the sun would come out before the end of the hike, she said.

Earlier Laura picked us up at our home base in Vejer de La Frontera and we drove to the eastern side of the mountain, up a narrow road to Del Estrecho Natural Parknear the town of Tarifa. Across the Straits of Gibraltar was Morocco, though barely visible in the morning mists. In previous drives we had admired the pine forests which were puffy mounds of green on top of trunks throughout the region. Now we were going to get up close and personal with those forests.

Looking east toward Tarifa

As we started our hike, Laura stopped to point out familiar and not so familiar plants and bushes. Wild olive trees whose fruit are collected for a kind of oil. Wild rosemary and thyme. Another bush that blooms in February and is used in perfume. A berry that migrating birds stop to eat.

The trail was not obvious and the footsteps of previous hikers disappeared in the dusty path. Without Laura it would have been a search and rescue mission to recover two lost Americans. We had just made our way down to nearly sea level when we walked through the edge of a cow pasture (our path was frequently blocked by inadequate stick and barb wire gates which supposedly kept the cattle in or out of the area). Laura pointed up to the high point in this hike. Yikes! But she assured it our assent would be relatively gradual and easy. She was right. Relatively…

Once we gained elevation, the clouds lifted enough for us to see the town and beach of Bolonia and the blue Atlantic Ocean. After a bit more of a climb, she pointed to the sky and there were Griffon vultures soaring below and above us with their massive ten foot wingspans.

We sat on a couple of rocks (Mary sat safely a little further back than Peter and Laura) watched the birds fly in and out of the clouds, sometimes above us and occasionally below us. We had seen these birds once before on the Istrian peninsula in Croatia. It was a thrill to see them again. We had seen stork nests not far from here. These birds now live permanently in this part of Spain, not migrating to Africa as they used to. Climate change, speculated Laura.

We reached the highest point in our hike with only a little huffing and puffing and began to walk along the spine of the mountain with the Mediterranean Sea off to our left in the distance and the Atlantic to our right. We avoided the jagged rock walls where rock climbers do their thing. The plants along the trail were shriveling up from lack of rain providing little nourishment for a pair of horses we passed. It must look very different in the spring after winter rains.

Laura pointed down to the pasture where we had first been shown the place where we now stood. Holy cow! It looked so small and so far below us.

But just a few yards further the the trees and bushes dripped with moisture from the clouds blowing through them. The mountain, the winds and the clouds create a series of microclimates around this hilltop.

When we said we enjoyed the cool wind, Laura was too polite to openly scoff, but clearly the locals are less fond of these winds. Theoretically we experienced the Poniente, a fresh westerly winter wind that is humid. A bit cool today. (The easterly summer wind is Levante). Regardless, the winds make this part of the coast of Spain popular with kite surfers.

At times we climbed over large boulders, but most of the time we hiked between rocks outcroppings and knee high brush.

And Laura was correct! The sun did come out just as we began our descent down the east side of the mountain.

The path back to the car was a steady decline, a clear and easy to follow trail. And Morocco now visible off in the distance. Still it was hard to to soak in the view while watching our footing. Thankfully throughout the hike we stopped frequently to admire and take some photos of the views.

We will remember this day as one of the highlights of our month Spain. Laura was a charming guide with very good English. She was willing to share with us her insights into Spanish life. She had grown up in Argentina and lived here now running her own small business, http://www.naturatours.es, offering tourists a variety of outdoor experiences. We wished we had also signed up for the birding tour she does in one of the region’s estuaries. As it was she helped us add one more bird to our life list — Sardinian Warbler.

Not enough time in this corner of Spain!