Take A Hike Series: Going the Distance and Dropping Our Shorts in Spain’s Cabo De Gata

October 15 – 19, 2013
Cabo De Gata, Spain

Far from the freeways that shuttle vacationers between Spain’s (in)famous holiday-home suburbs, the little knob of coastline that clings to the country’s extreme southeastern corner belongs to the Cabo de GataNíjar Natural Park.  According to the dinosaurs that roamed the earth prior to the tourism boom that gave birth to the Costa del Sol, it forms a landscape that is a living relic of a southern Spanish Mediterranean seaboard that existed long, long ago.  It is indeed a wholly separate sliver of Andalucía; one sans the flamenco dinner shows and English breakfasts.  The Cabo de Gata, with its tiny whitewashed artisan fishing villages, abandoned cortijos (rural farmsteads), creek-fed oases and miles of arid volcanic cliffs might have more in common with the wild coasts of Northern Africa, just a stone’s throw across the sea.  It also happens to be an excellent landscape in which one can go for a very long walk.

Agua Amarga – Las Negras Trail Length: 15.1km

This rugged and spectacular coastal hike followed a linear trajectory that required having transportation at one end.  The friendly folks at lovely Bitacora in Las Negras, where we spent the night both before and after the hike, were kind enough to drive us to the trailhead at the little fishing village of Agua Amarga so we could hike all the way back.

This was to be one of our longer, hotter jaunts. By late October, the Andalucían sun still burned late into the evening, and we didn’t expect to encounter a source of potable water for nearly 12 kilometers. As our driver bid us farewell, we asked if he wouldn’t mind alerting the authorities assuming we didn’t return by 10pm.  He laughed and reassured us, “todos en el mundo vuelven!” (the whole world comes back!)

We encountered signage for the trail just outside the city center on the left near the roundabout where the AL-5106 passed through on its way to Carboneras.  450 meters past the hotel El Tio Kiko was the official trailhead.  This made for a bit of confusion, as the trail bifurcated right from the beginning.  We had the option of either walking straight towards the sea, or up behind the trailhead onto the actual route.  Thinking that this was a coastal hike, we did what was intuitive and begin hiking towards the coast. After about 500 meters, we had rounded the cliff-side facing Agua Amarga’s pretty beach and found ourselves staring down a dramatic white coastline that dropped precipitously to the sea from where we stood.  The trail we had been following dwindled down to thin line of chalky white dust that simply meandered off the cliff and into the horizon.  While it all made for several great photos, we had a pretty solid hunch that this path wasn’t exactly the one we were looking for.

We finally found the true trail that skirted the littoral via a long valley hidden from the sea.  Over our shoulder, the Mesa Roldan, an old extinct volcanic dome, loomed a dark sentinel in the distance.  After continuing on through the valley a little more than two kilometers, our first cove came into view: the bewitching Cala Enmedio.

Some say this is the most beautiful cove in the Cabo de Gata, and others have gone even further to argue that it is one of the top ten most beautiful places in Spain.   I wish I could report on this definitively.  As it were, we had just set out on our hike and had put scarcely more than an hour’s walk under our shoes when the path suddenly split. Sadly, there was no signage indicating anything either way, so we made our best guess and decided to press on.  We will have to come back for that cove one of these days.

From Enmedio, the path continued around the backs of the coastal hills, passing what appeared to be a barracks, for another two kilometers.  This was when the serious nature of our undertaking dawned on me. We had been hiking for nearly two hours and had not encountered a spot of shade en route.  We were depleting the water we’d brought along quickly, and I began worrying that we’d run dry before making it to San Pedro where I knew I could refill our bottles at a spring that flowed up from mountains.  Just then, the little oasis surrounding Cala Plomo came into view.  It was fed by a little “rambla”, a creek that culminated at the cove, but the potable water point was still several kilometers inland.  I was a little downhearted about missing Enmedio, so we decided to break for lunch and a dip.

These coves are famed for their inaccessibility and are therefore known naturalist/nudist destinations.  We got our first glimpse as we passed by a family with a score of naked children scampering up and down the beach.  The matriarch, a robust woman whose chest approached Wagner’s Valkyrie proportions, emerged from the sea like some kind of maritime pagan fertility symbol.  I looked sheepishly at Ryan.  Could we do this?  As my Aussie fellow traveling mama has been known to say, were we up for baring “the whole hog”???

Evidently we could, and we did. And let me tell you, nothing quite compares to leaping fully nude into a Mediterranean cove after traveling on foot through an semi-arid mountain range for several hours.  Once I was in that water, it was as if a switch had been flipped, I wasn’t coming out for anything.  Or at least that was what I told myself for the hour-and-a-half I paddled around; long after Ryan and the kids had their clothes on again and were starting back toward the trail.  And that was what I told myself again when the nude pagan fertility goddess rounded our corner of the cove and began heading right toward us with her bevy of equally naked offspring.  When I finally hauled my butt out of the sea and slurked over to where I had dropped my sarong on the rocks, Oliver performed an exaggerated double-take and shot me a wide-eyed, quizzical look, the first he’d paid any mind to my nakedness since the clothes came off.  “Mom…” he hissed, only slightly under his breath.  “I think you’d need to swim naked in the ocean for a looooong time for your boobs to look like that lady’s….”

With the salt crystalizing on our skin, we picked up the trail again on the southern side of the beach.  It fired straight up a hill for more than 200 meters, and over our left shoulders we kept a constant eye on a pristine cove that appeared to be entirely inaccessible due to the vertiginous cliffside that rose right out of the sea.  Petrified dunes with alternatingnbone-white and ochre striations jutted out at sea level. Below their surfaces they harbored a marine ecosystem that was perfectly visible from our perch on the high, gray volcanic sierra above.

On the way to the New Age commune of San Pedro, we lost the trail a half a dozen times as it turned inland and continued uphill to the Punta Javana.  The telltale blue and white stripes of paint that served as trail markers had vanished several kilometers back, and all evidence of a trodden path was covered in pyroclastic dust and coastal scrub.  We were saved in each instance by the series of nondescript cairns that had been placed along the primitive route by prior thoughtful travelers.  Oliver made a mission out of seeking them out one by one and at each he left his own stone; a token of his own passage.

At the summit, we rounded a sharp turn from which enormous white, jagged rocks stabbed through the hillside. Cala San Pedro quite suddenly came into view below us, framed in those eerie mountain teeth and rippling forward under a golden haze as the sun fell away to the southwest.  We descended.

San Pedro is a sort of social experiment.  Folks of a distinct hippie persuasion have formed a small colony fanning out from the cove where they exist entirely off the grid, sans electricity, plumbing or even a road linking them to the main arteries through the park.  The cove is only accessible via boat from Las Negras or on foot via a four-kilometer path that skirts the coast. Its small community has managed to eke out a livelihood for hundreds of years in such relative isolation for one predominant reason: the presence of a freshwater spring that flows up from the heart of the coastal mountains.

At that point in our journey, fresh water was something we needed more than I cared to admit.  Despite adhering to my Grand Canyon gold standard of roughly half a quart per person per hour, upon reaching the cove, we were nearing our last drops.  In the shade of a crumbling veranda that had been chiseled into the hillside above the cove, we pulled long and deeply through that tap.  And while San Pedro’s cherished spring wasn’t the best water I’d ever had (how exactly did the residents manage their sanitation, I wondered), it was pretty damn close.

Passing a score of dread-locked nudists soaking up the last of the late afternoon sunshine, we exited the beach along its southern side and climbed past the old garrison that had been built to resist Barbary pirates in the 16th century.  Ahead of us, yellow-legged gulls wheeled in the waning light that filtered through the black hills and quiet coves leading back to Las Negras.  The long shadow of evening crept inland over San Pedro as we left it behind us and small, distant campfires sprang to life down on the beach below.  Plumes of smoke tangled with mauve tones that muted the eastern horizon out over the Mediterranean and a full moon pointed the way back to the small quiet white village where we would pass the night.