I recently went walkabout on Madeira and discovered an island that isn’t for the faint of heart

Madeira and its levada footpaths had been on my walking radar for years. So when friends told me of plans to sell their family home in Funchal, and that it was now or never were I to visit them, I jumped at the chance.
‘Bring a jacket for dinner’, they advised, ‘Life’s still a little old-fashioned out here’.

The first time I get a glimpse of the sea on a walk my step feels lighter. It’s as if the vastness of an ocean view offers a perfect counterpoise to the immediacy and physical effort of walking a mountain trail. And who doesn’t feel more in touch with the Big Picture than when walking beside the ocean? If walking is good for body, soul and mind one senses that coastal walking is even more so.

Talk to most people about the coast of Andalucía and
they’ll picture the small swathe of seaboard that runs from Torremolinos to Estepona, the heartland of what is commonly sold as the Costa del Sol. First associations are of crowded beaches, busy coastal roads and blocks of holiday apartments. Few will conjure up visions of the mighty chain of mountains, the tail end of the Sierra Subbética, which rises steeply up a few kilometres back from the sea. Nor do they tend to evoke the wilder beaches of the Costa de la Luz nor the footpaths that run just a few metres from the Atlantic surf.

Since Iberian times these coastal paths have seen the passage of livestock, charcoal, fruit and vegetables, dried fish, ice from the high sierras, silks and spices from distant lands, contraband coffee and tobacco along with muleteers and shepherds, itinerant workers, fortune seekers and armies on the march. Ancient byways have a logic of their own and when walking close to the Andalucian coast I have often been struck by a sense of Times Past, and not only when a section of ancient paving or cobbled path suggested Roman or Arabic origins. Several of the walks described in my book take you past ancient watchtowers that were erected to defend Spain from pirate raids by north African corsairs, whilst others follow footpaths that were built by chain gangs of Republican prisoners following the Spanish Civil War, at a time when Franco and his Nationalist insurgetnts feared a counter attack might come from the south.

On clear days – and you can expect many of them should you visit Andalucía – you are often rewarded with stunning views of Jebel Musa, the highest peak on the North African coast and of Gibraltar (whose name is derived from Jebel Tariq or ‘Tariq’s Peak, named after the leader of the first expeditionary force that crossed into Spain from present day Morocco). These were the fabled Pillars of Hercules, at a time when the sea that lay beyond was believed to mark the end of the physical world: Non Plus Ultra. I believe that this sense of history, and of continuity, gives nearly all the walks described in my new Cicerone guide Coastal Walks of Andalucía an added appeal: it’s as if these ancient byways serve to reconnect us with something that has been around since Time immemorial but which we rarely get the chance to experience.

If the areas described in the book share a common historical thread the different parts of the Costa have their own unique character. The cliffs, pine forests, dune systems and marshlands close to Vejer are very different in feel to the wooded slopes of the Algeciras hinterland with its unique laurisilva ecosystem. The lunaresque landscapes of the Sierra Bermeja stand in marked contrast to the forested mountainsides behind Marbella and Mijas whilst the cliffs and crumpled massif of the sierras between Nerja and Almuñecar have a beauty all of their own, as do the mineral landscapes of Cabo de Gata. Each region is described in greater detail in its corresponding section, along with recommendations as to where best to stay, but there’s superb walking in every one of them.

Two major highlights of any coastal walk in southern Spain come in the form of the flowers and birds you see along the way. Andalucía is numbers amongst the best birding destinations in Europe and ornithological tourism has grown rapidly in recent years. The best time for birdwatching is during the spring and autumn migrations between Europe and North Africa but at any time of year, in all parks covered in this guide, you can expect to see extraordinarily diverse avifauna. As well as seasonal visitors there are more than 250 species present throughout the year.

The marshes close to Barbate is one of the best sites in southern Spain for observing wading birds, both sedentary and migratory, whilst at the eastern end of Andalucía the salt flats of the Cabo de Gata Natural Park provide a superb observatory for wader and duck species such as ibis, spoonbills and coots as well as greater flamingos.

One of Europe’s most remarkable wildlife events are the annual migrations across the Strait of Gibraltar. This offers the chance to observe thousands of raptors including Egyptian, griffon and black vultures; golden, imperial, booted and Bonelli’s eagles; honey buzzards and harriers as well as storks and smaller passerines. The birds circle up on the thermal currents then glide between the two continents. The migration into Spain takes place between February and May whilst birds heading south can be seen from August through to late October.

The southern coastline also offers rich rewards for botanists. 40% of all species found in Iberia are present in Andalucía and many of these grow in the coastal region. The annual wildflower explosion in late spring is as good as any in southern Europe, especially in areas where the rural exodus has ensured that much of the land has never seen the use of pesticides. From late April through to mid May the flowers are at their glorious best whilst from November they already are beginning to appear after the long, hot summer.

If you are happy to undertake a challenging, full day walk then the ascent of the mighty peak of La Maroma, at the heart of the Sierra de Tejeda y Alhama just to the east of Málaga, provides a stunning introduction to the majestic beauty of southern Spain’s coastal mountain ranges. Of the the three better-known routes leading to the summit of La Maroma (2066m) the one that departs from the pretty village of Canillas de Aceituno gets my vote. You’ll need to get going early from and take plenty of water: you have a 19.5 kilometre hike ahead of you, the best part of eight hours of walking with a challenging ascent of almost 1700m: this is just one of half a a dozen trails in my guide that I grade as difficult.

You’ll reap rich rewards for your efforts: for most of the way up and down you have glorious views back to the Mediterranean and the route leads past the magnificent south face of the Loma de Capellanía to the spectacular promontory of Proa del Barco (The Ship’s Prow) where the views out west give a foretaste of those awaiting at the summit. The vast vistas from the summit are particularly memorable when the Sierra Nevada, away to the east, is cloaked in its winter mantle of snow. And you’ll almost certainly come across groups of ibex as you make your way up to the summit.

It’s well worth diverting some 50 metres to the south of the trig point at the top of La Maroma to a huge pot hole marked by a metal post, the Sima de Maroma. In the past this deep cleft in the mountainside was used as a store for packed ice which was carried down the mountain via the footpath known to locals as El Camino de la Nieve, and La Maroma takes its name from the thick ropes or ‘maromas’ that were used to pull the blocks of ice from the pot hole up to the surface.

After retracing your footsteps back to Puerto de Los Charcones you follow a different path back to the village, descending parallel to the gorge of Los Almanchares along the path that once was used to bring ice down from the summit. Some two thirds of the way down you pass a cave marked by a signboard, La Cueva de la Rávita. During Moorish time three sufi mystics lived in the cave which today remains a site of pilgrimage for the small sufi community in Andalucía. Despite its name it isn’t a cave but rather a mine shaft that runs 70 metres into the mountainside. A strange phenomenon is that images of photos taken inside of the cave often display golden circles: some people attribute these ‘energy spheres’ to supernatural causes, others to suspended particles of dust within the cave. You can replenish your water bottle at the spring that you pass just before reaching the cave which makes a natural resting point, whilst just a few metres beyond the spring a fenced area is part of a Park authority’s project involving the reintroduction of amphibians to the sierra. From the enclosure a final steep descent leads back down to Canillas de Aceituno whose pretty main square provides the perfect place to relax with a cold drink after a long, tough and exhilarating hike.

This amazing full day hike is decribed in greater detail with map and GPX download in my new book ‘Coastal Walks of Andalucía’ available from Cicerone:


From southern Spain’s battered Costa del Sol a serpentine roads loops up and up into the Sierra de las Nieves. After the best part of an hour, by which time you’ve negotiated dozens of heart-stopping arabesques, you at last drop over to the northern side of the Puerto del Madroño pass. It’s here that Ronda first comes into view, one of Europe’s most spectacular urban inventions.

A line of whitewashed buildings fans out along a high cliff to either side of a 100 metre-deep tajo: this is the plunging gorge that Joyce wrote of on the final page of Ulysses. The town came to epitomise the Romantic movement’s idyll of travel and was depicted by the Scottish artist and traveller David Roberts in a series of his most exquisite engravings. Faced with his first sight of Ronda in 1912 the poet Rainer María Rilke declared, awe-struck, that he’d at last found ‘the city of dreams’. More than a century later the town still retains an undeniable Xanadu factor.

I first visited the town on two wheels in the late seventies. I’d bought an old, three speed push bike in northern Portugal with the idea of riding south through the cork forests to Cabo Sao Vicente: after all, I’d just missed the last bus of the day. I was so taken with life in the saddle that I rode on, crossing Spain via Sevilla, Granada and Almería, sleeping in olive groves, hilltop castles and abandoned farms. Laurie Lee was my mentor, the open road was beckoning and Spain had the allure of an exotic femme fatale. Three nights in Sevilla, drinking cheap red wine in crowded bars and stumbling across impromptu flamenco song and dance could only reinforce that impression. Leaving the city in the early morning I was in high spirits as I wound my way via pot-holed roads through gently rolling countryside, through fields of wheat, sunflowers, lentils and cotton. But by midday my eyes began to make out a series of blue-violet hills rising steeply up to the east and I realised that I was heading, quite literally, for ‘them thar hills’. They’d be my constant companion for the next 300 miles and I’d just made gained my first, fundamental insight to Andalucía: there are mountains, and pretty high ones, nearly everywhere.

Nothing had quite prepared me for the magnificence of the terrain through which I was puffing my way, following the route taken by Washington Irving in the 1840s. Arriving in Ronda, looking out to a cirque-like panorama of jagged limestone peaks, I was struck by the narcotic thought that I might one day set up home here. I knew for certain that I had to return and explore this wild swathe of sierra. But the next time it would have to be on foot: a three-speed sit-up–and-beg bike and 3500-foot passes are uneasy bedfellows.

First came a series of escapades, alone and with friends from university, with each trip leaving me wanting more. Every new path explored seemed to suggest half a dozen others whilst the villages that they connected – the Pueblos Blancos or ‘white villages ‘– were as beautiful as any I’d come across in Europe. So a year after graduating I sunk all my savings into buying an old tile factory in a tiny village west of Ronda. Montecorto felt like stepping back in time: the women still washed their clothes in the water channel, there was just one phone in the village whilst the nearest bus stop was a 2km hike up to the ridge top road that connected the sierra and Sevilla.

With each new path discovered I felt more connected to my adopted village and country. Many were ancient drover’s paths, transhumance routes linking the flatter farmlands round Sevilla and Jerez with the summer pastures of the Grazalema and Ronda mountains. Others followed the course of the old Roman roads whilst a number had been built during the Moorish period by Berber shepherds who had settled the mountains of Andalucía, that so resembled those they’d left behind in North Africa. Then there was the intricate web of footpaths that linked these high mountain villages with local market towns like Ronda, Ubrique and Jerez. But these ancient byways were often all-but-lost, overgrown with dense briars or ploughed back into fields in order to gain an extra few metres of land for cultivation. Local people no longer walked to market, as they’d done just 40 years ago: now there were cars and buses, whilst any livestock to be traded would be loaded on to a lorry.

Many was the time I set out in search of what looked like a perfectly defined path on my old, military maps to quickly find I’d strayed off piste. When I questioned villagers as to where the paths might run, and if they were bona fide rights of way, everyone seemed to know of them yet none would know of their exact location. But that was when Andrés Duarte stepped into my walking story.

Andrés was a bright-eyed and kindly shepherd who had grown up in a village south of Ronda. We soon struck up friendship: he would come every day to the spring that rose behind my home to replenish his water bottles and to throw down grain for the chickens and bantams he kept in small pen next to the gurgling water. Andrés had never learned to read or write – he signed documents with his thumbprint – yet he was one of the wisest men I’ve met. When I told him of my misadventures and wrong turnings he said, in his disarmingly direct manner, ‘I’m a shepherd and I know the paths. And I will show you them all’.

So began a series of excursions with Andrés that will always remain a treasured memory. Often the footpath I’d been looking for would be just yards from where I’d intuited, but would be completely hidden from sight by a thick stand of greenery. At a point where I’d stumbled forward to become lost in dense undergrowth, Andrés would show me how the path looped back on itself in order to pass by a spring or an ancient oak with sweet, roasting acorns. He’d tell me which plants were edible, which grasses could be used to make espadrilles and had a tale to tell about every isolated farmhouse. He spoke of the bandoleros who worked the passes through of the Ronda mountains, of Republicans and anarchists who took to the hills here during the Civil War and told me Lorca-like stories of unrequited love and its often tragic consequences.

With Andrés as my compañero the Andalucían landscape came alive in a way that it could never have done without his anecdotes and folklore, and that deep knowledge of Nature and the seasons to which only a shepherd, or a person who lives a large part of his or her waking life out in the hills, can be privilege. Andrés is no longer around yet when I take people on guided walks through the Grazalema and Ronda mountains he’s still very much present when we talk about the animals, plants, farms, mountains, streams and springs we encounter along the way.

Guy Hunter-Watts is the author of ‘Walking in Andalucía’ and ‘Coastal Walks of Andalucía’. Newly revised editions (2016) of both books are available from Cicerone Books.

I was bowled over when I discovered this mesmerising trail so close to the hustle and bustle of Main Street. The highlight of the walk – so long as you have a head for heights – is the footpath that leads up the sheer, southern face of the Rock, popularly known as Mediterranean Steps. This giddy path has recently been restored by the Bonito Trust and you’ll be marvelling at the derring-do of those who built it.

There are many more treats in store. After negotatiating the Steps next comes Douglas’ path which cuts along Gibraltar’s rugged spine with huge views both east and west. The next challenge comes in the forms of Charles V’s Wall which you descend via a series of steep flights of steps. And to end an already magnificent circuit up pops Ingliss Way leading back towards the start point of the walk through a thick stand of Mediterranean scrub: it’s beggars belief to think that the cut-and-thrust of Main Street is just a few hundred metres away.

This is one of 40 great walks described in my new Cicerone guide Coastal Walks in Andalucía.
Distance: 10 kms
Time Required: 3.5/4 hrs
Rating: Medium
Total height gain: 525m
Map(s): IGN 1:50000 series Algeciras 1078
Water: no springs so take plenty

The Walk

The walk begins in front of Landport Gate just beyond the drawbridge. From here cut through two tunnels to reach Casemate Square. Head along the square’s left side then continue to the far end of Main Street passing John Macintosh Square then The Convent. At the far end of the street pass beneath an arch then cut right across a pedestrian crossing. Bear left, traverse a second crossing and head on past Queen’s Hotel. Angling left you reach the hotel’s entrance. Here cross the road, pass right of a restaurant to the lower station of the cable car then angle left across a car park to the gateway to the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens. (20 mins)

Beyond the gate climb two flights of steps, pass a statue of Elliott (commander of the Rock during the Siege of 1779-83) then after 15m bear left up a narrow path. Climb another flight of steps then continue up Olive Tree Climb which merges with a broader path which leads to a red post box. Here cut left at a sign Exit Upper Rock and climb past The Rock Hotel’s swimming pool. Passing through the gate to the gardens continue parallel to Europa Road to a footbridge, cross the road then head up Engineer Road. The road climbs steeply to the gates of the Nature Reserve of The Upper Rock. Continuing to climb the road leads to another set of gates and a ticket box (40 mins) (it’s worth 50 pence and a short detour to visit one of the hypothetical sites of the The Pillars of Hercules, Mons Carpe).

Angling left beyond the ticket box to a barrier you reach the beginning of Mediterranean Steps. Passing a metal gate you follow the steps along the near sheer face of Gibraltar’s southern flank. Passing a signboard detailing the fauna of the Upper Rock the path cuts left and climbs steeply: ropes help your upwardly mobile course. Reaching a bricked up building (1 hr) angle right through a tunnel beyond which you pass two bunkers: the views from the platform just beyond the second one are breathtaking. Angling left the path zigzags up to a signboard describing the Rock’s unique flora. Passing a group of antennae you reach the highest point of the walk as vistas open out to the west. Angling left and descending you reach the entrance gate to the World War II Tunnels. Here cut right down a narrow road for 400m to a junction and sign 1789-1897. (1 hr 25 mins) Here cut right past a barrier: you’re now on Douglas’ Path which angles up to the ridgetop through thick Mediterranean scrub where it reaches O’Hara’s Battery.

Continue along the spine of the Rock, now descending, to St Michael’s Road. Angling right here you pass a signboard telling of a Spanish attack on the Rock in 1704. Continue along the road then pass beneath an arch where Gib’s resident apes often gather to look at tourists. Beyond the arch you reach the top of Charles V’s wall. Continue up St Michael’s Road, angle right at the first fork then climb to the top station of the cable car where there’s a café and a viewing platform up to the right: close encounters of the ape kind are guaranteed as well as mesmerising views of Africa and the western end of the Costa del Sol. (1 hr 40 mins)

Retrace your footsteps to the top of Charles V’s Wall (WP19) then cut right and make your way down the first section of wall. Cutting right then left, drop down its second section. Cut right at a brick building then left through a gate and continue down the third section of wall to a picnic area. Exit onto Queen’s Road where, just opposite, you’ll see a sign Ingliss Way. Follow the path up past an old bunker. 15m before reaching a tarmac road the path cuts left and threads its way through thick Mediterranean scrub. Crossing a plastic pipe you reach a fence. Cutting right the path climbs then arcs left, parallel to a low wall. Angling left and descending across two metal pipes you come to a road (2 hrs 15 mins)

Cut left for 50m then angle right along Queen’s Road. Reaching a Give Way sign continue straight on towards the entrance to The Great Seige Tunnels, angle left down Willis road for 200m then loop hard right. After150m angling once more left past The Moorish Castle you reach twin Give Way signs. Here angle right and drop down to a crenellated tower then follow the road as it angles left. Just as it arcs once more right past two huge palms cut left along a One Way street. Reaching a sign for Castle Steps turn right down a flight of steps which angle right then left to a junction. Turning right along Engineer’s Lane you return to Main Street. From here retrace your steps to the start point of the walk. (2 hrs 50 mins)

My new (August 2016) Cicerone guide Coastal Walks in Andalucía is available at this link: