‘Don’t bother with Cabo de Gata. It’s just fields of plastic’. This is what I was told by a Scottish couple who I met in Granada.
‘Cabo de Gata is beautiful. You must go there.’ This is what I was told by the lady in the Motril tourist information office.
Now, I would normally be less inclined to listen to the tourist information as they are paid to promote the region and will undoubtedly put a positive spin on anywhere. However, I want to follow the coast and avoid the main roads as much as possible and my route takes me through Cabo de Gata so I think I’ll chance it. Admittedly, the approach to the area is plastic covered, much of it sloping up the foothills of the Sierra Alhamilla, but then I find myself surrounded by sisal plants and prickly pears. It’s as if I have been transported to Morocco or Mexico, though I’ve never actually been to the latter. I can understand why the area was such a popular setting for the spaghetti westerns, and even today film crews regularly arrive to use the unusual setting for any numbers of exotic locations. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade made use of Monsul Beach for the seagull scaring, plane crashing scene and then moved north to Tabernas for the horse riding, tank crashing action.
I see a sign for a visitors centre and stop for more information. I get more than I bargained for with Jose, who seems extremely excited to have a visitor to talk to. He lays out a map of the Natural Park and takes me step by step through every place I must see, from lighthouses to castles and from beaches to volcanic craters. Then he follows me through the exhibition room pointing at photos of all the places he has recommended. Exhausted, I ask about toilets. At least he can’t follow me in there and I finally get some peace.
My first stop on Jose’s suggested itinerary is the salt pans where hides have been set up for viewing the flamingos. One makes a good spot to stop for lunch. Then I drive to the lighthouse viewpoint. Unfortunately, Jose didn’t tell me just how narrow the winding road to the point gets and I find myself holding my breath as I slowly take each twisting turn, praying that nothing is coming in the opposite direction. Luckily it is siesta time for the Spanish so I’m safe. It’s impossible to reach the next village of San Jose from here unless you are on foot, quad bike or possibly a 4WD so I am forced to double back past the salt pans and inland. San Jose turns out to be a quaint little place and I’m tempted to stay there but I long to stay at the small beach of La Isleta which I’ve seen in photos, so I continue. It’s just as perfect as I imagined and there’s only a few other motorhomes on the site.
Next morning I rise early to catch the sunset over the village and beach from a perfectly placed viewpoint. It’s quiet in the sleepy village and I can’t even get a coffee as all the bars are still closed. Just down the coast, I explore Los Escuilos where there is a 17th century fort build on a fossilised sand dune. The scenery is spectacular and I manage to get inside the fort where they are setting up for a wedding party later in the day.
A little way inland, nestled in the mountains is the old mining town of Rodalquilar. The volcanic region is rich with ores and minerals which have been exploited over the years but, as usual, the seams ran dry and now all that is left are the scars of the mines and the industrial buildings. Even the old town, which had a school, hospital and houses for the workers, is a ghost town of tumbling stone walls and graffiti. A newer whitewashed town sits nearby housing park staff as Rodalquilar serves as the headquarters of Cabo de Gata Natural Park. I love being able to explore the abandoned mine site and long to discover some unfound gold, quartz or amethyst. Health and safety doesn’t seem to have reached this part of Europe for there are dangers lurking at each corner, but I’m not concerned.
Looking at the map, I believe I have to join the motorway for a spell to reach the northern part of the park, but then I see a sign for the town of Agua Amarga and I discover a marvellous short cut across barren land of rocks and gorse, dotted with ancient ruined farms and one which looks like an oasis due to the palm trees and other vegetation in the vicinity. Further on are piles of gypsum where mining still continues in some places. After my taste of desolation, I breeze through Agua Amarga, keen to discover le Playa de Los Muertos. The vista from the viewpoint is breath-taking. I can see another lighthouse on the mountain beyond and there is a road leading up to it, but I decide to leave it for another time. After all, I need an excuse to come back to this amazing Natural Park.