The dramatic shores of Cabo de Gata Natural Park in Almería, Spain call out to me like no other place I have been along the Spanish Mediterranean coast.
This stoic land has witnessed thousands of years of human history, yet has remained relatively unchanged. The harsh living conditions here – with less rainfall annually than anywhere else in Europe – traditionally kept long-time settlers away. Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, pirates and defenders of the Catholic crown came and went. Indiana Jones, filmed here on his Last Crusade, left no physical trace.
In spite of new technologies making desert living more feasible, Cabo de Gata has remained largely undeveloped thanks to its natural park status, granted in 1987. With over 1,000 species, the site was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997. The protected area encompasses around 175 square miles of land and 50 square miles of sea.
While natural park protection does not equal zero development, it at least provides a barrier to more invasive land-use trends common along the Spanish coast, such as golf courses and densely packed condo towers, to name a few.
Nonetheless, shady politics have resulted in some questionable projects in the park, such as the locally infamous Algarrobico Hotel. Construction on the immense complex was nearly complete when halted by judicial order five years ago following pressure from environmental groups. The case remains mired in the Spanish legal system, and the structure in limbo. The balance between tourism and protection can be difficult to maintain in this breathtaking place, and defenders of the park must be ever-vigilant.
Immediately surrounding the park, advances in greenhouse technology have resulted in an agricultural boom in the desert. Plastic and glass structures increasingly dominate the local landscape, commonly referred to as the Mar de Plástico, or Plastic Sea. According to Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque, this highly reflective “sea” is among the most prominent man-made constructions visible from space. While he apparently meant his observation as a compliment, I find it rather disconcerting.
The (Ever-Expanding) Plastic Sea
Protected Cabo de Gata
Click here for an interactive image. I suggest zooming in on the Plastic Sea for the full effect.
Given this context, I am particularly thankful for the relatively virgin landscape that remains in the park, and for the opportunity to experience the natural beauty of Spain’s Mediterranean coast as it has been for millennia.
Fishing villages (founded before the site became a park) recall the plentiful waters that attracted the earliest temporary settlers to Cabo de Gata from across the Mediterranean Sea.
This part of the coast was particularly attractive because of extensive natural salt flats. According to archaeological footprints, Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman traders all harvested salt here, which they used to preserve their catch.
Cabo de Gata’s salt flats are still harvested today by Union Salera de España and French salt conglomerate, Salins, which claim to use sustainable methods. What is not consumed locally is shipped off to Scandinavia, where it is mainly used for salting cod. Our taste and uses for salt follow a well-marked trail in history.
Fresh seafood remains a top attraction for Cabo de Gata visitors today. In villages within the park, a host of rustic seaside cafés prepare the day’s catch in a no-nonsense manner. At El Manteca, a fine example in Las Negras, the fish and seafood are served expertly grilled or fried, seasoned with olive oil, salt and lemon juice. Nothing to overpower the delicate, fresh flavors.
Panoramic vistas of the sea add extra luster to the term “Mediterranean Diet.”
In Cabo de Gata, geography still dominates, which, for me, makes this section of coast particularly evocative. On isolated beaches and atop dramatic cliffs, I feel as though I could be in many centuries at once, experiencing the natural forces and features that have shaped the culture of the region.
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The photos in this post were taken in January, and, as you can see, we had beautiful weather. This is not the season for swimming, although there were a few visitors from Northern Europe in the water. Yet overall, the beaches were empty, which of course would not be the case in summer, when park officials actually limit the number of beachgoers allowed to enter. Winter is a great time of year for hiking the extensive trails within the park. I have a feeling the long, shadeless stretches would be dusty and insufferable in the dry, hot summer months. But I would love to return for a swim.
This article by Jo Williams on andalucia.com offers a great overall description of the park, including flora, fauna, walking routes and places to stay.
The Amigos del Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata-Níjar have a page on Facebook.