At the far eastern edge of Andalucia is the only official desert area in Europe. During the day, in summer, the temperature is blistering, at night it drops dramatically and the stars shine with a brilliance not seen on the light polluted Costas. Here the cactus and succulents dominate the landscape and lizards, snakes and nocturnal mammals are more at home than humans. There is no easily obtainable water so, if you venture out on the kilometres of track, you take your own. The southern part of the desert, where it meets the sea, is called the Cabo de Gata. This sun baked, wind eroded, volcanic area is now a marine and land nature reserve and, for those who enjoy something different, it is a fascinating place.
The mineral reserves in the area have been exploited in a small way since prehistoric times. There are a number of abandoned mines from which lead, gold, silver and amethyst have been extracted. The high mineral content of the rocks can be seen on exposed faces in the ramblas (dry river valleys) and appear as a banding of various colours, reds, oranges, yellows and greys.
Later the Moors realised the potential of the rich volcanic earth and used ingenious methods to irrigate parts of it. There are a few remains of their waterworks including wind powered water pumps, but the outstanding working example is at a small village called El Pozo de los Frailes. When the Arabs departed, peace descended on this area for over 500 years. The difficulties of communication allowed history and development to bypass the small communities who just carried on, mainly ignoring, and ignored by, the rest of the world. A feeling of timelessness envelops anybody who ventures here.
San Jose is the main town situated on the coast and probably the best base from which to explore the Cabo de Gata. It is a pretty fishing village with a small marina and a good beach. Overlooking the marina and beach there are a few restaurants. The main part of town is basically one main street and a square with more restaurants and a few shops. There are a couple of decent hotels.
The coast itself consists of numerous coves separated by high cliffs, very similar to Cornwall. Some can only be reached on foot or by boat. The water tends to be a few degrees warmer than on the Costa del Sol and in most places is crystal clear, ideal for snorkelling around the inshore reefs.
Inland the volcanic cones, dry water courses, dunes and plains of rock, sand and grit provide a challenging environment for plants, animals and humans. Here, at certain times of the year, the agave is king. All the plants have adapted to the harsh environment and many, like the Cabo de Gata pink and Cabo saffron are unique to the area. You will only see these flowers after the rare occurrence of rain. At other times low shrubs, cacti and succulents provide sparce ground cover. The volcanic hills have been eroded by the action of the wind and stand proud of the plains harshly outlined against the sky.
The overall impression of khaki and browns from one horizon to the other beneath a brilliant blue sky is only relieved occasionally by the green of a hardy plant, solitary flowers after a little rain or by bands of colour in the rocks. It is a barren yet strangely beautiful landscape that you will either be drawn back to or that will intimidate you by its vastness.
© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.