Dan McCarthy


Irishman’s guide to five hot walks in south of Spain

Hillwalking in Ireland is a joy but there is something particularly special about the south of Spain with its year-round clear skies and its easy access from Irish airports, writes Dan McCarthy

Irishman’s guide to five hot walks in south of Spain

The cliffs are high and the light that reaches down to the chasm floor is of the dappled variety. At one point by extending your arms you can touch both sides of the gorge through which, the anything but chilly Rio Chillar flows.

It is a mesmerising walk up river from the town of Nerja on the Costa del Sol to the town of Frigilliana - name-checked in Christy Moore’s song as possibly the only place in the world to rhyme with Lisdoonvarna.

As the water deepens, you climb over small waterfalls, wade through pools of turquoise water and splash your way to a power shower that will challenge your ability to stand on your feet.

Welcome to the south of Spain and the Sierra Tejeda mountain range which lies adjacent to the much better known Sierra Nevada.

With direct flights from Cork and Dublin to nearby Malaga an increasing number of Irish hillwalkers are exploring the superb walking the area has to offer.

Jim Ryan’s guide to Aconcagua and the Southern Andes is regarded as the definitive guide to the South American region. Ryan has now switched his attention to European shores.

The ‘Mountains of Nerja’ fills a gap in the available guides to the area, listing 24 walks of varying difficulty and varying majesty.

Here are Jim’s top five walks:

1. Cisne

A really superb route. After driving into the foothills of the Sierra Tejeda from Nerja you arrive at the village of Acebuchal, destroyed by Franco sympathisers nine years after the Civil War ended. Thankfully, it has been rebuilt.

A 2km trek on a dry river bed (rambla) gives way to a dirt road from where the daunting sight of Cisne looms like some prehistoric behemoth.

“Although it is not amongst the highest points and is a difficult climb it has all the ingredients for a classic hike – variety, the need for care transitioning into the gulley, the scramble and sense of arrival at a spectacular summit, shelter for lunch and a stream to wash off the sweat after the descent,” says Ryan.

2. Lucero

A coruscating trek past rushing streams, fields of poppies, and up, up, up into the upper reaches of the Sierras de Tejeda. It is listed as one of the must-do walks in the Lonely Planet’s guide to Andalucia.

“I suggest driving over the long dirt track in order to shorten the walk and make it possible for weaker walkers,” says Jim.

At the peak there are the ruins of a Guardia Civil outpost dating from the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s soldiers were able to watch republican troop movements from this position at 1,779 metres. When you see the views you’ll realise why they built it.

“When you follow the steep and precipitous path and arrive at a summit that is only the size of a large room, you have the perception of having achieved something. Last time I was there I brought a mirror with me and my wife was able to spot the tiny flicker from it way down in Nerja,” says Jim.

3. The Gorges of the Rio Chillar

The Rio Chillar walk mentioned above is one of Ryan’s top five walks. As a six-hour hillwalk, really a river walk, it is one of the most unusual but enthralling walks you can take.

You first encounter the river at ankle-height then knee-height as beams of sunlight penetrate the tree canopy. Not for walking in winter.

”One for young and old, fit and feeble,” says Ryan.

4. La Maroma

Unlike the Rio Chillar, this can be attempted in winter. It is a delightful sight ascending through the limestone passes near the top when they are covered in snow.

“The limestone pavement is wondrous,” says Jim. In fact it is quite similar to the Burren in County Clare - tiny crocuses appear in the cracks in springtime.

When you go up from El Robledal you pass the only yew trees in the region. Sierra Tejeda takes its name from the yews that covered the mountain, but which were all cut down and replanted with pines.

The yews were considered a danger to people and animals because of their poisonous fruit, and the pines were favoured for their resin, he says.

5. The Tour of Almendrón

The best wine for last. “Choosing the last of five walks is difficult,” says Ryan.

“El Cielo dominates the town of Nerja and is important; visiting Al Hama and walking its gorge is easy and rewarding; the walk to the Petrified Waterfall and its cave is a great little trip for a picnic in the remoteness of the valley of the Rio Verde; but the tour of Almendrón takes some beating for the rugged mountain scenery,” he says.

It is not for the faint-hearted.

No obvious peak is climbed, but a traverse under limestone cliffs affords a majestic view through a gap to the valley below.

The overall appeal of these mountains, including Almijara and Alhama, relates mainly to height.

In all of Ireland there are only seven mountains that could be classified as munros - higher than 3,000 feet. In the mountains of Nerja, there are over 50 in an area which comprises less than a twentieth the size of Ireland.

And then there is the weather. Anyone who has slogged through the McGillycuddy Reeks or the Comeraghs on a miserable day knows all too well the squelch of Irish hillwalking.

In Andalucia the mountains are clear of cloud 90% of the time.

And what is walking without learning? Ryan, a civil engineer by profession, has an intimate knowledge of geology and enhances the route descriptions further by acute observations on flora and fauna as well as the history of the area.

The book includes a lexicon of Spanish words relating to mountains which assists map reading.

Clearly a labour of love.

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