Spain’s Mediterranean Beaches Offer a Different Kind of Paradise

Look at the following article published on the New York Times about “a different kind of paradise” – the beaches in Cabo de Gata!
We would like to thank Raquel Sola (2º CAL) for emailing this wonderful article.
All contributions to our website from our students are welcome!


Spain’s Mediterranean Beaches Offer a Different Kind of Paradise

Cala de Entremedio’s Impressionistic sand castle rock formations.

According to the Caribbean Resort Theory of Paradise, the perfect beach is an endless stretch of powdery white sand lined with coconut palms, staffed by mojito-toting waiters and lapped by turquoise water warm enough to feel like a big salty bathtub.

After the first stop on my 10-week trip around the Mediterranean, I’m ready to propose an alternative: The ideal beach is one that you come upon after a hilly, rocky hike over scrub-covered hills. It’s a half-moon cove of ashen sand flanked at either end by rock formations that look like giant Impressionistic sand castles. Instead of palms, occasional yellow and purple wildflowers dot the nearby hills; instead of mojitos there are mandarin oranges and níspero fruits bought at a farmer’s market; instead of warm Caribbean ripples, there is bracing Mediterranean surf to cool you down under cloudless skies. I came across just such a paradise in southeastern Spain.

Cala de Entremedio

Cala de Entremedio, as the beach is called, was just what I had in mind when I chose the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Nature Reserve as my first stop. I wanted to see the Mediterranean in something close to its natural state before moving on to overdeveloped, overcrowded and overpriced destinations over the next two months. (See you next week, Monaco Grand Prix!)

The 175-square-mile park commonly known as Cabo de Gata is Europe’s most arid region, according to Unesco, which has named it a Biosphere Reserve. It used to be a land of hardscrabble subsistence farming and fishing, as evidenced by the stone ruins of farmhouses abandoned decades ago scattered throughout the area. But now it is the sort of destination that I prefer: places where locals flock on short-haul vacations and summer weekends but foreigners don’t know much about. That means the cost of lodging even during the peak months of July and August doesn’t come close to that of more storied Mediterranean resort areas.

I spent my three days there hiking, gawking at incredible vistas, swimming and sunbathing, but there are other diversions. Among them, bird-watching expeditions to see flamingos on the salt flats and a tour of the sites where movies were filmed (Scenes from “Lawrence of Arabia”; “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” among many others). But those cost money, and I’m traveling on a pretty bare-boned budget of 500 euros a week (or 71 euros a day, the equivalent of about $100).

Cala Rajá, a hard-to-find beach down an unmarked road.

The cheapest housing I could find on the park’s official (and multilingual) site, was a 40-euro rate for singles at Casa-Café La Loma, a hilltop rural lodge overlooking the village of La Isleta del Moro. Run by a German-Spanish couple, Elke Schramm and Ángel Hermosa, the house has a big common area with a long dining table and kitchen to cook in; their children and pets wander around the grounds, giving the place a family feel. My room was actually a suite for four (since it was the last space available), so I had plenty of room to spread out.

Elke and Ángel gave great advice for the park. When I asked where I could find the most beautiful beach in the area, Ángel sent me off to Playa de Mónsul, a mile outside of San José, the park’s main town. Mónsul is really two beaches, its second cove a nontraditional stunner, surrounded by hardened dunes that water had eroded into the shape of a crashing wave. (A famous Indiana Jones scene was shot here.)

The beach was topless, which I expected from the Mediterranean, but it was bottomless, too, which took me by surprise.  There were several dogs who were smartly protecting themselves under beach umbrellas, unlike their owners.

Arrecife de las Sirenas, or Sirens Reef, the southernmost tip of the Iberian peninsula.

One such dog was Berta, accompanied by a modestly outfitted couple named Jorge and Nagore. They told me that Cabo de Gata was pretty well known among Spaniards: they had traveled 10 hours from Bilbao by car to get there. (Tough on them, worse on Berta.) They also filled me in on the nudity – it’s allowed everywhere in the park, but is more common in more isolated beaches and on weekdays. Finally, they gave me perfect directions to Cala Rajá, which I never would have found on my own. You get there by heading to the lookout at Arrecife de las Sirenas (Siren Reef, one of the reserve’s postcard images) then backtrack a few hundred yards and head a private-looking cliff-hugging road marked only “Aula del Mar.” When you see cars parked in the middle of nowhere, skirt down the rocks to get to the beach.

Rajá was yet another cove with stunning rock formations that made me reach for my camera. And there I learned a lesson: lone men flashing big cameras on nude-optional beaches are automatically suspect. Understandable. Though I purposefully avoided pointing my camera lens at the semi- and fully nude, one woman did approach me when I was leaving and ask to see the pictures, just to make sure. (She dressed before she came over, in case you were wondering.)

I may have been in beach heaven, but I was in dining  purgatory. The combined cost of my rental car and room left me with only the barest of margins for sustenance, and entrees at the park’s many seafood restaurants started at 12 euros ($17). Not Frugal Traveler fare. Portions of paella were cheaper, but at least two in your party had to order it. My party was me.

The “serrano” pizza at Pizzería Isoletta.

I managed, eating out just once a day out and raiding the grocery store and farmers’ market for the rest. Pizzería Isoletta in Isleta del Moro (a 10-minute walk from my room) gave me a hefty serrano ham and arugula pizza for just 8.50 euros – which included loads of olives and chunks of calamari in a spicy sauce as free starters. In San José, I  paced the main drag looking for anything in my budget. I finally found the Andrea Café, a bar where tapas cost 1 euro, and pieced together a decent meal – slices of chorizo and boquerones (anchovies in vinegar) with a bottle of Alhambra Reserve 1925 beer to start, espresso and cheesecake for desert, all for 9.60.

Cafe Bar La Plaza in the beach town of Agua Amarga.

I would feel the pain, though, on my final evening, after I took what ended up being a five-hour hike to Cala de Entremedio and other neighboring beaches. When I got back to the hike’s starting point, Agua Amarga – the prettiest little beach village of them all and where I’d stay if I returned – I just wanted to rest my aching feet and cool down with drinks and dinner on Agua Amarga’s quaint whitewashed plaza. It is home to an outdoor cafe-bar called La Plaza, bustling with Spanish and French tourists who were  sipping rum and Cokes and white wines.

But I had farmer’s eggs and vegetables for a frittata in the car. And had a budget shortfall that I’d have to cover next week in, gulp, the French Riviera.

Local eggs and sun-dried tomatoes make for a tasty and cheap frittata.

If You Go

The home airport of Cabo de Gata – Níjar Nature Reserve is in Almería, and you can fly via Madrid or Barcelona on Iberia, or piece together a flight from the United States to another European capital and a low-cost airline from there. (EasyJet and Thomas Cook fly from London-Gatwick, for example.) Or come as a side trip from Granada, a two-hour drive. Though you can get to the park from Almería by bus, that’s advisable only if you’ve got a hiking and camping trip in mind (not a bad idea, by the way).

My Books

Since Week 1 lasted just four days, I allotted myself a prorated 285 euros, not including my flight from the United States, of course. I made it on just over 313, not bad considering that lodging and the car cost me 235. Though I had to scrimp, couples traveling on my budget — per person, that is  -– should should be just fine since they’d be splitting the car and the room. (And the paella!)


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