words and photography by Marc Gasch
For our now-classic annual desert pilgrimage, I was undecided between hitting the Tabernas Desert, or staying close tho the Sea at the Cabo de Gata Natural Park, so we decided to link both areas in a circular loop showing you the best Almeria has to offer.
We chose the cute little white town of Agua Amarga as our starting point and basecamp for this trip. Having been here before on holidays a few years ago, I knew what to expect: beautiful beaches, amazing food and boutique hotels for the price of a road hostel in some other countries. A good combo to start with. Now blooming with tourism, Agua Amarga was, along with the nearby Carboneras, a hub for the mining industry and you can still see the scars they left after the extraction finished a long time ago.
After a first climb in the pavement in the morning to get our legs working, we turn left before Carboneras just when we started seeing the ugly thermal factory chimneys that dominate the area. Definitely a controversial sight next to such a protected Natural Park. From here, we take the old mining train route, now converted into a perfect double-track road. You can still find hundred years old metal bolts and scrap in the ground, and see the leftovers of the tunnels that were built in the area for the passage of the small cargo trains operating here.
We are at the heart of the Parque Natural Cabo de Gata-Nijar, one of the most protected coast habitats in the Spanish Mediterranean coast, even if sometimes hit by uncontrolled building and tourism. The Algarrobico Hotel-gate was a famous case where political corruption and real-estate mafia joined forces to build a mastodontic hotel just by the beach in a protected area. Thanks to local groups and others players like Greenpeace, they were able to stop the construction, but the damage was done, and the remainings of the gigantic hotel (half-built) are still there waiting for demolition. Sad story.
We are going to be riding in the “heart” of the Natural Park on day 3, but for now, we are leaving the limits of the Park heading North and entering the Tabernas Desert limits, a rough and dry mountain area with its own unique ecosystem as well. In fact, the Tabernas Desert in the only “real” Desert (according to scientists) in Europe, with fauna and flora so different from its neighbors that qualifies for a unique designation. The roads are perfect fro cycling, alternating between awesome gravel and old pavement with zero car traffic. We are moving fast on our Exploros and our lightweight posh-bikepacking luggage. Being in late spring, temperatures are high here, so we don’t need to carry a lot of gear. We didn’t even bring our PEDALeD lightweight and trusty rain jackets. We do need a lot of water though, so we are carrying extra bottles either on the handlebar pouch bags or frame packs for emergencies.
Its midday and we get close to Lacainena de las Torres on a track that has been repurposed as a bikepath – “Via Verde”. If you remember our “Family” XPDTN3 trip a few months ago, there is a good network of Vias Verdes around Spain, and here we found another one. Using the old mining train tracks this time, the “Via Verde de Lucainena” runs all the way from Agua Amarga where we started to Lucainena. We have been seeing those signs before but it is close to Lucainena where the route turns into a classic Via Verde, with wooden fences, lots of signs and maps, picnic stops and other facilities (before getting here, it was just using the old railway, but the track was quite raw and with few maintenance…)
It’s time fro a break and we decide to stay with our #realfood motto , so we sit on a small bar with a friendly old lady that suggested some food delicacie .The star of the show? : a 30 eggs Spanish omelette!!!! Yes, 30 eggs. We obviously asked if someone ever finished that omelet in one go. The lady, in a thick Andalusian accent, told us the story (legend?) of a German tourist that ordered the famous omelette just for himself. It took him almost a whole journey to eat it, along with a few beers, but he managed to do it somehow. Anyway, she also mentioned she never got to see him again…still wondering why…
We choose a lighter meal, though, with delicious Jamon Serrano sandwich and local cheese in olive oil, and a cold Watermelon that help us go through the heat of that day. We say goodbye to the old friendly lady, who also tell us her bar is indeed a famous stop for cyclists all around the world (you can get there by road as well). Lots of cycling tourism also around Almeria, so there are apparently lots of groups climbing to this part of the mountains from Almeria on the road. Well, they do now have the option of doing it on Gravel..
After Lucainena de las Torres, we still have to climb for a while, hitting some small hills in a classic desert landscape, with one of the biggest olive oil trees field I ever seen in my life, before digging hard into a long long “Rambla” (dry river bed) with soft sand and big rocks that make our choice of 2.0 mountain bike tires the right decision. The Rambla keep going for a while, killing our progress and taking us straight to the little town of Tabernas, famous for being the center of the Spaghetti Western industry in the 60 and 70. Yes, you read it right, movies like “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly”, “TheMagnificent Seven” or “For a few Dollars more ” were indeed filmed here in Tabernas!
After the Spaghetti Western movie industry sort of died in the 80s, Tabernas kept some film sets working for certain kind of movies. Way easier to film a desert movie here in Spain, with Almeria just a few minutes away by car, than moving an entire set to the Sahara or the Gobi. Some of the old movie sets stayed as a tourist attraction, and places like Fort Bravo combine the current production of movies, with a small amusement park to experience the set of a classic Western Movie with the kids.
Our plan was to get in the park and shoot a picture of Loren crossing the main street on his bike before going to the Saloon for a Bourbon, but the management won’t let us inside the park with our bikes. Same as cowboys never leave their horses on their own, we never leave our trusty Exploros, so no Fort Bravo visit for us this time.
The Good, the Bad or the Ugly? Ok, ok I can guess your answer…
After leaving Tabernas and the movie sets, we enter the official Tabernas Desert space (Paraje Natural del Desierto de Tabernas) all along a perfect gravel track between hills higher than we expected. This is not a flat Desert… The track on this point passes through a private ranch. We talked to some locals before getting in there and they assured us they always use that route, even if there is a closed fence (you can skip it easily riding on the side) so we took the risk. Be aware of that, but, worst case scenario you can ride back and do a longer loop. Or I would say that if you find someone, but you stay humble and well-mannered, they would probably let you keep going until you exit on the fence on the other side of the private state. After all, “No trespassing” signs in Spain don’t mean the same here as in Texas. Nobody is shooting anybody here.
Nearly at the top of the last hill, surprise: the double-track turns into perfect and smooth singletrack (mostly uphill though) that take us to the top of the ranch and the exit fence, heading down now on a more technical downhill to the railway station at Fuente Santa. From there a short double-track downhill brings you to the highest speed “Rambla” you have ever been to. With Ranger 2.0 at 1,5 bars pressure, and a sweet downhill profile, Loren and I were flying at 45 km/h on the dry river bed. No soft sand or big rocks this time, just smooth dirt with a few rocks here and there, makes us laugh at the stupid speeds we were getting in there. I didn’t even want to think about the consequences of crashing here at that speed…But it was fun.
After the supersonic-speed Rambla, ending close to the town of Santa Fe de Mondujar, the most boring part of the route starts for while, having to ride along a few rather ugly towns before crossing Almeria city. After fighting a bit with traffic and one thousand roundabouts in this rather big city, we make it to the beachside of town, where a perfect bike lane is taking us along the Mediterranean sea again all the way to our next hotel stop in Retamar, a famous spot with beachgoers.
Not our style of hotels, but it was the only location that fit ok in the mileage of our loop, so we just booked a room in one of those big-swimming-pool-all-you-can-eat-drink hotels and call it a day. The pool was cool though… We had to struggle a bit on the last part of this stage though, when the track get too close to the beach and long soft sand pits gets you to a halt. A little walk and bike push for the last part of the day on some sections, and we can already see the hotel in the distance, Loren almost smelling his cold beer waiting for him.
Once leaving our hotel in Retamar, we can already see the Cabo de Gata mountainous terrain on the horizon. We are leaving the flat area between Almeria city and the Park, where mountains and hills start “growing” again like they want you to have better views of the whole area. The first climb of the day just after leaving the small (tiny) fishermen town of La Almadraba gets you climbing Cerro San Miguel, the first of a few up and downs that were waiting for us that day. After summiting, the views are worth the effort, with turquoise waters and the Cabo the Gata (Cabo is Spanish for Point) in the distance, lighthouse included to make our photo even better. We are entering now the volcanic area in the Natural Park, which gives some of its landscapes their peculiar tones.
Same as Tabernas, Cabo de Gata has been a place where famous movies have been shot. Ever heard of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” or “Lawrence of Arabia”? Yup, that was Almeria, Spain. After riding along the Arrecife de las Sirenas, another climb (steep one) welcome us in the midday sun. The Puerto de Vela Blanca de Poniente is a tough short mountain pass, make sure you don’t come here with a 44T or 50T chainring. The views once you summit and crest to the other side are totally worth it though.
We are now in one of the most famous parts of the Cabo de Gata-Nijar Natural Park, so that means leaving the technical gravel roads and riding along the (also gravel) easier paths where there is some (slow) tourist car traffic. The beaches of Playa de la Media Luna, and, especially, Playa del Monsul and Genoveses are among the best ones in all the Mediterranean Coast.
The volcanic landscape blends with a few sand dunes and desert vegetation, as we get close to the town of San José, not our favorite, so we grab a quick sandwich and keep going , until the next stop, the beautiful village of La Isleta del Moro, following rocky gravel tracks (and singletracks) making its way always parallel and close to the Mediterranean Sea.
The blue Sea on your right makes for endless photo opportunities, but we need to keep going and not lose too much momentum, so we try to be picky about when to stop. Not easy. It is a little bit windy, so the drone stays in the bag for most of the time again (check our video above).
La Isleta del Moro is a fisherman village close to Los Escullos, a rock formation that long-time ago was a refuge for Pirates looking for treasures in the area. Islamic ruler Mohamed Arraez gave the name to the area, and that same surname is still a very popular one in the region. Nowadays La Isleta del Moro is a perfect spot for divers, fishing and to get a good fresh fish plate in the restaurant hanging just above the water. After lunch, another climb waits for us (bad timing I know) up to the Mirador de las Amatistas, heading later North to the sleepy town of Rodalquilar.
Rodalquilar hosted a big gold mining industry a long time ago and the remains can still be seen in the area. In fact, since the Natural Park was created and the tourism started to grow, Rodalquilar was turned into a living museum of what happened here. Sadly, the gold was not more than a mirage, and extraction expectations were not met, leaving the area with abandoned buildings of what could have been an economic lifesaver for this rather humble region.
After stopping in the Rodalquilar mining museum and the Volcanoes information center (and hydrating ourselves with some refreshments) we fight against the next climb of the day, a dusty and open (no shade) double track along the mining roads. We are aiming for El Cortijo del Fraile, the scenery for a famous crime scene in 1928, which inspired the famous book Bodas de Sangre from Federico Garcia Lorca. The Cortijo de Los Frailes was a big country house built by the Dominican monks in the 18th Century, and its a good example of the big farmhouses in this area, complete with a church with a bell tower, water well, big patios, and even a cemetery. This private state was confiscated by the Spanish government during the “desmortizacion” period (around 1798) and got abandoned until it was declared as a Historic Site in 2010 and became a tourist attraction.
Leaving El Cortijo del Fraile, we keep riding on perfect gravel roads, missing the view of the Sea now, but enjoying the views of the mountains in the background, and sort of feeling the end of this amazing trip soon. After crossing a few towns like Fernan Perez, (where we saw a magnificent chameleon laying on the pavement) we started to drop down back to Agua Amarga. It was time to go back to the Ramblas terrain, following the dry river beds next to a huge fruit tree plantation that is currently being developed in the outskirts of the town. Agua Amarga welcome us in the background with its beautiful beach, flanked by two huge cliffs on both ends, and its little white houses contrasting with the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Time to meet the locals at the main Square and enjoy a big plate of papas (potatoes) to celebrate our desert adventure!
Thanks again to all our partners for making this adventure possible! 3T, WTB, BUFF, FIZIK, PEDALED and KOMOOT!
Location: Almeria, Spain (Tabernas Desert and Cabo de Gata Natural Park)
Distance: 234 km
Ascent: 2.600 +m
Best Time: All year, but avoid the end of June-July-August, (and even start of September just in case), it can get very hot in here (this is a proper “desert”)
Terrain: A mix of easy gravel mixed with “Ramblas”, Spanish for dry river beds with baby-head- sized rocks and thorns, so we recommend you go with the biggest tire you can fit and run tubeless with a good amount of sealant.
Tires: We opted for our trusty WTB Ranger 2.0 tires we normally use for the most technical terrain. Great grip, good rolling resistance when you need to hit the pavement, and zero flats in all our trips (running tubeless with 60ml of sealant, and carrying tubeless plug-worms just in case) I also like to carry a lightweight Tubolito spare innertube for bigger holes and sidewall accidents where the sealant won’t work.
Gearing: We rode our TORNO cranks on 36T chainrings, 10-42T SRAM cassette on the back (11 speed SRAM Force). Only a couple of steep sections so you can also go with a 38,40 or even 42T if you need more speed on the Ramblas or pavement sections.
What to wear: If you come in Spring or Fall, you will only need a short sleeve kit and maybe a vest for the chilly mornings. We chose the complete PEDALED ODYSSEY collection. A rain layer like the Odyssey Waterproof Jacket is always ready on our saddle bikepacking pack, cause you never know when you are gonna need it. Being a super dusty and hot area, the new BUFF Cool Net UV + tubular definitely kept us cool and helped to cover our mouth from the dust in the high-speed Ramblas. We are now fans of the new PACK BIKE cycling (super-breathable caps). You can wear those under the helmet without getting warm as happens with other thicker-non-breathable generic cycling caps. The FIZIK INFINITO X1 shoes are perfect for gravel adventures, comfy, super lightweight, stiff sole for power transfer, and easy to dry at night if they get wet! Loren was using his favorite Fizik Tundra carbon saddle and I tried the Alliante for some extra comfort!
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