Geography and maps
Andalucía is the southern-most region of Spain, the bridge between two continents (Europe and Africa) and the place where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. Rightly famous for its exceptional climate and wonderful beaches, it is also a region of spectacular geographical diversity: beaches, mountains, valleys, desert and volcanic landscape – you can go from the alpine to the tropical in under 40k! At 87,300 km2 it is also the second largest region in Spain (smaller only than Castilla y León).
Natural Conservation Areas
Andalucía has more designated conservation area than any other Spanish region. With more than 80 natural conservation areas divided into Parajes, Parques and Reservas, these areas account for about 18% of Andalucía territory. The 24 Parques Naturales make up most of this area. In general these areas are mountainous, wooded or along the coast (such as Cabo de Gata in Almería). Reservas Naturales tend to be smaller, humid areas. There are 28 of these and they are particularly important for the flora, fauna and birdlife they are home to. Finally there are 31 Parajes Naturales which cover the amazing karstic rock formations in Torcal de Antequera (Málaga) to the desert of Tabernas (Almería), which is the only desert in continental Europe.
There is fantastic walking in these areas. The following website offers descriptions (in Spanish) of walks in the sierras and mountains.
There are 2 National Parks in the region: Doñana and the Sierra Nevada. Doñana National Park has been classified in 3 different ways:
• a Biosphere Reserve (areas of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems which are internationally recognized within the framework of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme)
• a World Heritage Site (cultural and/or natural properties recognized by the World Heritage Committee as being of outstanding universal value)
• it is also inscribed on the List of Wetlands of International Importance
UNESCO describes Doñana as being “notable for the great diversity of its biotopes, especially lagoons, marshlands, fixed and mobile dunes, scrub woodland and maquis. It is home to five threatened bird species. It is one of the largest heronries in the Mediterranean region and is the wintering site for more than 500,000 water fowl each year.” See the separate topic sheet for further details and how to visit.
As far as the topography is concerned, Andalucía can be divided into two main areas: high Andalucía made up of the mountain ranges and low Andalucía which is really the huge depression created by the Guadalquivir. These two regions are very different in character and climate, so don’t presume that a holiday in Andalucía is necessarily a mountain holiday near the sea. It’s worth finding out a bit about the lie of the land before you choose where to go.
Although this area is nothing like as large as high mountainous Andalucía, it is very important for the economy of the region. It is a huge depression of low, flat, agricultural lands formed by the Guadalquivir and its tributaries. In north eastern Andalucía it’s not particularly big and in Córdoba the depression is only 60 km wide. However when the Guadalquivir reaches the sea after passing Sevilla and Sanlúcar de Barrameda these huge flatlands are 300km wide. Logically these huge fertile plains are rich in agriculture; they produce an immense amount of natural fruits and vegetables and most importantly for Andalucía are home to the sherry-producing vineyards. The flatlands are also important for their rich variety of plants and bird species - particularly the marshlands of the Coto de Doñana. The flatlands, being low and in the sheltered south west, have a warmer climate than the mountainous areas. They are beautifully mild and pleasant in the winter months but high temperatures and humidity in mid summer can make them unbearable. The River Guadalquivir itself is still navigable from the Atlantic to the main city of Seville, but over the years there has been a lot of silting up caused by drainage of land for agriculture with the result that the larger boats can no longer get up and the port’s economic importance has declined.
About three quarters of Andalucía is mountainous. The numerous mountain ranges lie to the north and east of the River Guadalquivir. The most famous, of course, is the Sierra Nevada containing the highest peaks in mainland Spain, with 14 over 3000m, the highest of which is the Mulhacén (3,481m). This area is regularly visited by tourists and is well known throughout Europe to winter skiers, summer walkers and climbers. However it is serious mountain country and unless you are very fit and experienced, you may be better off taking your holiday in one of Andalucía’s other numerous sierras, which are not quite as high, but are beautiful, more accessible and not so full of foreign holidaymakers … Some of the more outstanding are:
Sierra de Grazalema, Cadiz
This spectacular area of limestone cliffs, gullies and caverns has rocky walls that rise almost 400 metres from its valley floors. It has the highest mountain in Cádiz, La Verde and was the first area to be declared a Natural Park in Andalucía. It is an area of white andaluz villages (including the beautiful white village of Grazalema between two of the highest peaks) and wonderful, easy walks with the opportunity to see a lot of wildlife.
Sierra de las Nieves or Serranía de Ronda, Málaga
This is the mountain range that sits behind the Costa del Sol. Although popular with tourists, it is well worth a visit and virtually empty in winter. The highest peak is Mount Torrecilla, 1909m. This rocky mountainous area has been largely impossible to cultivate and remains as it was in the 19th century. Walking here is fairly challenging because of the abrupt changes of height. It is also a Natural Park with a visitor centre where information on some of the easier walks is available. As its name suggests, it is snow covered in winter and really should only be tackled by the experts. The park is also a national hunting reserve.
Sierra Norte de Sevilla, Sierra de Morena
This area stretches across the north of Sevilla from the province of Huelva to Córdoba. The landscape is beautiful - gentle rolling hills, forests and pasturelands. The deciduous forests are some of Spain’s most beautiful with oak, ash, cork, chestnut and carob trees. With its mild climate it is a photographer’s dream in autumn and well off the beaten track.
In the south eastern corner of Córdoba, this rugged mountain range is stunningly beautiful and little known. This is Córdoba’s main olive producing region and is full of rocky hills interspersed with impressive cliffs and huge olive groves and picturesque villages. The main village is Zuheros, located at the entrance to the Natural Park. There is a tourist office here with lots of information about walks around the park in English. The easier walks give you beautiful panoramic views across the sierra.
Sierras de Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas
This is Spain’s largest Natural Park. It is located in the eastern part of the province of Jaén, overlooking the Guadalquivir river basin. This is the area where the Guadalquivir is born and at first it looks as if it is heading south towards the Mediterranean, but is suddenly blocked by the 2,000m high peaks of the mountain range of Cazorla and sent west to Córdoba. There is lots of information about this park and there are visitor centres. Besides the spectacular peak climbing, there are also more gentle walks along the river, where you can almost be guaranteed to see deer and wildlife.
Sierra de Cabo de Gata
This mountain range in the south eastern corner of Almería is the only real coastal mountain range in Andalucía. It is volcanic in origin with incredible folding, bending and shaping of the different coloured rock layers, now on the surface for all to see. It falls sharply into the sea in a series of jagged cliffs. The area is full of hidden coves and caves and makes great walking country - but only for those who can carry all the food and water they need! This rocky area is largely desert, sparsely populated and has few towns and villages. However a stay in a village close to Cabo de Gata is well worth it. The beaches are untouched and the sea crystal clear.
Other smaller mountain ranges, which are worth visiting and not too full of tourists:
Sierra de María - Los Vélez Natural Park Located to the north of Almería
Sierra de Andújar Rocky hills north of Jaén noted for its untouched wildlife (including wolves and eagles) and isolation
Sierra de Cardeña y Montoso Large, granite mountains in the province of Jaén with mostly oak forests and Mediterranean woods. A gentle landscape formed by the River Yeguas, gives lots of areas to picnic and swim and observe wildlife (wolf otter, birds of prey, Iberian lynx etc). This is a quiet spot, not well known outside Spain, which in winter is a hunting and game area.
Andalucía has some 900 kms of coastline. The Atlantic beaches on the Huelva and Cádiz coasts tend to be huge, long and flat with fine sand, clean water and sometimes big waves. They often have sand dunes, as they are part of the Guadalquivir depression and estuary. They are popular with the Spanish for their fresh Atlantic breezes and they are well served by bars and chiringuitos (beach bars) in the summer. These beaches extend from Isla Cristina, west of Huelva to Tarifa at the point where the Med meets the Atlantic. The coastline along the Med from Tarifa to Mojácar is much more varied. The sea is warmer, but the type of beach depends more on the natural landscape behind it. These are almost all year round beaches.
In recent years, vast improvements have been made to the beaches. Andalucía has 88 beaches and marinas which were awarded the Blue Flag in 2003. Overall Spain had 372 beaches and 97 marinas given this award – putting it in second place (after Greece with 373 beaches!) in the league of 25 participating countries. (The Blue Flag Campaign is owned and run by the independent non-profit organisation Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) and awards an eco-label intended to reflect high environmental standards as well as good sanitary and safety facilities.) Check out these websites for further information:
(Official ministry website offering a complete guide to Spanish beaches)
(Excellent search facilities such as: disabled access, nudist, virgin beaches etc)
Costa del Sol
This area covers the sandy beaches at the foot of the Sierra de Ronda. The 100km of coastline is very built up (to a height of 300m) and dedicated to tourism.
Eastern Costa del Sol
This covers the 50 km to the west of Malaga. It is less populated, although still highly developed. The landscape is different; it’s characterized by limestone and caves, of which the cave at Nerja is the best known. Not all the beaches are sandy - there is some spectacular scenery near Nerja where 200m cliffs go straight into the sea. The winding footpaths above the cliffs make great walks.
This area east of the Costa del Sol is not nearly as built up or as well known. If you would like a beach holiday without the crowds (except for the locals), this is the place to come.
The beaches are small because the mountains run down to the sea and form coves and promontories. There are also a series of unspoilt villages along this coastline, such as La Herradura, hidden between two cliffs.
Costa de Almería
This is the most varied and unspoilt coastline along the andaluz coast. The rugged, volcanic, mountain coastline has defied large-scale development. Although tourism is growing in the main towns and villages, there are some areas that developers will never get to. Many of the beautiful coves and beaches in this volcanic landscape are accessible only on foot. It is a popular area for young people, walkers and backpackers and almost never crowded. If you hire a house in this area and want privacy, be prepared to walk for half an hour to the private sea cove of your choice. It is arguably the most beautiful and unspoilt coastline on the Med.
Population and Economy
Andalucía is the region with the biggest population. However this population has fluctuated over the last fifty years. At one point in the early 60s, despite a high birth rate, the population declined due to the emigration from Andalucía to more urban areas. Now more prosperous, Andalucía has stabilised and has become an area of massive immigration itself from north and central Africa. The population is very concentrated on the cities and particularly on the plains of the Guadalquivir (Sevilla, Córdoba, Cádiz, Huelva, Jerez de la Frontera etc). Sevilla is the fourth largest city in Spain with a population of over 1 million; the mountainous areas of Andalucía are surprisingly sparsely populated despite their wonderful climate - there is no economy here except tourism and sheep and goats.
Main Towns and Cities
The most populated towns and cities of Andalucía are in the Guadalquivir valley (due to its agricultural importance) and on the Costa del Sol due to tourism). However High Andalucía also has some important towns whose origins are due to their strategic position on the main routes through the mountains to Castile or to the coast of Levante (Valencia). In the last twenty years the attractive small towns and villages of the mountainous areas have become much more popular for tourism, although they are nothing like the tourist towns on the Costa del Sol.
The main economy is mining, industry and tourism. These days, greenhouse farming is the main reason for its prosperity. Inland valleys of Almería are known as the mar de plástico (sea of plastic) because of the plastic covered market gardens. This has attracted a large immigrant population. Outside the capital tourism is of increasing importance; the main centres are Mojácar to the east and Roquetas to the southwest. The city of Almería (pop 173,338) stands on the Med at the foot of a mountain range. It dates from the 16th century. Its most famous monument is the Alcazaba fortress, dominating the city and which was big enough to hold 20,000 men, during the times of the raids by the Turks and North Africans in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The main economy these days of the city of Málaga (main Mediterranean city, pop 500,000) is tourism although commerce and transport of goods generated by its large and flourishing port are also important. In the era of the Arabs, Málaga was the main centre for import and export. These days tourism is also very important and many people travel daily to work in the tourist centres of the Costa del Sol. Málaga is famous for being the birthplace of Pablo Picasso and there are three museums dedicated to his art. The town of Ronda in the hills above Málaga is very popular with tourists and day trippers from the Costa del Sol. It is one of the most beautiful towns of the province and is famous for its breathtaking views. The drive up the windy mountain passes is not for the fainthearted. Ronda is also home to the oldest bullring in Spain.
Towns in High Andalucía are less populated. There are few fertile valleys and expansion is constrained by the mountains. Traditionally they were centres of commerce or situated along important routes. Granada (pop 240,522) is the biggest town. Its economy is complex, but these days depends largely on tourism attracted by its history and historical monuments, of which the most famous is the mighty Alhambra Palace. The Sacromonte hill overlooking the town has innumerable cave dwellings and is Spain’s largest gypsy population. Motril (pop 51,928) is Granada’s second city). It provides its main port at the end of an agricultural river valley. The port “El Varedero" is the most active these days in Andalucía, exporting fruit and cash crops.
Tourism is the province’s main industry thanks to its spectacular coastline with sandy beaches and dunes and Doñana. The main tourist town is Matalascañas. Huelva (pop 145,000) is an industrial town dependent on its mining and petroleum refining industries. Established as a mining centre by the Carthaginians it still retains some of its old monuments and is famous for its sites and museums dedicated to Christopher Columbus.
The largest town in Cádiz is Jerez de la Frontera in the Guadalquivir valley. Its economy is almost completely based on wine and sherry production. It is also famous for its fine horses and for its brilliant flamenco singers and dancers. The city of Cádiz is a port, and despite having a population of only 100,000 people it has the highest population density in Spain - as a promontory, jutting out into the sea, expansion has been difficult. The city dates back to 1100 B.C. when it was established as a Phoenician trading post. Algeciras, although not a beautiful town, is worth a mention as the largest port and industrial town in Cádiz. It grew in importance in the days of Franco, when Gibraltar was cut off to the Spaniards. It is the busiest crossing point for Morocco and is a thriving city with a huge range of restaurants serving tourists in transit. From Algeciras you can take two day trips to North Africa and also the spectacular railway up the mountains to Ronda.
Except for a low mountain range to the north this province is largely flat and is an important agricultural and industrial centre on the Guadalquivir plain. Sevilla (pop 1 million) is the capital of Andalucía and the fourth largest city in Spain. It has several large dormitory towns and has been a big centre for immigration from the countryside throughout the 19th century. Its pre roman origins 1st century B.C. make it a very important historical city, second only to Granada in numbers of visits by tourists. The old town houses numerous monuments including the Cathedral with the Giralda tower - one of the biggest Christian cathedrals in the world.
The province of Córdoba has really only one main city. To the north and east it is very mountainous, with many small towns and hidden valleys. To the south and east the province is very agricultural along the floodplain of the Guadalquivir. Córdoba city dates from Roman times, when it was the highest navigable point on the River Guadalquivir. It has an important Roman bridge and was the export centre for olive oil, wheat and wine. It is on the Roman road going to Castile. This was Europe’s most important cultural, artistic and commercial centre in the Middle Ages and it still has many beautiful monuments; the most important is the “Mezquita”, its Muslim cathedral.
The province of Jaén is largely mountainous, but has several important towns on the main routes to Castile: Andújar, Linares and Ubeda. Traditionally it was always one of the poorer provinces but is now the world’s leading producer of olive oil. The landscape is largely unspoilt and dotted with small towns housing many Renaissance buildings. The great River Guadalquivir has its source here as a small mountain spring in the sierra de Cazorla. The city of Jaén (pop 112,921) was the gateway to the mountain passes through to Granada from Castile. The city has many important monuments including the Moorish castle built on top of Mount Catalina and now converted into a parador with wonderful views of the city and the seas of olive groves.
With thanks to Colin Wilshire for permission to use his photo of Jaén