Natural Parks - Desierto de Tabernas Natural Area

Desierto de Tabernas Natural Area

The Wild west village near Tabernas

Sandwiched between the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, Gador, Filabres and Alhamilla is one of the most dramatic landscapes in Spain, the desolate Desierto de Tabernas. The only semi-desert in Europe; there is a surreal, lunar quality about its wierdly eroded ravines, dry river beds and barren slopes apparently devoid of vegetation, bleached by the sun and occasionally singed with ochre hues. With its poor soils, low rainfall and temperatures that range from -5°C to 48°C, the landscape has been little changed by agriculture or other human activity, with just a few pockets of subsistence farming.

Film makers have long been attracted to its landscape, with its similar appearance to the North American Wild West, and so the desert has been the scene of many a spaghetti western. Visit Mini-Hollywood 7km south of Tabernas, where many westerns were filmed.

Tabernas desert is one of the most geologically interesting landscapes in Europe, since it clearly shows the process of natural desertification and erosion. Its features include sheer-sided gullies, carved out by the infrequent but torrential rains that only fall on a few days in the year. Another feature is piping, where water permeates through the top of a slope and emerges further down through a hole, the water creating an underground pipe in the process. In certain places there are so many holes that they have a created a Swiss cheese effect.

Eight million years ago in the Miocene period the sea covered the Tabernas desert area, reaching inland as far as the foothills of the Sierra de los Filabres, where today a strip of fossilised coral dunes delineates the former coastline. The deposited material consisted on sand and loam and this is what makes up the Tabernas desert today. A million years later the Sierra Alhamilla rose up, cutting off the Tabernas desert area from the ocean and creating an inland sea, where further sand, loam, clay, limestone and gypsum were deposited. At the end of pliocene epoch the sea receded, leaving the seabed exposed to erosion.

Access
The A92 dissects the area and the N340 runs along its southern edge. A good route to do on foot into the desert is along the Rambla de Tabernas, a seasonal river; see walks.

Accommodation
There are few places to stay within the area itself; a few basic hotels are located in Tabernas.

Hospedaría del Desierto is a three-star hotel located east of the area between Tabernas and Sorbas, at Km 478 on the N340, with luxurious bedrooms looking out over courtyards shaded by olive trees, with cactuses in the gardens. Facilities include a swimming pool, gym and sauna.

Camping
There are no campsites in the area; the nearest is Camping La Garrofa, situated 34km south, 5km west of Almeria city.

Flora
Although the desert may look like it has scarce vegetation, it in fact harbours a fair variety of xerophyte flora accustomed to surviving in semi-arid areas, including some plants that are unique to the Desierto de Tabernas. Among these species are the attractive sea lavender limonium insignis, in danger of extinction.

Another is the winter-flowering toadflax linaria nigricans lange, which after a wet autumn, clothe the usually barren desert slopes around Tabernas in white and release their vanilla scent into the air. You can find it on flat land next to the Solar Platform of Almeria (a vast expanse of solar panels, installed to take advantage of the 3,000 hours of sun received in this area every year) near Tabernas, off the road north to Senes. It also grows in dry river beds.

With its annual rainfall of 240mm concentrated in no more than four days a year, the plants that thrive here are those adapted to semi-arid zones, such as succulents like prickly pears that store water in their leaves or tiny plants that can shelter from the relentless and moisture-sapping sun under rocks or in the shadow of bigger plants. With high levels of salinity in the soil, plants also need to be salt-resistant, like the saltwort salsola genistoides commonly seen here.

One such plant adapted to desert conditions is the endemic crucifer euzomodendron bourgaeanum cosson. Flowering from February to July, it can be seen growing in abandoned cultivated fields near Tabernas or in the scrubland close to dried-up river beds, like the Rambla de Tabernas or Rambla Seca. Other frequently seen plants are false esparto grass and jujube trees.

The desert is riddled with numerous dry river beds (ramblas), which provide a unique microclimate that is more humid than any other place in this otherwise parched landscape. Here you can see reeds, oleanders and tamarisks.

There are also many spots where subterranean water emerges. This is usually saline, so plants that thrive in these places - often forming dense patches of vegetation - are halophytes like saltwort.

Fauna
It may appear as if this harsh landscape is incapable of supporting much in the way of fauna, but along the edges of the seasonal rivers there is a wealth of vertebrates, most notably reptiles and birds.

The most commonly seen reptiles are ladder snakes, spiny-footed lizards and ocellated lizards. Around the more moist areas of the dry river beds you can see amphibians such as marsh frogs, natterjack toads and terrapins.

Birds of prey include Bonelli's eagles and peregrines that use the desert as a hunting ground, visiting from the nearby Sierra de Alhamilla Natural Area. Other raptors are kestrels and eagle owls. There are birds characteristic of rocky slopes like blue rock thrushes, rock sparrows, black wheateaters and rock buntings inhabiting the dry river courses of the ramblas. Many other birds nest in gullies near the ramblas, like common kestrels, little owls, crag martins and black-eared wheateaters. The tamarisk and oleander vegetation next to the ramblas are favoured by warblers, goldfinches, golden orioles and serins.

In the steppe region, including former areas of cereal cultivation, are stone curlews, black-bellied sandgrouse, lesser short-toed larks, Dupont's larks and little bustards. This is one of Europe's few refuges for trumpeter finches, a common resident of oases in the Sahara desert. They hide themselves away in the numerous rocky crevices in this Spanish desert, along with the Sierra de Alhamilla and the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park. Bee-eaters make their nests in holes in the rocky slopes.

Given the arid conditions, mammals are less common with around 20 species inhabiting the park, the most important being the Algerian hedgehog. As a north African species, this is one of only several places, concentrated in eastern Spain, where it is found in the Iberian Peninsula. Abundant rabbits, hares and dormice provide plentiful prey for the carnivores and raptors in the area.

Rivers The water courses in the area are seasonal, only filling with water during the torrential rains that fall a mere three or four days a year, often creating flash floods. Otherwise the river beds are largely dry. There are also many springs, but the water emerging from these has a high salinity and is not good drinking water.

Things to see

Film sets in Tabernas

Mini-Hollywood is a mock-up of an American Wild West village, a set built for Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and also used for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the Magnificent Seven among around 100 other films. Two kilometres from Tabernas is the similar, but smaller, Texas-Hollywood, while Western Leone is the third one in the area, off the A92.

Gérgal has a well-preserved castle, but the town's best attraction is to the north: the hilltop Hispanic-German astronomic observatory, Calar Alto, which is at the highest point of the Sierra de los Filabres (2,168m). The most important observatory of its kind in Europe, it has high-power telescopes, taking advantage of some of the clearest skies in Europe for star-gazing. Come and enjoy the stunning views over the Desierto de Tabernas from this isolated spot.

Tabernas has a 14th-century ruined hilltop castle, which used to be the second most important in the province after Almeria's. It served as the refuge of Ferdinand and Isabel during the siege of Almeria. Its 15th-century Mudéjar church is also worth a look.

Panoramic views of the desert can be seen from the astronomic observatory north of Gérgel or by taking the surfaced road 1km from where the C3326 crosses the N340. It leads up the Sierra Alhamilla to a summit where there is a TV transmitter.

Walks
Remember to take plenty of water and sun protection with you.

Sendero Rambla de Tabernas is an easy linear walk of 8km (16km round trip) along the sandy bank of a seasonal river. It is best followed outside of times when heavy rain is due. You can also do the route by bicycle. Spring is the best time to do the walk, since the river bank is clothed in colourful flowers.

It begins on the left-hand side of the N340 opposite Tabernas as you come from Almeria city. The route heads southwest along the river bed, which runs more or less parallel to the N340.

You can see the comparatively lush vegetation in the river bed, of rushes, reeds, tamarisk and oleanders, compared with the cactuses and other desert plants on the rocky hillsides. Other ramblas join this one; Rambla de la Sierra, also from Tabernas, is on the right and Rambla de Benavides and Búho are to the left. Look out for the Texas Hollywood Wild West theme park, enclosed by a wooden fence and lookout towers.

You can also see irrigation channels and water deposits that used to water the area's farms, now abandoned.

About 7km or 1½ hours into the walk, you'll see the Rambla de Verdelcho on your right. You can take a detour up here if you want to venture further into the desert. The last stretch of the Rambla de Tabernas widens, until it reaches the end point, the Puente de los Callejones, which is a bridge for the N340. You can either return via the same route or head towards Tabernas on the N340 and visit Mini-Hollywood, on the right-hand side of the road.

Villages
There are no large settlements within the area's boundaries; the main village outside is Tabernas, southwest of the area. Gérgal is close to the northern edge, on the A92.