Sierra Maria-Los Velez Natural Park
Designated a natural park in 1987, the Sierra María-Los Vélez occupies the eastern end of the Cordillera Subbética in the north of Almeria province. It covers 22,670ha, a landscape of impressive contrasts, with its arid, moon-like plains overlooked by the Sierra's rocky summits, which are white with snow in winter, and the dry, barren south-facing slopes compared to its densely wooded north-facing ones. Its climate too is characterised by great extremes, with temperatures plunging as low as -18°C in winter and rising to 39°C in summer. The park's altitude ranges from 800m to the highest peak of María, a barren limestone outcrop of 2,045m.
Unusually for the otherwise arid and barren mountain ranges in Almeria, the Sierra is clothed in extensive pine forests and Mediterranean woodland, some of the best preserved in the province. It supports a varied flora with nearly half of all plant species in Almeria province found here, including some unique to the Sierra.
Similarly diverse is the park's fauna, with over 100 bird species, including 17 species of birds of prey; in 2002 it was declared a special protection zone for birds. Its butterfly population is also outstanding and includes a subspecies of the butterfly parnassius apollo, which can only be found in this Sierra, and the pseudochazara hipolyte, endemic to southeast Spain. The spur-thighed tortoise that inhabits this Sierra is in danger of extinction and there is a breeding centre for these tortoises in the north of the park at Las Alnohallas.
The area was an important nucleus of population in prehistoric times, as testified by the numerous archaeological remains from Paleolithic and Neolithic times that have been excavated from sites like the Cueva Ambrosio, just north of the park, and the Neolithic hilltop fort at Cerro de las Canteras, near the Corneras river. Cave paintings are found in Cueva de los Letreros near Vélez Rubio and La Cueva del Gabar near Vélez Blanco.
Housed in a former wheat storehouse, the Almacén del Trigo visitors' centre is in Avenida Marqués de los Vélez, in Vélez Blanco, 950 415 354. It's open 10am-2pm Thursday to Sunday and public holidays. From Friday to Sunday and public holidays it also opens in the afternoons: 6pm-8pm April to September and 4pm-6pm October to March. In August it opens daily, 10am-2pm and 6pm-8pm.
As well as information on marked footpaths and accommodation, it has models of the Cueva de los Letreros and the castle in Vélez Blanco, as well as a watermill and prehistoric archaelogical artefacts.
A second visitors' centre is at the Mirador de la Umbría de María, with magnificent views of the Sierra de María, 950 527 005. Take the A317 towards Orce and 2km out of María there is a right-hand turn off the main road. The centre is 700m along this track. It's open all year round, from Friday to Sunday and public holidays, 10am-2pm and 4pm-6pm October to March (6pm-8pm April to September).
The park is located to the north of the A92 motorway and its main entry point is Vélez Rubio, via the A317 that runs through the park. The bulk of the Sierra is best explored on foot, on one of the signposted paths, since the few tracks that cross it can be too rough in places for driving. See walks.
The park's best hotels are in Vélez Blanco, but there are places to stay in Vélez Rubio, María and Chirivel too.
Hotel Casa de los Arcos is in a restored 18th-century mansion overlooking a gorge in Vélez Blanco.
Camping Pinar del Rey is 1km from Vélez Blanco, near Letreros cave. It has a swimming pool and offers a good choice of sports, including tennis, basketball, volleyball and mini-golf, as well as chalets for rent.
Camping Sierra de María is west of María, at Km 7 on the A317. Near a river, it has plenty of shade. It also has bungalows for rent.
|The Sierra de Maria natural park.|
On the northern edge of the village is the park's visitors' centre. Beyond Vélez Blanco the A317 continues through pine forests to María, near the rocky mountains of the Sierra. Continuing west from here on the A317, look out for a track turning left about 500m out of town, to the park's botanical garden (jardín botánico). The track climbs the Sierra María to the botanical garden, situated next to a hermitage, the Ermita de la Virgen de la Cabeza. If you've got the energy and two or three hours to spare, there is walk that starts here.
Cueva del Gabar is a rock shelter north of Vélez Blanco, accessible only with a guide. Contact the town hall or tourist office in Vélez Blanco for details.
Cueva de los Letreros, a Unesco World Heritiage Site, is the park's most well-known cave, with some of Europe's most important rock paintings.
The park's limestone terrain is characterised by numerous fissures and crevices, creating a unique microclimate for a whole host of plants, some endemic. These include the rare knapweed centaurea mariana and the purple-flowering sideritis stachyioides, known locally as rabogato (cat's tail), which is from the mint family and is only found in this Sierra. Both of these grow on the south-facing rocky limestone slopes of the Sierra María, particularly on the Sierra de Maimón at around 1,000m, near the Cueva de los Letreros and on the slopes of the castle hill in Vélez Blanco.
On the exposed limestone peaks over 1,800m are cushion-forming thorny shrubs like hedgehog broom, white-flowered crucifer hormathophylla spinosa and the yellow-flowered vella spinosa. At the foot of these peaks are junipers, maples, Spanish barberries and hawthorn. Below 1,800m on north-facing slopes are long-established Aleppo pine plantations and native laricio pines, with an undergrowth of holm oaks, prickly and Phoenician junipers, genistas, rock roses and aromatic plants like thyme, lavender and rosemary.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Sierra was a popular hunting ground of the Marquises de Vélez Blanco and, keen to maintain the numbers of game, they made sure that the immense forests in the Sierra were not cut down. The Pinar de la Alfahuara is one such forest and is accessible via a signposted walk.
Dominating the skies above the highest, rockiest peaks are birds of prey like short-toed and golden eagles, as well as alpine swifts and alpine accentors. Goshawks, sparrowhawks and common buzzards can be spotted above the pine forest. Peregrines, booted eagles and scops owls make their nests in rock crevices.
In the forests are great tits, crested tits, gold-crests, long-tailed tits and short-toed tree-creepers. Out in the open areas you may spot a colourful bee-eater or hoopoe and where these areas are cultivated, there are meadow pipits, crested larks and calandra larks.
Twenty-five species of mammals include bats, hedgehogs, shrews, voles, squirrels, garden dormice, wild boars, badgers, weasels, polecates, genets and the occasional (although rarely seen) wild cat, while among the 12 species of reptiles are ladder snakes and ocellated lizards.
Things to see
Ermita de la Virgen de la Cabeza is situated in a great position in the Sierra de María. If you're feeling energetic, you can walk here from María. In April it is the site of the town's romería (pilgrimage).
Umbría de la Virgen botanical garden in María has examples of much of the flora found in the park and Almeria province, such as the many species of cushion-forming plants like hedgehog broom that grow on the highest slopes and a rare orchid. May to August is the best time to visit, when many of the flowering species will be in bloom.
Vélez Blanco has a 16th-century outstanding hilltop castle, one of the first Renaissance buildings constructed in Spain. Sadly, it is only a shadow of its glorious former self, since only the impressive exterior structure remains. It still commands superb views over the town and its winding streets.
In the park are five well-marked trails. For further details, contact one of the two visitors' centres.
Sendero Pinar de la Alfahuara is an easy 9km walk through a vast pine forest and former hunting estate of the Marquises of Vélez Blanco, between María and Orce. It starts on the A317 3km west of María at a ruined house, La Aduana, which was used by the Marquis of Vélez's gamekeepers. Look out for the information board here that marks the beginning of the walk.
The dirt track heads south, first through pine forest and then holm oaks. It climbs up to the viewpoint Mirador del Puntal del Morral, from where on clear days you can see to the Sierra de Castril and Sierra de Segura. Look out for booted eagles, goshawks and other birds of prey.
The path then goes to the Agrio river and afterwards descends to a crossroads, where you can either continue straight on to reach the A317, turn right to return to La Aduana where the path began or left to the Los Alamicos picnic area. The trail ends at the hamlet of La Alfahuara, whose name means fountain in Arabic.
Sendero La Umbría de Maimón is a 12km linear walk along a forestry track from Vélez Blanco to María on the Sierra de María's north-facing slope (umbría means shady). A contrasting walk is the signposted route across the Sierra's south-facing slope (solana, or sunny).
The walk starts just south of Vélez Blanco on the A317; look out for the signpost marking the beginning of the route. About 1km into the walk is a viewpoint, the Mirador Collado de las Arenas, with superb panoramic views of Vélez Blanco's castle and its walls. Five kilometres later is the Mirador Puerto del Peral, from where you can see the Sierra Nevada on a clear day. At this point, you can continue along the Sendero La Solana de Maimón, or continue north to María.