|Bedmar village, tucked away in the Sierra Mágina Natural Park|
Sierra Mágina Natural Park
The rugged Sierra Mágina Natural Park covers 19,900ha of rocky, steep limestone terrain, with precipitous cliffs and high summits that are often snow-capped in winter. Evocatively named by the Moors as the mountain of the spirits, the Sierra has a fascinating history glimpsed in its prehistoric cave paintings and defensive architecture built by warring Christians and Muslims. In the 10th century it harboured Moorish rebel leaders and much later, bandits. Its remote corners also provided a refuge for bears, wolves and the pardel lynx.
The park boasts a great botanical interest; hardy plants growing on the upper slopes are unique to the park and its abundant wildflowers and aromatic plants add a richness of colour and scent to the Sierra. Due to wide variations in climate and terrain within the park, there is a wealth of wildlife, including many orchids and wild mushrooms, as well as native plant species, some of which are exclusive to the Sierra. In the northwest of the park is some native Aleppo pine forest, including the protected Pinar de Cánavas Natural Monument south of Jimena.
Forming part of the Cordillera Subbética, the park is named after the peak of Mágina, which at 2,165m is the highest in the protected area and the province. Almadén and La Peña also exceed the 2,000m mark, at 2,033m and 2,014m respectively. These highest peaks are barren, lunar landscapes of rastras, rocky slopes where only the hardiest of plants grow like the vicia glauca ssp.giennensis, which is unique to the Sierra Mágina.
Its sheer cliffs are popular with rock climbers and the park is ideal for walking, mountain biking and, underground, in its many limestone caves, speleology.
During the 13th and 15th centuries, the Sierra formed a natural mountainous border between the Muslim kingdom of Granada and the Christian territory of Castilla and remains of fortifications and castles dating from that time are still very much in evidence today in the park's mountain villages. There are the large fortified towers of Bélmez, the castles of Jódar and Albánchez de Mágina and the Arab walls of Jimena and Cambil.
The park's visitors' centre, the Centro de Visitantes Castillo de Jódar, is in the 13th hilltop Moorish castle on the Cerro de San Cristóbal in Jódar, 953 787 656. It has exhibitions on the park's ecosystems and villages. It's open Thursday and Friday 10am-2pm, Saturday, Sunday and public holidays 4pm-6pm (October to March) or 6pm-8pm (April-September).
Just 30km east of Jaen and close to the A44, the park can by reached by taking the A320 for the northern section and the A324 and A301 to the south. There are minor roads leading into the heart of the park from villages on its perimeter.
The only two villages within the park with a few hotels and self-catering cottages are Albánchez de Mágina and Torres. Just outside the park are Cambil, Mancha Real, Huelma and Jódar, which all have places to stay.
Camping El Ayozar on the J3220 at Km 2.5, just outside Albánchez de Mágina, is shaded by holm oaks. It has great views and a swimming pool.
As a limestone massif, the Sierra has many underground caverns and caves, some of which can be visited.
Cuevas del Aire are in La Serrezuela area of Bedmar village and have stalagtites and various caverns. You need equipment to visit the caves as the entrance is set high up in a vertical wall. Look out for the Moorish 3m-high wall; the cave entrance is to the right of this.
Cueva de los Esqueletos in Albánchez de Mágina has remains dating from the Paleolithic period. It is named after the skeletons (esqueletos) found in the cave, in a sitting position in a semi circle, together with knives and arrows.
Cuevas del Gato are in the mountainous region south of Bélmez de la Moraleda and have some interesting geological formations. These are for experienced cavers only.
Cueva de la Granja in Jimena has interesting Neolithic cave paintings in red hues, which indicate that there was human settlement here from the 4th to the 3rd centuries BC. It was declared a historic monument in 1924.
Cuevas de Majuelos y Aro in Pegalajar have some impressive stalagmites, stalagtites and columns. Archaeologists have found stone axes, flint knives, arrowheads and human remains here dating from the 3rd century BC. They are less than 1km northeast of Pegalajar on the JV3241 to Mancha Real.
Below 1,800m is Mediterranean forest of holm and cork oaks, with gall oaks dotted around the more humid slopes. Other species are junipers, St Lucie's cherry trees, Spanish barberries, honeysuckle, hawthorn and Montpellier maples. The best preserved holm oaks, some centuries-old, are found in the Cerro de Saladillo near the Fuenmayor picnic area and the Cerro de la Cruz, north of Bélmez. Wildflowers clothe the Sierra in a colourful blanket in spring. One endemic and rare species is the May-flowering crimson Cazorla violet (viola cazorlensis).
Above 1,800m on the peaks of Almadén and Mágina, as well as the Cerro Cárceles, there are laricio and Austrian pines, yew trees and endemic small shrubs such as hedgehog brooms and prickly junipers that can withstand the sometimes harsh conditions in winter, of strong winds and freezing temperatures.
Colonising this inhospitable area are the park's most interesting species, some of which are unique to the Sierra, such as a rare blue-flowering gromwell (lithodora nitida) and jurinea fontqueri, both in danger of extinction. The jurinea fontqueri covers an area of a mere 1m². Other endemic species are the rock rose helianthemum marifolium ssp.frigidulum and vicia glauca ssp.giennensis.
Orchids are well represented, with around 20 species found in the park. One of the most abundant species is ophrys apifera hudson, flowering April to June, which usually grows in humid woodland areas near springs and streams.
The Sierra is renowned for its abundant wild mushrooms, with around 300 species found here mainly in autumn.
River banks and areas close to other water sources are colonised by poplars, willows, ash trees, oleanders and brambles.
Native woodland on the lower slopes has been cut down to make way for the cultivation of groves of olive, cherry, fig and almond trees.
With 185 species of birds, 27 of mammals, 19 of reptiles and six of amphibians, the Sierra's rich flora is matched by its varied fauna.
Soaring over ravines and cliffs above the tree line are birds of prey like Bonelli's and golden eagles, as well as red-billed choughs, northern wheateaters, blue rock thrushes and alpine swifts. Sharing this high terrain are Spanish ibex, a species of mountain goat and the park's most emblematic species. Other raptors commonly seen are griffon vultures, short-toed eagles, peregrine falcons, kestrels and at night you can hear barn, eagle and tawny owls.
The most dense thickets of Mediterranean woodland are the domain of small mammals like genets, wild boars, foxes, stone martens and the wild cat. In the more open scrubland are ladder snakes, Montpellier snakes, ocellated lizards and Algerian sand lizards.
Along the water courses are many frogs and toads such as marsh frogs, southern toads and natterjack toads, while golden orioles nest in the poplars and elms that line the rivers. In the water along with rainbow trout and barbel are native species of the carp family: the loach cobitis paludica and the endangered iberocypris palaciosi and leuciscus pyrenaicus.
In the holm oak woodland are goldfinches, greenfinches, great tits, crested tits and jays, while colourful bee-eaters nest in small cliffs.
Although poorly documented, the park has a significant population of bats.
The park's most noteworthy invertebrates are its butterflies, including the threatened purple shot copper (lycaena alciphron), two-tailed pasha (charaxes jasius), and the rare mazarine blue (cyaniris semiargus). Endangered invertebrates include the grasshopper eumigas monticola, which is native to Andalucia.
The Sierra's rivers are part of the Guadalquivir basin. As the Sierra is comprised largely of limestone, there are a significant number of subterranean water courses and natural springs.
The sources of many streams and rivers are found in these hills including the Cambil, Bedmar, Pardos and Gargantín.
Things to see
Adelfal de Cuadros picnic area is worth a visit for the medieval Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Cuadros, the Torreón de Cuadros watchtower with panoramic views, a cave and an oleander grove along the Cuadros river. It is also the starting point of two signposted walks. The Romería de la Virgen de Cuadros is a pilgrimage held at the Ermita in late September.
Fuenmayor picnic area is a great spot for a picnic and paddle, if the weather is hot, with a waterfall and fast-flowing river nearby.
Bélmez is a medieval village; its inhabitants were ordered to move a few kilometres down the road by the Catholic Monarchs in the 16th century to the village's current site called Bélmez de la Moraleda. Bélmez is in a beautiful rugged setting, with a ruined Moorish castle and towers, surrounded by a ring of mountains, overgrown in many places with holm and cork oaks.
In Bélmez de la Moraleda is a house with mysterious patches on the walls and floors that appear to be human faces (caras), a phenomenon dubbed the 'Caras de Bélmez de la Moraleda' and the source of much speculation. See for yourself and make up your own mind.
Castles are dotted around the Sierra in dramatic settings with panoramic views and many are worth a visit. Jódar has an impressive, restored 9th-century Moorish hilltop fortress, one of the best-preserved castles in Jaen and one of the oldest in Andalucia. It has great views over the village and surrounding countryside. It houses the park's visitors' centre in one of its towers.
Albánchez de Mágina has an 11th-century restored Moorish castle in a spectacular position, on a rocky outcrop with magnificent views of the Sierra. The ruined hilltop Castillo de Bedmar in Bédmar-Garcíez dates from the 15th century. The medieval settlement of Bélmez has a 12th-century Moorish castle and two towers, the ruined 13th-century Torre del Sol next to it and, 2km towards Huelma, the 14th-century Torre del Lucero. Huelma, Jimena and Cambil also have castles dating from around the 13th century.
Caves are plentiful in the Sierra.
Pegalajar is a small village surrounded by traditional orchards and terraced fields, with a central village pond, the Charca, and a pretty fountain, the Fuente de la Reja. Just outside the village are the Cuevas de Majuelos y Aro with interesting prehistoric cave paintings.
Chopos de Mata Begid is a grove of poplars, some over 100 years old, close to the source of the fast-flowing Mata Begid river. There are also the remains of an isolated, ruined Moorish castle, the Castillo de Mata Begid or Los Castillejos, and a former oil press. To get there, take the A324 Cambil-Huelma road. Between Cambil and Huelma is a small Ermita (hermitage); take the track opposite that heads north; the Chopos area is 6km along here.
The Sierra has some great walks, six of which are signposted. The GR7 long-distance footpath passes through the Sierra Mágina, linking Cambil, Torres, Albánchez de la Mágina and Jódar.
Sendero del Adelfal de Cuadros is an extremely easy circular 1km walk through an oleander grove, one of the largest in the Iberian peninsula. It starts from the kiosk at the Adelfal de Cuadros picnic area south of Bedmar and follows the course of the Cuadros river to its source.
Sendero de Fuenmayor, an 11km circular walk, starts at the Fuenmayor picnic area 7km south of Torres. The track climbs gently through holm oak woods, interspersed with cherry tree groves. One kilometre from the picnic area to the right of the track is a waterfall, the Cascada del Zurreón. Another kilometre further are some superb panoramic views of Torres village and the Sierra. Around 6km into the walk the track threads through cultivated fields of olive and cherry groves.
Sendero de Gibralberca is an easy 4½km circular route from Gibralberca picnic area on the A324 northeast of Huelma. Traversing Mediterranean woodland and pine plantations, it has some great views of the park's highest peaks, Mágina and Almadén.
Sendero Las Viñas is a circular route, which although 10km long, covers shallow gradients so can be completed in around four hours. It starts at the same place as the Sendero del Adelfal de Cuadros. This route is named after the vineyards (viñas) that predominated in the Sierra until the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century wiped out the region's viticulutre tradition.
This sendero enjoys some of the Sierra's best panoramic views; you can see beyond the park to Úbeda, Baeza and the Guadalqivir valley. These are particularly good from the Mirador Torreón de Cuadros, an 11th-century watchtower located on the route.
Albánchez de Mágina
Bélmez de la Moraleda