SAN PEDRO DE ALCANTARA TO RONDA ROAD - A397
Length: 50km Time: 1 hour
This windy, dramatic, potentially dangerous road climbs up from the Costa del Sol to the historic mountain town, offering spectacular views down to the coast.
To drive up to Ronda from the Marbella area, you leave the A-7 coast road at the roundabout just east of San Pedro. The A397 road passes under the AP-7 Costa del Sol toll motorway and heads inland, starting to climb past luxury developments such as La Quinta Golf, Los Arqueros, Urb. Puerto del Almendro, Urb. Monte Halcones, La Heredia. El Arquillo, El Madroñal, La Zagaleta.
This is a good single-track road - reasonably wide, but not at all suitable for overtaking due to the continuous hairpin bends and poor visibility. So if you are stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle, be patient. Also have consideration for the passengers in the back, particularly children - the twisty road is not a happy one for those susceptible to travel sickness. However, don't forget to take frequent glimpses over your shoulder (unless you're driving that is), as the views of the coast are quite stunning.
HISTORY OF THE RONDA ROAD - from the 1870s to present day.
As a point of historical interest, the original route - a mule track from the coast to Ronda - climbed up a different valley from the present road. This mule track took (and still takes) a more direct route via Istan and Fuenfria. The journey from Ronda to the coast, for both goods and people, could only be made safely under the guidance of caballerías (cavalrymen or horsemen).
Naturally the people of Ronda wanted a safer road to link them to the coast, so by 1877 they had built a 20km stretch suitable for horse-drawn vehicles, down to a point near the current entrance to the Sierra de las Nieves park. After that, progress was slow, probably because Mr Henderson's Railway, which brought people up from Algeciras and Gibraltar (the British travelled up to Ronda to escape the summer heat) opened in November 1892. According to maps dated 1917, no further progess on the road had been made at that time.
In 1926 General Primo de Rivera's government launched the Circuito Nacional de Firmes Especiales (CNFE - National Network of Special Road Surfaces). This road improvement project was initially driven by the Conde de Guadalhorce, Don Rafael Benjumea and Burín (who built the Caminito del Rey).
The underlying scientific idea was to use asphalt as a new type of road surface. Despite Spain having fewer motor vehicles than other European countries, the authorities reckoned that these new car-driving visitors might be tourists travelling for pleasure - a new concept at the time. A parallel project was the Parador Hotel chain.
The CNFE was continued by the government of the Second Republic, and by the time the initiative was interrupted by the Civil War about 7,000km of roads had been made. After the Civil War, the General Road Plan 1939-1941 - named Plan Peña after minister Alfonso Peña Boeuf, with its new road-numbering system - replaced the CNFE.
So by 1934, 12km had been constructed from San Pedro up to El Puerto del Alisal (km 39.5 today near La Zagaleta) and another 20km down from Ronda, making the big loop around the Rio Seco valley to Los Almajiles, near Venta El Madroño (km 29). By the end of 1939 Ronda was finally united with the coast, according to plans signed by engineers José Fernández Castanys and Julián Dorao.
A major upgrade to the Ronda road began in 1976, to turn it into a national road, including a surface widening so that coaches and lorries could pass without having to slow down, plus straightening some of the tighter bends. This involved the construction of several major bridges and supporting structures which ran parallel to the steep rock face, requiring the road to be completely closed so that Ronda was effectively cut off from the Costa del Sol again. The work was hampered by falling rocks and additional protection methods had to be devised. The works took twice as long as expected and at 1,000 million pesetas (6m €) went double over budget. The road was reopened again in June 1980.
Little has been done to the road since, except the installation of netting to prevent rocks falling down onto the road surface. Locals know to drive carefully on the Ronda road, especially early on winter mornings after heavy rain. In 2014 a boulder the size of a small car crashed onto the road.
In November 2007, the Consejera de Obras Públicas of the Junta de Andalucia (Minister for Public Works of the Regional Government), Concepción Gutiérrez, presented a new motorway project in the Ronda Parador to link the coast from Benahavis. The route went up the Guadalmina Valley (to the west of the present road), crossing the Genal valley.
The cost of the project's 26 bridges and one 1.6km tunnel was estimated at 350m euro, half paid by the Junta and the remainder by the Malaga provincial government and the town councils. The project had much opposition from ecologists, although strangely it was re-presented in November 2010 as a toll motorway project. In February 2013 the Environment Department of the Junta announced that the project had been shelved for environmental and economic reasons.
Venta el Madroño
Climbing up to Ronda there are almost no stopping places on your side of the road, apart from a sort of layby where the old road was straightened at km 36.5. Look out for the road workers' cottage, La Palmitera, at km 35.1. A stop worth making is at the roadside restaurant, "Venta el Madroño" (GPS 36.59889N,5.07389W) km 27.2, a successful conversion of another roadworker's cottage. While the food and service are nothing special, the location is outstanding in summer or winter, with magnificent views. The photos on the wall are testament to the bikers who congregate here on fine winter's weekend mornings. The Ronda road has a deserved reputation for excitement and danger in the biking community.
Carry on a little and just before 'Puerta de Madroñal', a narrow side-road on the left leads to Pujerra. It a good country road through the forest and a file place to collect chestnuts in November. If you have either a 4x4 or an old car there is a turn for a route back down to the coast via Benahavis. Just before reaching Pujerra village there is a left turn on a good forest track, passable by car, that takes you into hidden corners of the Sierra Bermeja and to Jubrique for ascent over Los Reales and down to Estepona.
On the Ronda road 'Puerta de Madroñal' is a watershed - any rain falling after here will not flow directly down to the sea via River Guadalmina, but via River Genal and River Guadiaro to enter the sea at Sotogrande.
The Ronda road now follows a 11km loop, hugging the contours of the Rio Seco and its tributaries. Look left across the valley to see the line on the mountain of the road where you will be in 10 minutes' time.
Soon after the large bend the landscape abruptly changes from its reddish volcanic rock to the white limestone of the Sierra Blanca. The original winding road completed in 1939 can at times be seen. Engineering technology was not as advanced and the road had to follow the contours closer. Today, many of these corners are by-passed by larger concrete bridges.
Near the summit, at km19.5, a side road is signposted 'Marmoles Aguilera'. This narrow road is a short cut down to the village of Igualeja the village with the spring and pond claimed to be the source of the River Genal.
At km 16 many travellers stop not only to admire the view of the Genal Valley and villages but look at the by a strange rusty iron two pronged monument, a modern sculpture dedicated to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke ( 4 December 1875 - 29 December 1926) who visited Ronda in 1913 and described it as the "Dream City". The monument is said to have been built by the 1970s road improvement company from surplus steel.
The half-built concrete shell of a future visitors' centre built in 2000 obstructs the view, but one day will provide welcome shelter from the winter wind or summer sun. Located at over 1,000m, this pass is often cold and has snow for a few days in winter. A recently improved track opposite the monument leads up into an area known as Camino de los Cascajares, offering an insight into this limestone country and the numerous marble quarries that now litter the landscape. Walkers take advantage of this new road to approach the peak of Cascajares in a less arduous manner.
Looking down the Rio Seco and Genal valley, the landscape is green and wooded, with a good view of Igualeja and many of the Alto Genal communities. It is worth noting that for every village seen, the landscape lost an average a further two medieval villages after the Christian conquest.
Descending into Ronda
At km 15.1 where unusually the road crosses a plain, you can see the foundations of a roadworker's cottage that was suddenly demolished by MOPU in year 2.000
A little further on the right, a track leads into the Sierra de las Nieves natural park. By now you are 1,000m above sea level and close to the Serrania de Ronda hunting reserve, where wild goats run free and you can sometimes spy peregrine falcons swooping around craggy distant mountains
Two chestnut-tree lined roads to the left lead down to the villages that head the River Genal Valley. The first leads to Igualeja and Pujerra, where 4x4s and old cars can continue on the forest track around the Sierra Bermeja to Estepona. The second via Cartajima, Juzcar, Farajan, and Alpandiere loops back to the Ronda to Gaucin road. This area is known as the Serrania de Ronda. If you have time for a detour, go ahead and explore, otherwise continue climbing on towards Ronda.
You'll find a contemporary petrol station, and a modern Venta Taurino with efficient and friendly service.
10km further on descend to Ronda, which can now be seen in the distance. The new hospital dominates the landscape, next to an old Venta La Higuera opposite another roadworker's cottage, set back marking the earlier road line. Take the slip road for Ronda, or visit another traditional roadside halt, Venta La Parrilla (was Sierra Hidalga), with a swimming pool.
From the slip road, pass under the road and at the mini-roundabout, straight on for the A-6300 link road into historic Ronda or turn left for the A-369 Ronda to Gaucin route.
If you don't take the slip road and continue straight on by-passing Ronda and the A-379 turns into the A-374 for the Ronda to Algodonales road leading to Seville or Jerez. On the right hand side is Venta EL Mirador, for superb early morning views of old Ronda in the mist..