Once upon a time in the Granada Desert

Granada Desert

Every summer, hundreds of thousands of people flock to the Costa del Sol to soak up the sun on sandy beaches in between frolicking in the refreshing temperatures of the Mediterranean ocean. You will hear a potpourri of languages carry through the streets as various countries and nations meet under the burning sun of Andalusia. The beaches are strewn with confetti of people lazing around under colourful sun umbrellas and exotic bathing-ware prints ranging from Hawaiian to Leopard. Whether you’re young or old, a party animal or a nature freak, if you can take the heat Andalusia is an ideal place to spend your summer. The streets are a-buzzing with the chatter of people digging into tasty tapas and sipping on their vino tinto, the children run wild along the beaches, boulevards and plazas and those with a little groove in their heels dance the night away in chiringuitos and night clubs. You can come here to retire or to nurse a hangover or both – the Costa del Sol is quite diverse that way. Want some peace and quiet? Head to the mountain pueblos or the nearest campo. Want to spend your nights getting your boogie on and your days working on your night-owl complexion? Málaga, Marbella, Fuengirola, Estepona – Take your pick.

If you’d like a little bit of an off-road adventure, far from any booming night clubs and rowdy tourist types, there’s a real hidden paradise just outside of Granada. The area around Baza, Zújar, Cuevas del Campo and Gorafe offer stunning settings occasionally interrupted by cave houses that perfectly mould into the natural environment and traditional little pueblos that seem to be lost in time. From Málaga, the drive up to Baza takes a little over two and a half hours, but there are plenty of nice places to stop for a nice picnic along the way. An ideal place for a little bite and a shaded stretch of the legs is around the Santa Fe road; there are a few off road dirt tracks leading into a lush forest. Planning an over-night stay will come in handy if you really want to make the most of your time there. With so many different places to explore and the vicious, desert-like heat to endure, the last thing you will feel like doing at the end of the day is embarking on a long drive home. So plan ahead and find some comfortable, economic lodgings in the Baza region.

A place I can highly recommend is the Cuevas Andalucía sustainable camping and rural resort. Owned by Sam and Aurora Kheder, the camping terrain and its surrounding cave houses are an absolute dream come true for all those who are outdoorsy and romantically inclined. Entering a dark, wooden farm-style gate with an old bell with which to announce yourself with, you are presented with the most charmingly rustic cave houses, complete with an array of big Andalusian flower pots, lovely pergolas offering an escape from the sun and a swimming pool in which to cool off in. Traveling with a dog isn’t always easy in terms of finding accommodations that will allow them; Cuevas Andalucía welcomes them. Their own rescue dogs, the big cuddly Mastiff Max and the little black and white spotted mutt Negrita – who obviously wears the pants in the relationship –, are part of the welcome party and only happy to show off their sweet and quirky personalities.

The camp site is to the left of the cave houses, following a gravel path of about 400 metres where it opens up into a spacious camping zone with a few trees, two tipis and several little electricity stations. People making their journey to Morocco regularly stop here with their 4×4’s or caravans, when they’re in need for a bit of R&R. To the right of the camping zone is a cave house that serves as a common area consisting of a living space fitted with two beds, a table and chairs, two showers and an outdoor kitchen and toilet. All around the open kitchen are long, wide concrete benches designed for lounging beneath the stars. Every feature of the camping’s common area was carefully thought out to suit travellers who are looking for something different – to be in touch with nature, with animals, one’s self, family, old or new friends. Spending just a few minutes here you can feel the warmth consideration towards the environment and the hard work that went into building this place – a task that Sam and Aurora took upon themselves. By merging various styles and ideas Sam encountered on his international travels as a former lorry driver, they have created a Mediterranean style haven amidst the Granada desert.

One may not necessarily associate a night in a tipi as any form of luxury, but here it is very much a million star experience. Decked out with an extremely comfortable bed, soft linens and an array of Moroccan style carpets, the tipi also has it’s very own wooden deck – a terrace if you will – from which you can marvel over a blanket of stars and, if you’re lucky, a spectacular full moon. Every now and then you will hear the two mares Luna and Estrella trotting through the sand and, if your dog is brave enough, they will encourage him to play. A night here guarantees a restful sleep that will have you recharged for a day of swimming through the Lake Negratín, hiking through Andalusia’s very own Grand Canyon and spending the afternoon strolling around the Altiplano de Granada. The temperatures at this altitude drop quite low during the night, a welcomed break from the ridiculous day-time heat. But even if you’d like to spend the day hanging out with Max and Negrita whilst chilling out with a good book, you can escape the sun and step into the cool cave house – a perfect hide away for those who aren’t built for Andalusian summer afternoons.

One of the reasons we had chosen to head to Baza was to visit the Lake Negratín. Since the Spanish government has closed down all the designated doggy beaches, we’re always on the look-out for lakes and rivers to take our dog for a refreshing paddle. It seems people tend to forget that our four-legged friends suffer just as much from the heat as we do. But as you can well imagine, finding a river bed that hasn’t completely dried up in July can be a tricky task. There are some beautiful lagoons and waterfalls off the beaten track in Estepona, Benahavis and Alhaurín el Grande, but these are packed during the summer and, if you want to take your furry friend, it’s better to find a spacious area where he/she will have more space to run and less possibilities to bother people who may be wary of hairy creatures. The Lake Negratín is ideal for just that. With a surface of 2,170 hectares, it’s the third biggest water reservoir in Andalusia. Although there are designated beaches – including a nudist stretch – there are plenty of secluded spots lined with trees where you’re almost guaranteed to be the only people far and wide. Driving towards the lake alone is a delight; you can see its turquoise shimmering waters beckoning you from the road.

Depending on where you stop to set up your picnic blanket and cooler, entering the water can be a bit tricky. Certain shores are a bit muddy and, if you want to avoid picking the dirt out of your toenails for the foreseeable future, some quality water shoes will go a long way. The tranquillity here is indescribable. It is located on the outskirts of Zújar, a sleepy little pueblo that confuses with modern town houses and run down restaurants and bars still decorated with the debris of a different century. From Zújar, it only takes around thirty minutes to reach Gorafe, where you can hike around Los Colorados and forget you’re in Spain for a moment – the striking resemblance to the American Grand Canyon is undeniable. Put your archaeologist’s hat on for the day and discover petroglyphs around the Cerro de la Mina or the old volcano on the Jabalcón Mountain, ending your afternoon relaxing in the thermal pools of Alicún.

This area has so much to offer, you won’t miss the hustle and bustle
of the Coast for a single second. So whenever you’re in need of an escape to the mountains, load up your car, unload it at Cuevas Andalucía and embrace the beautiful natural environment of Baza – the perfect getaway to still monkey minds.

Article and photos are the work of Roxanne Sancto.