Guide to Costa de la Luz
Welcome to Spain’s Atlantic coast, the Costa de la Luz (Coast of Light). Sunlight here is clear and sharp and brings the coast’s wild beauty into crisp focus. The ocean rolls in, sparkling on beaches of fine sand, dunes rise up behind the shore. This is untamed holiday paradise.
But there are also historical towns to visit like Jerez and Cadiz, natural parks to hike in and even day trips to Africa – Morocco is only an hour away, on the fast ferry from Tarifa.
Spain's wild Atlantic coast
Soft white sand, sweeping dunes and a clear, sparkling sea. Be prepared to fall under the spell of these unspoilt beaches.
Welcome to Spain’s Atlantic coast, the Coast of Light. Sunlight here is clear and sharp and brings the coast’s wild beauty into crisp focus. The ocean rolls in, sparkling on beaches of fine sand, dunes rise up behind the shore. This is untamed holiday paradise.
Costa de la Luz is the ideal pick for a holiday of sun, sea and surfing, especially kitesurfing. Tarifa, on the southernmost tip of Europe is the kitesurfing capital of Spain and holds an international championship event each spring. For those who don’t ‘do’ watersports, how about horse riding on the beach or cycling along the coast? You can get into the sun-bleached hip vibe straightaway by ordering a cold beer at any beach bar chiringuito and just enjoy the scene.
The region is perfect for waves and kitesurfing because of the wind. The combination of the warm east wind (El Levante), damp Atlantic west wind (El Poniente) and hot southern air from Africa create a dynamic air stream. It’s not windy all the time, but be prepared for some days where the wind can be more than a stiff breeze. For days like this there are many interesting sights to see that are not beach related: historical towns like Tarifa itself, nature parks, cellar tours of the world-renowned product of this region—sherry, and the ancient city of Cádiz.
Laid back Tarifa
The kitesurf capital of Europe, Tarifa has a sun-bleached, hip ambience. Catch a fast ferry to Morocco and you'll be in Africa within the hour.
Tarifa town has a cool, surf-community feel about it, and an undeveloped low-rise aspect. To get to Tarifa from Málaga or Vejer de la Frontera from the other direction, there is one main road, the coast road dual carriageway. The absence of a direct motorway to get here has preserved the laid-back charm of this town. But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an insignificant backwater—Tarifa is a meeting point on a huge scale: Africa meets Europe here and the Atlantic mixes with the Mediterranean. Whales and dolphins continually pass through the straits and Orcas can be seen mid July to mid September. Whale watching trips start from Tarifa harbour.
It is the Atlantic Bluefin tuna though, which has been of most economic importance for millennia, its influence has shaped the development of this coast and given its name to the fishing village, Zahara de los Atunes.
Tarifa has an impressive 10th century castle looking towards the sea. In 1294 the castle was defended by Alonso Perez Guzmán who refused to surrender the town.
The enemy threatened to kill his son, who they held as a hostage, if he didn’t surrender. Guzmán in defiance threw down a dagger for them to do the cruel deed. Guzman’s descendants were granted the title Dukes of Medina-Sidonia, and today picturesque Medina-Sidonia is worth a visit.
Tarifa has a good variety of places to eat, and being popular with a younger, more international crowd, you’ll find it (a little) easier to get vegetarian options. There are lots of trendy cafés to get your coffee fix just how you like it, quirky little boutiques and arty souvenir shops.
An excursion to Morocco can be done easily from Tarifa port to Tangiers. Tangiers is an interesting city full of markets, minarets, spices and colour. Take the fast ferry with FRS which takes 40 minutes (tickets can be bought on the day from the harbour office). How about that for an exotic day trip to Africa!
Three thousand years of gourmet sea food
The tuna found on the Costa de la Luz has been a source of wonder for millennia. From Roman times until today, the sea food is top notch.
The very best beaches for unspoilt expanses of golden sand and crystal water start from Tarifa and extend north along the coast to El Palmar. From there, taking in Conil and Chiclana going towards Cádiz, the towns are a little more touristy with more amenities, but still low key and with beautiful beaches. These villages and towns depended on fishing in the past and one, Bolonia, a small sleepy village now, was in Roman times called Baelo Claudia and it produced the Empire’s most important condiment. For Romans no meal was complete without garum, a fermented fish sauce. And the best garum came from Baelo Claudia.
The Roman ruins at Bolonia are incredible. This was a prosperous colony of the Roman Empire and you can wander around its streets, temples and amphitheatre where music events are now held in the summer. The visitor-centre-museum is second to none.
Tuna is still important today and a speciality dish of the Costa de la Luz is atun rojo—bluefin tuna served raw to really taste the flavours of this creamy, red meat. The best season to eat atun rojo is April to June. And what to drink with the tuna? A chilled, dry fino sherry is the traditional accompaniment. The drink of the region is of course sherry—sherry produced within the Golden Triangle of the towns of Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa María. There are many bodegas offering tours for tasting and learning about the sherry making process.
Lush cork forests
The untamed beauty of the Costa de la Luz is not just for its beaches. Inland, green forests are home to a myriad of wild animals and birds.
The never ending coastline of glorious beach continues onwards, past Cádiz, into the province of Huelva and then into Portugal. To make a stop at the ancient city of Cádiz is to follow in the footsteps of Phoenician traders who founded this settlement five thousand years ago. Columbus sailed from here and Spanish treasure from the New World came back. Such were the riches of the treasure ships that raids by Barbary pirates were common and Francis Drake occupied and attacked ships in the harbour in the famous event of the ‘Singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’. Given its strategic marine location, the city has been involved in many conflicts over the centuries, and military fortifications abound. Cádiz is laid out in lots of attractive plazas, all with a baroque church or statue to complete the effect. Its impressive cathedral is an eighteenth century masterpiece. Something about the buccaneering spirit must have stayed in the blood of the inhabitants, people from Cádiz have a national reputation of being outgoing and fun (and it’s true, they really are!) liking nothing better than a party or a boisterous joke.
If you’d like a change of scene from your beach-heaven, inland from the Costa de la Luz is 170,000 hectares of forest in the form of Alcornocales National Park.
The park is named after the cork oaks found here and managed for their bark. The Poniente wind brings rain and the Levante promotes mountain fog. The water collects into streams and carves deep ravines called ‘canutos’—lush habitat for many wildlife species, diverse fungi and flowering plants. Migrating birds, storks, kites, buzzards, vultures and eagles to name just a few, find refuge here, making this region a bird watcher’s dream.
Vejer de la Frontera is close to Alcornocales Park and is a quaint, old hilltop town with a castle on top. It was under Moorish rule for five and a half centuries and it’s narrow streets, all winding and whitewashed are clearly of arabic origin. Two bulls are let loose in the streets at Easter as part of the festivities and the breeding of fighting bulls is part of the rural economy. With its palm trees, white houses and crenellated fortifications, Vejer would not be out of place in the Sahara Desert.
Without doubt the main attraction of this region is the stunning coastline, but the Costa de la Luz is so much more than that. If you are looking for a beach holiday that is quite out of the ordinary, then this is the place you’ve been looking for.
Photos on this page by Andalucian Sky and some of them courtesy of Jocelyn Erskine Kellie, Basilievich, Migeek, Pom, Africa Mayi Reyes, Alcalaina, Lee Cannon, Javier Delgado, Turismo Cadiz, Pedro Lozano, Carlos ZGZ, Alejandro, Tea Meister, Michael Bertulat, Oliviere Bruchet and Andrew Nash.