Guide to Los Pueblos Blancos
The region of ‘the white villages’ is located inland halfway between Marbella and Sevilla in the province of Cádiz. These whitewashed villages were built on hills for safety during times of medieval unrest. Today we’re left with peaceful, pretty towns all with breathtaking views of peaks, gorges and lush green pastures. This friendly, uncrowded region offers a different experience from the coast and usual tourist sites.
Stunning scenery in a quiet corner of Andalucía
Battled over for centuries, this 'land of frontiers' is now peaceful and undisturbed.
This region, in the province of Cadiz, is characterised by its whitewashed villages built on high hills, a clue to its dramatic past—an area of warring factions eight hundred years ago.
The place names are a giveaway, towns using ‘de la frontera’ , for example Arcos de la Frontera, were on the frontier, the boundary between the medieval kingdoms of Christian and Muslim. But there is so much more here than remnants of this ancient tug of war. There is breathtaking scenery of jagged rocks, peaks and gorges which tumble down into green pastures. Here is home to eagles, wild mountain goats, and the rarest of trees the ‘pinsapo’, the protected Spanish fir. You’ll also find friendly service here, and things to see which offer a different experience from the coast and usual tourist sites.
Although settlement in this region has been found from neolithic times, it was then the Romans and finally the Moors who were last to make their significant mark on the landscape. The white houses of Los Pueblos Blancos owe their design to Berber influence: simple, flat roofed buildings which are whitewashed every year. Spend time meandering through these white towns, along their cobbled streets full of flowers, and step back in time.
The region, although very beautiful, is generally not overcrowded with other holiday makers and you’ll often have plenty of space to yourself. Let’s start with the lake Zahara-el Gastor for example. This sparkling body of water looks more natural than the reservoir it actually is. It’s a perfect place to spend the day swimming, kayaking, hiking and picnicing, so where is everyone?
Walks on the wild side
The vast expanse of the Grazalema Natural Park offers unforgettable hiking trails. Home to many species of birds, the chance of spotting eagles on your walks is almost guaranteed.
The lake is overlooked by the pretty village of Zahara de la Sierra whose medieval arabic castle is perched on a summit. The white village itself decorates the hillside underneath the castle with the breathtaking blue waters of the lake laid out in front of you. The castle was in a chain of defensive fortifications which communicated by signals from hilltop to hilltop. Today you can walk up to the castle, it’s a steep walk but worth it for the views from the lookout tower. Zahara de la Sierra is a 45 minute drive from the famous city of Ronda. It is close to the start of a natural attraction, the Garganta Verde in the Sierra de Grazalema
The hike along the Garganta Verde , a gorge carved out by the Arroyo del Pinar River, is a stunning trek but not for the fainthearted. You descend into the canyon 400m (previous permission from the tourist office is needed to hike this part of the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park) and walk along the river bed with the sides of the steep gorge rising either side, finally reaching the cave—Cueva de la Ermita. The trek is not your average four-hour hike as griffon vultures soar above.
The Sierra de Grazalema was designated as the first Natural Park in Spain in 1984, an area of protection for its geology, plant and animal life. It was also first in Spain to be designated a Unesco Biosphere in 1977. The Natural Park boasts a number of other ‘firsts’: the longest cave in Andalucia in the Hundidero-Gato system, which is home to the largest bat colony in Spain; and the highest peaks in Cadiz province.
The limestone crags of this Natural Park provide a habitat for the Bonelli’s eagle, golden eagle, imperial eagle and one of the largest colonies of griffon vultures in Spain. The extremely rare pinsapo pine tree—the Spanish fir, grows here. Sierra de Grazalema is one of only three places this species grows. The Spanish fir reserve in the Park may be visited, but as it’s a restricted area numbers are limited, so advance booking is needed.
The prettiest pueblos blancos!
Not for nothing is this region called Los Pueblos Blancos. There are so many interesting white villages here, each with its own story.
There are plenty of other spectacular walks in the Sierra de Grazalema which do not need permits. With the abundance of ravines, caves and trails, the whole Sierra de Grazalema is wonderful for its hiking, birdwatching, caving and paragliding. Rock climbing is particularly well catered for as is horseback riding.
Grazalema town itself has the highest rainfall in mainland Spain (mainly in winter, thankfully!) due to its micro-climate and topography of surrounding mountains. This means that in the spring the landscape is lush and green, full of wildflowers, especially spattered with poppies. In olden times, Grazalema was well known for its wool industry, but because of competition from northern Spain, the mills declined in the 20th century. Grazalema is still famous for the quality of its woollen blankets. There are lots of bars and restaurants offering plenty of choice, at reasonable prices all served with a smile— you’ll understand why the locals are justifiably proud of their town.
Olvera is an ancient town with evidence of a Roman settlement. But it’s two later buildings on its crest that make it stand out— a 13th century Moorish castle, and the large parish church of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnacion facing off against it, still defiant against each other after all these years.
The Via Verdes are a system of railway routes from the time of Franco, now abandoned, that run in a network across Spain. These old railway lines have been successfully converted into greenways for walking, cycling and horse riding. The Via Verde greenway in Cadiz is a particularly beautiful one, following the route between Olvera and Puerto Serrano 37km away. The greenway takes you through disused rail tunnels (bring a torch), spectacular countryside where you can spot eagles and vultures and being flat is suitable for all ages. Bicycle hire is available at Olvera (there is an option to get a taxi back with the bikes) as is horse riding along the greenway.
The old methods of making items of beauty, built to last, have not died out. Many villages in this region have maintained or revived skills handed down over the generations.
Algodonales is another hilltop town with a castle, well known for its paragliding school. It is also home to the famous guitar maker, the late Valeriano Bernal. His guitar workshop is still run by his family and tours are available to see these beautiful guitars being made.
Another artisanal tradition, leatherworking, can be found in Ubrique. Its leather industry, which goes back centuries, was originally based around tanning but now Ubrique is known for quality leatherworking itself. The high end leatherwork is a result of skills handed down from generation to generation. Ubrique supplies international fashion houses with exclusive leather goods, so if you are looking for a handbag, wallet or belt as a souvenir, this would be a good place to start.
Something different awaits you on a trip to the town of Setenil. Rather than being built on high, the houses are built down low, carved out of tufa rock, the buildings are tucked underneath overhanging cliffs. The full name of the town is Setenil de las Bodegas as, until the mid-19th century, wine was its most important product.
Today there are still lots of tapas bars to try and the place is delightful just to stroll around. Near to Setenil (about 6 kms), on the way to Ronda, are the impressive Roman ruins of Acinipo. The city was founded by retired Roman soldiers and its theatre is still used today. The place isn’t well signposted for tourists, but after a stiff hill climb you are rewarded with a fabulous view.
Arcos de la Frontera is at the western end of this region and 30kms from Jerez. Considered to be the gateway to the Pueblos Blancos, and characterised by its hilltop white houses, it is rich with gothic and renaissance architecture. The wealth for these building works came as a result of the patronage of the dukes of Medina Sidonia whose ducal seat is south of Arcos de la Frontera.
This region is full of history and wonders of the natural world. The hilltop villages are so picturesque, each with an old world charm and a laid back, traditional culture. Their location, in countryside of outstanding beauty, makes the undiscovered Los Pueblos Blancos region something truly special and unique.
Photos on this page by Andalucian Sky and some of them courtesy of Jocelyn Erskine-Kellie, Wolfgang Manousek, Manuel Flores, Abel Maestro Garcia, Johan W., Paul Barker Hemings, Dave Massie and Graeme Churchard.