Some beach days linger in the memory.
Looking back now on the summer just gone it’s a blur of suncream and sand, hastily packed picnics and hot, dusty walks from car parks, but one particular afternoon stands out.
Monsul beach. Pristine, tranquil, remote. A broad swathe of fine, white sand sheltered by wind-swept dunes and ancient volcanic rock, far from the madding crowd, completely untouched by industry or commercialism.
Not on the Costa del Sol then 😉
Monsul is one of many breathtakingly beautiful beaches within the Cabo de Gata nature reserve in Almeria. This place had reached cult status in our imaginations as we’d been wanting to go here for so long; also it was listed in the Lonely Planet’s recently published Hidden Gems of Europe.
It’s the coastal part of the province of Almeria which is at the south-eastern extreme of Andalucia and Spain itself.
To get there you need to wade through one of the most bizarre landscapes I’ve ever seen – the plastic badlands of Almeria.
In the last 20 years this arid, dusty province has been put to work as the winter garden of Europe. Thanks to imported soil and high tech watering and feeding systems, the labyrinth of greenhouses that has mushroomed here (no pun intended) now provides more than half of Europe’s annual supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, fuels the bulk of Almeria’s economy and is rapidly gobbling up the entire province.
Photo credit: Yann Athus-Bertrand, www.amusingplanet.com
Pretty shocking right?
It was hard to believe motoring through here that the promised land of Cabo de Gata really existed beyond this.
But it does. Driving, driving, driving through this seemingly relentless, featureless, plastic hell, all of a sudden you come to an edge. You literally cross over from a land that has prostituted itself for money to a vast, virginal desert with no human footprint apart from a few scattered ruined farmhouses and ancient agate mines (from which the name “Gata” derives) and the small fishing villages at the coast. And the story of how it escaped the claws of commercialism is almost as inspiring as the landscape itself.
Cabo de Gata is a natural protected reserve thanks to a remarkable lady called Francisca Díaz Torres who died only a few months ago at the grand old age of 103. Fondly known as Doña Paquita (the spanish do love their nicknames) she is considered one of Spain’s great feminist icons and first ecologists.
Well born and well married, she became the matriarch of a massive finca (farm) called ‘La Romera’ which extended over a vast area of what is now the Cabo de Gata nature reserve. She managed the farm shrewdly and successfully for over 80 years but never gave in to pressure to develop the area or did anything that would scar her beloved Cabo.
In fact she became an activist in the green movement in the 60’s and gradually moved all of the finca towards sustainable, low-impact farming methods. Later in the 80’s, she campaigned for Cabo to become a natural reserve, gave the public full access to the beaches and continued to fend off all attempts to develop the land until it attained its protected status. What a lady!
But back to Monsul beach…
How to get there
San José is the main fishing village on this coastline. At the top of the town you take a well signposted road to the ‘playas’ which quickly turns into a rumbly forest track. After 2.5km you will pass the equally stunning beach of Genoveses and after another 1.5km you will see Monsul.
You can park your car along the track but spaces are very limited. In summer, when visitors are at their peak, it is recommended to take the regular shuttle bus from San Jose (stops also at Genoveses and another beach farther on, Barronal)
The landscape here is so vast and empty it can be hard to judge distances. It takes about ten to fifteen minutes to cross the flat, cactus-dotted scrubland and when your feet finally touch the white sand of the beach it is soft and warm.
The water is crystal clear and surprisingly tepid for mid October but after all this is the cosiest corner of Europe enjoying the continent´s only subtropical or warm “desert” climate.
The weather was volatile that weekend, we’d had a dramatic lightning storm the night before and there was more rain to come, so I’m afraid my photos are patchy – as you can see one minute intensely bright and the next overcast as the clouds were constantly shifting.
The weather made for some great wave action though. There were even a couple of surfers out. The beach tapers very gently down so is safe for paddling with children. Great for snorkeling too, offshore there are loads of tiny rocky islands and, underwater, extensive coral reefs teeming with marine life.
But what makes this coastline so unique is the rock. 16 million years ago the Cabo de Gata mountains were active volcanoes. They arose from the thrust of Africa against the massif of Iberia, and the frequent earthquakes – there’s been 10 low magnitude earthquakes in the last year in Andalucia – testify to this continuing pressure.
If you go hiking in this area you can visit massive calderas (collapsed craters). The frequent eruptions threw up a wealth of minerals – gold, agate and alunite. The whole area has been mined extensively. The now almost abandoned village of Rodalquilar, just north of here, was once a thriving, gold mining town with a school, hotels, even a cinema! At its peak in the 60’s it had a population of 1,400 people. Now less than 100 people live there surviving mostly on tourism. It’s well worth a visit!
Here’s a model of the old mine in the museum there:
But back to Monsul!
The huge lava spills from the volcanoes reached the sea and over the centuries the wind and water eroded the rock to form the incredible beaches that you find in Cabo. Look at these caves, an absolute wonderland for children.
In the centre of the beach there’s a huge rock which Ray thought looked like a giant wave facing back out to sea.
And if you’re an Indiana Jones fan then you’re already familiar with the beach at Monsul:
This post is dedicated to my beach bum friend who spent the summer exploring Andalucia’s beaches, but never got this far east.
You would adore this beach Rachel!