Gah! Did we just step into a fairy tale? My stars, this Andalusian town perched on the side of a mountain deserves all the heart eyes – for sure. Zahara de la Sierra, like many towns in the area, is considered a Pueblo blanco, yet this one stands out to us due to its idyllic location on the side of a mountain overlooking a emerald green lake, with a 14th century “castle” watchtower looking over the entire scene. Dreamy. Yes, so so dreamy.
Built as a strategic point between Rhonda and Sevilla, Zahara was part of an elaborate system of watchtowers which created an early warning system over the entire area. Each tower was an important piece in a line of towers, with each one being visible at distance from the last. Should there be an enemy approaching, a fire would be lit at the top of the tower. This would, in turn, be seen by the next tower and proceed along to warn each outpost of the impending danger.
Planning an adventure to Zahara de la Sierra? Below are some great ways to spend time in this pueblo blanco!
If hiking is your jam, we suggest swinging by El Bosque Visitor Center and picking up a free permit for one of the many hikes in neighboring Parque Natural de la Sierra de Grazalema (yes, we realize this isn’t *technically* in Zahara de la Sierra, but it’s soooo close, so we are gonna count it). Most of the hikes in this Natural Park do not require a permit, however, you do need one for the following four senderos (hikes): Llanos del Rabel, El Torreon, Garganta Verde, and El Pinsapar.
Llanos del Rabel
Llanos del Rabel is probably the easiest one to snag a permit for and to be honest is more of a nature walk than a true “hike” (in our humble opinion, of course). The 6.4 mile round trip walk was perfect for Penny, as she is still getting her hiking legs under her and the relatively even road let her get about 4 miles in without tripping or having a hard time keeping up. There is a nice clearing within the valley at the end which is perfect to have a picnic lunch and let the kids play.
The loop at the end of the trail through the pine forest is more of a “traditional” hiking trail and has steeper and more technical sections. Overall, Llanos del Rabel is a fantastic way to experience some of the beauty of Grazalema National Park even if you aren’t a big hiking person or don’t have a hiking carrier for your littles.
Garganta Verde (“the big green”) refers to a 400 meter deep canyon that cuts through the mountains of Sierra de Grazalema Park. Like Llanos del Rabel (see above), you DO need a permit to hike the course as it is generally fairly busy and contains nesting griffin vultures that the park (understandably) wants to protect. The free permit is easy enough to obtain from the El Bosque Visitors’ Center, but don’t plan on picking up a permit the day of your hike, as chances are there won’t be any left (particularly if its a weekend day).
While it’s marked as difficult on most hiking maps, the trails difficulty comes more from the steepness of the descent into (and subsequent climb back out of) the valley rather than the length of the hike itself (which is only ~5km roundtrip). Penny started the hike walking, but once we got to the descent it was much safer to have Dom put her into our Deuter Carrier. Britt was able to manage with Jude (now 4 months old!) in a carrier on her chest, but had to take time with her footing as he blocked the view of her feet a bit.
Even though we came with a permit, there was no one checking for it upon our Friday morning arrival. The trail starts off fairly flat, but about a mile in you start a steep decent into the valley. There are railings on the steepest portions, and often times “stairs” have been carved into the rocks, but still take your time. On the way down, you’ll pass by the nesting site for Griffen Vultures (we didn’t actually see any).
The trail itself stops at the valley floor, which is still about 400m from the entrance to Garganta Verde canyon itself. At this point you are essentially hopping over boulders in a dry river bed. There is a clear sign that only those prepared should venture further (they recommend a guide), as I’m sure flash flooding is a huge hazard. Britt stayed back with Jude and Penny while Dom and Miles ventured a bit further to explore the canyon, which was pretty incredible. For more details, photos, and information see our “Hiking Garganta Verde” post.
Sitting right at the entrance of the valley and situated right on the side of the manmade lake is El Pantalan, a traditional Spanish restaurant and cerveceria with some amazing views of Zahara itself. If you are new to the area, it’s particularly nice as it has a parking lot, so you don’t have to worry about the *somewhat* tricky parking situation once you get in Zahara itself (the streets are t-i-g-h-t).
Our food was delicious and reasonably priced, although nothing was too memorable, it did make for a very nice spot to stop for a bite before heading into town though and the views are pretty rad. The burger in particular (as you can see above) was a little different than we would generally expect. That being said, Miles still devoured it (well, except for the lettuce…let’s not get carried away here).
- Hours: Seemingly temporarily closed as of March 2021
Stroll the Town
We came armed with a list of historical buildings to visit and a desire to walk/hike up to the watch tower, but no firm plan on exactly how to go about doing do. This was still pretty early on in our time in Spain, and we hadn’t yet adjusted to the pace of life in Andalucia. Most of the reason to go to Zahara is to, well, go to Zahara. I know that sounds strange, but experiencing the cobbled street, winding alleyways, and charming town squares is kind of the whole point. Coming from fast paced California, this was an adjustment for sure.
We were surprised that most of the buildings we wanted to see were just a block or two from each other, and that the entire town could be explored in only an hour or two. The real draw for the locals were all of the quaint street side cafes and bars, in which the Spanish sit, eat, drink, and talk…for hours. It is certainly a relaxing way to spend the afternoon, we just have a hard time slowing down enough to take it in Spanish style.
Santa Maria de la Mesa Church
Built in 1779, this pinkish Church was built in the Baroque style that was common in the Andalusia region of Spain in the 18th century. Every time we’ve been to Zahara it has unfortunately been closed (due to COVID), but we do know that there is a small religious museum inside. With its pinkish/orange facade and ceramic details, the building is hard to miss and is pretty impressive set against the mountain backdrop.
Santa Maria de la Mesa Church:
- Hours: No posted hours, and we haven’t been able to find any info online
- Admission: Free
San Juan de Letron Chapel
Located right next to the clock tower below in the Plaza San Juan, this charming little chapel was built right on top of a former mosque (see the Torre del Reloj below). By comparing it to the Santa Maria de la Mesa church above it is interesting to see how religious architecture changed over a couple hundred years. Unfortunately it, too, was closed during our time due to COVID.
San Juan de Letron Chapel:
- Hours: Daily (reportedly), 1100 – 1330
16th cent. Torre del Reloj
The only remaining part of the original mosque, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit we originally didn’t realize that it was attached to the chapel above and walked past it at least three times before realizing what we were looking for. The combination of Arabic and Christian architecture is a theme that plays out fairly frequently in Southern Spain. Often the mosques were destroyed to build churches during the Christian conquests, but sometimes (like we see here or even more so in Cordoba) elements of both are combined.
16th cent. Torre del Reloj:
- Hours: 24/7
- Admission: Free
Located at the foot of the Monte Prieto range and in Arroyomolinos recreational area is La Playita, an artificial beach that is great for a laid back afternoon filled with picnicking and swimming. It is perfect for a nice cool off spot if you are visiting in the hot and dry summer months. Because the area is spring fed, the water is crystal clear and quite cold…it took a bit of convincing to get Britt to come on in (she’s a wimp when it comes to cold temps). While there is a bit of a sandy shore, the bottom of the swimming area is concrete, so bring water shoes if you have sensitive feet.
In addition to the swimming area, there are changing rooms with toilets and showers, picnic tables, a bar, a kids play area, and even a ropes course and zip line (for an extra fee). We heard they sometimes capped entrance during the hottest part of the summer, so bought tickets online ahead of time. Looking back, we could have just as easily bought them at the door. Live + learn.
- Hours: Generally open during the summer months (July 1st and closing August 31st), 1100 – 2000
- Admission: 3.50€/Adult, 3€/Children 12 and under
- Parking: Free
Climb Up to Castillo Zahara de la Sierra
Originally built in the 13th century, the Moorish Castle that looms above Zahara de la Sierra was part of an elaborate watch system to provide early warning throughout the region. The Christians conquered the city in the 1400s, only to loose control back to the Moors again in the late 1400s. The Christians would take control later under the direction of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel. In the spirit of repeated conquest, Miles insisted on taking his light saber for the hike. Goodness, this kid is the best.
The climb up to the castle starts in the main town square right to the left of the Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Mesa. Your climb up the steep cobbles streets will take you right through the old town gate up onto the mountain, giving you some pretty amazing views of the Grazalema mountains and lake below you. The path is fairly steep, but is well marked and not technical at all as most of the way is cobbled.
Castillo Zahara de la Sierra:
- Hours: The watchtower is currently closed due to COVID (March 2021), but you can do the hike anytime.
- Admission: Free
Oleum Viride Olive Oil Tour
In 20 years when I look back at our time in Southern Spain, the foods I’m going to remember most are wine (sherry in particular), jamón, and olive oil. Growing up in the United States, olive oil is a fairly common (albeit somewhat expensive) oil used primarily for cooking or salad dressing. In Spain, however, its practically its own food group. Grocery stores often have an entire aisle dedicated to the stuff. Olive trees thrive in the climate of Southern Spain, and making olive oil goes back thousands of years here…I guess it’s in their blood.
To really appreciate the Spaniards love of olive oil, you really need to go to the source. It was at Oleum Viride Olive Oil that Luis, a member of the family that owns the operation, explained to us the process of making oil and what makes the best olive oil so delicious. We gained an appreciation for how the oil changes (even once bottled) with the effects of light, heat, and oxidation. Ever wondered what “extra virgin” on the label actually meant? Luis is your man. We also got one of our first taste of “real” Spanish olive oil, an earthy, nutty, rich liquid that is poured on meats, cheeses, breads, and nearly everything else in Spain. It’s so rich in monounsaturated fats that I can feel my HDL (good cholesterol) climb even as I write this.
After the tour, you are treated to a traditional Spanish “Breakfast” which occurs about 1300 complete with Spanish omelette, cheese, cured pork, olives, gazpacho, and (of course) wine. It all takes place in a beautiful setting underneath an awning of wisteria vines looking up at the city of Zahara and its iconic watch tower.
- Hours: Tour is at 1230 (by reservation only), tour + lunch take about three hours
- Admission: Pricing for tour + tasting + lunch is 25€/Adult, 15€/Child (children under 4 years old are free)
- Parking: Free
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