As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to Las Alpujarras, in association with Inntravel, Paul Bloomfield goes on a guided nature walk in this glorious mountainous region in southern Spain, where the dual overlapping protected areas of Sierra Nevada Natural Park and National Park host countless bird, plant and insect species.
After dozens of outings with naturalist guides across six continents, the most important wildlife-watching lesson I’ve learned is this: the slower you walk, and the less distance you cover, the more you see.
On a nature walk on a hot June morning in Las Alpujarras – where, let’s face it, life moves at a pretty relaxed pace anyway – we were practically at a standstill within yards of setting out. And the experience was all the richer for it.
I’d joined a small group of half a dozen or so visitor on a day’s walk with specialist nature guide Jorge. Actually, having worked across Europe and North Africa, as well as living in Australia and New Zealand, and being qualified to guide among the architectural and historic gems of Granada, he’s a specialist in lots of things. But within minutes of meeting it became clear that his real passion is the natural history of the mountains that form the northern limits of Las Alpujarras.
“Sierra Nevada is paradise,” he enthused. “It’s a biodiversity hotspot, one of the richest in species in the world.”
What does that mean in practice? “Well, in Spain we have 232 butterfly species – and you’ll find 135 of them in Sierra Nevada, including several endemic species that you’ll find nowhere else, along with many more endemic subspecies. We also have over a quarter of Spain’s planet species – more that 2,500 of them – and 215 bird species.”
This natural abundance became evident almost as soon as we set out from the tiny village of Júbar, taking the track running north from alongside the ancient whitewashed church. This house of worship is itself worth exploring, having been previously a synagogue, before that a mosque, and possibly earlier still the site of a Roman temple.
Our cadre on the walk was a mixed bunch, our levels of interest and knowledge ranging from those really just out for a pleasant stroll to others with camera lenses as long as their arm, and species wishlists far longer. My own inclinations lay somewhere between the two, and we gradually adjusted our pace to suit the whole group.
Fifty paces (and quite a few minutes) after setting out, we were paused in admiration of the parade of butterflies flickering around us like confetti – swallowtails, painted ladies, small tortoiseshells – and the plants that lined the path. We learned about the Spanish oak, Quercus ilex, and how it is largely responsible for a whole ecosystem: its leaves – rounded higher up, curiously spiky like holly near the base of the trunk – are shed year-round, creating the perfect level of soil acidity for local species to flourish. The galls on such oaks, formed when wasp larvae hatch and valuable for use in leather tanning, were once used as currency along the ancient trade routes established in Roman times.
We examined St John’s wort, known in Britain as a herbal antidepressant but used here, Jorge explained, for centuries in treating skin conditions (why St John’s? It typically blooms on 24 June – St John’s day.) There was fake indigo, producing rich blue dye as used by the Touaregs (‘Blue Men’) of the Sahara in North Africa. We sniffed wild thyme and oregano, and stroked the soft leaves of Verbascum, the ‘toilet paper plant’ (no, I didn’t!)
Eventually we all accepted that a slightly (only slightly) speedier pace might be advisable if we were to reach our objective for the day. Still, there was plenty of time to halt and identify whether the trills emanating from the treetops were the calls of a cirl bunting or a Bonelli’s warbler, and to admire the sure-footed Spanish ibex hopping around the sheer rocks on the opposite face of the valley. Sierra Nevada, Jorge informed us to our delight, boasts the highest density of the mighty-horned wild goat.
After a couple of miles the chattering of water announced that we’d reached an acequia – one of the irrigation channels first established by the Moors, and so typical of Las Alpujarras (indeed, essential for agriculture here). Like the levadas of Madeira, this acequia provided an idea flat path through the scrub, largely shaded from the midday sun and blessed with delightfully cool breezes. Another few hundred metres brought us to our lunch stop at a lush glade alongside a stream, dominated by a huge chestnut tree at least 800 years old, maybe a thousand.
We lolled beneath its branches, munching cheese, olives, tomatoes and rustic bread as a golden oriole sang its fluting contact call from high in the tree canopy above. The veteran chestnut’s bark was so gnarled it looked almost knitted, its branches so heavy they needed support from self-sprouted struts like walking sticks, yet it was flourishing still and crowned with a dense bolus of leaves.
“This was already a sturdy young tree when the exquisite palaces of the Alhambra were being crafted,” mused Jorge. “And it was mature and well established by the time Boabdil, the last emir, left Granada in 1492, vacating the city for Isabella and Ferdinand.”
This venerable tree has stood sentinel at the head of this valley for centuries; with luck, its vast trunk will be here, steadied by hefty buttress roots for centuries to come. The efforts of people like Jorge, enthusing visitors and locals alike to help protect its environment in the Sierra Nevada Natural Park, can only help secure its future – as well as providing a fascinating insight into the natural wealth of its domain.
Words by Paul Bloomfield
Jorge offers a range of tours and courses via http://www.al-natural.eu (his website is in Spanish, though his English is excellent).
Paul stayed at Las Chimeneas, a characterful, welcoming guesthouse in the charming village of Mairenas, just 1km or so from Júbar, whose owners can organise nature walks with Jorge as part of a stay.
>> The UK-based tour operator Inntravel (the 'Slow Holiday People') runs a range of holidays in Las Alpujarras.