The Sierra de Grazalema is a phenomenal part of Andalucia, filled with gnarly mountains, flowing oak tree forests, vulture-filled canyons, and shimmering white-washed towns dating back to Roman and Moorish times.
If you like places that aren’t yet overflowing with tourists, then you’ll surely like this region home to many pueblas blancas (white villages).
Considering how close it is to some of Spain’s most-visited places, it’s like a gem hiding in plain sight.
I first visited Andalucia years ago on a classic city-hopping trip that included places like Seville and Malaga. It was only later that I realized some of the best stuff is actually tucked inside the Sierra de Grazalema area — away from train or bus connections for the most part, but perfect for a road trip.
I did five road trips through this region while living in Sevilla, so this post has become an amalgam of all these trips. If you don’t know where to go, simply pick a couple of places and create a route between them, or just drive through the region and explore!
Setenil de las Bodegas
White village with unique cave houses
On first approach, Setenil may seem much like any other white town in Andalucia. Once you realize how it’s built right around a deep and narrow gorge, you can truly appreciate how scenic it is.
But it’s not just the topography that makes Setenil so interesting; it’s that many of the houses were built right into the rock cliffs. These cave dwellings were constructed over many centuries by extending natural caves or building walls under natural overhangs.
I loved seeing these cave houses, moseying through Setenil’s narrow streets, and stopping for tapas underneath the massive rocky overhangs.
Some tour buses stop in Setenil during the day, though the groups stick mostly to one street, leaving the rest of the town free to explore on your own. The town has a totally different feel at night, when all the day-trippers have left and the restaurants and bars get reclaimed by the locals.
Setenil is a fun place to stay the night if you have the chance, as some of the cave houses have been turned into guesthouses and B&Bs, which will make for a unique stay.
Mountain town at the heart of the national park
Grazalema is a white town stunningly situated on the foothills of a large mountain. The terrain around Grazalema reminded me somewhat of my travels in northern Mexico, with many dry pastures dotted with large granite boulders and roads lined with bright yellow flowers.
It’s clearly one of the most beautifully situated pueblos blancos, at the foot of the Sierra del Pinar, the region’s highest peak. Smack in the middle of the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, it’s also where you’ll find many of the trailheads.
If you looking to do a lot of hiking, you should definitely consider making Grazalema your base. For an interesting walk, check out the Cuerva de las Dos Puertas hike, which takes you to a cool cave-like rock formation. But there are many others, as you can see on Wikiloc. Canoeing, rock climbing, and other outdoor activities also take place in this area.
Even if you’re not hiking, staying in Grazalema town will put you in a central spot, from where you can take daytrips to other villages.
Amazing canyon hike north of Grazalema
Between Zahara and Grazalema exists a deep canyon called the Garganta Verde. The 7km trail down into the lush green gorge takes about 3 hours to walk. It’s quite simply a spectacular place and the highlight of the trip for me. (Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for epic nature.)
You see, not only is the gorge filled with amazing rock formations, but it’s also home to quite ludicrous numbers of large birds of prey. Among them are many Griffon vultures, which can reach a wingspan of up to 2.8m.
Looking over the gorge from above, eagles and vultures continuously appeared from different angles, sometimes even in small formations of five or six birds. At times they emerged incredibly close, their giant wings suddenly shooting out from behind the cliffs below. Not since I hiked the Colca Canyon in Peru, famed for its huge condors, has my jaw dropped quite this far by the sight of so many raptors.
The last part of the trail may require a permit and climbing gear to traverse. There are canyoning tours that can set you up with this, but you can independently walk most of the trail without much difficulty. This blog has a good write-up with tips.
Zahara de la Sierra
Picturesque village looking out over a lake
Zahara is another one-of-a-kind village. Taking its name from the Arab Al-Sajra, or castle on a hill, the town felt to me like a fantasy location — with its mountaintop castle guarding a white ribbon of houses lower down below. From the castle grounds or the church square, you’ll get some fantastic views of the adjacent lake, which was formed by a dam constructed there in the 90’ies.
The town itself is the sort of peaceful place where locals nibble on tapas and the only noise you’ll hear are the church bells every hour. The church square is a perfect place to order a bottle of local vino rioja and watch the world go by.
Although Zahara is one of the most eye-catching villages when seen from a distance, the town itself might not have quite as much going on as Arcos de la Frontera, Ronda, and others, perhaps making it more suited to a stopover.
The starting point of a lovely hike
Located just on the edge of the Grazalema Park, El Bosque might not seem quite as photogenic as some of the other white villages. It does have its share of cute white houses, but it does lack the kind of compact historical core of the other villages.
Nevertheless, I found it highly worth stopping in El Bosque for two reasons.
Firstly, a restaurant: La Casa Del Duende.
This place had been hotly tipped to us by a local. It may seem at first to be a cheesy theme restaurant (Duende means elf and the vibe is vaguely fairytale-inspired), but all the dishes are incredibly creative and tasty. If you’re craving a break from the usual tapas, you absolutely must go here. Each dish is a little work of art and all the veggies come from the restaurant’s own garden.
Secondly, El Bosque is where you’ll find the trailhead for the Sendero Rio Majaceite (Majaceite river trail). It’s a lovely and easy walk through more or less level terrain, tracing the Majaceite river up to the small town of Benamahoma. The walk takes about 90 minutes and it’s without ever a dull moment, as you go through beautiful fern- and moss-covered scenery with regular peek-throughs to distant mountains.
It’s not a circular route, but it’s easy to get a taxi in Benamahoma back to El Bosque. You can also walk the same way back, which is hardly an issue given how nice this trail is.
Another stunningly located mountain town
I only stopped briefly in Ubrique for a beer and a stroll, but I still wanted to give it a quick mention. It’s spectacularly situated in front of the crag of the Cruz de Tajo, tying Ubrique with Grazalema for having the most mountain village feel.
The road from Grazalema to Ubrique (the A-374) is amazing and goes through some very scenic valleys with hiking trails. The next time I return to the region, it will surely be around here.
Arcos de la Frontera
White village among the hills with crazy narrow streets
This incredible white village of Andalucia is situated on top of a narrow limestone ridge, offering gorgeous views on both sides. The town takes the concept of ‘tiny cobblestoned streets’ to another level, as some streets are barely wide enough to pass through by car.
(This reminded me of a particular scene from the Netflix show Master of None, where the main characters get their car stuck in a tiny Italian street. Fortunately, this fate did not befall onto us.)
I stayed in Arcos de la Frontera for two nights in an amazing Airbnb right next to the main church. The town had more of a lively atmosphere at night than some of the previous towns I’ve mentioned, with several nice bars and many cute restaurants. If you’ve had your fill of tapas at this point, try the fantastic Moroccan food at Restaurante Aljibe.
Arcos de la Frontera is situated a brief ride outside of the national park of Grazalema, not among the mountains but among gently flowing hills, giving it a different character of its town. It’s a beautiful and lively place that easily warrants a longer stay. Of all the white villages in the region, Arcos de la Frontera might well be my favorite.
Most easily reached white village (with an amazing bridge)
Finally, I have to mention Ronda, one of the tourist highlights in Andalucia. This remarkable town is split into two halves by an epic gorge and connected by a tall stone bridge.
Unlike the more remote pueblos blancos (white villages) mentioned before, Ronda is a larger town with many bus- and train connections to Malaga and other nearby cities. This has made it a popular day-trip destination for package tourists staying along the Costa Del Sol, so you can expect to see plenty of tour groups here during the summer.
It might not be as quiet as the other white villages of Andalucia, but Ronda is undeniably scenic and the walk to the bottom of the gorge is a must-do. I’ve been to Ronda thrice now and enjoyed it most in the offseason when it’s a bit quieter. Since it’s close to Malaga, it can make the perfect end- or starting point to a road trip through the region. You can read much more in my detailed post on Ronda.
How to plan a route
By car: The white villages are mostly concentrated in one area, so it’s easy to just string a bunch of them together and create a route between them. If you’re not sure which ones to pick, don’t worry about it much. Maybe have a look at hotel booking sites or Airbnb and find a nice place to stay, then plan your route and activities around it.
I have now been on three road trips through the region, each time starting and ending in Seville, since I lived there for a while. But if you’re travelling around Andalucia, it might make sense to make your trip start or end in Seville or Malaga, as the Sierra de Grazalema is basically right between those cities. If you’re renting a car, you may have to pay a fee in order to drop the car off in a different city.
By public transportation: The white villages of the Grazalema Natural Park are best visited on a road trip, but you could still experience a part of it by using public transportation.
Ronda is by far the easiest to reach by public transportation. Besides Ronda, it gets a bit more difficult. You could take the once-a-day-only bus from Ronda to Grazalema or Zahara, stay there for a night or two, and then go onwards to Seville. It’s not so easy, but it is possible.
Another possibility is to visit Arcos de la Frontera. Take the train from Seville to Jerez de la Frontera, then take a local bus to Arcos de la Frontera (it goes only 4 times a day).
Other cool stuff in this region
- Parahawking Project near Algodonales, letting you paraglide while getting up close and personal with the vultures
- Vía Verde de la Sierra, a bicycle route following an abandoned railway line featuring 30 tunnels and 4 bridges
- El Caminito del Rey, a famous hike along the steep walls of a narrow gorge in El Chorro
- And countless more pueblos blancos
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