The Sierra de Grazalema is a phenomenal part of Andalucia, filled with gnarly mountains, flowing oak tree forests, and shimmering white-washed towns dating back to Roman and Moorish times.
But my biggest surprise was the Garganta Verde, a lush green canyon home to countless eagles and giant vultures.
If you like places that aren’t yet overflowing with tourists, then chances are you’ll be into this beautiful region home to many pueblas blancas (white towns). 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 some years ago on a classic city-hopping trip, stopping only in major hubs like Seville and Malaga. It was on my most recent visit that I realized some of the best stuff is actually tucked inside the Sierra de Grazalema mountain range — away from train or bus connections, but perfect for a road trip.
Here are a few notes from each place I visited.
Setenil de las Bodegas
On first approach, Setenil may seem pretty enough, but quite like any other village in Andalucia. Once you realize how it’s built right around a deep and narrow gorge, you begin to appreciate just 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.
My next stop was Grazalema, a white village 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.
Sadly we couldn’t stay in Grazalema for too long as there was a huge fiesta taking place, which attracted so many people from the other villages that it was impossible to park anywhere. It was nevertheless easy to tell that Grazalema is one of the most beautifully located pueblos blancos. Right at the heart of the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, it’s also where many of the hiking trails depart.
If you plan not to drive a circular route through the region, but to take smaller trips from a central base, then Grazalema might just be the perfect place to stay a few nights. It’s a beautiful town and the main spot within the Grazalema Natural Park for hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, and other outdoor activities.
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.
Puerto de las Palomas
If you’re driving between Grazalema and Zahara, then it’s worth stopping at the viewing points of Puerto de las Palomas and Puerto de los Acebuches, from where you can see all the valleys below.
The observation deck made for a fine picnic spot!
Zahara de la Sierra
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.
Finally, I have to mention Ronda, as it is one of the top tourist highlights in Andalucia and easily added to a road trip to the white villages.
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.
It’s not as quiet as the white villages of Andalucia, but Ronda is undeniably scenic and the walk to the bottom of the gorge is a must-do. I’ve now been to Ronda twice and enjoyed it most when I visited outside of the weekend, when the vibe is a bit more quiet, but even on a busy weekend it’s highly worth visiting. Since it’s close to Malaga, it can make the perfect end- or starting point to a road trip through the region.
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 easiest to reach; from there, you could take the once-a-day-only bus to Grazalema or Zahara, stay there for a night or two, and then go onwards to Seville. This will clearly require some careful planning, and to fully experience the white villages of Andalucia, it’s best to rent a car and explore by yourself.
How to plan a route
The white villages are mostly concentrated in one area, so it’s easy to string a bunch together and create a route between them.
We started and ended the trip in Seville, since we were staying in the city for a longer period. But if you’re travelling around Andalucia, it might make more sense to travel between Seville and Malaga, as the Sierra de Grazalema is basically located in the middle between them. If you’re renting a car, you may have to pay a fee in order to drop the car off in a different city.
Another possibility is to drive via the coastal city of Cádiz, where you can catch a nice ocean breeze before heading to Seville.
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
- Caminito del Rey, a famous hike along the steep walls of a narrow gorge in El Chorro (needs pre-booking)
- And countless more pueblos blancos