FEDERICO Garcia Lorca once described La Alpujarra as ‘the land of nowhere’, and this remained true when I first visited in the early 2000s.
It was as if time stood still in the charming, white villages and the vast, open spaces with the background hum of crickets.
Our trip was to see friends who had bought land near the village of Lobras, a 45-minute drive from the spiritual, central hub of Orgiva, where they could enjoy a slower pace of life, restore a ruin, and keep animals.
Fresh off the plane from Malaga Airport, I was immediately impressed by the Alpujarran landscape with its imposing mountains that dropped down to leafy terraces laden with olive groves, and just about any fruit tree you could name.
While the winding roads seemed to go on forever, the views and closeness to nature more than compensated for the distance. The endless sunshine and – of course – the local vino and tapas was a great bonus.
On a later visit to Almegijar, my friends and I lost the booking itinerary and our sense of direction. Hopelessly wandering the Sierra de Contraviesa, miles off-route, we passed through a small village where people were laying down what looked like twigs in the road (years later, I discovered this was esparto grass, used for weaving the likes of shoes and blinds and lampshades).
As the designated driver, I couldn’t decide what to do – continue over the unknown material or stop and wait for guidance. The famous book on the region, Driving Over Lemons, by Chris Stewart had taken over a new meaning: Were we driving over someone’s livelihood? On that occasion, we waited, I am pleased to report.
We eventually found Almegijar, and discovered that our accommodation was a rustic farmhouse, shared with several generations of the host family.
The traditional Spaniards looked bemused as we downed a five-litre bottle of grandpa’s ‘costavin’, before passing out on the lawn, in the true style of mad dogs and Englishmen in the midday sun.
Back in those days, I was a ‘townie’ and had few skills that could apply to rural settings. Changing bottles of butane gas to shower and cook can be difficult if you’re used to England’s piped supply.
Going out in the mountains with friends, it took me a while to realise that a hot day didn’t automatically equate to a warm night. I remember trying to borrow someone’s yoga mat as a cover, because I was shivering, and was curtly told to give it back.
At that time, the Alpujarra was markedly different to the more modern, tourist savvy destinations of today. The villages had few amenities and some clearly hadn’t seen many extranjeros (foreigners).
Outside the main towns of Orgiva and Lanjaron, shopping was very limited and there were no fancy goods. Most shops stocked largely local produce, which was great if you were a massive carnivore.
In the mid-2000s, Orgiva reminded me of a frontier town, where locals rode around in dodgy old Land Rovers and attended all-night parties in the nearby settlements of Cigarrones or El Morreon. There were dozens of New Age types around every corner and I was reminded of Glastonbury festival, but in the hot sun.
I’ll never forget the legendary Dragon Festival in Cigarrones – a week-long bash that almost never stopped. Unfortunately, a visiting friend from Brighton didn’t share my enthusiasm, pronouncing it ‘like a dusty Mad Max’ and dragging me away, crestfallen, to a quiet bar.
I eventually relocated with my young sons to the spa town of Lanjaron, which is best known for its spring water and annual festival of water and ham that coincides with the saint’s day of San Juan.
Although I’ve enjoyed the mass San Juan water fight on June 24 – when thousands of revellers run around, throwing water at each other while shouting, ‘oi oi, mucho agua, mucho agua’ – I’m getting too old for such shenanigans. A night-time soaking, even in summer, is bracingly cold. These days, I prefer photographing the colourful event from a vantage point, away from the powerful municipal water hoses.
Over the years, we saw Lanjaron become increasingly busy, with the introduction of mountain bike events, car rallies, and growth in the tourism sector. Although I still love the town, it was time to move onwards… and upwards.
Seeking a more tranquil setting, we relocated to a mountain idyll at 1,700m, among the pine, oak, and roble trees, and with ample room for dogs and horses.
I love the high sierra, where you can drive through a shady pine forest, head up a steep mountain track, go over the ridge, and look down on the villages of Capileira, Bubion and Pampaneira nestled below. This is a beautiful sight in winter, when snow has fallen, and the white peaks form an impressive backdrop behind Capileira.
Fresh air, mountain trails and proximity to some of my favourite places, including the Poqueira Valley, Soportujar, and La Taha, is more than enough to convince me La Alpujarra is my home.
Top Tips – Jo Chipchase’s insider guide on what to do in the Alpujarra
Two of my favourite remote spots are the Puente Palo recreation area above Canar – a shaded spot in the pine forest – and the Dique 24 dam of the Rio Chico between Canar and Soportujar, which has a 30-metre waterfall. Watch out if you suffer from vertigo! The Dique 24 is on the ancient GR7 footpath that runs through Spain to France.
I also love the GR 240 ‘Sendero Sulayr’ trail that runs from Puente Palo to Capileira and gives impressive views over the Poqueira Valley and the white villages. I’ve ridden there a few times, but the trail is currently in bad condition for hooved animals.
Not far from this trail, you can navigate to the Buddhist retreat centre of O Sel Ling and view the statue of Tara. You could also head down to Soportujar: a busy town with a witchy theme park vibe.
A trip along the A-4132
If you don’t enjoy Shank’s Pony, La Alpujarra is great for car trips. Driving towards Trevelez, on the A-4132 from Orgiva, you’re within 35 mins of Pampaneira, Bubion and Capileira, and La Taha of Pitres.
Near Pitres, the unspoilt village of Atalbeitar is attractive for photos and affords peace and quiet. From there, a narrow and steep road leads down to Ferreirola, and then to Mecina Fondales, which has several bars and restaurants – including a vegetarian option – as well as the Fondales hotel.
Leaving Pitres and heading along the A-4132 for another 14km, you come to Trevelez, which is best known for its cured ham – ‘jamon serrano’ – which hangs from the ceiling of bars.
Although an overdose of ham isn’t really my thing, I’ve been there in winter when a heavy snowfall occurred. It was picture postcard pretty, and I still use the photos for Christmas cards.
Take the A-4130 out of Trevelez and, in 19km, you come to the town of Berchules. This town holds an unusual, annual fiesta known as “New Year in August” – a custom which started in 1994, after an electricity outage kyboshed the normal celebration on 31 December. I’ve attended this crazy event: it’s odd to experience Christmas traditions in the heat of summer.
The gems of Nevada
If you take the high road from Berchules, rather than passing through the lower towns of Ugijar and Cherin, you reach Nevada – a charming municipality combining Laroles, Júbar, Mairena and Picena. On route, you drive through Yegen, where celebrated expat writer Gerald Brennan lived from 1919 to 1936.
Some of his accounts of village life ring true to this day, and his famous book, ‘South from Granada’, is well worth reading if you’re interested in rural Spain and its history.
Past Mairena – home of Las Chimeneas hotel – it is worth stopping at Laroles.
My family has enjoyed many happy visits to this town. Laroles has a cultural week called ‘Me Vuelves Lorca’, geared around the famous playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, in the first week of August. It’s also an ideal base for outdoor pursuits.
One of our favourite spots is Puerta de Ragua, a 20min drive up the A-337. Located at 2,000m, it affords panoramic views to the east if you walk up the slope behind the main car park. This is a site for winter sports, such as skiing or sledging. If you continue over the hairpin mountain pass, you can see the ancient castle of La Calahorra and emerge at Guadix.
Also located near Laroles is the charming town of Bayarcal, which has a new adventure sports centre and restaurant, called La Talama. The zip line looks exciting – but maybe I’ll just watch the teens.
And on towards Almeria…
Heading past Bayarcal towards Laujar de Andarax, you enter the Almerian Alpujarra. Comprising 22 towns, this area is easily accessible via the fast A-348 primary road connecting Lanjaron and Almeria.
I recommend the A-348 to anyone wanting a day trip through the Granada and Almeria Alpujarra, without too many twists and turns.