With the best climate in Europe and hundreds of miles of Mediterranean coastline, it’s little wonder that the Costa del Sol became such a popular destination for European sun-seekers. Some will lament the nature-spoiling megalopolis of tourist towns that grew together along the coast, though Marbella and Puerto Banus continue to attract the economic elite. But for the growing number of luxury travelers who value culture, natural beauty, authentic experiences and privacy as much as comfort, there is an attractive alternative to the glitz and see-and-be-seen ostentation of the west end of the Costa del Sol: La Axarquía and the coast stretching eastward from Malaga.
To the east of Malaga the tourist crowds are thinner, the 70s era apartment bloques fewer and the concentration of authentic little white-washed villages greater. The little known region of La Axarquía sits at the eastern tip of Malaga province with a surprisingly green and mountainous terrain pushing up to the coast between Velez-Malaga and Maro. Here the ancient history and culture are readily accessible, the views and nature unimaginable and the pace of life as slow as you like. And if you know where to go you’ll want for nothing.
From here you are within an easy day trip of the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Alhambra in Granada and the Mezquita in Cordoba, and you really must go; but for more local exploration, here are five tips to get you started:
Experience the culture, passion and peculiarity of the region through the many festivals running from April to October. Every city and village without exception will have at least one festival a year that is unique to that place, and the locals’ enthusiasm is infectious. There are cultural fiestas such as the festival of the Three Cultures in Frigiliana (August), celebrating the history of the Moors, Christians and Jews in the region; gastronomic festivals such as the morcilla festival in Canillas de Aceituno, serving up tonnes of black pudding every April; and religious celebrations, epitomised by the solemn and colourful processions of the Semana Santa leading up to Easter, the memory of which will stay vivid in your mind for years to come. If it’s a party you want, Flamenco dance your way through the nine day Feria de Malaga in August, when every day is a street party in the old centre and the revelry runs through the night at the Malaga fair grounds. You really must see it to believe it.
La Maroma is the name of the highest mountain peak in the Sierra Tejeda range, at the edge of the Malaga-Granada border. Many of the pueblos blancos of La Axarquía rest on the slopes of La Maroma with amazing views past the mountains to the sea (and the Moroccan coast on a clear day), with endless hiking trails in between. The entire area is a massive mountain nature reserve that also includes the Sierra Almijara and Sierra Alhama ranges, home to numerous species of rare birds (you’re almost certain to see eagles), mountain goats and the Iberian Lynx. Gorges, waterfalls, pre-historic caves, remnants of Phoenician, Roman and Moorish civilizations – it is a hiker’s paradise without doubt. Many of the villages will offer detailed maps and possibly contact information for trail guides; for example, there is a tourist office in Canillas de Aceituno where you can find information, and from there it is only a seven hour trek to the very summit of La Maroma at almost 2100m. However, if you’re not quite up to all of this hiking but still want to see the terrain for yourself, you can hire a small plane from the nearby Axarquía – Leoni Benabu Airport to fly you past. Otherwise, for even more adventure, try paragliding through.
Where to eat
Restaurante Sollun in Nerja, with Chef Juan Quintanilla, earned a well deserved Michelin recognition in 2012 for creative and impressive Spanish cuisine, and a personal approach to service. It’s one of the most exciting restaurants anywhere between Malaga and Almeria with a unique modern flair applied to traditional Spanish classics with occasional elements of fusion. The menu is always changing and with only about five tables in the dining room, you’d better reserve a table in advance and before word gets out much further. For more casual fare, the numerous chiringuitos right on the beach all along the coast offer the freshest of seafood and the coldest of beer in the most relaxed of environments.
The most beautiful and isolated beaches lie near Maro, just beyond Nerja, and eastward into Granada province at La Herradura. Here the cliffs rise dramatically from the sea and many of these beaches lie within national parkland so they’re protected reserves. Exploring is half the fun, and of course, the more remote the beach the fewer people you will encounter. Playa Cantarrijan, in a cove right at the border between Malaga and Granada provinces, is a favourite. With two chiringuitos right on the beach you needn’t bring your own food and drink, and there is a more private section of beach accessible by an ankle deep traverse around a huge rock sticking out of the sea. The most secluded and hidden beaches will be most easily accessed on a small boat chartered from nearby Caleta de Velez or La Herradura.
Where to stay
While there are some four star hotels in the area, if it’s authentic exploration you’re after and an insight into local life, you’ll definitely want to stay in a private villa where you can live like a local. Try an established villa rental and tour company such as A&K Villas or an independent luxury villa rental agent. A new startup company called Caramel Trail is even developing full luxury trip planning services with accommodation in La Axarquía. You can stay on or near the beach, but a property in the hills off of the coast will offer a more culturally immersive and authentic experience.
Alan Hazel is Owner and Director of Cortijo El Carligto.