Though known for its cities and beaches, Spain has a wealth of idyllic rural locations in which to escape the crowds and truly relax. Mostly undiscovered by foreign tourists, the lush valleys of Los Alcornocales Natural Park in Andalusia are the perfect place to disconnect and immerse yourself in nature.
On the mountainous border between Cádiz and Málaga provinces, the park stretches seawards through the Campo de Gibraltar to the Sierra de Grazelema east of Ronda. The picturesque pueblo-blanco of Jimena de la Frontera is the perfect place from which to explore this beautiful and unspoilt area.
Wind up through cobbled streets to the hill-top castle. From here, views stretch beyond Gibraltar to the African coast on a clear day. Jimena’s surprisingly green valleys have attracted not just rare birds but a thriving English ex-pat community. The area is certainly enticing; its rivers are said to be the purest in Europe and thanks to its unique sub-tropical climate rare species of flora and fauna make their home here.
Walking trails & Hikes
From more sedentary pleasures to opportunities to get your heart-racing, there’s plenty to do here whatever your fitness level. Famous for its walking trails, these also range from strolls to serious hiking.
A great place to start is along the Hozgarganta river. Although this ‘sendero’ can be done in a couple of hours, it’s impossible to resist spending more time here. Enjoy the breathtaking views whilst relaxing with your feet in the river. As its crystal-clear waters are deep enough to swim, go prepared with a picnic and perhaps your bathing suit! Guides to all Jimena walking trails can be picked up at the tourist office or try these maps for more demanding hikes.
If the long days of 2020 inspired you to become more active or take up a new hobby, cycling and horseriding are great ways to see more of this captivating landscape.
Easy-going flat cycle tracks lead along the railway towards Marchenilla, the town of Castellar and the coast. Guides to this and more strenuous routes are available from the tourist office. Hire bikes from the tourist apartments at Hacienda Don Luis, located close to Jimena station.
If you’re a real two-wheel enthusiast, Hire and Bike Holidays offer an Alcornocales self-guided cycling tour starting from the mountains around Ronda. On this epic adventure, with tough climbs and thrilling descents, you’ll pass through pine-covered hills and dramatic gorges, ending in Tarifa on the coast.
Horses are an integral part of Los Alcornocales life. Riding is a fantastic way to savour its varied landscape, passing herds of cattle and goats, crossing the foothills on the mountains or splashing through its riverbeds.
20 minutes from Jimena, Hotel Castellar offer an entire Equestrian Weekend with a stay at its modern yet elegant hotel. Placid horses and experienced guides make this break suitable for any rider, no matter how experienced. In addition to five hours in the saddle spread over two days, you can enjoy a variety of other on-site facilities like its pool, tennis courts and spa.
Rancho Los Lobos offers 2 to 3 hour rides starting out from its hotel on the edge of Jimena. The ranch offers specialist riding holidays – see the ‘where to stay’ section for more on their beautiful boutique hotel. For a truly unique and unforgettable Alcornocales experience, try one of their moonlit rides which includes a tapas stop. Rancho Los Lobos hacks are suited to more experienced riders.
Wild Family Days Out
See a wide variety of animals from native deer to more exotic lions, zebras and even kangaroos at La Pequeña Africa Wildlife Reserve. The animals live in semi-freedom in the vast reserve, as similar as possible to their natural habitats. In addition to its animals, the park offers a variety of activities such as adventure play areas, zip wires, workshops and kayaking – plenty to keep the children entertained.
Starting out as an animal rescue centre in 1988, Castellar Zoo has provided care for hundreds of animals who otherwise would not have survived. Since opening to the public in 2002, it has become a popular attraction due to its huge variety of animals and the intimate environment in which you can view them.
After all that fresh air and exercise, you should have worked up a good appetite. Jimena offers many appealing places to eat, from quality tapas at great prices amongst the narrow village streets to secluded terraces perfect for romantic evenings.
Bar ‘La Cabra’ (Plaza de la Constitución). Perfectly placed in a sunny corner of the square, sit here with a drink watching passers-by or gazing over towards the mountains. Try their delicious tapas including homemade croquetas and enjoy their friendly service.
Bar España (Calle Sevilla). Don’t be deceived by the decidedly ordinary exterior of this place. Located across from the Ayuntamiento, Bar España is a tardis whose hidden beauty lies in the incredible views from its terrace at the rear. Specialising in breakfasts, (including churros) and tapas, they also serve excellent fish dishes. It’s a particular favourite with locals on Sundays so it’s advisable to book ahead!
Café Bar Felalo (Calle Santa Ana). On a sunny weekend afternoon, its tables along Calle Santa Ana are packed with locals for good reason. The tapas here are beautifully cooked and the menu so varied you’re bound to discover some delicious new dish. Authentic, with a great atmosphere and welcoming service, this makes a great spot for lunch.
Bar Cuenca (Avenida de los Deportes). A successful, family run restaurant since the 1920’s, Bar Cuenca sits on the crossroads on the edge of the old part of the village. Expect hearty, traditional Andalusian cooking; mushroom and game dishes give the menu a real local flavour. Like all the village bars mentioned, Cuenca also delights on price; its three course menu del día was named ‘best value meal in Andalusia’ in web reviews.
Restaurante La Estacion (Estación de San Pablo). San Pablo lies about a mile from the main village, amongst fields of dozing horses and orange groves. Taking its name from its station-side location, this restaurant is perfect for a special celebration or treat. Vegetarians will especially appreciate the variety of options they are presented with here.
The interior, full of rustic charm, leads onto a leafy terrace and garden. Sourced from and inspired by local produce, there’s something for everyone’s taste. Try beef tenderloin stuffed with nuts and dates or the confit artichokes. They also serve salads, fish and pasta dishes all of which come in generous portions.
Where to Stay
The Jimena area has an amazing variety of good quality lodgings, whether you prefer to enjoy the countryside from a boutique hotel or a traditional cottage. If you’re really determined to be at one with nature there’s also a great site to camp out underneath the stars.
Rancho Los Lobos – A little outside the village, this renovated 100 year old building offers beautifully decorated, spacious rooms surrounded by fields. It offers not only boutique hotel style, but a great range of onsite activities from horseriding to yoga to a spa and beauty treatments. The aim of its English-speaking owners is to ensure guests leave feeling totally rested and revitalised. Unsurprisingly, guests’ reviews call this place ‘a little piece of heaven’.
Casa Henrietta – A grand, original townhouse in the centre of Jimena. Refurbished to boutique hotel standards, it offers 13 charming en suite bedrooms spread over over three floors. Its roof-top solarium has castle views and the bar terrace has views over the mountains towards Ronda. The hotel also has an excellent restaurant and a quaint little shop selling art, crafts and other trinkets from Jimena and across the world.
El Diplomatico Feo – Taking its name from the illustrious career of its Canadian owner, this B&B in the hills of San Pablo is anything but ugly. Its impeccable gardens, terrace and pool overlooking the mountains combined with huge, rustic, tastefully decorated rooms make this a beautiful place to relax. Bruce and Ingrid make welcoming hosts with inside tips on the best walks and excursions to take in the area. They also have bikes which guests can use free of charge.
Individual suites in 18th century Spanish town house – English owner Monica offers three impeccable apartments, each sleeping two people, within a traditional yet palatial house. In addition to their own apartment, guests have access to the large central patio and salon, where they can relax, read, listen to music or mingle with others if they wish. In addition, guests have exclusive use of the private rear pool and patio.
Charming traditional cottage with stunning views – On a cobbled street close to the castle, ‘La Casita de Ana’ is so homely and comfortable you’ll probably want to extend your stay. Although there’s ample room for a family, the cottage is also perfect for a couple thanks to a romantic terrace and balcony with sweeping views across the valley. Offering the perfect balance between traditional style and mod cons, José Carlos is also an exceptionally helpful host with a wide knowledge of the local area.
Camping Los Alcornocales (Carretera Cruz Blanca) – In a prime riverside position, the site also offers comfortable chalet bungalows if you’re not ready to brave nature under canvas. Bungalows have their own bathrooms and terraces and sleep from 3 to 6 people. The site also has a fantastic pool and restaurant.
Jo James writes Everything Español, with regular guides on travel and destinations, Spanish culture and tips on learning the language.