The Desert of Tabernas

Where Hollywood is all around and nature is at its best

What to see in Tabernas: my version of a perfect day trip to Tabernas – a desert, olive oil and mucho-VIPs included

After all these years, the day trip to the Tabernas Desert still is one of my favourite getaways in Spain. This is because the tour is incredibly rich in variety and the small adventuress in me enjoys a day out in her playing field 😉

Personally, I would always go on a guided desert tour to explore the desert – whether on foot, by Jeep or by going the whole Lucky-Luke-Western hog on horseback.

The guys from Malcaminos do a terrific job with their Tabernas Desert Tour. During their guided tours, they let you in on all the secrets about the only desert in Spain. Oh, wait, that’s nonsense: it is in actual fact the only desert throughout Europe. The Malcaminos live and work in this beautiful spot Tabernas near Almería and, therefore, know the Tabernas Desierto like the back of their hands. And you’d be absolutely up the creek without a paddle without them and their boss, Cristina. Driving through the desert is strictly prohibited, and it can be dangerous, too. Hiking through the desert may be a wonderful experience, but you don’t get to see much at that speed … unless you’re a marathon runner 🙂

So, while you’re making yourself comfortable in the back seat of Cristina’s Jeep, she’s already firing some facts about the desert’s origin and history at you. As you drive past something, she’ll explain to you, what you’re actually looking at … More often than not, you only spot the wonders upon closer look. But if you thought, you could let Cristina’s info wash over you all snug in the backseat, you have another think coming. In order to see the most fascinating things, you need to get out of the car, leave the way and feel, taste and experience them with all your remaining senses. Far better, than just driving past them.

Let me mention that the matchless and felicitous Malcaminos Tabernas Desert Tour in a 4×4 costs €35 p.P. and is worth every penny!

Have you ever touched a mountain that just crumbles under your hands?

Difficult to imagine – but the bone-dry Tabernas Desert eked out a submerged existence for most of its time. Millions of years ago, the mountains were below the Mediterranean Sea level. Today, traces of former sea dwellers can still be found in the sandstone layers. The rocks are full of fossil shells, starfish and other marine creatures – all preserved since donkey’s years and here to stay for good.

Now, if you’re asking yourself why the sea has long since receded and what treasures it has left behind – Cristina and her staff are happy to explain this to you during the tour through the desert. Let me put it this way: it’s super exciting! But I can’t give the show away beforehand, can I 😉

The mountains are very interesting as it is. The individual sediment layers are easy to recognise even for the untrained eye. At a first glance, the mountains in the desert appear to be solid. However, closer inspection, along with a determined grasp, show that the “rock” just crumbles between your fingers. That’s because the mountains mainly consist of sand. Millions of years of exposure to rain and wind have shaped sensational forms that resemble a reptile, a chessboard or the head of a turtle. This meter-high sand creation peers down from a mountain. The Tabernas Desert is clearly one of Europe’s most fascinating landscapes. So it’s not without reason that this region is a haven for many geologists and other explorers – and tourists who, like me, sometimes just need to indulge in their spirit of discovery a bit.

Ugh! Did I get that right? You want me to eat plants?!

It would appear that life is impossible in these austere conditions. Far from it! Despite the hot and dry climate, the Tabernas Desert is bustling with animal and herbal life. Plants and animals are often true survivors and more adaptable than us humans. The most peculiar plants grow her that have adapted to the hostile climate. For instance, bushes whose thorns keep animals and, unfortunately, my humble self, too, at bay and that look so dry that they cannot possibly have a lick of life left in them. Little groundcovers that live on the rising groundwater – as it hardly ever rains, there are no supplies from above.

You will also find the typical Andalusian esparto grass here, oleander, thyme, prickly pear (cactus) and a whole slew of “parasitic plants”. Cristina tells me en route that they parasitize other plants with their roots to get food and water – the reason why they’re called parasites.

So while Cristina unblinkingly speeds through the Tabernas’ ramblas in her 4×4, you’ll come past one or the other white puddle, although it hasn’t rained. That’s the rising groundwater that I already mentioned. “Yeah, sure, but why is it white?” I can hear you say. Well, let me tell you that I learned it the hard way: Cristina asked me to rub my finger over a succulent’s leaf and to lick my finger afterwards. Or – in brief – to just lick the plant directly. Ugh, my word, that was salty! It was then that it hit me like a bolt, to WHAT EXTENT flora and fauna had to adjust for centuries in order to survive here. The Tabernas Desert weather, the heat, sun, drought and then that dwindling bit of utterly oversalted water … Not a good precondition for a life in abundance.

Speaking of life: derelict ruins, a windmill and a fresh water channel are silent witnesses that people once lived here – even if not entirely voluntarily.

A tiny excursion into Spanish history

At the time when the first people settled in this region, the desert was not yet what it is today. It sure was a hostile but also very valuable region, that only gradually turned into a desert. It was hostile because the groundwater was salty and climatic conditions were extremely complex.

When and why did people settle in the Tabernas Desert in the first place, if it was so hostile to life?

To answer that, we need to go on a short trip which takes us back into the late 15th and early 16th century in Spanish history. At the end of the 15th century the Spanish reconquest came to an end and the Moors, who lived on the Iberian Peninsular, were forced to convert to Christianity. Some of them fled to what we only know as a desert in order to avoid harassment and repression. Nestled between the mountains, they founded little villages and tried to turn over a new leaf.

These people had know-how about water usage accumulated over generations. They knew how to build a system to redirect and store the sparse (rain)water. They used the water to irrigate their fields in order to cultivate wheat. Rainwater, hence fresh water, was like gold for the desert dwellers.

But as the hostile environment turned more and more into the desert we know today, and the rainfall gradually subsided and eventually stopped altogether at the beginning of the 20th century, people left the Desierto and never returned.

The Tabernas Desert and animals – a paradise for all things that do creep and fly

The biggest animal you come across in the desert is the fennec fox. It is about the size of a big cat or a small dog – so it really is not that big and scary.

What most people are afraid of, however, are snakes. Unjustified, in my opinion, because these aren’t aggressive, killer monster snakes 😉

Snakes have a natural enemy: the Snake Eagle. If the Snake Eagle successfully hunts a snake and then rises up in the air with its prey in its claws … that’s simply a jaw-dropping experience.

And because the desert is home to zillions of insects, there are many bird species. It’s a haven for bird-watchers … A striking beauty is the Bee-eater. Other than the name may suggest, it also has wasps, dragonflies and cicadas on its daily menu. Just look at the picture! Isn’t it gorgeous? After the breeding season, we’ve got so many of them in our region – I could watch them all day.

The desert: film set and location

But when Cristina pulls out her iPad at the latest, it’s time for another highlight: an introduction into film history. Not only the desert, but the entire province of Almeria is one large film location. In the 1960s and 1970s, Sergio Leone (director) and Ennio Morricone (film music) and team made lots of Spaghetti Western movies in Tabernas. The three Western villages, that can still be visited today, also date back to this period. It is here, in the Wild West of Tabernas, that Clint Eastwood started his career, after Charles Bronson had become too expensive for the Dollars Trilogy. And you always have the tune of “Once Upon a Time in the West” stuck in your head 🙂

This is where Cristina’s job ends, and we address ourselves to “Western”. Just one more thing: Since very recently, Malcaminos also offer a Tabernas Desert Horse Riding Tour. So, if you’d like to get that proper Cowboy-feeling, you can do the Desert Tour on horseback.

Fancy a little anecdote about the film hotspot Tabernas Hollywood?

Recently, I e-met Helen in one of my online courses. As it happens, Helen’s grandmother used to live here. And Helen dropped a right bombshell? Her grandmother once met Sean Connery at Almeria airport, the nearest airport to Tabernas. Imagine me, for once, being at a complete loss for words. Well, he used to come here for shooting regularly, for instance, for “James Bond – Never say never”. In addition, he also came to Tabernas to shoot Indiana Jones and the last Crusade.

“Lawrence of Arabia” with Peter O’Toole, “Game of Thrones” and – drum roll – almost all Movies from Bully Herbig were filmed here. And Helge Schneider gave a concert a couple of years ago. You might not know this German cabaret artist. “Why on earth are you telling me this”, I can hear you think. Because on the ticket was a picture of him on the gallows. And that picture was made here in Tabernas in Fort Bravo. Since then, I dream of The Boss Hoss following suit with a concert in Fort Bravo – they’ve already got the cowboy hats, so you never know … In fact, I’ve already written to the management. But they wanted to see some money in advance, probably as security, which I don’t happen to keep under my pillow right now. But as you know, while there’s life, there’s hope 🙂

But let’s get back to the western villages. Which offers what?

Fort Bravo – Cowboys and a carriage ride

Fort Bravo in Tabernas is the only remaining western village that is still used for making movies regularly. The film set is in very good condition. In the saloon you can enjoy a whisky as you watch lightly dressed ladies swing their legs to the Cancan in the saloon while cowboys are riding around outside – when, all of a sudden, a wounded cowboy, who managed to collect a bullet, staggers into the saloon. And … ACTION! And just like that, you’re right in the middle of one of the famous Tabernas Desert movies 🙂

Every October, the vast grounds of Fort Bravo are the venue of the Tabernas Western Film Festival. Lots of actors visit the festival, quite often some stars from the former Spaghetti Western. In 2018, the committee welcomed the still wonderful Claudia Cardinale.

The entrance fee for Fort Bravo is around €20 p.p. and includes a carriage ride. For some, that may seem a lot, but running a facility like this costs a fair amount of money … and it’s money well spent for western enthusiasts.

Watch this video to get a first impression.

OASYS – a bank robbery a day

OASYS Mini Hollywood in Tabernas is very much a family theme park which comes with a western village, swimming pool and a zoo. The film set is in excellent condition. Those who love western shows, will definitely get their money’s worth. There’s a bank robbery every day along with the whole enchilada: first the robber ends up behind bars, then on the gallows – until his accomplices free him. Not without mucho-banging, of course. A massive spectacle! There’s also a great exhibition of original film props and a western film museum.

You can get a smack of the gun smoke in this promo video.
Although the entrance fee is slightly higher than Fort Bravo, it offers much to families who can easily spend the entire day here.

Western Leone – on the trail of Terence Hill

As the name suggests, the very Sergio Leone himself had this village built for his movies. Bud Spencer and Terence Hill were also here to make a film. Today, sadly, it is the most deserted of the remaining western villages. But the entrance fee of €12 is well below the other villages’ fees.

By the way, you can do a great tour through the village on horseback – once in the saddle you get that instant western feeling!

Terence Hill received an award for his work in Almería in 2016 and was a guest at the Almería Western Film Festival.

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And what else is there to see in Tabernas – apart from the desert?

People say, the journey is its own reward. So we’ve got a proper secret way for your trip to Tabernas up our sleeves.

I’ll give you the directions with a helping look at Google here at the Cortijo. It’s a very small road that doesn’t seem at all tempting at first glance. It “only” leads through a beautiful, very diverse scenery. You drive through a small ancient tunnel, stray from the right path only to speed through the Rambla like a daredevil. But only very briefly – don’t worry! … and on a side note: so far none of our guests has met anyone on this road. The road may well be an insider tip for our locals 🙂

When you arrive in Lucainena from Polopos (doesn’t it sound like a Greek word?) via this beautiful route through untouched nature, you can stop at the old ironwork before you continue your journey to Tabernas.

The furnaces are in good condition. You get quite a good impression of how people used to work here in its time. The processed iron was shipped all over the world from the now closed port of Agua Amarga. You’ve actually driven on the former railway line leading to the port. It has been transformed into a “Via Verde” – a cycle and hiking trail that takes you through this paradisiacal speck of land.

Tabernas village: truly scrumptious lunch specials

With its 3,700 inhabitants, Tabernas has more of a sleepy village feel. If it’s shopping you’re after, Tabernas village hasn’t much to offer, really. However, there are the remains of the Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress, resting high up on a hill. Unfortunately, it fell victim to an earthquake and was almost completely destroyed. From up here, you can enjoy a magnificent view of the Tabernas Desert and the various film sets.

There’s a little bridge further down in the village. Right next to it is the Bar El Puente – my absolute favourite bar and a true insider tip. It has a scrummy lunch special at a very reasonable price. It’s mostly only €10 – wine included! Once in a while, they serve proper Almerian traditional cooking. It may not be the healthiest, what Alermía has to offer, but – you can take my word for it – it’s absolutely delicious. And the service is unparalleled: the boss is all smiles and serves his wife’s food with the same passion that his wife applies for cooking. I always like to remember a lunch I had with 2 bloggers here: the boss served a never ceasing stream of food – we had to try everything. The result was a car with a little overload and three women with very happy faces 🙂

Oro del Desierto: organic olive oil at its best

You might have noticed along your journey from Mojacar to Tabernas that the way is lined with olive groves. The “Gold of the Desert”, one of the world’s best organically produced extra virgin olive oils, is produced here in Tabernas at the oil mill Almanzara de Tabernas by the family Alonso. And they’ve already received several awards. A late satisfaction given that the whole village once laughed at the grandfather for his idea. Organic farming wasn’t really fashionable in this area, and it hasn’t really changed much, to be honest 😉

What I find absolutely fascinating is the fact that even the tiniest bit of the harvest is used. What doesn’t stand up to the demands of the top products, is fed to the animals or used as compost. Even the pits are made to pellets for heating. Zero waste – if that’s not sustainable, I don’t know what is!!!

You will learn all this and heaps more at the “Oro del Desierto” museum, where the three Alonso gentlemen are happy to explain the difference between the production of the past and today – free of charge. It goes without saying that you can taste all the different olive oils. And to top it all off, there’s also the Oro del Desierto Restaurante which somehow is only the logical consequence 😉

Obviously, the family is pleased when you buy a bottle of Tabernas olive oil to take home with you. After all, this is how they finance the informative, free guided tours. My personal tip: the olive oil “Coupage” from Arbequina, Hojiblanca and Picual. But taste it yourself and let me know which one you liked best.

Central Solar de Tabernas

In recent years, sustainability has not only become fashionable because of the family Alonso. The Plataforma Solar de Almería is one of the world’s largest research, development and test centres for solar power technologies. And not without reason: the Tabernas weather on average has more than 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, making this region excellently suited for this. More than 20,000 square metres of solar panels are installed on the more than 100-hectare area.

Those wanting to dive deeper into the topic of sustainable solar energy will find an information centre, lectures and a tour of the plant with the relevant explanations. All others can happily do something better with their time 🙂

Circuito de Nueva Andalucía: Europe’s sunniest circuit

Do you get weak in the knees at the thought of lots of horsepower? Then the Circuito de Nueva Andalucía is just right for you – the racetrack with the most hours of sun in Europe.

This is where products are tested, commercials are shot, and our bikers are always happy to put the pedal to the metal. Every year in January we look forward to our motorbike groups and THEY look forward to our surroundings, landscape and one of the best racing tracks in Europe. Forget the Nürburgring 😉

What’s more, you’ll encounter the topic of horsepower on almost every corner. If you move around in the province of Almería, you will inevitably come across the so-called “Erlkönig” – prototypes of cars concealed beyond recognition. Almost all car makes put their cars, motorbikes, lorries and everything else on four wheels with a motor through their paces. But no matter how well they are masked – the trained eyes of the locals always know exactly which brand is putting a new model to the acid test.

And with that we now come to the end of a long day’s excursion, with the most important attractions in Tabernas.

A little extra tip for your trip from Mojacar to the Tabernas Desert

There are a few things to keep in mind for this day trip:

  1. Sturdy shoes are the real deal – for once you can leave your flip-flops at home
  2. Take cash with you, that’s the best way to pay for the Jeep Tour
  3. Take sufficient water with you. It’s going to be hot …
  4. Book the Malcaminos Jeep Tour in advance!!!

The Tabernas Desert – facts and figures

Tabernas and also the eponymous desert are located in the province of Almería in Andalusia. Here are a few facts at the end:

Location:                    Sandwiched between the Sierra de Alhamilla and the Sierra de los Filabres
Surface:             	    approx. 280 km
Rainfall: 			    240 mm p.a. on average
Hours of sunshine:   approx. 3000 p.a.
Temperatures:          from -5°C to +50°C (23 °F to 122 °F) according to the season

Would you like to find out more about the attractions of Almeria? You’ll find everything you need for a successful holiday in Almería here.

Got questions? Write me an email and I’ll be more than happy to help.

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