Andalusia: Spain’s Magical Climbing Mecca

El Chorro may be past its heyday  but with armfuls of perfect limestone, sheer cliffs above dazzling waters and an excellent quality of life outside the climbing  it retains its magic, its inherent beauty, its palpable sanctity.

2nd January 2021 | Words by Chris Kalman

What I recall is Andalusia - or some part of it - as I came to know it, not long ago.

What I recall are colors: burnt sienna, slate blue, dull polished gray, and aquamarine. What I recall are shapes: limestone blobs like dripped wax, the narrow leaves of an olive tree, rolling hill sides like the back of some leviathan - as far as the eye can see. What I recall are sounds: “You got it!” in more languages than one could count, the hostel-keeper’s parrots, the whoosh of dive-bombing swallows deep in some cave. What I recall are intangibles, fever dreams, the magic of the Alhambra - all ensconced in stone. Sitting on a stone bench in a hermit’s hovel beneath a towering wall of limestone; battling my way upside down, through armfuls of perfect limestone out a cave called The Poem; walking the path of the king, a narrow via ferrata along sheer cliffs above dazzling waters below. People, the smell of tarragon, thyme, and rosemary, tapas, churros, and cold Estrella Damm on a hot sunny day.

Alhambra palace, Granada, Spain
If you want to know something of Andalusia, you’re better off reading between the lines.

It would be easy to plop down at your desk, do some research on the web, and come up with a sort of vague reckoning of this magical climbing paradise, and unique part of the world. You might google El Chorro. Follow the click hole to El Makinodromo. Continue on to Desplomilandia. And, finally, take a sidetrack to the Alhambra, Granada, Seville, and other exotic sounding places with colorful descriptions, facts, and figures.

El Chorro pathway of death
See the place for its magic, for its inherent beauty, for its palpable sanctity.

But if you want to know something of Andalusia, you’re better off reading between the lines. Of the Alhambra, rather than important dates and names, note the dust shining effervescently in the shafts of light that slip through the architecture itself. Of the Sacromonte, I would call your attention not to the historical Gypsy settlements residing in hill-bound caves, but the translucent spots where the hands slap the drum. At a Flamenco show, note the creases along the eyes of the guitarist, close your own eyes and feel the feet of the dancer beat the floor. And of the climbing, I would advise you to look beyond the routes, as a reader might gaze beyond the words of the poem. See the place for its magic, for its inherent beauty, for its palpable sanctity.

Caminito del Rey canyon and trail

See El Chorro.

“See El Chorro” is what you might see in a footnote to an article about climbing in Spain. While it was all the mode in the 80’s, one could say El Chorro is now well-past its heyday. Now, it seems the province on the tip of everyone’s tongue is Catalunya. “Siurana,” the people say, “Santa Linya,” awed whispers murmur, “Oliana,” others still pronounce. El Chorro is the place on nobody’s mind, the zone that draws no attention from the pros, the world-class crag that climbing forgot. All of which, of course, is part of the appeal.

King's Little Path, El Caminito del Rey

The number of things that conspire in the favor of El Chorro for the ordinary climber, instead of some more “in vogue” locations, is sizable. It is a much more pleasant locale in the colder winter months than areas to the North. It features more than 2,000 safely bolted sport routes - the majority of which clock in under 8a. And, most importantly, the quality of life outside of the climbing is incredibly high. The manicured groves of olive trees, the dirtbags camping inside the caves, the posh but affordable accommodations of La Finca la Campana. While everyone and their mother books tickets to Kalymnos, the quiet, sleepy, bucolic lifestyle of this miniature end-of-the-road-town awaits those who envision “something different.”

The quiet, sleepy, bucolic lifestyle of this miniature end-of-the-road-town awaits those who envision “something different".

Imagine rolling out of bed to a simple breakfast of café, yogurt, fresh fruit, and toast. Imagine wandering along a hundred-year-old walkway so narrow, and so sheer, that you don your harness and clip in to protection as you go. Imagine the sounds of birds in the morning light, a warm Mediterranean breeze cruising up the hills as day turns to night. Imagine tapas, aceitunas, paella, and sangria. Imagine darkness, stars, the quiet country, dreams of pilgrims and stone. And then, imagine waking in the morning and doing it all again. It’s a fine way to live.

Marbella Beach on Costa del Sol

There is something of a sleepy magic that seems to inhabit all of Andalusia. Beyond El Chorro, there is the picturesque beach town of Málaga, the exquisite cultural mixing bowl of Granada, the aptly named Costa del Sol, the Rock of Gibraltar, Córdoba, Sevilla, Almería. The names alone insinuate a certain sense of mystery, incite the senses to seek discovery. There is a sanguine simplicity, stillness, and tranquility which harkens back to a time many of us feel a nostalgia for, even if we never knew.

It is something experiential - a thing better felt than described.

The essence of Andalusia is something that cannot be put into words, immortalized by the Lonely Planet, or ranked upon TripAdvisor. It is something experiential - a thing better felt than described. I would recommend you go there without a plan. See where buses and trains might take you. Wind up in some small village of whitewashed stucco overlooking the Mediterranean. Go without preconception, let go of yourself, and see what happens.

Evening at El Chorro, sunset

The magic is something that cannot be shown, only found. It cannot be learned, only felt. It cannot be captured, only experienced. And the only way to experience it, as far as I can tell, is not to look for it at all. All you need to do is get yourself there. Andalusia will take care of the rest.

Rest Day Activities

Visit Granada and the Alhambra – It’s more a rest week than a rest day, but it’s well-worth it, however you do it. Think mind-blowing architecture, tapas, flamenco, and nightlife that goes til the sun comes up.

Walk the Caminito del Rey along the Desfiladero de los Gigantes – Chances are you’ll walk part of it to get to various crags; but the whole thing is 7.7 km long, and beautiful every step of the way!

Visit castles – Because, why not?! There are incredible castles - like the stuff of fairy tales - all over Andalusia. But don’t just hit up the Real Alcazar in Seville, and the Castillo de Gibralfaro in Málaga, find your way to some shabby old ruins that have no lines, or tour guides, and enjoy something a bit off the beaten path. They’re everywhere, just ask (or look) around.

Tour vineyards, and olive groves – You’d be crazy not to.

Key Info
  • Winter is best, but shoulder seasons are nice as well.
  • Summer is a bit hot for climbing in El Chorro, but other crags throughout Andalusia offer shade, and comfortable conditions year-round.
  • Type of climbing
  • Limestone sport climbing. The rock tends to be pocketed, solid, and overhanging.
  • Some of the better crags feature tufa's, and stalactites, and wild roofs.
  • Mostly single-pitch, though La Poema in El Chorro is a famous 5 pitch route!
  • Where to stay
  • In El Chorro, La Finca la Campana is the most comfortable accommodation.
  • You can also camp beneath the best wall in the area - Makinodromo - for free.
  • Outside of El Chorro, there are endless hostels to choose from in many cool cities. Camping options at many smaller crags are limited.
  • Average costs
  • For tapas, expect 2-10 EUR for a small plate of food, and a bebida (alcoholic drink, whether wine or beer).
  • Keep an eye out for deals and happy hours, as that can make it much more affordable.
  • A night in a decent hostel dormitory should run you 15-25 euro, though cheaper options are often available.
  • Airport
  • There are many small airports throughout Andalusia, depending on where you want to go.
  • Malaga has one, which is your best bet for trips to El Chorro.
  • Climbing school Andalucia Aventura

    Chris Kalman is a writer, climber, and traveler, currently living in Colorado.

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    Images: 1: NoraDoa/Adobe; 2: trofotodesign/Adobe; 3: gallas/Adobe; 4: mbroms/Adobe; 5: max8xam/Adobe; 6: Artur Bogacki/Adobe; 7: Tom Fahy/Flickr

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