Those of us who live in or visit the Costa del Sol tend to fix our focus on its sea, beaches and leisure facilities such as golf courses. Every now and again those majestic peaks that rise up behind the coastal towns draw our attention, and rightly so, for they harbour a spectacular world waiting to be discovered.

Words Michel Cruz, Photography Courtesy of Turismo de Andalucía

Those of us who live in or visit the Costa del Sol tend to fix our focus on its sea, beaches and leisure facilities such as golf courses. Every now and again those majestic peaks that rise up behind the coastal towns draw our attention, and rightly so, for they harbour a spectacular world waiting to be discovered.

Words Michel Cruz, Photography Courtesy of Turismo de Andalucía

Sierra De La Nieves

Officially designated a national park in 1991, the Sierra de las Nieves was also declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1995 and in 2006 became part of the Intercontinental Mediterranean Biosphere. It is a little-known jewel in the crown of Marbella, as it offers a Rocky Mountain style nature reserve right on our doorstep, with almost 23,000 hectares (230km2) of open mountain ranges, valleys, forests, waterfalls and cascading streams, not to mention a wealth of fauna and flora. Roughly translated as ‘snowy mountain range’, it is named for the extensive white blanket that descends upon the mountains in winter.

The nature reserve is unique for its Pinsapo trees – or Spanish Fir – a relic of the Tertiary period that is endemic to this region and extends over 2,000 hectares within the park, forming the upper part of the larger Serranía de Ronda system of mountain ranges. Its tallest peak, Torrecilla, rises to 1,919 metres above the sea surface at Marbella’s beachfront, the landmark of a verdant biosphere that extends east of Ronda and passes Benahavís, Ojén and Guaro along the way. Once upon a time, workers used to quarry the ice collected in these mountains and distribute it among the local villages – another origin of the range’s name.

Thanks to its height and topography, the Sierra de las Nieves becomes a snowy landscape in winter, when many of the animals and indeed plants hibernate, leaving it to rabbits, mountain goats and roe deer to roam about in their winter fur. In other seasons, they are joined by martens, genets and otters, while high above eagles and vultures can be seen riding the thermals that rise up from the land. Falcons and owls headline a wide array of other birds and insect life, as well as lizards, salamanders and snakes, including also rare river crabs. It is a protected natural expanse rich in animal and plant life that is also home to some of the most important tracts of forest in the region.

For all the above reasons, the Sierra de las Nieves is popular with hikers and mountaineers. There are trails that are accessible from Benahavís, the Ronda road, Istán, the Refugio de Juanar, Guaro, Ojén, La Mairena and many other locations in the region. Besides exercising in the fresh air they offer spectacular scenery, the chance to spot wildlife, and of course incredible views across the mountain ranges, valleys and from some perspectives back down to the sea. The Sierra de las Nieves may no longer house bears, wolves and lynx, but it remains a formidable natural reserve right on the doorstep of Marbella.

Sierra Nevada

For anyone on the Costa del Sol, and Spain for that matter, the name Sierra Nevada conjures up images of skiing and other alpine sports as practised at the winter resort of Pradollano just two hours from the coast. However, this extensive mountain range stretches from Granada in the north to the coastal region in the south and near Almería in the east, with peaks that include the tallest in continental Spain – Mulhacén at 3,479 metres. At the heart of this high-altitude biosphere is the Sierra Nevada National Park, which lays within the provinces of Granada and Almería and covers an area of almost 86,000 hectares (860 km2).

Declared a national park in 1999, it is the second-largest nature reserve in Spain and the largest that consists of land only. Within the park are many little villages that belong to the Alpujarra cultural region, which retained much of the earlier Moorish traditions and architecture. Besides 20 peaks over 3,000 metres height, this vast complex of mountains is also home to almost 50 high-altitude alpine lakes, which in turn feed a great number of streams and rivers that flow down into the hinterland and the coastal region.

In terms of fauna and flora, the Sierra Nevada occupies a rather unique blend thanks to its southerly location.This includes dozens of plant species that are endemic to the mountain range, as well as wild boar, martens, badgers, wildcats and Spanish ibex. Eagles, kestrels and owls rule the air, along with a plethora of smaller birds, insects and reptiles, including a limited variety of snakes and rather more numerous salamanders and lizards. Apart from the intrusion of winter sports enthusiasts and the associated ski runs, the Sierra Nevada is a rather untouched haven for nature, and an important gathering point for migrating birds, as a result of which there are bird-watching facilities at various points, as well as cabins that facilitate an overnight stay.

For lovers of nature, the Botanical Garden of Cortijuela is of interest, as it is here that the indigenous species of the mountain range are displayed and studied, while the reserve is also the setting of the Sierra Nevada Observatory and the IRAM radio telescope thanks to the very low levels of light pollution and the spectacular clarity of the night skies here. In fact, some people visit the national park not just for its natural beauty but also to gaze in awe at the kind of star-studded skies that put science fiction movies to shame.

Doñana National Park

You will have to travel a little to reach the Doñana National Park, but it is well worth it. Situated near the coast on the far side of Cádiz, this reserve within Huelva Province consists of wooded groves set within a maze of sand dunes and wetlands. Created a national park in 1989 and expanded in 1997 and again in 2005, it measures almost 122,500 hectares (1,225 km2), of which 54,250 hectares is designated national park and 68,250 hectares natural park. Farming villages surround the park, but at its heart is a wildland area where animals and birds – especially wetland species – thrive. During the mating season in spring, up to 200,000 birds congregate here, making it one of the main birdwatching spots in Europe.

In all, there are over 300 species of birds, including a large number which gather for the seasonal move to Africa, and for avian enthusiasts the park provides suitably low-key observation posts as well as an information centre. Not surprisingly, Doñana received UNESCO heritage status in 1994, and now draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Many will spot deer, wild boar and if they are lucky also the Iberian Lynx, for whom the reserve has become one of the main sanctuary habitats where this once severely endangered species has been able to recover. What was long a hunting domain has now become a domain of preservation.

Doñana also has a fascinating human history, as local legend holds that a statuette of the Madonna once hurriedly hidden by local Christians at the time of the Muslim invasion in the eighth century was rediscovered by shepherds centuries later. Taken to what has since become the Hermitage of El Rocío in Almonte, it forms the basis of an annual pilgrimage that is uniquely Andalusian in culture and ranks as one of the most iconic and important events of its kind in Spain. Each year, the rocío draws up to one million visitors to a tiny village still devoid of tarred roads. As a result, the village of Almonte feels somewhat like the setting of a Western.