For many, Andalucía may be synonymous with the beaches of the Costa del Sol, English pubs, and cocktail bars but head inland and you will discover a wealth of treasures. As you drive through the region, on an Andalucía self drive tour, the landscape is a feast for the eyes. From an endless parade of windmills and solar farms, to the shrub covered, rocky crags, it’s a smorgasbord of different terrain. The imposing mountains of the Sierras provide a dramatic contrast to the dusty olive orchards and the parched golden fields devoid of crops. From a distance, the barren fields resemble sand dunes and many of the riverbeds are bone dry. Even the sunflowers seem to have wearied of the sun! Their lacklustre flowers faded to lemon rather than the vivid yellow that is customary when they are in full flower. Their flower heads droop as though desperate for shade.
In amongst the patchwork of yellows and greens are the ‘pueblos blancos’ that are so prevalent in the area. These white villages are as mysterious as they are mesmerising. Often perched on steep hillsides to provide a defensive advantage, the walls appear impenetrable. Their elevated positions were intended to protect against invading Moors in the middle ages but in modern times it seems more like the towns want to prevent you from leaving.
Once you find your way into the cool medinas, escaping can be a challenge, especially if you drive. Dead ends and one-way streets are a common theme. Narrow cobbled streets allow barely enough space for cars and tight corners can mean gridlock as you hold your breath praying you won’t hear the scrape of metal as you inch precariously around 90 degree turns. I’m amazed we did not add to our hire car’s numerous scrapes during our Andalucía self drive tour. So, if you want to explore hidden gems, fairytale settings and mouth-watering cuisine, why not join us on this Andalucía self drive tour?
The base for your Andalucía self drive tour
We made Arcos de La Frontera the base for our Andalucía self drive tour and booked a townhouse on the Arcos Gardens Sol Rent Golf complex. For a week in September a 4 bedroom villa with pool costs just £654. What a bargain!!
Although it is a few miles out of the town centre, the complex is lovely and quiet. The houses are spacious with walk in wardrobes, huge tubs overlooking the golf course and access to communal sports facilities including a pool and tennis court. It is a great place for nature and sports lovers and those who seek solitude over convenience.
Sights on your Andalucía self drive tour
Arcos de la Frontera
As for the town of Arcos de la Frontera, it may be lesser known than nearby Jerez or Seville but it is no less stunning. Your first sight of the town will undoubtedly be a wondrous moment as you glimpse the village perched atop a crumbling cliff. It seems to defy gravity as houses, churches and hotels cling to the steep plateau, seemingly in danger of crashing to the valley below. Guarded by an imposing fortress on one side and with beautiful Moorish churches peeping over the hotch potch of whitewashed houses, it resembles a scene from a fairy tale. Beneath the old town, modern townhouses and apartments tumble down the hillside like a lava flow of white.
As magical as it looks however this is an ancient town with a well-kept secret. It is a labyrinth like no other. Trying to drive into the town is as frightening as it is frustrating. One-way streets and narrow alleyways are enough to raise anyone’s blood pressure, especially when some drivers seem a little cavalier. My advice is to park on one of the approach roads and walk. You even get a free workout! This is one town you simply do not want to drive through on your Andalucía self drive tour.
Arcos De La Frontera historical centre
Whichever route you take into the old town, prepare yourself for a steep climb. This is not a destination for the mobility impaired! The cobbled streets climb sharply into the old town but you will soon be distracted from the pain of the effort, as you stumble past a multitude of delights. Shaded doorways provide glimpses of sun dappled courtyards where plants bloom in a burst with colour. A melange of glorious ceramic tilework, abundant vivid potted plants and exquisite wrought iron metalwork enchant visitors.
This truly is a town that puts a spell on you. As you wander narrow alleyways, you will come across quaint souvenir shops that offer sanctuary from the heat whilst waiters attempt to cajole the weary into their tapas bars. These spill onto the pavements and proudly display their offerings on blackboards. A jug of sangria (you deserve it after that climb!) will set you back just 9 – 12 EUROS and provide a refreshing interlude from baking temperatures.
Whether it is because you are too occupied admiring the endless picture perfect scenes or you simply have lost all sense of direction, you will inevitably lose yourself in the maze of alleys. Occasionally you will emerge from the shade onto sun drenched terraces overlooking the valley and will need to retrace your steps. Pay attention however, as you will need to dodge cars that squeeze through the slender twisting alleys with barely a whisker to spare.
If you need to cool down after all that exertion, head towards one of the 3 lakes within 20 minutes of Arcos – the reservoirs of Arcos, Bornos and Algar. The reservoirs of Bornos and Arcos offer access to a myriad of water activities such as paddle boarding, kayaking, and waterskiing. Do call in advance however as some places seem a bit hit and miss. I am unsure whether this is due to Covid or the Spanish holiday season (in August many Spaniards down tools and head to the coast! It isn’t just us Brits who love the sun!).
If you do head to Arcos reservoir the sailing club in Santiscal is worth a visit. Not only does it hire out kayaks and paddle boards but it also has a cool waterside bar and garden. From the garden you can enjoy a lovely sunset view of Arcos in the distance whilst sipping cold beers. Alternatively, if you fancy a coffee with a view, pop over to nearby Meson De La Molinera. It is a quaint restaurant and cafe and a pleasant place to relax overlooking the lake.
Grazalema – Zahara De La Sierra circuit
From Arcos, follow the A372 through Le Bosque to Grazalema. The road meanders through farmland with distant views of the towering peaks of the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Grazalema. The fields resemble a patchwork quilt with huge aloe vera plants, patches of shrub and parched golden fields. Countless olive orchards, palm trees and the occasional cypress tree also line the route.
Le Bosque is another pleasant town of whitewashed houses with yellow trims around the windows and doors. Splendid ironwork decorates the doorways and balconies and rows of ceramic pots cling to the alley walls. The alleys are not for nervous drivers however and most certainly not for monster trucks!
Once through Le Bosque the narrow road climbs into the mountains and sheer drops are a constant companion. Thankfully, the road is relatively quiet with almost no lorries or other large vehicles as most of the route is barely wide enough for cars and cycles, never mind an HGV. But what views! As the road climbs, the landscape changes from parched golden to dense green foliage and one village in particular may capture your attention.
The tiny village of Benamahoma nestles beneath towering peaks, clinging to their base as though suspended above the valley. Sadly, we do not stop to explore but continue on to our destination of Grazalema. Just look how pretty it is though. This town is definitely on my itinerary for a future Andalucía self drive tour.
Grazalema is a popular destination for visitors wanting to explore the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, a vast protected area of rugged limestone mountains and the wettest place in Spain. It is a charming whitewashed village centred around the bustling Plaza De España. The terracotta roofed Town Hall dominates the square and faces the dour 18th Century church of La Aurora. Ladies wrapped in thick cardigans linger on benches around the square and chat animatedly with friends. Cobbled alleys radiate like spokes from the square and lead to homes decorated with brightly coloured geraniums and flowering pots. Balconies overflow with vivid splashes of colour and from the viewpoint on Plaza Asonaderos you can admire far reaching views of the surrounding peaks.
Just off Plaza De España is a large sculpture of a tied bull, the Toro de Grazalema. This statue celebrates the fighting bull of the Fiestas of Carmen. This festival takes place annually in July and culminates with the ‘Lunes de toro de cuerdo’, (the Monday of a sane bull). This involves a fighting bull being paraded through the streets with a long lead tied to its horns. Think I will give that fiesta a miss!
From Grazalema, take the hugely picturesque road between Grazalema and Zahara which climbs steeply to the Puerto de Las Palomas mountain pass at 1357 metres. It is hugely popular with cyclists so do take care as you weave around the switchbacks hugging the mountainside.
As you descend the other side of the pass, you will spot the turquoise waters of the Embalse of Zahara De La Sierra El Gastor in the distance. This man-made lake consumes the valley and is a pleasant contrast to the otherwise barren terrain. If you fancy a bit of water activity, you can also hire kayaks and paddleboards here too.
Discover Zahara De La Sierra
Zahara De La Sierra is a gorgeous little town perched on a hillside overlooking the reservoir. The Tower of Tribute dominates the skyline and is a steep climb from the main village street. If you park by the Al Lago restaurant overlooking the lake you will be able to enjoy fantastic views. You can then meander through the pretty streets until you come to the main square where an assortment of mouth-watering scents accost you. Diners linger at the bars scattered around the square sheltering from the heat under huge parasols. Take your time to sample some tapas and a cold beer while you soak up the local atmosphere.
Bornos is a sprawling white town on the banks of the Bornos reservoir. It has wider than usual streets and an array of shops, bars, restaurants and banks. The attractive town square, splendid convent and town hall are notable highlights. You can also hire kayaks on the lake or walk the paths along the banks of the reservoir.
If you spot a coffee bar with bright orange and lime chairs pop in as the owner is a real character. If you are lucky he may even teach you a little Spanish.
And finally, Olvera is a beautiful little town in a dramatic position high on the hill. Crowning the hillside are the dual attractions of the Church Of Our Lady and the castle. It’s a trek up the steep cobbled streets but the reward is a beautiful cobbled square surrounded by white houses and sheltered courtyards resplendent with flowering pots. In the village, rainbow coloured flags flutter in the sweltering breeze and locals relax on open air terraces sipping coffees.
Why you should indulge in an Andalucía self drive tour
Hopefully you can see that Andalucia is the perfect destination for a self-drive tour. You can gorge on history, delight in beautiful scenery and captivating architecture and indulge in mouth-watering food and drink. It truly is a smorgasbord of delights. So what are you waiting for? Book your accommodation and flights and go indulge in your very own Andalucía self drive tour.
Nice article. It is a pleasure driving in Spain. The SE corner of Spain is awesome. Next time check out Vera Playa, Sorbas, Mojacar, and Tabernas.
Thanks will definitely try those out. There are so many amazing places that seem little known. Been practicing my Spanish in readiness for my return