Anyone living in Murcia cannot fail to know of the Regional Park of the Sierra Espuña – the vast area of green, forested valleys and of massive rock outcrops which tower over the land below which is bordered by Casas Nuevas, Aledo, Totana, Alhama de Murcia, and Pliego. Indeed, the main heights are visible from many parts of Murcia, with the remarkable golf-ball like shape adorning the very highest point, the Morrón de Espuña at 1583 metres (slightly over 5200 feet). This, of course, forms part of a military communications facility which, unfortunately, puts this pinnacle out of bounds to civilians as you will unceremoniously be informed if you approach too closely!
When we first came to Murcia, we thought that we were ideally placed, half way between this great open area and the sea, to divide our time between the coast and the hills. In fact, we now spend far more time in the Sierra Espuña than at the coast or on the beach. The Sierra Espuña is a marvellous environment and you have really missed out if you have not sampled its delights. There is a mountain road which winds up the Sierra several kilometres past Aledo on the road to Bullas. It heads up past a restaurant complex (not always open), and past viewpoints to the Collado Bermejo where, at just under 4000 feet and amid spectacular scenery, viewpoints, and plenty of space to park, the road divides. One part goes to the left climbing further en route to the highest, excellent, public car park (at the Collado Mangueta at some 1383 metres, or 4537 feet) and then further to the prohibited military zone. The other winds its way down the other side of the Sierra toward Alhama de Murcia. Of course, driving these roads needs care and cannot be done at speed. The road down the Alhama side has numerous hairpins (we counted 23!). Whereas on our first journey up to the Collado Bermejo we were very apprehensive over the driving, now we do it as a matter of course (as do many others), though with due caution. It can still be quite intimidating to have a group of cyclists hurtling down at breakneck speed on a Saturday morning as you go slowly round a sharp bend! On another occasion, as we were driving up, we met a dustbin lorry coming the other way – presumably they had been to collect the rubbish from the military installation at the very top. Fortunately, the lorry driver pulled right into the side and we were able to squeeze past. If you do turn off to go up to the Collado Mangueta car park, do note that there is a barrier on the road just past the Collado Bermejo which is closed each day in the late afternoon/early evening as cars are not permitted to “overnight” in this highest zone of the Sierra.
All this said, what are the major attractions of the Sierra in a little more detail? Where to start? The views are naturally quite spectacular and you really need to see some of them to appreciate fully just how spectacular they are, both within the Sierra and, as you reach higher points in it, of the countryside for miles around – across the Guadalentín Valley toward the sea, up towards Alicante, or to inland valleys and other Sierras. Today, a fair proportion of the Sierra Espuña is forested with Carrascoy Pines, a remarkable tree in that it can survive without rain for several months, making it an ideal species for its environment. But the Sierra was not always so. It was heavily deforested in historic times, including for shipbuilding, and it was only at the end of the 19th Century that replanting began, thanks to a visionary engineer from Cartagena, Ricardo Codorniu. One interesting method of planting used in the early years was apparently for seeds to be placed in large balls of mud, which were then fired by cannon on to the less accessible slopes! However, the massive rock outcrops and limestone pavements are no less spectacular in their own rights, and the Sierra boasts the sheer Walls of Leiva, an internationally reknown area for rock climbing.
For those who enjoy rambling or hillwalking, the Sierra Espuña is a paradise and we have spent many, many days on tracks in these hills. There are guidebooks available as well as leaflets and information about designated routes from Tourist Offices and the park’s own information centre which you pass on the way up from (or down to) Alhama de Murcia. These walks, often on well defined and designated tracks, are of varying length and difficulty and start/finish at various places in the park, some quite low down – so there should be one for you! One of our favourites, because of the variety of scenery, animals and birds, is from the Collado Mangueta car park, past the Snow Houses (see next month’s article) and to the highest point to which the public can go in the Sierra – the summit of Pedro Lopez, at 1569 metres (5148 feet). Technically it is an easy walk, though, of course, you need to ensure the weather is appropriate and you are properly clothed, shod and provisioned! It is quite enjoyable telling friends who think anything over 2000 feet is a considerable mountain, that you have scaled the second highest peak in the Sierra Espuña at well over 5000 feet. Just forget to mention that you started from a car park at over 4500 feet and that most of the walk was on a track occasionally used by four wheel drives!
Many of the thousands of people who visit the Sierra every year also do so in the hope of seeing some of the birds and animals which can be found in it. We and our friends have been captivated by the richness of the area’s bird life. The Sierra Espuña is a designated area of special protection for the golden eagle and eagle owl and a wide range of species can be seen. We have ourselves looked in awe at a Bonelli’s Eagle soaring high overhead and spent some time at a small artificial pond high up, looking at jays and crossbills, but it is for two animals that the Sierra Espuña is perhaps best known – the muflón (or Atlas Sheep) and the jabali (or wild pig).
You will come across muflón quite frequently in herds or family groups on the higher slopes, although their brown colour camouflages them well against the rocky slopes in some of the valleys. They are also timid creatures and will hot-foot it in the opposite direction once they are aware of you. However, they are a magnificent sight, being a cross between a sheep and a goat and the size of a small deer. The males develop a large beard and you can occasionally spot a forlorn old animal separate from the group, having been ejected by a new, dominant male. The muflón, however, is not native to the Sierra, having only been introduced around 40 years ago. Its numbers have increased significantly since then.
The jabali are no less fascinating. In fact, it was only after many visits to the Sierra Espuña that we saw a group of these animals which are, indeed, the size of a small pig. They are primarily nocturnal animals. However, one of the restaurants on the road up from the Alhama side (Fuente del Hilo) sometimes puts out food for the jabali that may come along in force to enjoy it, especially in mid-afternoon, although we have also seen them there quite early in the morning. While relatively small, the jabali can be quite aggressive creatures, especially if they have young with them and perceive a threat. Enjoy any sighting, but do not approach too closely and treat them as a domestic animal. This they are not!
Of course, there are many other animals such as foxes, red squirrels and lizards in the Sierra and you may well see some of them as you drive or walk.
If the natural environment of the Sierra Espuña is a principal attraction, there is much more besides. There are ruins of old houses galore, attesting to the harshness of a mountain farming life in the past. There is a huge old TB Sanatorium, which took advantage of the area’s climate and fresh air until it was closed and used for other purposes many years ago. The small village of El Berro is idyllically situated in the lower reaches of the Sierra on the Alhama side.
Taken from “Exploring Murcia – A Guide to Totana, Alhama de Murcia, Aledo, Pliego and the Sierra Espuña”, by Clive and Rosie Palmer which is available from www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com. Copies may also be available from the Best Wishes shop in the Camposol urbanización.