The Natural Park of Los Alcornocales: Quick facts
The Natural Park of Los Alcornocales is classified as a Natural Protected Area of Andalusia.
It constitutes a forest mass of 170,000 hectares with a profusion of cork oaks, Andalusian galls, in addition to holm oaks, carobs, and ancient wild olive trees.
It has a high density of vegetation, both in terms of trees as well as lichens and undergrowth, highly beneficial for the local environment due to the production of large amounts of oxygen via photosynthesis.
Its numerous reservoirs (Guadalcacín, Hurones, Barbate, Charco Redondo, Guadarranque, Celemín and Almodóvar), offer vast water storage capacity.
The diversity of flora and fauna present in Los Alcornocales convert it into one of the most representative protected natural areas in the Mediterranean basin, within one of the most extensive cork oak forests in Europe.
It has unique ecosystems and endemic plant species.
It has a wide range of scenery, from dense forest with lichen and fern covered ground, to spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and of the African coast.
Its cultural and historical legacy is visible in the countryside as well as the local towns and villages.
It is still home to a human population that lives from the locally sourced natural resources.
Los Alcornocales has a visitor centre called El Aljibe, taken from the name of the highest peak in the Natural Park, located between the towns of Alcalá de Los Gazules and Casas Viejas.
Geography of Los Alcornocales
The natural park of Los Alcornocales covers some 170,000 hectares and is the third largest of the protected natural spaces in Andalusia. It lies almost entirely within the province of Cadiz with the exception of its north eastern border, which falls within the province of Malaga.
The size and shape of Los Alcornocales natural park is likewise defined by a series of abrupt hill and mountain mountain ranges following a general north-south pattern, in addition to the surrounding natural demarcation boundaries: the natural park of Sierra de Grazalema to the north; Depresión de la Janda and the Sierra de Fates to the south east; Estrecho de Gibraltar (Straits of Gibraltar) and the River Guadiaro to the south east and east respectively. At its widest, Los Alcornocales reaches 35km from east to west, and is some 80km long from north to south. The highest point in Los Alcornocales is the Pico del Aljibe, measuring 1,092 metres.
Walking in Los Alcornocales
This park is extremely large and diverse, thus permitting a wide range of opportunities for walking, the most emblematic of which are El Aljibe or El Picacho. Due to the importance of its flora and fauna, plus the high density of wooded areas, it is necessary to send a prior written request to the park authorities for a permit for some of the routes.
Ibernature chooses from a number of emblematic walks in the Natural Park, combining water features, human heritage sites, forests and wooded areas, and peaks with spectacular views of the provinces of Cadiz and Malaga, as well as the Mediterranean Sea and the Moroccan Rif mountain range. Ibernature also obtains any necessary permits.
Other activities include caving in and around Ramblazo-Motillas, or canyoning in the Garganta de Buitreras, which has been declared a Natural Monument. Horse riding is also available.
Accommodation and gastronomy
Accommodation within the Natural Park comprises small hotels and bed & breakfasts, plus country cottages for rental. Ibernature works in partnership with accommodation that represents and respects local traditions wherever possible, benefiting the local economy and helping sustain local employment.
Wherever possible, food is locally sourced to help maintain local traditions and the local economy. In this particular area, emphasis is placed on venison, wild boar and partridge. Due to the specific climate, many dishes are prepared using mushrooms and other types of edible funghi.
Flora and Fauna
The flora and fauna in Los Alcornocales is particulary rich and varied, due to the considerable size of the park and to the humidity, which offers prime growing conditions and therefore natural protection to the numerous species of animals and birds inhabiting the area. 18 different types of birds of prey inhabit the Natural Park’s, with other species passing over Los Alcornocales on their annual migration across the Straits of Gibraltar to northern Europe.
In addition to the vast expanses of cork oak and of other trees such as the gall oak and wild olive trees, there is also a wealth of ground vegetation, including heather, lichens, ferns, gorse, lavender and hawthorn.
Human influence and activity
In the province of Cadiz, Los Alcornocales encompasses the following municipalities: Alcalá de los Gazules, Algar, Algeciras, El Bosque, Jerez de la Frontera, Jimena de la Frontera, Los Barrios, Medina Sidonia, Prado del Rey, San José del Valle, Tarifa and Ubrique. The only Malaga province municipality found within the park is that of Cortes de la Frontera.
Los Alcornocales is an important source of natural resources as well as being home to a well documented human history and heritage. The existence of natural resources has led to traditional economic activities such as forestry, harvesting, livestock farming and hunting, all of which explain human presence in the area since prehistoric times.
Los Alcornocales account for 50% of the area given over to the production of cork in Andalusia, which in turn is the equivalent of 25% of the Spanish surface dedicated to cork oaks. It is in fact, the largest cork oak extension in the Iberian Peninsula, logically translated into the fact that cork extraction is the most important of traditional industries in the Natural Park, with an estimated yearly production of some 26,000 tonnes of fresh cork. The cork produced is however transported to the north of Spain and Portugal for industrial transformation.
Cork was formerly used for the making of bee hives and other local handmade tools, and it was not until the 19th century when its production became more planned due to demand from the wine making industry. Cork bark removal takes place every year between June and August, with specialist teams moving from area to area to skillfully cut the bark from trees considered old enough and with the correct thickness, without harming the tree.
Los Alcornocales is home to very large expanses for the breeding of livestock. In addition to a local breed of excellent quality meat producing cattle, the retinta, it is of great importance for the grazing of fighting bulls. Sheep and goat breeding is of lesser importance, although attempts are being made to reintroduce these species for the production of local cheeses.
Hunting constitutes a valuable income for the local population. For this reason, almost 70% of the land within the Natural Park has been classed as of special hunting interest, although most of this activity is organized on a private basis. The most popular species are deer and roe deer, although other animals such as wild boar are also hunted.
The Los Alcornocales Natural Park is made up of 6 low altitude mountain ranges, with sandstone covering limestone. The highest peaks are in the north of the Natural Park, whereas in the south the average height is 300 metres. The sandstone peaks have steep slopes that contrast with the deep ravines that have been carved through clay lined rivers. The karst Ramblazo-Motilla area is home to the only location where it is possible to enjoy caving.
The climate in Los Alcornocales differs from the Mediterranean pattern to which it would characteristically belong, due its location at the head of the Estrecho de Gibraltar and the north to south alignment of its mountain ranges and peaks. Winds predominantly cross the natural park from the east, and are known as Levante: they account for practically half of this natural phenomenon. A further thirty percent are attributed to Poniente winds, which come from the west. In Tarifa, famous for its windy conditions (making it one of the most popular worldwide destinations for wind and kitesurfing) While average wind speed is around 50 km/hour, extreme Levante gusts have been measured at 147 km/hour. The strength of these gusts is due to the Venturi effect, produced by the funneling of air in the Straits of Gibraltar between the Moroccan Rif and the Spanish Cordillera Bética.
Rainfall in Los Alcornocales is high due to proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and to the specific orientation of the mountains. Annual totals vary between 700 and 1,800 mm per year, spread between September and April, and are closely related to altitude. The highly torrential nature of rainfall is also characteristic of Los Alcornocales, which in one single day can match up to 59 percent of the average rainfall between May and August. Between May and July, moisture arises from the ground, maintaining a certain degree of humidity until mid-September or October, when general rainfall recommences its seasonal cycle.
Water and river systems
The relatively high lack of permeability of the different types of rock, added to the considerable rainfall as a consequence of the cooling down of moist air from the sea, has led to a complex river network that runs through the Natural Park. There are 5 main rivers: Barbate, Majaceite, Guadarranque, Hozgarganta and Palmones, and the amount of water flowing out to the Atlantic (Barbate and Majaceite) almost exactly matches that flowing into the Mediterranean (Guadarranque, Hozgarganta and Palmones).
In the south of the Park, there a number of “canutos”, river carved valleys in which there are still plants whose origins go back to the tertiary period.