Today I had the pleasure of journeying to the Genal Valley, specifically along the Ronda-Algeciras road until the turn off for Jubrique, and then towards the Genal river to wet my feet, followed by a stroll around Genalguacil admiring the art and relaxing in a local bar with a cold one, before returning to Ronda.
When visiting Ronda, getting out into the little villages is one of the must do excursions that would render your vacation incomplete if you didn’t do, however a lot of visitors to Ronda don’t have access to a car, so Benaojan is one of the options to see an authentic white village.
Located on the southern boundary of the Sierra de Grazalema, Benaojan is convenient because both bus and train visit the village, and the trip is only 25 minutes from Ronda. My own trip saw me take the train along Mr Henderson’s railway walk, a comfortable and air conditioned journey that does however stop at Benaojan Estación, a small hamlet below the main village that requires a 20 minute walk before you see what Benaojan has to offer.
The Serranía de Ronda was extensively populated by neolithic and then bronze age people and Juzcar is no exception. A stone structure that could have been a defensive tower on the boundary between Juzcar and Farajan, is proof of ancient peoples living and working in the district. Very little evidence of their activities has been found, though the area has not been excavated to any great extent.
In Roman times, whilst Acinipo and Arunda were thriving, we believe the area around Juzcar was mostly unoccupied but may have possessed a local iron mine. In fact the name Juzcar, terminating in -ar is highly suggestive that Arab invaders in 711 AD encountered either Romanised Iberians or Visigothic people who would have adopted Roman customs.
Gaucin at the Southern end of the Serranía de Ronda is more than just a village in the middle of nowhere. This attractive white village founded by the Romans, and then expanded and heavily fortified by the Moors who named their village Gauzan, an Aran word meaning strong rock. These days Gaucin is better known as a haven for international artists who flock to the area for the peace and tranquility afforded them.
With a population of 2,000 and a few more scattered outside the village, Gaucin is large enough to have a small town centre, with markets, butchers, fruit shops, clothing, banks, and other miscellaneous traders. In fact many of the residents are able to buy everything they need on a daily basis in the village without having to travel to Ronda or the Costa del Sol.
At 626 metres, Gaucin is also high enough above sea level that the weather is noticeably cooler in summer and winter than the coast, which makes the village almost ideal for many foreign residents who choose to setup home, and then proceed to rip out the modern features of their homes and replace them with traditional wooden beams, tiled floors, and rough painted walls; to the endless amusement of Spanish residents.
For visitors, Gaucin is considered one of the prettiest of the pueblos blancos, malaga’s white villages, with narrow warren-like streets strewn together as if a large ball of twine had been dropped and houses built in the gaps between the string.
This may in fact have been intentional for two reasons. First, the castle above the village, perched on the crest of El Hacho mountain was of strategic importance from Roman and most especially in Moorish times, and narrow winding streets make an attack more difficult as soldiers have to first battle from street to street before reaching the formidable castle defences.
The second reason is more practical and perhaps more believable; narrow streets at odd angles from each other prevent the hot Sahara winds from overly heating the village houses in the summer, and in winter offer some protection against the cold northerly winds. Certainly other Moorish towns without a castle have a similar pattern so it isn’t impossible to assume weather played a bigger role in the town layout.
The castle of Gaucin, named Castillo del Aguila, the Eagle’s Castle, is an impressive structure visible above the village from many miles away, and is open to the public in the mornings and early evening. Great birds of prey such as eagles, vultures, and kestrels have always inhabited the mountains of inland Andalucia, so it is hardly surprising the castle would take its name from the eagles which can still be seen to this day circling the parapets.
Within Gaucin visitors will also see the church of san Sebastian built in 1487, on the ruins of the mosque destroyed when the town was taken by Christian conquerers. As well, Gaucin is home to a large convent built in the mid 1700s though abandoned in 1835 and now used by the town hal for concerts and other local events. Recent renovations have sadly destroyed the historic interior.
However, by far the best reason for visiting Gaucin is not for the monuments of the village, it is instead the streets and people of the village that will appeal. A simple walk around the town centre will impress how friendly the villagers are, whilst those with a penchant for the quaint will absolutely love the cute windows filled with flowers, or the tiled frescos adorning doorways and walls, or the cobbled streets that could tell a thousand stories.
Gaucin isn’t on the way to anywhere, the village is a destination of itself. Some choose to stay, others only pass through, but no visit to Andalucia will truly be complete until the soul of villages like Gaucin has touched your heart.
Deep in the green Genal Valley, but only a few kilometres from Ronda, lies the tiny village of Júzcar, almost invisible as the valley roads twist and turn along the length of the Genal River. Juzcar is small, and easily walked around in less than 30 minutes, you could blink and miss this little inland Andalucia village, but don’t or you’ll really kick yourself later.
Known as Juzcareños, the population of the county is only a little over two hundred, but the history of Juzcar and the wealth of natural wonders located within her borders make a stay in Juzcar something to be recommended. The Hotel Bandolero is a small boutique hotel with 8 rooms in the village that is comfortable, charming, full of character, and has a great restaurant.
The Genal River snakes it’s way through the valley, with numerous tributaries meandering around the village and creating little pools, eddies, or waterfalls at regular intervals. It is the river that is the heart of the Genal Valley, and from which it takes it’s name. Juzcar is in the higher reaches of the valley, known in Spanish as the Alto Genal, and can be reached from both of the main highways running south from Ronda the Ronda-Jimena road via Alpandeire, or the Ronda-San Pedro highway via Cartajima.
Mountains, Caves, and Rivers near Juzcar
To the north of the village lies Jarastepar, a jurassic limestone peak with outcrops of Upper Cretaceous redbeds that rises 1427m into the heavens, all the more impressive in Juzcar because unlike many of the other Serranía villages, Juzcar is only 600m above sea level. The hills immediately around Juzcar village are green, and filled with chestnut trees, whilst to the south in the valley lie the olive tree orchards.
The road between Juzcar and Cartajima, which is the next village on the way into Ronda, is a terrifying road of narrow sections, tight bends, and fast cars; actually it isn’t that bad but it’s the impression many people have of the road. Take care when approaching traffic that you can stop quickly if the road suddenly narrows.
Looming above and around the road are the massive limestone mountains of the Alto Genal, with some of Andalucía’s most spectacular landscape. The limestone mountains to the north of Juzcar, are every bit as impressive as El Torcal over in the GuadalTeba, but much closer to Ronda, and only a short drive and walk from Juzcar.
One could almost imagine the hills are an alien landscape, they protrude in sharp angular outcrops, but are filled with caves and sinkholes, towering minarets, and other formations that make the Alto Genal a geologically fascinating district. Balancing rocks are found in abundance, and create some interesting shapes. Heavy rain in the distant past washed away all of the top soil and exposed the limestone, which is a soft rock easily sculpted by running water.
Just outside Juzcar village is a small cave entrance known as Cueva de Calderón, hinting at what might be underneath. In fact other than the Hundadero-Gato cave system between Montejaque and Benaojan, the caves in the Alto Genal specifically known as the Sierra del Oreganal between Alpandeire, Juzcar and Cartijima are the most well known and loved by cavers. Potholing is possible, though recommended only for experts, and numerous caves that may have been sanctuaries for paleolithic people surround the valley.
Abseiling and rugged adventure walks in the Genal River and other tributaries such as the Zua River are popular activities in these parts. River rappelling at the Sima del Diablo with 8m and 10m descents can be done with a qualified guide, or alone if you have the experience. Unlike other waterfalls and canyons in Málaga province, the Sima del Diablo is secluded with a thick canopy overhead. The location is dark and moody, more reminiscent of a rain forest than sunny Southern Spain. Further upstream you’ll also encounter the Cueva del Moro, the Moor’s Cave.
Legend tells that when the area was first settled a Moor discovered a cave with a natural spring with the sweetest tasting water in the world, and plugging the river in three places with trees and branches he was able to divert the water to each of the three villages where he had a girlfriend, Juzcar, Pandeire, and Baltasar. Later when he married, the village priest decreed that his dam should be destroyed so that only his bride could taste the beautiful water.
Walks From Juzcar
There are a number of countryside walks around Juzcar ranging from 45 minutes to 1hr 15mins, and most can be extended to several hours if that appeals. All of these walks are only suitable for people who can walk, and are comfortable on flights of steps because they require walking off-road on rocky terrain with occasional steeps slopes.
Starting with a walk to Farajan, a nearby village and the walk is only 45 minutes or 2.8kms, with a difficulty level of medium. The walk starts near Juzcar’s cemetery, and leads on the road to Faraján and Alpandeire for about 1km before going off-road to Faraján. Vegetation along the side of the road will be olive, holm oaks, and wild sumac. This walking route takes you past the Fuente de Trujillo, and the spring which marks the beginning of the River Zua.
The second walk from Juzcar goes to Cartajima, and is 2.85kms, and should take around an hour. This is described as a low difficulty walk, suitable for a relaxing day out in the countryside, perhaps enjoying lunch or tapas in Cartajima before returning to your hotel in Juzcar. You’ll pass Juzcar’s ruined tin factory, the el Romeral dolmen from neolithic times, a copse on ancient oaks, and the fuente de las calenturas, so named because the water is so cold people who drink from it often come down with a fever (calentura).
Our third walk from Juzcar goes to Pujerra, another of the Genal Valley villages. This walk is suitable for walking or cycling, and is 3.6kms or around 1hr 15mins, and is described as being a medium difficulty. The walk departs on the Cartajina road, but quickly goes off-road into a small forest of holm and oaks. At the bottom of the valley we cross the Genal river near a small chestnut forest, and then pass the old flour mills that until the mid 20th century provided most of the employment in Juzcar.
The entire Serranía de Ronda is a birdwatchers paradise, but Juzcar is special, not for the huge variety of birds to be seen, but for the range of terrain within the county. From the mountains descend the raptors, soaring high above looking for food, whilst down in the forest and riverbed smaller birds pick and fuss.
The forests surrounding Juzcar are filled with pine and chestnut trees, creating a leaf covered forest floor that teams with worms, grubs and insects. This is a bird’s heaven, plentiful food and cover from the watching eyes of birds of prey above. The trees and mountain cliffs provide wonderful nesting locations, one never has to walk very far during the nesting season if birdwatching is your passion.
Here’s our list of ten common birds you’ll see during the year in Juzcar;
|English Name||Latin Name||Spanish Name|
|Griffon Vulture||Gyps fulvus||Buitre Leonado|
|Short-toed Eagle||Circaetus gallicus||Culebrera Europea|
|Common Buzzard||Buteo buteo||Busardo Ratonero|
|Booted Eagle||Aquila pennata||Aguililla Calzada|
|Red-legged Partridge||Alectoris rufa||Perdiz Roja|
|Eagle Owl||Bubo bubo||Buho Real|
|Bee-eater||Merops apiaster||Abejaruco Europeo|
|Blue Rock-Thrush||Monticola solitarius||Roquero Solitario|
|Western Bonelli’s Warbler||Phylloscopus bonelli||Mosquitero sombrío|
|Cirl Bunting||Emberiza cirlus||Escribano Soteño|