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Exploring the Tabernas Desert: Europe's Wild West Adventure

The Tabernas Desert is a unique European landscape, famed as a movie set for Westerns and as a biodiversity hotspot. Here, you’ll find filming locations that transported actors to the Old West, panoramic castle views, and a chance to gaze into the cosmos. But what activities can perfectly capture its essence, and when’s the best time to visit? Our guide cuts straight to the heart of Tabernas, offering actionable insights and highlights without spoiling your sense of discovery.


The tabernas desert is home to well-known Western film sets

Key Takeaways


  • The Tabernas Desert boasts unique natural features, varied climate conditions due to its surrounding topography, and a range of endemic flora and fauna that have adapted to its arid landscape.

  • As Europe’s only desert, Tabernas offers many attractions including historical movie sets from classic westerns, the 11th-century Castle of Tabernas, and the noteworthy Calar Alto Observatory for astronomy enthusiasts.

  • A broad spectrum of activities including guided tours, themed parks, independent trails, and the Almeria Racing Circuit cater to adventure seekers, while local cuisine and olive oil production reflect the desert’s agricultural richness.


Discovering the Tabernas Desert


Situated about 30 kilometres north of Almería city, the Tabernas Desert, or “Desierto de Tabernas” as it’s locally known, is a marvel of nature. Its landscape, carved by natural forces over millions of years, resembles the surface of the moon, with wind-swept crags and ancient river beds now visible as badlands. This unique environment is often referred to as “del desierto” by those who appreciate its beauty and history.


Despite its harsh, arid conditions, the Tabernas Desert is a thriving ecosystem and a protected nature reserve, housing a variety of flora and fauna that have adapted to survive in this challenging environment.


Geographical location and climate


Located between the Sierra de los Filabres to the north and the Sierra de Alhamilla to the south-southeast, the Tabernas Desert is nestled within a geographical fortress. The surrounding mountains, including:


  • Sierra Nevada

  • Gador

  • Filabres

  • Alhamilla


cast a rain shadow over the area, contributing to its unique Mediterranean, warm, and semi-arid climate.


The desert experiences less than 250 mm of annual rainfall and enjoys approximately 2900 hours of sunshine annually. The climate varies across different elevations of the Tabernas basin, with lower elevations being arid and higher altitudes experiencing a Mediterranean, cold temperate climate.


This remarkable climate variation, coupled with its unique geographical location, makes the Tabernas Desert a fascinating place for nature lovers and adventure enthusiasts alike.


Unique flora and fauna


The Tabernas Desert is a living testament to nature’s adaptability. Despite its arid conditions, it is home to an array of endemic species, including the unique Euzomodendron bourgeanum and rare plants like sea lavender and toadflax linaria that bloom in winter. The desert also supports a diverse fauna, housing at-risk species such as the yellow scorpion, tarantulas, and black widows, as well as mammals like the Algerian hedgehog and various rodents. Bird watchers will be delighted to spot species like common kestrels, little owls, crag martins, black-eared wheateaters, and Bonelli’s eagles, among others. Reptiles, amphibians, and insects can often be found near the seasonal rivers and dry river beds, adding to the desert’s unique biodiversity.


Unforgettable Attractions


The Tabernas Desert is not just a natural wonder; it’s also a treasure trove of unforgettable attractions. From movie sets that have seen the likes of Clint Eastwood to historical sites offering panoramic views, there’s a wealth of experiences waiting to be discovered.

We will now examine these iconic attractions, highlighting what sets each one apart.


Movie sets and theme parks


Known as ‘The Hollywood of Europe’, the Tabernas Desert, a unique desert in Europe, has been a popular filming site for renowned movies like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. This desert has witnessed the footsteps of iconic film figures like Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone, who immortalized it through films such as ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’.


The movie sets of Mini-Hollywood, Texas-Hollywood, and Western Leone offer a unique connection to these classic spaghetti westerns. Visitors can immerse themselves in the Wild West at Fort Bravo Texas Hollywood, with experiences ranging from stunt shows to horse carriage rides, and even dressing up in period costumes.


Winter holidays are the best times to visit the theme parks, offering a seasonal twist to the Western experience.



Castle of Tabernas


The 11th-century Nazari-style Castle of Tabernas is an intriguing historical site. Once serving as a refuge for Ferdinand and Isabel during the siege of Almeria, the castle is a monument of immense cultural interest. Reflecting the architectural heritage of the Islamic period of al-Andalus, the castle, although restored, still carries the aura of a bygone era.

The ruins of the Castle of Tabernas offer panoramic views of the nearby Sierra Nevada, the town of Tabernas, and the desert, making it an excellent spot for sightseeing and photography. A visit to this castle is not only a journey into history but also a visual treat for the eyes.


Calar Alto Observatory


For astronomy enthusiasts, a visit to the Calar Alto Observatory is a must. This observatory offers:


  • High-power telescopes

  • Unique opportunities to explore the cosmos

  • Guided tours providing insights into astronomical research

  • Access to the largest telescope on mainland Europe


Located in the Sierra de los Filabres, the observatory offers breath-taking

views over the Tabernas Desert and the mountain range of Almería Province. Whether you’re an astronomy buff or a casual stargazer, the Calar Alto Observatory offers a celestial experience that’s truly out of this world.


Adventure Awaits: Activities in the Tabernas Desert


The Tabernas Desert is a playground for adventure seekers. From guided tours and excursions to independent explorations and thrilling motor sports, there’s no shortage of activities to keep you on your toes.


We will now explore these exhilarating activities and how they can enhance your desert adventure.


Guided tours and excursions


Guided tours and excursions offer an enriching way to explore the Tabernas Desert. The local tour company, Malcaminos, offers a variety of experiences, including 4x4 guided tours that cover the film sets, the unique landscapes, and the historical backdrop of the desert.

For those seeking a more thrilling adventure, organized motorbike tours lead through the desert to explore famous movie sets, including those from the Spaghetti Westerns directed by Sergio Leone and the iconic Indiana Jones series. These tours offer an adrenaline-pumping way to navigate through the breath-taking landscapes of the desert.



Independent exploration


If you prefer to chart your own course, the Tabernas Desert offers ample opportunities for independent exploration. The desert is laced with signposted walking trails for those looking for an adventurous hike. Among these, the Ruta Circular de Western Leone is a popular choice. This 8.5 km loop typically takes around 2 hours and 17 minutes to complete, offering a rewarding and challenging experience.


Navigating through the desert’s dry riverbeds and canyons, independent hikers are met with a unique terrain that carries a sense of history and a chance to closely observe the desert’s biodiversity. However, due to the challenging terrain and scarce signage, carrying a map is recommended for a safe and enjoyable hiking experience.


Almeria Racing Circuit


For speed enthusiasts, the Almeria Racing Circuit offers a unique thrill. The 4.2 km track with 14 corners and a straight run of 900 meters is a haven for driving and motorcycle enthusiasts. Located near the N-340a highway a few kilometres from Tabernas village, the circuit offers stunning views of Spain’s driest desert landscapes.


The circuit is equipped with amenities including a viewing area above the pits and an onsite bar and restaurant with generous views of the course. Besides regular racing events, the Almeria Festival of Speed is a notable event that took place under challenging weather conditions, including a near sandstorm and temperatures over 45 degrees due to the Sirocco wind from the Sahara desert.


The Taste of Tabernas: Local Cuisine and Olive Oil Production


No trip to the Tabernas Desert is complete without indulging in the local cuisine and sampling the region’s award-winning olive oil. The stable temperatures throughout the growing period and low acidity in olives contribute to the high quality of olive oil from Tabernas.


We will now take a look at the culinary delights that Tabernas has to offer.


Traditional dishes and local ingredients


Tabernas’ traditional cuisine is a reflection of the local produce that thrives in the region’s unique climate. Olives, almonds, and goat cheese feature prominently in the local dishes, offering a taste of the desert’s bounty.


Some popular dishes in Tabernas include:


  • Gazpacho, a refreshing cold tomato soup, popular during the hot summer months

  • ‘Migas’, a beloved local dish made with breadcrumbs, garlic, and olive oil

  • Heartwarming stews and casseroles made with fresh vegetables, legumes, and Iberian pork


These dishes are a staple in the diet of Tabernas’ residents.


Olive oil production and tasting


Tabernas is renowned for its high-quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) production. The process includes:


  1. Harvesting the olives between late September and November

  2. Collecting the olives quickly at low temperatures to prevent contamination

  3. Cold pressing the olives at temperatures below 27ºC to extract the oil


The desert climate, with its distinctive temperature and harvesting conditions, plays a significant role in the quality of the olive oil produced from olive trees. Visitors can taste different olive oil varieties, each contributing distinct flavors and aromas, during oleotourism tours organized at places like Almazara Aceite Castillo de Tabernas.


Planning Your Visit: Access, Accommodation, and Tips


Planning your visit to the Tabernas Desert is an important part of the journey. From deciding how to get there to choosing the right accommodation and knowing the best time to visit, every detail can enhance your trip.


This section is designed to provide you with the essential information needed to plan your visit.



Getting there


The main routes to access the Tabernas Desert are the A92 and N340 roads. Visitors can drive to the desert by taking the A-7/E-15 towards Njar and Almeria, then exiting in the direction of Sorbas and Tabernas, following signs along the N-340A road.


Public transportation options to the desert are limited. Visitors typically need to take a bus from Almeria to Tabernas village. The ALSA bus company operates routes that can take visitors close to the Tabernas Desert.


Accommodation options


There are a variety of accommodations near the Tabernas Desert to cater to a range of preferences and budgets, including:


  • Luxury resorts

  • Economically priced lodgings

  • Guesthouses

  • Rural accommodations


For a more immersive experience, guesthouses and rural accommodations are also available in the Tabernas area.


While there are no campsites directly in the Tabernas Desert, the nearest campsite is Camping Fort Bravo, located directly next to the Fort Bravo theme park. These accommodation options offer a comfortable base from which to embark on your desert adventure.



Travel tips and best times to visit


The optimal periods to tour the Tabernas Desert are during the spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) when the weather is milder and temperatures are more comfortable. Packing layered clothing to adjust to temperature changes, robust footwear for rough terrains, and sun protection including sunglasses, hats, and sunscreen, is highly recommended.


Travelers are also advised to carry a headlamp or flashlight for safe navigation after dark, and items like wipes and hand sanitizer for personal cleanliness when in remote desert areas. These tips can ensure you have a comfortable and enjoyable desert adventure.


Summary


Spanning breath-taking landscapes, rich biodiversity, historical landmarks, and thrilling adventures, the Tabernas Desert is a captivating destination that offers a unique blend of nature, culture, and adventure. With its stark beauty, cinematic history, and gastronomic delights, it invites you to embark on an unforgettable journey. Whether you’re a nature lover, a history buff, an adventure enthusiast, or a foodie, the Tabernas Desert has something for everyone. So, are you ready to discover Europe’s only desert and create your own memorable Tabernas story?


Frequently Asked Questions


What is special about the Tabernas desert?

The Tabernas Desert is unique as it is the only desert in Europe, receiving less than 250mm of rainfall per year, yet it is home to diverse animal and plant species that have adapted to its extreme conditions.


Is Tabernas desert worth visiting?

Yes, the Tabernas desert is well worth a visit, as it offers an impressive and unique landscape that is highly recommended for anyone in the area.


What animals live in the Tabernas desert?

The Tabernas desert is home to a variety of animals, including foxes, rabbits, hares, hedgehogs, dormice, snakes, toads, frogs, and lizards, as well as insects like grasshoppers and bees.


What is the best time to visit the Tabernas Desert?

The best time to visit the Tabernas Desert is during the spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) when the weather is milder and temperatures are more comfortable.


What kind of flora and fauna can I expect to see in the Tabernas Desert?

In the Tabernas Desert, you can expect to see unique flora such as Euzomodendron bourgeanum, sea lavender, and toadflax linaria, as well as fauna including at-risk species like the yellow scorpion, tarantulas, and black widows, along with mammals such as the Algerian hedgehog and various rodents.

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