The beauty of the coast and hinterland along the Costa de la Luz is rugged and harsh, but not without its treasures. The passing of time is evident – the ruins of ancient aqueducts sit alongside modern wind turbines and solar farms. People have inhabited this part of the Spanish coastline for over 3000 years. This lesser known costa of Spain has been our home-base for some months, and has started to reveal itself in ways that weren’t immediately apparent.
The Costa de la Luz – coast of light – refers to the clear blue skies reflected in the turquoise oceans of the region that stretches between Cádiz and Tarifa. It is exposed to the Atlantic Ocean to the west, so is less popular with tourists who prefer Spain’s more sheltered Mediterranean coasts.
This stretch is full of Parques Naturales, incredible bird life, long sandy beaches and visible history that dates back to 1100 BC. We have loved exploring this region, so here are some of our favourites treasures in a region abundant with surprises.
Known as the ‘oldest town in Spain’, Cádiz was settled by the Phoenicians, who used it as a trading port called ‘Gadir’ from around 1100 BC. Since then it has been occupied by Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and modern Spaniards. It was one of the few places to hold against Napoleon and is the where the first Spanish Constitution was declared in 1812. This long history is evident everywhere in Cádiz.
Entering the old part of town, you pass through the 18th century walls. Following the western coast, you can visit the Teatro Romano, a large Roman amphitheatre open to the sky, and hidden under the Tia Norica theatre you can visit Yacimiento Arqueologico Gadir, an excellent presentation of an archeological discovery of Phoenician and Roman times in Cádiz. From the top of the Torre Tavira you can see this history written in the city’s various buildings dating from 17th century settlement to now.
The colour of the ocean in Cádiz is an iridescent turquoise that is matched by the clear blue sky. While summer here can be oppressively hot, now it is September the weather is just perfect. Sitting on one of Cádiz’s many beaches with the cool breeze blowing amongst the coloured umbrellas, looking up towards the shiny dome of the cathedral, is a magical experience.
Rarely visited by tourists from outside of Spain, San Fernando seemed at first not to have much to offer. However the longer we stayed here, the more we found.
San Fernando, also known as La Isla de Leon, is most famous as the birthplace of Camarón de la Isla, arguably one of the most popular Flamenco singers of the 20th Century. In English his stage name, bestowed on him by his uncle, translates literally to ‘Shrimp of the Island’. He popularised recorded Flamenco and brought together new styles and interpretations, collaborating with Blues artists and adding electric bass to some of his recordings (see video of his work here).
The Venta de Vargas, a restaurant where he found the beginnings of fame, is a monument to Camarón, with a museum for those wanting to pay homage to the singer. Many people still pay respects at his grave in San Fernando. We were in town for the 25th anniversary of his death and there were a large number of events held throughout the town to celebrate his life, including fiestas, competitions and flamenco in the bustling thoroughfare Calle Real.
Writer Giles Tremlett described San Fernando in his book, Ghosts of Spain thus: ‘[it] overlooks the salt flats, muddy wetlands and still waters on the Bay of Cádiz.’ These marismas – marshes – have winding tracks open to the public that were once the paths used by las saliñeras – salt farmers – who formed narrow canals separated by small wooden locks and farmed salt on these lands for hundreds of years. Over the centuries these canals have created a symbiotic relationship between nature and humans, and have become the home and breeding grounds of an incredible array of bird life and shellfish.
Flamingoes can often be seen here at morning or evening during the summer months, visiting to feed from their breeding ground near Malaga, 160km to the east (as the flamingo flies). A number of times on an early morning run I was able to see them in large flocks with their legs in the water, or flying overhead with their pink feathers glowing in the dawn light.
On the northern end of San Fernando sits a fish-lover’s delight. At the Cantina del TiTi we were served some of the freshest and most delicious fish I have eaten in years. My fisherman Grandfather would have raved about this place and he had higher standards than anyone I’ve ever met when it came to seafood. While eating our fish at an outdoor table, the tide lapped in around our toes and the kids played in the sand. I recommend booking to get a table here. It’s very busy and only open for lunch.
If you love beaches, San Fernando’s Camposoto beach is one to check out. A long expanse of sand forming part of the nature reserve, it is remarkably less busy than we expected (except during the school vacation months, when it is just as busy as the rest of Spain’s beaches). If it gets too hot, you can have a beer or ice cream (or even an excellent cheap meal) at one of the four chiringuitos – beach bars – where sandy feet and swimsuit are standard attire. Surfing is also popular here at the far end of the beach, where there are a number of surf schools and local grommets enjoying the waves.
San Fernando also has its fair share of notable historical facts. It holds Spain’s atomic clock, where Spain’s time is kept precise, and it was once the point from which the whole world’s time was measured (it has since been replaced by Greenwich in England). San Fernando and Cádiz successfully resisted Napoleon’s 19th Century invasion, and it is where the Spanish Constitutional Court first took their oaths in 1810. It is worth a visit if you like to find unusual places when travelling.
Chiclana de la Frontera
We go to a lot of museums. The kids love them and it is a great way to learn about the region we’re visiting. One of the better ones on the Costa de la Luz is the Museo Chiclana. For a small museum, it contained a surprising amount of interesting information about the region and its history, with excellent displays. Our kids were completely engaged throughout our visit. The displays about modern artists and writers from the region are very informative and contained information that you wouldn’t find elsewhere.
If you are game for an uphill walk, the Ermita de Santa Ana is worth the climb. The small chapel on top of the hill is very pretty and once at the top there are spectacular views of the Costa de la Luz, and of the mountains further inland.
Conil de la Frontera
Conil is one of the many ‘de la frontera’ towns that formed King Ferdinand’s front against the Moors during the 13th century . It gets a mention here, not for it’s history or landmarks, but for the beaches. Here you will find a number of stunning playas with long stretches of sand. We particularly enjoyed a day at El Roqueo, where the cliffs give way to a beach and rocky outcrops good for the kids to rock hop. The locals here can often be seen covering themselves head to toe in a grey mud, formed by pulverising lumps of this rock. It is used as a beauty treatment for the skin. Watching people pass us by walking along the beach covered in the drying mud was too much for the kids to resist, so they stockpiled their own patch of this mud, guarded it with their lives, and proceeded to paint themselves all over.
Vejer de la Frontera
Vejer de la Frontera is a ‘must-see’ for those visiting the region. It sits atop a hill along the coastline south of Conil, with views in all directions from its high promenades. The views are amazing, both day and night, and on a clear day you can see Africa. It follows the tradition of the other Pueblos Blancos – white villages – in the mountains to the north-east, with its white walls shining in the afternoon sun. We followed the narrow streets up and down the hill to find different views.
Our meandering took us to the Castillo de Vejer where we were taken on a guided tour by a young Scout (she was perhaps 9 or 10 years old). The tour was in Spanish, but we were able to understand enough of what she told us. It wasn’t the best tour in the world, but it was fun to walk around the castle. We enjoyed watching the group in front of us, whose Scout guide was only about 6 years old. He was very entertaining and full of energy. Great to see these kids engaging with their local history.
Also a city steeped in visible history, the Puerta Cerrada – the closed gate – still stands, separating the Jewish quarter from the area around the castle. It was always closed to keep out pirates that may have climbed up the gully of the river Barbate. Many of the ancient structures have fallen to ruin, or been damaged by earthquake and invasions. However, the keen eye can still find many ancient treasures, particularly in the old walled part of the town.
The restaurants surrounding the Plaza España and its picturesque fountain are all excellent, although getting a table can require a combination of patience, hustling and good timing. Many serve the local tuna that have been traditionally caught here using a 2000 year old net and boat system unique to the region. We also had an excellent ice-cream at the Heladeria Artesanal Italiana. The kids are always on the hunt for good ice-cream.
Self-proclaimed as the ‘Adventure Capital of Europe’, our first sight of Tarifa was the kites of the kite-surfers along the beach. Hundreds of them, of all different colours, lined the coast. As the southern-most point of Spain at the narrowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar, the wind here is remarkable and apparently makes for great kite-surfing.
I came here to see Africa, and saw it we did. It stands only 16 kilometres away and the mountains look beautiful looming on the horizon, growing out of the sea mist. Africa is on my bucket list and, for now, this is the closest I’m going to get.
The Castillo de Guzman Bueno provides a great view of Africa, and for a very modest entry fee (kids under 12 free) we were able to spend a good hour walking along the top of the ramparts and investigating the different sections of the castle. The story of Guzman is an interesting one, and his tale traverses a large part of the Costa de la Luz. He is famous for throwing his dagger down from the castle to the Moors who held his son, sacrificing his offspring to stop the invaders taking the town. However, his complicated backstory is just as interesting and the castle’s displays give a good account.
The Costa de la Luz has many hidden treasures, but the dark history of war and invasions is always present. It is a harsh landscape reaching down to beautiful beaches and incredible views. If you have some time in Spain, it is well worth a look and I assure you it won’t disappoint.
How to get around:
Cádiz is easily reached by train from Jerez or Sevilla (both with airports) and is serviced by many bus lines. I wouldn’t suggest having a car in Cádiz, as it is easily walkable, and well serviced by public transport. Towards the end of our stay in the region we hired bikes from Las Bicis Naranjas. They were a great way to get around, see the sights and explore the region. They can be taken on the trains, which extends the reach of your travels if you don’t have a car.
San Fernando is also easily accessible by train, bus and bike. A car or bike is a good idea here if you want to visit Camposoto. Avis usually have some good deals in Spain. A tramline is currently being built between Chiclana, San Fernando and Cádiz, but will not be in operation for a few years yet.
Chiclana is well serviced by Comes and ALSA buses. We find ALSA much more comfortable and easier to book, so we usually go with those. Comes buses are difficult to book using international credit cards.
Conil is also accessible by bus, but if you want to head to the beaches, I would suggest a car is your best option.
Vejer de la Frontera is well serviced by Comes buses, but you’ll have to walk up the hill from the bus stop.
DISCLAIMER: We are not affiliated with any of these towns or attractions and were not paid nor given any free tours, accommodation or food. We paid for all these journeys with our own money and these are our own opinions. The links to Amazon, Avis and advertisements are affiliate links as per our Affiliates page.