Mulhacen and the Alpujarra

My friend Dan and I had just hiked the Caminito Del Rey in Spain’s southernmost region of Andalusia. Our next goal was to climb to the summit of Mulhacen, the highest peak on the Iberian Peninsula. Mulhacen is in a mountain range called the Sierra Nevada (just like in California, USA). The southern slopes of the mountains are known as a region called the Alpujarra known for its white towns. 

Day 1: October 9, 2020: A night in Lanjaron

From the Caminito Del Rey, it was a 2-hour drive east to reach the western edge of the Alpujarra. The first town reached is Lanjaron, which is best known for its brand of bottled water sold all over Spain. We picked Lanjaron because it was close enough to the mountain and at a higher elevation than some of the nearby towns, which would help us acclimate for the hike. 

Lanjaron has a very different vibe from everything else I had seen so far in Andalusia. First of all, it was very cold- about 10 degrees Centigrade (for reference Malaga was 28). Second, it had big trees all along the main road, which felt almost Soviet. The town, like most in this region, was actually founded by Berber during Muslim Spain. 

Our hotel had an enormous pool, but I can’t imagine anyone would use it except in July or August. 

Dan and I wandered around the town and eventually settled on a deli to get dinner. The Alpujarra is known for having unique gastronomy. We ordered some of Lanjaron’s famous jamon serrano plus a fresh tomato salad, olives and a cheese/tomato dip. While I normally wouldn’t order an entire plate of jamon, it was the specialty of the house and was really really good. They drizzled olive oil on the jamon, which I will now be doing everytime I eat jamon in the future.

The famed jamon of Lanjaron

The rest of the night was uneventful.

Day 2: October 10, 2020: Mulhacen

Today was the big day to climb Mulhacen (pronounced mull-ha-then by Spaniards). As mentioned earlier, Mulhacen is the highest peak on the Iberian Peninsula at 3,479 meters (11, 413 feet), but the mountain has a few other superlatives. Mulhacen is the highest peak in the Sierra Nevada, highest non-Alp in western Europe and 3rd most prominent peak in Western Europe. Interestingly, Mulhacen is not the highest peak in Spain; that designation goes to Teide, which is on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The name Mulhacen comes from Mully Hacen, the 15th century penultimate Muslim Emir of Granada. Legend states that he is buried at the top of the mountain. 

There are a few ways to climb the mountain, but only one route can be done in a single day. That route involves taking a June-October-only bus from the town of Capillera on the mountain’s south slope. From the top of the bus ride, the walk is just 3 hours to the summit. 

The drive from Lanjaron to Capillera was a windy 1-hour. Along the way, we stopped at a grocery store to pick up food that we would turn into trail mix. Once in Capillera we checked in at the local tourism office to pick up our pre-booked bus ticket for the 11:00 bus. 

Handicrafts shop in Lanjaron

The buses arrived on time and we tried to board, but this giggly guy with long shaggy hair wouldn’t let Dan and I on until Pedro’s group of 15 people boarded first. Who was this guy, who was Pedro, and why wouldn’t he let us board the bus? Was he Pedro’s private tour guide? Did Pedro bribe him for the best seats? We will never know. 

Eventually, we got on the bus and “snagged” the final two seats at the back. The ride took us up into the mountains along on a dirt road closed to normal passenger traffic. Unfortunately, we also got a joke-laden narrated tour (in Spanish) from… our shaggy-haired friend who is apparently the official tour guide of Sierra Nevada National Park, which contains Mulhacen. At multiple points during the ride, he called us “the impatient ones” in front of the crowd. Pretty incredibly that we were publicly insulted by a government employee, but I’ve experienced crazier things in Spain like renewing my TIE residency card. 

After an hour on the bus, we got dropped off at a flat spot on top of a ridge. It was 12:00 and we were told to return at 18:45 to get our ride down. 

We took our masks off and started hiking along the road along with everyone else in the group. The slope was gentle. 

Ready to climb!

25 minutes in, we reached a three-way junction. The road continued towards the crest of the mountains and eventually to Granada. A pathway to the left led downhill towards a refugio hut where you can spend the night. But the trail on the led straight up the mountain to Mulhacen’s summit. 

The path steepened considerably. With no trees, we could see a summit ahead and about 1,500 feet (450 meters) up. For two hours we pushed uphill. As we climbed, the path got steeper and the air thinned. The crux of the climb was just below this summit. 

Downhill view from midway up the slope

The false summit

At the top, we soon realized that this was a false summit and that the real summit was still 30 minutes away. However, we only had 80 meters (250 feet) of climbing left, meaning the challenge was mostly done. There comes a point when climbing a mountain when you know you are going to make it. You start to relax a bit and gain back confidence. It was here at this false summit where this happened. 

Eventually we did make it to the summit of Mulhacen! The attempt took us 2 hours 50 minutes with a total elevation gain of 600 meters (2,000 feet). Like all peaks in Spain, it was topped with some sort of Christian shrine with no sight of Mully Hacen’s grave. There was also a huge crowd of fellow hikers celebrating the achievement. 

Summit of Mulhacen

We took our pictures and found a quieter spot to soak up the view. To the south, we could the Mediterranean coast and, far in the distance, the coast of Morocco in Africa! 

The north side of Mulhacen was a steep cliff dropping into a deep canyon. We could see all the way to the suburbs of Granada, although the city center was blocked by other peaks. 

The north view

Quite. The. View. 

After about 30 minutes on top, we headed back down towards the bus. The descent took just 2 hours. Along the way we passed by a group of Iberian ibexes and dozens of cyclists completing a traverse of the Sierra Nevada. 

The descent

This put us at the bus stop at 5pm. Unfortunately, the bus wasn’t coming for another 1 hours 45 minutes. We contemplated walking down to the Capillera, but it wouldn’t get us there any faster. So, we waited. 

The sun started to get low in the sky and the temperature dropped fast towards freezing. After a moderate amount of suffering, the bus arrived on time. Thankfully our shaggy-haired friend was not there!

The ride down would have taken just 45 minutes, but our progress was impeded by an enormous flock of sheep. There were literally thousands of sheep crossing the road and heading down the mountain. It reminded me of the wildebeest scene in The Lion King.

Sheeeeeeep

In the same way you cross the street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the bus slowly inched forward until the sheep started to pass behind us. 

Back in Capillera, we decided to explore this beautiful town that Lonely Planet describes as “The Crown Jewel of the Alpujarra”. The white Berber town is truly a destination in itself. 

Beautiful Capillera

For dinner, we found the restaurant El Corral del Castaño with the tagline comida del corazon (food from the heart). Heads up, if a restaurant has a tagline like this, go. 

We were then treated to an incredible meal consisting of some unique dishes from the Alpujarra. The highlight was a beef with a chestnut sauce. Wow. Just wow. The interior was beautiful too and looked like an old house. 

With a successful celebration meal, we were ready to head towards the coastal town of Nerja and warmer pastures. 

Thoughts:

I loved this region! Alpine towns always have a different feel, but the Alpujarra was unlike anything I have seen in Spain. The handicraft souvenirs reminded me of Peru, the architecture reminded me of North Africa, and the views reminded me of Southern California. This combination makes it a unique micro-region in the otherwise hot and dry Andalusia. 

Mulhacen is also a worthy peak that is difficult but doable for anyone in moderate shape. I would recommend this climb and itinerary to anyone visiting Spain that likes hiking.

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