A year in the life of the Costa de la Luz

Beth Hancock, 19 June, 2017
From fishing festivals in May to migrating seabirds in November, every month has its own charms on the ‘Coast of Light’ in southernmost Spain.

The most striking feature of the Costa de la Luz, besides its sweeping stretches of sand, is its proximity to North Africa. Sure, a quick glance at a map will reveal how close it is – 13 kilometres, to be precise – but it’s not until you see for yourself the mountains of Morocco rising up on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar that you appreciate how insignificant those 13 kilometres are. And there are reminders at every turn, in the history, architecture and language. You’ll also taste North Africa in virtually every meal. But although the views and the fusion of cultures are constants, the other memories of your holiday will vary considerably according to the time of year.
One word sums up these months: tranquillity. In the same way that the early bird catches the worm, the early visitor gets the dune-backed beaches more or less to themselves, despite a very respectable (by British standards, at any rate) average maximum temperature of 15C. The downside is that only a few bars and restaurants are open, but this is a small price to pay.
Towns and villages start to stir from their hibernation at the arrival of the first weekending Sevillanos, and more (but by no means all) bars and restaurants open up. But while there are definitely more people in evidence, nowhere can be described as busy other than the sky, which is filled with birds. You don’t have to have an interest in bird-watching to be impressed by the numbers: millions of birds of a mind-boggling 300-plus species migrate via the Strait of Gibraltar each year. March is the best time to witness storks and raptors.
While the skies continue to resemble the A1 at rush hour with yet more birds heading north, in the strait dolphin and whale-watching trips start in earnest, operating daily from Tarifa in search of the four resident species – long-finned pilot whales and common, bottlenose and striped dolphins – and the recently arrived sperm whales, which stay until August. Not to be outdone, on terra firma the wildflowers create a riot of colour, particularly in the second half of the month.
With high season just a few weeks away, there’s already a good buzz. Surfers are out in force enjoying the waves whipped up by the winds (a feature of this coast at any time of year), and brightly coloured kite surfers zip along the beaches. Fishermen set up a maze of nets in which to catch tuna en route to the Mediterranean, in a sustainable, centuries-old practice known as the almadraba. Their catches are celebrated with festivals in Barbate, Conil de la Frontera, Zahara de los Atunes and Tarifa, during which chefs compete to create the tastiest and most inventive tuna dishes, and this prized fish takes pride of place on menus. But it’s not all about tuna. Griffon vultures and European honey buzzards cross the strait, bringing the spring migration to a close, and masses of flowers brighten up the countryside.
As the mercury soars, so too does the number of holidaymakers. This is a time for sunbathing, not walking.
September is a month of exodus. From the tops of the biscuit-coloured cliffs, shoals of tuna can be seen heading back out to the Atlantic, and they’re not the only creatures on the move – September sees the widest variety of migrating birds, their numbers inflated by this year’s young. Binoculars are a must, as is a swimsuit, because if there’s ever a time to swim in the Atlantic, it’s now, with sea temperatures a pleasant 21C.
Dolphin and whale-watching trips continue until the end of the month, and there’s still a decent selection of bars and restaurants open, but there’s nevertheless the feeling of things winding down for winter, despite the thermometer still hovering in the low twenties. Once again, the sky is generally busier than the beaches, with seabirds bringing up the rear at the end of the autumn migration.
Things come full circle, the beaches empty, and a wonderful tranquillity descends once more.

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