Hidden Spain: Tarifa
With its regular fierce winds and sand blasted beaches, Tarifa is a living hell to most conventional tourists, and yet to the townspeople and visiting surf community it is a relatively undiscovered area with some pleasant surprises in store for those willing to dig under the surface.
When approaching by road from Algeciras in the east, you’ll be greeted by vultures swirling around the hills as you descend into the town that lies directly opposite Tangier on the African coast. Looking across the Strait of Gibraltar, you can see the Rif Mountains rising in the distance and at night even see traffic driving along the mountain paths with the naked eye. A regular ferry runs across to Tangier, so Tarifa is a convenient point for travellers to hold up for a night two before continuing their journey.
Although the town looks unremarkable on approach – dusty apartment blocks, a football ground, and harbour walls – there is much more to explore within. By merit of Tarifa’s prominent position at the gateway to the Mediterranean, it has a turbulent history that includes Roman occupation and subsequent invasion by the Moors. Roman influence is thus strong in the area and 15 miles west, you can visit some remarkable ruins of a Roman settlement at the town of Bolonia. Unlike many such sites of historical interest, the ruins are very accessible and virtually devoid of crowds. Bolonia also has a beautiful sandy beach and some modest facilities including restaurants, cafes, and bars in the laidback village. While on the subject of the Roman influence, it’s worth mentioning that the origin of the name ‘Spain’ is actually derived from the Carthaginian word, Ispania, which means ‘land of the rabbits’.
In Tarifa itself, the striking Castle of Guzmán el Bueno dominates a beautiful old town of cobbled streets and architecture of Roman, Spanish and Moorish influences. The castle has an interesting history worth delving into – after the Roman period it was captured, recaptured, and laid siege to by many forces including Christians and Moors vying for control of the region.
As well as strong local life and fishing activities, Tarifa has a manic community of kitesurfers and windsurfers attracted to the long sandy Los lances beach stretching to the west. Renowned for the reliable wind conditions, enthusiasts arrive from all over the world, transforming the area into a lively mix of surf bars, equipment shops and chiringuitos (beach bars). On a windy day, the beach comes alive with colourful kites and windsurf sails rigging on the beach and blasting out to sea. A mist of sand kicked up by the wind keeps most sunbathers away. This is not a bad thing since you need stay well clear of the kites on land that can get out of control in the hands of beginners and even experienced kiters.
If the bustle gets too much and you’re more into purist surfing, head further west along a pleasant track that opens up to Valdevaqueros, a quiet bay and beautiful beach. From here, continue on to Punta Paloma, another beautiful spot that has clean waves when there is a strong west swell.
There is a theory that locals in Tarifa are a bit tetchy or even a bit ‘crazy’ as a result of the wind constantly whistling around their heads. This is mostly a myth, since the atmosphere in the town is always friendly and you won’t find any hassle. Howling winds are not everyone’s cup of tea though, so if you’re looking for a break and have some funds available, a visit to the colonial-style Hurricane Hotel nestled amongst the trees to the west of Los lances beach is an oasis of tranquility away from the heat and sandblasting. If you can’t afford to stay, it’s worth just popping in for a coffee, for lunch, or a beer at the bar.
Tarifa is a very sociable place, and a great place to practice your Spanish in the many old town bars and cafes where the prices are incredibly cheap and the locals are friendly. With the vibrant surf culture, beaches, and historical interest, it’s little surprise that many visitors are hooked – returning year after year to this unique Andalucían town.