This page is a summary of natural history aspects of our travel to Spain in 2023. The travel involved both a cruise from Ft Lauderdale, Florida to Barcelona, Spain (April 8-22), during which one of us provided lectures and a second, slightly longer period from April 22-May 12 when we traveled through parts of south and central Spain via rental vehicle. The routes of the two segments are shown in the figures below.
The cruise portion of our travel
Our cruise was one of repositioning – moving the ship from its zone of winter activities in the Caribbean Sea region to the Mediterranean and other European cruising regions for the summer months. Such trans-Atlantic cruises have a relatively high percentage of “sea-days” and are hence suitable for lecturers to entertain the passengers. The cruise itself proceeded relatively uneventfully, with moderate seas and generally overcast skies on most days. After six days we arrived at Ponta Delgada, the main town on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores archipelago. After another two sea-days, we began a series of port stops on successive days at Cadiz, Gibraltar, Malaga, Alicante and finally we disembarked in Barcelona.
Normally, the port stops offer only limited opportunities for natural history exploration, especially when the ports are larger towns or cities. We took advantage of the Ponta Delgada and Cadiz port calls to rent vehicles and drive to select locations that we had identified with the aid of Google Earth and other internet sources. We had only limited success on Sao Miguel but were more successful in visiting key natural areas during our explorations from Cadiz. Both of these day excursions are summarized below.
Ponta Delgada day trip: Our rental vehicle arrangement involved renting from the airport, since a later return was possible there. This involved a taxi ride to and from the airport, which added about 20 euros to the overall rental cost. In retrospect it was probably more effective to rent from near the cruise ship port because we didn’t use the rental for the full duration we anticipated. Our travel outside Ponta Delgada was limited by the weather (cloudy with drizzle) and windy conditions. But mostly we were discouraged by the widespread modification of the natural landscape by agriculture and the plantations of non-native trees (mostly Japanese Cedar) that have become naturalized. We did manage to see some areas that had plants native and endemic to the Azores, and though overall it was a relatively disappointing experience, it did give us a feeling for a part of the island that a tour would not have. The timing of the ship’s port call, from about noon to 11 PM, was also not optimal for using available daylight.
Cadiz day trip: We rented a vehicle to see areas outside of Cadiz that we knew neither tours, nor our walking, would be able to reach. The rental vehicle location, next at the Cadiz train station was only a short walk from the ship’s docking location. Our destinations were various locations for seeing birds in habitat and to try to see natural vegetation of the region. We were moderately successful in this, but at the expense of not seeing the colonial center of Cadiz. For a non-birder or non-naturalist, I would not necessarily recommend the travel we did at the expense of spending more time in Cadiz. But for us it was a worthwhile effort and it saved us having to spend time visiting some of these areas later during our personal travel.
We considered the option of driving to Doñana National Park, north of Cadiz, as a day trip. However, despite being relatively close to Cadiz as the crow flies (about 30-50 miles), driving to it requires first traveling north to Sevilla and then southward to reach the access town to the park of El Rocio – a distance of about 120 miles. Driving time from Cadiz is 2 hr (from Google Maps) one-way. Given that we drive slower than estimated from Google Earth, one can spend half the day driving to and from Doñana. In addition, visiting the interior of the park requires going on a guided tour with limited schedules. For these reasons, we did not visit Doñana during either our port day in Cadiz, or during our driving trip afterwards.
Google Maps depictions of our travel route (left) during our port day in Cadiz and the route to Doñana National Park. Maps are not quite same scale but distances are depicted. Note that driving one-way to Doñana National Park (El Rocio) was longer than the entire route we actually drove. This is the reason we didn’t visit Doñana.
Our land travels from Barcelona
Holland America covered our travel costs to Barcelona (via the ship) and our return from Barcelona (via American Airlines). This fixed our land-based driving possibilities, as we rented a vehicle at the Barcelona airport and returned it there. We made most accommodation arrangements prior to the trip, but made several adjustments during the trip. Details of accommodations will vary with each traveler, our goals were to have kitchen facilities so that we could prepare our own meals. This had the advantage of eating what and when we wanted. Some savings in time (restaurants are often slow) and money (restaurants are relatively expensive) come with this though it required shopping in various grocery stores – itself a valuable cultural experience.
While our travels focused on seeing “natural Spain”, we designed our route to see various cultural aspects of the country. The old town of Albarracin, the windmills of La Mancha, and the pueblos blancos of Andalusia were visited en-route to various destinations.
Rather than present a day-by-day summary of our travels (which would be too-specific and not general enough for most readers) we present what visitors from the USA would find different about Spain and its natural landscapes. Plus we add some practical travel information for the potential traveler interested in the natural history of Spain.
Why go to Spain to see nature?
After our recent trip this is a questions we ask ourselves. Perhaps the best answer is that it may be the best place in Europe to see “nature”. This, of course, will be disputed by people living in many European countries and we don’t have the background to justify a claim. We can say that there is a wide variety of landscapes and biota within Spain, but access is key to actually seeing nature. If you cannot get to it, then it isn’t much good to travelers who want to see it.
The Physical Geography of Spain
Spain is a relatively mountainous country, from the Pyrenees in the north to the Sierra Nevada in the south.
Basic Political Geography of Spain
Spain is comprised of semi-autonomous Departamentos and these are divided into small subdivisions (Provincias). There is more than one language used widely in Spain, those most people can speak conventional Castellano (Spanish to most Americans). But other languages are spoken, and are quite different from Castellano, though if one speaks Castellano it is possible to derive much of what is being written in these other languages.
Getting around Spain
This webpage is not a substitute for a book on traveling through Spain. Get a Lonely Planet Guidebook for Spain (or any of its Departments) for such details. BUT, there are a few aspects of Spain that we should mention that are applicable to most of Europe that are very different from getting around the USA.
Any traveler to Spain who choses to self-drive will notice some differences with US driving and roads. Major freeways or tollroads are very good for the most part, being multi-lane divided highways and with reasonable shoulders. On and off ramps however tend to be shorter and more abrupt than on US highways.
Secondary highways are usually also very good, though occasionally with sharper curves than on comparable US highways.
Roads that traverse mountainous areas (to reach many parks) are generally much narrower than comparable park access roads in the US, and with many more curves. While these roads are in principle two lanes wide one is obliged to slow down and carefully move to the side of the roadway when encountering another car. Passing is challenging since such roads are windy and have poor visibility. Bicyclists complicate driving on such roads, since plenty of room must be allowed to pass them and this puts you squarely in the lane of opposite traffic. Fortunately, many mountain roads have light traffic, but one is never really at easy since visibility, bicyclists and fast drivers coming in the opposite direction or wanting to pass you are always a possibility.
Finally, there are the city roads of the colonial-style towns (the Pueblos Blancos of Andalusia for example). These are pretty awful to drive through. Cars park often on one side of the road and while the street may be two-way, there is only room for one car to travel at a time. People are ever-present. Signage is relatively poor as well. Without our vehicle’s GPS they would have been very difficult to navigate through. We tried to avoid driving through them to the extent possible and fortunately, Spanish towns usually have bypasses that allow one to avoid the most city centers.
Whether on freeways or local country roads, rest stops along Spanish roads rarely exist. We never found toilets along roads except at gas stations or restaurants (customers only). Any place along a highway or country road wide enough to stop your car will have toilet paper. The argument must be that there aren’t funds to maintain conventional toilets along roads, but the consequence is that people go wherever they can stop. We are quite familiar with this in Latin America, but we had thought Spain might be different. Perhaps the idea of saving funds for rest stops comes from Spain.
Roundabouts. There are few stop lights in Spain. Most road intersections are dealt with via traffic circles (“roundabouts”) which are uncommon in the US. After 20 days driving across Spain I felt that roundabouts have some benefits – when the traffic is light. You do not need to stop, only slow down, when approaching a roundabout. Only infrequently do you need to stop to yield way to traffic already in the roundabout. This speeds up driving through such intersections and crossing many smaller towns. Roundabouts take more space than conventional intersections and are hard to graft onto older, denser neighborhoods, but for bypassing towns they work very well.
The downside of roundabouts is that they require attention – you cannot be asleep like at signalized intersections. Cars may be trying to pass you from behind as you enter the roundabout – they may cut you off from exiting if you are not careful. Other cars entering the roundabout may have the right of way and you need to yield. Or they may take the right away. Since you will likely be driving slower than the traffic flow iff you take too long entering the roundabout or yield too much to vehicles already in the roundabout people will honk from behind you. In summary, roundabouts allow for faster traffic flow – but at the price of greater anxiety to the driver. Driving through towns is not relaxed.
Types of accommodations
For the nature traveler it is best to try to stay close to the areas you want to visit. However, conventional hotels and most other accommodation are in towns, closer to the centro.
The Spanish Park landscape and philosophy
Who visits the parks?
Most visitors to the parks we visited were from Spain, though foreigners were evident throughout Spain.
Spanish tourism focus
Beach tourism and city-attraction tourism dominate.