The Natural Park of Sierra de Grazalema is located between the provinces of Cadiz and Malaga with an area of 51,695 hectares in the westernmost part of the Betic mountain chain. It was a natural land border between the Muslim kingdom of Granada and Christian Castile during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. These mountains were the site of frequent disputes. It was the first park in Spanish territory declared a Biosphere Reserve, (January 1977),as well as being named as a Natural Park of Andalucia in 1985. The population in very concentrated and there are villages perched on mountain tops and slopes which are fully integrated into the landscape. This unique cultural context is typical of many civilizations in the belt of mountains surrounding the Mediterranean and continues today despite the passing of the centuries.
A total of 13 villages are included, to a greater or lesser extent, in the area of the Park: Grazalema, Zahara de la Sierra,Villaluenga del Rosario, Benaocaz, Ubrique, El Bosque, Prado del Rey and El Gastor, (in the province of Cádiz), and Benaoján, Montejaque,Cortes de la Frontera, Jimena de Líbar and Ronda,(in the provinceof Malaga).
The Cadiz Mountains rise to between 600 and 1600 mts. contrasting with the surrounding valleys and depressions. It is an area of rugged ridges and valleys with vertical walls like the "Green Throat", the depth of which reaches 400 mts. There are also several caves among which are the "Hundidero-Gato" complex, the biggest cave in Andalucia, or the "Piletas" Cave, known worldwide for its prehistoric remains
Although most of the cultural heritage comes from the Muslim civilization, there are numerous Roman remains of the ancestors of today's towns such as "Iptuci" (Prado del Rey), "Ocuri" (Ubnque), "Acinipio" (Ronda ),as well as local practices that are very closely linked to the natural environment that have survived, mostly intact, to the present day.
At present local economies revolve around activities that remain based on livestock and their products, (food and wool). To these activities we must add tourism as well as the conservation of the current environmental conditions of the mountains.
Forming part of the provinces of Cadiz and Malaga we find a set of towns that seem to climb the mountains like clusters of white houses which offer a picturesque view in the area known as the Pueblos Blancos. Its name comes from the ancient custom its inhabitants of whitewashing the walls of their houses and decorating them with pots of colourful flowers, creating a colourful spectacle, which combines with the golden sun, the brown and green mountains and the blue sky .
Many bird species inhabit the park, but perhaps birds of prey are the most important because of their size and majestic flight. The Griffon vulture has its largest colonies in Europe here.
It is also home to many different types of eagle, Imperial, Calzada, Toed, Bonelli, Royal, etc. as well as other species such as hawks and vultures. You can also find mountain goats, deer and Roe deer.
There are more than 200 vertebrate species listed: 7 species of fish, 34 types of amphibians and reptiles, 44 mammals and over 130 species of birds. Many of them are nationally and internationally protected.
Elms, willows and poplars are the species that form the typical forest along river and stream courses, like the ones that can be seen in the upper reaches of the El Bosque River. All these species, a total of 90, are represented in the Botanical Garden
Among the most prominent plant species in this area are Mediterranean Oaks, Cork and Quejigo trees and the most admired species is the Pinsapo that are found in forests above a thousand metres high. The Grazalema poppy is unique to this area.
PINSAPO (Abies pinsapo Boiss)
This is a relic of a past Tertiary coniferous forest, a survivor of the last ice age 15,000 years ago. The Pinsapo can reach heights of 30 mts. has a conical or pyramid shape and the branches are arranged horizontally with needle-shaped leaves.
The trunk is straight and is usually covered in moss thanks to the moisture and shade around it.
Another of the curiosities is that it is a hermaphroditic tree because it has flowers of both sexes. The female flowers are at the top of the tree and the pine cones are cylindrical and have sticky laminates. When they reach maturity they are detached and carried by the wind to the male flowers that are found at the bottom of the tree on the tips of the branches and pollination occurs between trees. It blooms from April to May and the pine nuts ripen in September or in October.
ALCORNOQUE (Cork tree) (Quercus suber)
Part of the Fagaceae family, it is an evergreen tree that can reach up to 20 mts., grows in wet climates and on sandstone soils. It grows at altitudes above 400 mts but not exceeding 1000 mts, because the east winds hamper its development.
In the Sierra del Cistern is the largest Cork forest in the peninsula.
It blooms from May through to early summer. The fruits, acorns, are prized as food for pigs, and ripen from September to January.
The greatest use of cork is its bark, which is very thick, fluffy and light. It is used to make corks.
ACEBUCHE,(wild olive) (Olea europaea).
Part of the Oleaceae family, it is a dense tree with a rounded crown and a thick twisted, grey trunk. It is often found as a shrub or in thickets but usually grows next to Oaks and to a lesser extent Cork and Quejigo trees.
The largest area of wild olive trees in the peninsula is in the province of Cadiz. They occupy just over 17,000 hectares of the 19,000 present in Andalucia.
Its branches have thorny ends and it has evergreen leaves .This trees' white flowers flower in clusters.
It blooms in May or June and the livestock eat its olives or acebuchina, which mature in autumn and winter. It's a very long-lived species that can withstand drought and heat but is sensitive to frost.
Mediterranean Oak (Querqus rotundifolia)
The bark is highly prized and used for tanning.
The Mediterranean oak tree is part of the Fagaceae family. This tree is the most typical of Spanish trees. Its crown is wide, rounded and dense. The leaves are evergreen and almost round. It flowers in spring and fruits fall in autumn. The acorn is the best food for pigs. The best pigs are fed with acorns to produce the best quality hams.
It grows fast, has a very long lifespan, grows in all types of soil, is resistant to cold, heat and drought and is found up to 1,400 metres.
QUEJIGO (Quercus faginea)
Quejigo forests protect the soil and prevent erosion as well as excessive sunlight exposure, although they tend to grow amongst Cork trees and Mediterranean oaks.
Part of the fagáceas family, the Quejigo cannot only reach 30 metres but can also be found as a shrub. The tree has a broad crown is robust and also has simple leaves which are dark green. It blooms before the oak in April or May and its acorns have short stems and ripen in September or October.
The optimal conditions for its growth are calcareous soils and it is resistant to climate change.