No one else was around to see the clouds twirl like smoke above the rugged massif of the El Torcal de Antequera nature reserve. A twisting valley cracked open as if searching for something to do, revealing a deserted hiking trail, which wound toward glossy olive groves and citrus-scented forests.
We were walking the unknown Camino Mozarabe on a Roman road on a hot May afternoon, bracing for silhouettes of Arab-era watchtowers on the hills ahead, their outlines a series of grand finales beneath the Spanish sky. “This is a landscape to soothe the feet and the mind,” said our hiking guide Manni Coe from boutique Andalusian tour operator Toma & Coe, while sermonizing about the trail we were on. “Apart from those who really know Spain, no one has yet heard of it. Lucky us, hombre.”
In these still lands, the beautiful trails of the El Torcal de Antequera nature reserve in Andalusia weren’t the only reason we both felt giddy. Hikers come to Spain in their hundreds of thousands each year, with the bulk intent on completing the Camino de Santiago, the Homerian traverse of the country to Saint James’s tomb in Santiago de Compostela. Yet, there is one biblical problem about the world’s No. 1 long-distance trek: the inescapable, solemn mass of lycra-clad pilgrims on the trail. In 2017, numbers tipped 300,000 for the first time and the fury from locals rippled from the Pyrenees in the east to Galicia in the west.
This is not a concern for those on the Camino Mozarabe in Manni Coe’s backyard. The 417-kilometre route marches north from Malaga to the medieval city of Cordoba and is one of several pilgrim tributaries that twist and turn north from Andalusia, before uniting in a final push toward the altar of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Each has its history, but the Camino Mozarabe has deeper roots in the cultures of three religions (Jews, Christians and Muslims) and is named after the Christians who lived within the former Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus, or Andalusia today.
It’s a whirlwind immersion in pilgrim-style hiking, passing southern Spain’s greatest hits, including spectacular karst mountain scenery, the watchtower-mottled Sierras Subbeticas Natural Park and La Mezquita, one of the world’s greatest works of Islamic architecture. More incredible still, the trail welcomed just 550 pilgrims last year. As Coe told me, “The best way to walk the Camino is alone. Not with the stampede.”
It was hard to imagine a crowd at all. As the days passed, we trekked north, heads bowed, not in a pious way, but focused on the horizon. We climbed out of the Guadalhorce River valley and passed el Cedron, a village settled by Sephardic Jewish communities after the reconquest of Granada in 1492. Ahead, the map showed Castro del Rio, a crossroads best known for where Miguel de Cervantes started writing Don Quixote from behind the bars of the jail.
By the end of the week, we’d mastered Andalusian time – hike early, lunch at length, drink late – and reached spectacular Cordoba, crossing its Roman Bridge with a spring in our steps. If I was of a more spiritual mind, I’d have sworn the Camino dipped into something deeper and more profound, but that was just an itch to keep going through Merida, Caceres, Salamanca and the oak forests of central Spain. That, I knew, would have to wait for next year.
Most appropriately, our final lunch was a boozy discussion about the merits of long-distance pilgrimage and it finished with lashings of sacramental red wine and sweet muscatel first made in a nearby convent. In these still lands, the Andalusians continue to keep the best secrets to themselves.
For more information on guided hiking trips along the Camino Mozarabe, visit tomaandcoe.com.
The writer travelled courtesy of Toma & Coe. They did not review or approve this article.