Zafarraya Pass: Walking with Neanderthal Man

Zafarraya Pass, Spain

The spectacular U-shaped Zafarraya Pass (El Boquete de Zafarraya) which marks the boundary between the provinces of Málaga and Granada can be seen for miles around.   Standing impressively over 900 metres above sea level, the Pass has been used for centuries as a key route through the sierras, linking lands south-west of Granada, with the towns and villages along the coast, east of Málaga.

Although I have made the journey through the Pass many times, I never fail to be impressed by this ancient route through a huge cleft in the mountain spine of the Sierra de Alhama.

The name Zafarraya may have come from the Arab Fahs al-raiyya meaning “field of shepherds”, although there are people who think it derives from Saiarraya, meaning “territory limit”, referring to the fact that at one time Zafarraya belonged to the province of Málaga.

To get there, we drove north from the A7/E15 Autovía del Mediterraneo, past the town of Vélez-Málaga and briefly alongside Lake Vinuela, before heading up the A402, a winding mountain road towards the Pass.

Zalia castle near Zafarraya, Spain

Along the way we stopped at the ruins of Zalía castle (castillo de Zalía) which sits on a hill opposite the white Andalucían village of Alcaucín.  It is thought that the Phoenicians established the foundations of the fortress, but the castle was later built by the Moors around the 10th century to guard the ancient Nasrid Route through the Zafarraya Pass from Granada to Málaga.

Even though many of the wildflowers I have told you about over recent weeks have now started to die back near to where I live, they are still flourishing in abundance further inland, so we stopped many times to take in the natural beauty as well as many photographs.

In 1979, a cave was discovered near to the Zafarraya Pass (Cueva del Boquete de Zafarraya), with a subsequent archaeological dig unearthing the best preserved remains of Neanderthal man (radiometrically dating back 30000 years) ever found in Western Europe.

Importantly, the find was one of the first pieces of definite evidence showing that Neanderthals co-existed with modern humans for almost 10,000 years, disproving earlier theories that they had been quickly replaced by modern man.

Mandible and femur from ZafarrayaImage from: Museo de Málaga

Tunnel through the rock, Zafarraya

As we approached the gap in the mountains, the entrance to a small tunnel through the rock can be seen, which was once part of the former Periana to Zafarraya railway line, abandoned fifty years ago.  The tunnel is now used by walkers who enjoy strolling along the former railway line, which is now a dirt road.

Old railway bridge, Zafarraya, Spain

The old railway bridge across the road as you drive through the Zafarraya Pass is a more obvious relic of the old railway line.

It is here that you can find the village of Ventas de Zafarraya, so named because in times long past, travellers would stop for food and shelter at one of the local inns (ventas), where they could also exchange and refresh their weary horses and oxen, before continuing on their long journeys.

These days, Ventas de Zafarraya is almost entirely dedicated to vegetable growing on the fertile, flat land just beyond the village, where many different vegetables including lettuces, artichokes and beans are grown up rustic canes cut from nearby river banks.

Many of them are not much bigger than my little veggie plot at home!

Related articles:

Classic Andalucía: La Alhambra, Granada

Wildflowers of Andalucía: Dutchman’s Pipe

The Green, Green Vegetables of Home


56 thoughts on “Zafarraya Pass: Walking with Neanderthal Man

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  6. Marianne, these look so beautiful! I can’t to see these places myself. I adore that picture with the cacti in the foreground, and also the gardens of lettuce and the colorful wildflowers. This is my kind of place for sure!

  7. Dear all, this is a beautiful area, with stunning views and charming people. When we were there, we immediately fell in love with Andalucia!
    We stayed in the rural hotel “Cortijo de Salia”, only a 10-min. drive away from the Zafarraya-pass. It’s a very charming hotel and I can recommend it, for sure. The host and his personal are very friendly and helpful. The hotel has a beautiful swimming pool with an exclusive sunbathing-terrace with stunning views. You can have a very nice dinner in the hotel and all dishes are prepared with fresh & seasonal products! Please try their typical tapas 🙂
    But also the Nature Reserve “Sierra de Tejeda” in Alcaucin is magnificent, you have lovely views over the lake of Vinuela and the Alcaucin Valley. If you drive from Zaffaraya to Alhama de Granada, you will be pleasantly surprised to discover this lovely town and beautiful surroundings……..You will need so many days to visit all the gems of this part of Andalucia. Don’t forget to drive to the coast, more-over Caleta de Velez, Nerja and Torre del Mar and enjoy the sun 🙂

  8. The idea of Modern man co existing with Neanderthal man for 10000 years is so fascinating! Fab shots Marianne, particularly that view towards Alcaucin fom Zalia castle.

  9. love your photos….we live in Alcaucin and do this walk with our dogs regularly..the wild flowers have been stunning this year, maybe because of all the rain we’ve had.

    • Hi Sandra

      I’m glad you enjoyed the photos – I had fun taking them, that’s for sure!

      I think you’re right, the rain must have made a big difference to the wildflowers this year.

      We are so lucky to be able to walk in the footsteps of Neanderthal man, right on our doorsteps, aren’t we?

      Thanks for your comment – much appreciated 🙂

  10. The whole post is really interesting, and the photos are great. The pass is very striking shot from a distance. It is so very cool about the discovery of the Neanderthal remains.

  11. Love those journeys which take you through history. Just a couple of days ago I pressed my hands against a gigantic rock which had been spewed from the earth milliions of years ago. I love that connection. Knowing how far we have come, and yet, not that far at all. Thank you for sharing your journey 🙂

  12. Thank you for the lovely tour – a little Spanish adventure for my evening! Though the backdrops are spectacular, I’m most taken by the beauty of the flowers in these photos!

  13. Stunning photos, and informative. I hadn’t known that Neanderthal Man coexisted with later humans for that period. Wonderful to be able to walk through an area that is so relevant historically 🙂

    • Thanks EllaDee – I didn’t know either until I started my research for this post. It’s always rewarding though to find out new interesting information.

      It’s such a lovely area 🙂

  14. Nice post Marianne…..lovely light and photos… the old tunnel…we have a few round here which are so long you have to take a torch to get to the other end. Unfortunatley now, It seems now there is a danger of having even more abandoned railway lines withproposed cuts etc

  15. We’ve driven from Tavira to Granada so passed nearby and the scenery did look stunning, Marianne. I absolutely love the long range cactus shot. There were fantastic carpets of flowers a little way inland in the Algarve this week too. Those thistles look so familiar. 🙂

  16. Really beautiful blog Marianne, simply loved the bright sunny pictures, the reference to neanderthals co-existing with humans? Is that true? I did not know this . Also I really want a nice fresh salad now after seeing the garden!

  17. I can see you had lots of fun taking these photo’s Marianne. They are all so beautiful and I just love the purple flowers and the red poppy fields. Absolutely stunning hon and thanks for sharing. 🙂 *hugs*

  18. Really enjoyed reading this as Big Man and his family are from Ventas (the petrol station and restaurant there are all part of the family businesses). Although it’s not a pretty town, it has an interesting history with these findings an yet we’ve never stopped to do the walk…time to put this right!

    • OOH really, how interesting!

      No, it isn’t a pretty town, but as you say, the history is amazing.

      The walk is VERY pretty at the moment (we went on Wednesday), especially with the wildflowers still out.

  19. It`s amazing to see the growth all along in those fields. And that`s an interesting stone wall. They seemed to level it off after every row of stones.
    I`m a sucker for poppy pics. Love your one.
    Now, just send some of that sunshine up here to Ireland. Please!

    • The land is so mountainous around here, that it’s quite unusual to find a large area of flat land, so naturally, it is used for growing produce. It’s a stark contrast once you drive through the Zafarraya Pass – in fact the first time I drove through I was amazed!

      Yes, you’re right, the stone wall of the castle was really interesting. It really shows the workmanship, doesn’t it?

      I’ll do my best wafting the warmer weather your way 🙂


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