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