Slowly rolling down a steep, deeply rutted trail – the previous night, sudden hail and rainstorms have created flash floods mauling the desert tracks beyond recognition – we’re balancing between the enormous washouts and cliff edges, edging our way down into the canyon bed. As we make our way down the steep descent, our heavily loaded bikes picking up inertia with every new switchback, the canyon walls rise higher and higher, and we’re left breathless by the scorching sun and the otherworldly colours and rock formations around us. The air seems to shiver and thrum from the midday heat, and the red, orange and white colours of the sandstones blaze against the unrelenting sun; not a single soul, human or animal, is stirring as we make our way into the Badlands, and it feels like time has frozen still out here.
Down in the canyon, dry riverbeds crisscross the sand and rocks lined with sparse shrubs. Our lonely trail meanders through a forest of cone-shaped rocks, then deposits us in a small, green oasis cut in half by a river; on the maps, the river was a mere creek, but after yesterday’s storms, the stream is flooded and the current is visibly churning. Knee-deep in mud, we waddle across to find the best line of crossing the creek; the current feels strong in places, but there’s no other way except through.
We’re blissfully lost in Europe’s only desert: the Gorafe.
Westerns in Spain
Gorafe Desert feels like an anomaly: the ravines and canyons appear like they’ve been cut out straight from Arizona or Utah and planted smack in the middle of Andalucia. The landscape is so surreal for Europe we feel like we’ve been transported to North America, and we’re not alone: Gorafe served as a popular shooting location for Western movies since 1950. Once Upon a Time, Indiana Jones, Lawrence of Arabia, Exodus – all of these titles used Gorafe as one of the locations, and the national reserve within the desert territory is home to Fort Bravo, one of the fourteen movie set villages built here over time.
Also known as the Tabernas Desert, Gorafe is, in a way, a freak accident: lying at the centre of the Guadix-Baza Depression, the desert is the result of millions of years of erosion that created a spectacular badlands country. Deep gorges, ravines, and canyons boasting colourful rocks and domes litter the landscape, and riding here feels like crossing a miniature version of Canyon de Shelly and Grand Canyon put together.
In addition to mind-blowing scenery, Gorafe area also boasts thousands of ancient cave dwellings, some of which are now converted into homes and AirBnBs. The town of Gorafe alone has hundreds of cave houses; Guadix, a town on the outskirts of the desert, is a hub for cave tourism featring over 2,000 of underground dwellings. Some of the cave homes date back thousands of years, and we’ve seen entire villages built under rocks and mountains – including one tiny settlement of cave homes built into a canyon wall. We even spotted a herd of cave sheep: the animal enclosure, too, was carved into a living canyon rock.
The Andalucian cave dwellings are easy to spot: white chimneys poking out of the hilltops usually indicate a cave dwelling underneath. The little chimneys provide air circulation, and the caves are refreshingly cool even during the hot afternoons. Once considered as houses of the poor, Guadix caves are now becoming a huge tourist attraction: entire cave dwelling apartments are now available for rent via AirBnB, and some cave owners charge $100 and upward a night for the privilege.
For me, riding the Gorafe Desert was a sort of an unfinished business after racing Hispania Rally back in 2020; I always wanted to come back and explore the area more because of its unique landscape.
Finding tracks and trails in the desert is an easy task – simply use Google Earth or find motorcycle routes on WikiLoc. We decided to just wing it, partly using old Hispania rally tracks, part Google Maps, part just orienteering. It’s not a bad way to do it, but be prepared for some serious sand riding – some of the tracks are dry riverbeds and, while it’s a lot of fun to ride, the sand gets deep in places and hides rocks and boulders underneath.
If you’re headed for Andalucia, make sure to add Gorafe to your itinerary. The desert can be explored over 3-4 days if you have the time (1-2 if you don’t), and some of the most scenic areas include the Guadix/Benalua/Fonelas side, Gorafe village, and the Embalse de Negratin lake surrounded by red sandstone rocks. Do bring plenty of water and plan for the unexpected – the tracks out in the desert change with the weather, the riverbeds are sometimes tough to navigate, and the steep rocky climbs can be a bit of a challenge with an adventure bike.
The scenery, the perfect solitude, and the sense of achievement once you emerge from the Gorafe covered in red dust will be more than worth it.