hidden corners, spain, travel

Sun And Life in the Tabernas Desert

The tumbleweed blowing across the two-lane desert road was the moment everything started. In the same two seconds it took me to turn my head to follow the rapidly disappearing tumbleweed and say “Alaaa, mira que guay!”, there it was. Route 66. In a flash we had already passed it by. Wide-eyed, we turn to look at each other and say, “Vamos!”, turn the car around, and head straight back to Route 66. A car on top of the building, big gawdy signs, pickup trucks, a car painted with the American flag, old gas pumps – had we landed in small-town USA? Was I Dorothy waking up from a long dream where Spain was Oz?

tabernas almeria

I wasn’t ready for this. We’d just arrived in Almería a couple of hours before and were taking in the scenery in Sorbas, getting used to the free tapas (an entire hamburger) and slower pace, when The Moment happened. Tumbleweed, Route 66, I guess we’d better go check it out! Grab a table on the enormous patio which was full of people having lunch. Take a look around, notice a group of guys starting to play country Western music in the corner. (In one hour, I lost count of how many times we looked at each other wide-eyed in total surprise.) Order a couple of Cokes, as we’d just eaten hamburgers as tapas. The waitress was surprised anyway – and when we looked around, we could see waiters bringing out burgers, steaks, chicken fingers, and other American-style meals on wooden boards. Mouthwatering, yes, but how could we expect to make room for all that? We clearly hadn’t prepared for this day.

route 66 tabernas

In the middle of the first song, there’s a low roaring sound in the distance. The wind picks up, a cloud of dust swirls around the pickup trucks in the parking lot, the roar gets closer. The dust starts to settle, and I can count no fewer than 20 motorcycles all pulling into the Route 66 parking lot. I mean come on, they even had the perfect soundtrack played by a live band when they rolled up! Who planned this?! I see it’s a large group of bikers (mostly Spanish) out on a ride together, stopping at Route 66 to take pictures and have lunch. While finishing up my Coke, I alternate between fits of laughter and shock. I can’t believe this place exists and I can’t believe how I’m experiencing it. What a great start to this trip!

Sol y Vida

Alright, this was incredible, now it’s time to head to Tabernas and find this apartment from Booking. Tabernas is a cute little town that seems to serve as home base for a number of films and film directors. Did you know Almería is where a lot of Western movies were made? Those desert landscapes in the background are none other than the Tabernas desert. Taking a quick walk around town and loading up on a few groceries, we set off to find the apartment just outside town. After a couple of wrong turns, we finally pull up to the gate which I think is the right one and ring the bell. A big wolf-looking dog pokes his nose through the gate and I think, this must not be right. Besides, a sign on the gate says something about a turtle refuge. I start to head back to the car when a middle-aged man rolls up in a golf cart. I ask him if this is the Booking apartment called Sol y Vida, we have a reservation, and he says yes. He lets us in, we follow the golf cart (and the dog) toward the back of the property to a low orange-colored building. Another wide-eyed glance at each other, I know S is thinking “¿donde coño me estás metiendo?” (I had chosen a pretty terrible Airbnb near Valencia for the first night, so my track record wasn’t good at this point.) I’d seen on Booking that there was a swimming pool, but all I can see is a dirty green cement pond. Mierda, I’ve totally ruined our vacation. The man explains with a heavy accent that this is the guest house, that he and his wife live just across the path. Turns out, he’s German and he’s the caretaker of the property. He goes on to tell us that this is in fact a reptile and amphibian refuge, and the cement pond is where the turtles stay. “You can sit on the bench there and contemplate them if you want.” He says there are a variety of types of turtles as well as frogs on the property. I didn’t ask about snakes, but I never did see any. Much to my relief, he tells us the swimming pool is just down the path and we can use it anytime, and do we have a problem with dogs? The dog is named Rex and he’s turning out to be quite friendly, pressing his body against my legs and wagging his tail.

Walking into the apartment, I’m astounded at the enormous enclosed patio with the walls covered in art, old tools and farm equipment. It’s absolutely gorgeous and there are windows around the whole patio letting in all the Almerían sun and looking out onto the garden and the turtle pond. The long wooden table by the window, clearly very well made, is perfect for eating meals.

Of course, when one has the opportunity to contemplate turtles in a pond, one probably shouldn’t let it pass by. After unpacking clothes and food in the well-decorated and equipped apartment, I peek out at the pond and see little heads bobbing in the water. I see one turtle climbing out of the pond onto the cement and shriek with excitement, whipping out my camera. I head out to the pond, and as they sense me approach, the turtles disappear back underwater again. I stay still for a while, Rex coming to join me, and slowly they start to surface again. One or two are brave enough to come all the way out of the water and check me out. Their beautiful shells look like they’ve been hand-painted. The silence and the warmth of the early summer afternoon relax me immediately. I stay for a while, watching the turtles, watching Rex watch the turtles, and think how incredible it is to have found such a place.


And so it goes the rest of the time in Tabernas desert. After visiting Mini Hollywood and seeing some other parts of the desert, it’s back to Sol y Vida to swim in the swimming pool, eat meals and relax on the patio, visit the turtles for an even deeper sense of calm, and walk around the property to see the other animals. Rex becomes like an old friend, stopping by each afternoon to greet us through the window and sitting by the pond. I promise Rex on my last night that I’ll come back and visit him again one day.

And I meant it. Looking back on my days in the Tabernas Desert, I found a hidden corner of the world I’d like to visit again. Quirky, artsy, inspiring, full of sunshine and life.