A Brighter Shade of Green: Sustainable Tourism in Spain
Exploring nature, escaping crowds, minimising your travel footprint – eco-tourism is more popular than ever. And there’s no better country to unite sustainability with style than Spain.
When it comes to travelling with the planet in mind, we’re more aware than ever of the impact our globetrotting has – and also how we can reduce it. Whether that means choosing destinations that support sustainable tourism, seeking out experiences that leave a minimal footprint, using only environmentally friendly transportation or bedding down in hotels that are Green Certified.
Spain is a country of soaring snow-dusted mountains and volcanic semi-deserts, gin-clear marine reserves and rugged archipelagos. It really is a nature-lover’s dream.
Visit and you’ll find more biosphere reserves than anywhere else on the planet, not to mention 44 UNESCO World Heritage sites, six of them natural. You can touch down on a remote and uninhibited island (there are more than 60) and explore wispy sand dunes. Trek through virgin forest and then soak up the view from rocky escarpments, created millions of years ago by bubbling lava flows. And then check in to hotels that mix haute couture architecture with whimsy and charm – imagine sleeping in a suite constructed entirely of glass, to ensure a complete immersion in nature.
You can travel between destinations with a clear conscience as well, with Spain’s extensive network of trains (most of which use energy generated from renewable sources), bike-sharing programs and electric car rental options allowing you to explore with a minimal carbon footprint.
From under-the-radar islets to protected patches of forest, here are eight places that capture the diversity of the country and where you can travel sustainably, but in style, across Spain.
La Garrotxa, Girona
Between the Pyrenees and the Costa Brava, this pocket of the Iberian Peninsula in Spain’s northernmost Catalonia region – surrounded by delightful medieval towns like Olot – is home to the Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa. This huge natural park has 40 extinct Holocene volcanic cones, more than 20 craters and basalt lava flows carving through the dramatic countryside.
The rich soils nurture verdant woodlands and forests, with fields of wildflowers during the season. Visit and you’ll likely spot a wondrous collection of native wildlife, from more than 200 species of birds to a rainbow of butterflies. This is the first nature reserve in Spain to implement the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism (ECST), ensuring the surrounds remain pristine for future generations.
Experiences: There are dozens of hiking trails across the park, taking you up mountains and through forests of holm oak, oakwoods and beechwoods – look out for hedgehogs, rabbits and squirrels. The extensive route network also makes it popular with cyclists, with a number of self-guided, multi-day bike trips webbing across the region. The only energy you’ll use is that which you exert.
Accommodation: Les Cols Pavellons occupies a Spanish country house in Girona. But don’t be fooled by the exterior. Step inside for rooms that are crafted entirely from glass – walls, floors, ceiling and even some furniture – which invites the outdoors in to every space. Be sure to enjoy a meal at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Les Cols. Alternatively, check in to Hotel Cal Sastre in Santa Pau, featuring individually designed rooms across buildings dating back to the 15th century. Terrace dining here is a delight.
Dining: The Girona countryside is known for its goat’s-milk cheese – visit the Mas Alba fromagerie to taste this specialty from the source. After days of hiking and biking, reward your efforts with a meal at one of the most applauded restaurants in the country: El Celler de Can Roca is operated by three brothers, and serves some of the prettiest plates you’ll ever see.
La Palma, Canary Islands
Of the seven main landfalls in the Canary Islands – closer to the coastline of Morocco than Spain – La Palma is by far the most rugged and forested, carved by volcanoes and waterfalls and with a tiny population that earns it the title as one of the least-peopled parts of Spain. This splendid isolation means that large parts of the countryside are free from light pollution – there are few cars, no streetlights, an absence of skyscrapers – which creates ideal conditions for stargazing. In fact, it’s here that you’ll find the world’s first Starlight Reserve.
The entire landscape appears to have been plucked from a Jurassic era, with dense green jungle clinging to cleaving gorges, tumbling down to beaches that will likely come without footsteps. To prove its commitment to nature, La Palma was Spain’s first island to be declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Experience: The island comes with a trail network spanning more than 1,000 kilometres. Which makes it the ideal destination for trekking through prehistoric rainforest to jagged volcanic mountain peaks (don’t miss the Enchanted Forest). Then bliss out on eye-popping black-sand beaches. Perhaps the ultimate adventure activity is climbing to the top of the El Roque de los Muchachos Observatory to take in the sky at sunset. This site boasts the largest optical infrared telescope in the world, and is monitored year-round by scientists and researchers. The island’s Charco Azul pools, carved out of natural rock, are the perfect place to cool off.
Accommodation: A 150-year-old lighthouse converted into a luxury hotel, Faro Punta Cumplida has space to sleep just eight guests. Head to the 34-metre-high lookout for stellar views over the wild coastline it calls home, or dive in to the pool – quite possibly the most beautiful of its kind in the country. Meanwhile, Hacienda Abajo’s lavish rooms combine history with home comforts, the property surrounded by expansive gardens that are like a botanical handbook to the Canary Islands.
Dining: For a true farm-to-table experience, reserve a table at La Casa del Volcan. This is traditional Canarian cooking at its finest. The food is only outshone by the setting on the rim of the San Antonio volcano, an awe-inspiring crater that has lain dormant since 1678; stargazing opportunities abound.
El Hierro, Canary Islands
The smallest island in the Canaries is also one of the greenest in the world, with plans to soon function from 100 per cent renewable energy generated from wind and water. There are also innovative recycling programs in place, island-wide, and incentives for residents (there are only 10,000) to swap over to electric vehicles while zipping around this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
More than 60 per cent of the territory – topped with a soaring volcanic cone – is protected land, which makes it the ideal breeding ground for endangered animals, including the El Hierro giant lizard and a significant population of beaked whales, which like to frolic offshore.
Experiences: Dive in to the Punta de La Restinga Marine Reserve to swim with rays, dolphins, tuna and barracuda, among the many other species that call these waters home. Off the south coast of the island, the undersea landscape owes its drama to the region’s volcanic activity. On dry land, the Centro de Interpretacion de la Reserva de la Biosfera information centre throws light on El Hierro’s remarkable and unique biodiversity. The upstairs section explains how the island’s reliance on clean energies saves an estimated 18,700 tons per year in CO2 emissions. Then hike the Camino de la Llania, a magical two-hour walk among lichen- and moss-covered trees, emerging at a viewpoint with thrilling views over the great cliff.
Accommodation: Hotel Puntagrande not only sits on lava rock but is also built from it, with its stone encasing four rooms overlooking the ocean. Breathe in fresh ocean air, rich in ions and iodine, then sit down to a meal of ‘zero kilometre’ food in the restaurant. Parador de El Hierro, meanwhile, mimics the low-rise, pitch-roofed architecture of the island, completely isolated on the otherwise undeveloped bay of Las Playas.
Dining: The hidden Chiringuito Charco Manso beach bar serves seafood with a strong flavour of the island. Everything comes from just a few metres from where you sit, overlooking the ocean.
Somiedo Nature Reserve, Asturias
The principality of Asturias in northwest Spain is known for its historic medieval architecture, not to mention its rugged coast and embarrassment of mountains. It’s so verdant that it has been proclaimed part of ‘Green Spain’, a lush natural region across the north of the country, stretching along the Atlantic coast from the Portuguese to French borders.
Spanning five valleys – Saliencia, Valle del Lago, Puerto y Pola de Somiedo, Perlunes and Pigüeña – and five rivers of the same names, the Somiedo Nature Reserve offers a front-row seat to the untamed wilderness the area is known for. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the Cantabrian Mountains covers more than 283 square kilometres of forests and branas (mountain meadows), encompassing everything from stall stands of beech to holm oak and birch. This park is the stronghold for the endangered Cantabrian brown bear, with around 30 of the creatures known to populate the hills and valleys.
Experiences: Begin your visit at the Brown Bear Foundation to learn about the plight of this animal, then the Visitors Centre, offering a wealth of information on the park’s natural and ethnographic resources. Pick up maps then set out on hiking trails, which weave throughout the park, offering the opportunity to glimpse some of the 100 species of birds that call the region home – it’s such an important habitat that it has been declared a Special Protected Area for our feathered friends. There’s also an official ‘Bear Route’, which you can follow on foot or bike.
Accommodation: Just a couple of kilometres to the north of the national park you’ll find Hotel CieloAstur, a wood-and-stone eco-resort with architect-designed villas perched amid fields of lush green countryside. Window side tubs are ideal for soaking walk-weary limbs – as is the alfresco jacuzzi, best for blissing out under the stars. Within the national park itself is Hotel Palacio Florez-Estrada, a 15th-century mansion transformed into a luxurious eco-retreat, set on a rambling river and replete with alfresco soaking tubs.
Dining: Asturias is known for its seafood. When you leave the park, try it at historic Casa Lin, which has been around since 1890. The potatoes stewed with octopus are legendary.
Formentera, Balearic Islands
The smallest and least developed of the four main islands in the Balearic archipelago – in the Mediterranean off Spain’s east coast – Formentera has some of the most gin-clear water you will ever come across. It owes its vivacity to Posidonia, a type of seagrass that grows here in meadows and oxygenates the sea while filtering out impurities, attracting other marine plants and animals in the process.
Away from the secluded coves, Formentera remains a poster-child for sustainable travel and living, replete with an extensive network of walking and cycling trails (there are 32 official ‘green routes’) that drop you off at rejuvenating mud baths and sleepy fishing villages ringed by aromatic wild herbs and native fig trees.
Experiences: Anchoring boats in Ses Salines Nature Reserve – a UNESCO World Heritage site between the island and it’s bigger sister, Ibiza – is prohibited (to protect the marine ecosystem). However, you can still explore simply by donning a snorkel and flippering into the warm water from beaches like Ses Illetes and Llevant, on the lookout for more than 1,000 species of marine animals. The island is also a paradise for birdwatchers, home to flamingos, black-necked grebes and black-winged stilts, among others. Don’t miss the nutrient-rich mud baths: there are two, one liquid and one that requires you to apply mud and moisture from coastal cliffs.
Accommodation: Check in to the Gecko Hotel & Beach Club and you can begin your day with yoga by the infinity pool, overlooking the opaline reef. Then spend a day blissing out on Migjorn Beach – you can even organise to have your massage or body scrub on a table stilted over the sand. If you want to sleep in seclusion, opt for the barefoot-luxe Las Dunas Playa, nestled among the sand dunes near the easterly end of Migjorn beach. The bar has a sand floor, there’s an infinity pool, and you’re surrounded by miles of deserted coastal contours – what’s not to like?
Dining: Just a few metres from the glassy, turquoise sea, Andrea began its life as a humble beach bar. Today, it has several dining areas where you can eat prawns a la plancha or platters of freshly-caught fish, with your feet in the sand.
Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, Basque Country
Overlooking the Bay of Biscay on Spain’s northern Iberian Peninsula, this wondrous wetland – a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve spanning 22,000 hectares – at the mouth of the Oka River is a mecca for hundreds of species of birds, from fish eagles and spoonbills and Eurasian bittern. With so much water comes beaches like Laida (which is constantly changing size and shape) and Laga, backdropped by the imposing cliffs of Peñón de Ogoño.
This patch of the country nurtures so may ecosystems – from Cantabrian oak forest to Atlantic prairies and woods, marshland and open sea – and animals that much of the region’s ecological balance relies on its ongoing health. Aside from its environmental significance, the reserve is known for being home to some of the region’s most significant indigenous tribes, living in small communities along waterways.
Experiences: Drop in on the Urdaibai Bird Center, an observatory and working research facility overlooking marshlands in the heart of the reserve. Meet scientists, discover the region’s winged species, attend talks and events and explore the attractions this part of the peninsula holds via audio-guides. Meanwhile, the Euskadi Biodiversity Centre, is the place to visit to learn all about the indigenous flora and fauna – climb to the top of the tower it calls home for fantastic views of the Isla de Izaro, Playa de Laida and the marshland.
Accommodation: Channel your inner royalty when you check in to Castillo de Arteaga, an eye-popping union of medieval and gothic architecture set amid Urdaibai’s reserve. When you’re not out spotting wildlife, head to one of the castles turrets, replete with a swimming pool overlooking the manicured gardens. At Hemingway Casa Rural Kanala, individually designed rooms are wrapped by gardens neighbouring the reserve’s wetlands. Sign up for horse-riding tours through the countryside, or cultural visits to nearby communities.
Dining: The reserve is only a 40-minute drive from Bilbao, home to Frank Gehry’s jaw-dropping Guggenheim museum. While you’re in town, refuel at Michelin-starred Mina, which serves inventive Basque fare with views of the river.
Sierra Espuña, Murcia
Leave your phone behind, lace up your walking shoes and prepare to be dazzled by nature in this 25,000-hectare wilderness sanctuary, the largest forested area in the region of Murcia, on the southeast of Spain’s Iberian peninsula, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The sheer diversity of settings in this part of the country is astounding, everything from forests and steppes to sheer cliffs, jagged mountain peaks, rivers and reservoirs, and vast stretches of lunar-like landscapes (add the Ravines of Gebas to your itinerary).
The region’s firm commitment to sustainable tourism has seen it named a Special Protection Area for Birds, with parts of it an important nesting side for species including grey herons, little grebes, mallards and stilts.
Experiences: Be sure to hike to the Pozos de Nieve, a series of 26 circular holes dug in the 16th century to serve as ‘refrigerators’. Sitting at 1,300 metres above sea level, these pits were once packed with snow by workers over the winter months, so that in spring, a supply of ice would be on hand to use throughout the region’s cities. You’ll access these historic monuments along one of the parks ‘Green Paths’ – dedicated nature trails. Other outdoor pursuits, meanwhile, include paragliding and rock-climbing, making the most of the dramatic karst landscapes.
Accommodation: Leave the reserve behind and you’ll soon be at Balneario de Archena, an upscale lodging with a spa focus. As comfy as the rooms are, the property’s real allure are the two steaming thermal pools, heated to 32ºC. There’s also a ‘thermal circuit’, taking you through different pools with various jets, temperatures and wellness diversions along the way. Perched high on a hill overlooking the reserve, Bajo el Cejo was designed with traditional architecture in mind – think low-slung and earthy, with modern flourishes like a sauna and solarium.
Dining: Whether with rabbit, ribs or seafood, rice is a staple in the Murcia region of Spain. In the heart of Murcia city, reserve a table at La Penquena Taberna, where you can try local specialties as well as all manner of house-smoke meats.
Picos de Europa National Park, León
In the northwest of the country, the province of León is a wonderland for sustainable tourism – you’ll find seven biosphere reserves in this part of the country, one of the highest concentrations in the world. Among them is this national park, packed with oak and beech groves, not to mention jagged rock formations so impressive they make their way onto postcards. While it’s not a Dark Sky Reserve, it should be – there are few places in Spain where the stars dazzle to this extent, thanks to a lack of artificial light.
The region’s mountains are also home to extraordinary geological formations like the Valporquero Caves, with magical stalactites and stalagmites that look like they’ve slipped from a fairy tale.
Experiences: It comes as no surprise that this staggering wilderness area has an unbeatable selection of hiking trails, from day treks like the 12-kilometre Cares Route, which runs along the Divine Gorge; to the 11-kilometre Ordiales Scenic Balcony Trail, offering some of the region’s most beautiful vistas glimpsed through beech and oak forests. Keep an eye out for Spain’s most emblematic animals: the brown bear and the Iberian wolf (you’ll probably want to spot them from a distance!) as well as chamois goats, golden eagles and otters. If you’re not walking, kayak the many rivers or jump on two wheels and explore the Laciana Green Route. This takes you along what used to be the railway between the towns of Caboalles de Arriba and Villablino.
How to become a sustainable traveller
- Plan your trip: Choose tours, hotels and transportation that respect human rights and the environment.
- Conserve: Use water and energy sparingly, and re-use towels and sheets.
- Minimise waste: Carry re-usable straws and waterbottles, plus bags made of cloth. Say no to single-use plastic.
- Recycle: Always dispose of waste in suitable bins.
- Leave only footprints: Those from your hiking shoes, that is. And take only photos and memories – don’t be tempted to pluck wildlife or pick up natural souvenirs.
- Be mindful: Of particularly sensitive ecosystems. Do your research before you go so you’re aware how your travels can have the lowest possible impact.
- Support local communities: Buy directly from the source to ensure the communities in the destinations you visit can sustain their lifestyle.
- Choose sustainable transport: Your feet and a bike are the best options, alongside trains and electric cars.
Click here to learn more about sustainable tourism (that’s also stylish) in Spain.
Accommodation: Drive southwest from the national park to the city of León, where the Parador de León hotel occupies one of northern Spain’s most memorable works of architecture: the convent of San Marcos. Design styles here mingle renaissance and baroque, with incredible historic monuments throughout – and yet, rooms are extremely modern and inviting. If you want a memorable stay, put this at the top of your list. Outside the town of Sardón de Duero, Abadía Retuerta LeDomaine occupies a onetime abbey, surrounded by 200 hectares of vineyards and with its own private network of hiking and cycling trails.
Dining: The Gastronomic Capital of Spain in 2018, León doesn’t disappoint on the dining front. Try Marcela Brasa y Vinos for local tapas specialties and wines.