Cabo de Palos is a small peninsula which juts out into the Mediterranean sea, on one side stretching out along unspoilt coastline towards Cartagena, and on the other fusing with the spit of land known as the spit, or strip , which encloses the Mar Menor, Europes' largest salt water lake and a mecca for water sports enthusiasts, its shallow sand fringed waters and winds creating superb sailing conditions and safe training grounds.
The peninsula itself was formed during volcanic eruptions, as were the islands which surround it, and this creates a unique eco-system which gives the Cabo de Palos area a reputation amongst divers as being one of the best diving sites in Europe.
Looking at Cabo de Palos from an aerial map, fine lines of rocks can clearly be seen linking the islands, which, whilst they create an almost enclosed area between the islands, which has now been declared a wildlife reserve, they also create an area which is extremely dangerous for shipping to navigate, shelves, gulleys and rock formations rising to within 3 metres of the surface.
The danger these rocks presented to shipping necessitated the creation of the lighthouse which tops the peninsula today and is an interesting place to form the focal point for a visit to the area, giving magnificent views across the surrounding countryside, as well as being an imposing structure in its' own right.
Allied with some beautiful secluded beaches, superb snorkeling, an attractive and busy marina with comfortable seating areas to observe marine traffic, and a range of excellent bars and restaurants serving locally caught fish, tapas or ice creams, it forms the perfect focal point for a visit or day on the beach.
Location: The lighthouse itself is at the tip of the peninsula, marked cabo de palos, clcik Cabo de Palos for map
To read about the beaches which surround Cabo de Palos, click Beach guide
A bit of history
This area has been occupied by mankind since human ancestors first began to appear on mainland Europe , and there are several sites around the the Mar Menor which have yielded rich remains of the early humans, and indeed the Neanderthals who lived and hunted in Torre Pacheco nearby.
The earliest written records of Cabo de Palos appear in the texts of Pliny the Elder, and Rufus Festus Aurelius, who both report that on the site now occupied by the lighthouse, a temple dedicated to the God Ba'al Hammon , Lord of the two horns, existed.
Ba'al was the god of fertility and was worshipped by the Carthaginians who occupied what is now Cartagena. They were living in this area before the Roman occupation, around 250BC, and were engaged in constant conflict with the romans, who pushed them further and further along the coast and out along the edges of Africa. Once an immensely powerful trading nation, their influence finally waned, and Cartagena was over-run by the Romans after the famous Hannibal, who actually lived in Cartagena , and may well have worshipped at this very temple, set out across the alps with his immortal elephants, leaving Cartagena vulnerable to the Romans who invaded it in 210BC, and made the area their own.
Ba'als' partner was the goddess Tanit, and each year she is evoked in a ceremony which takes place in the Romans and Carthaginians fiestas, one of the most colourful and exciting in the region, taking place at the end of September.
The Romans had their own gods, so the temple was turned over to the worship of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, justice and strength, and an imposing place it must have been, set high on the rocky point, priests lighting the fires which nourished and fed it.
There is no trace today of the temple, and no further written records exist until in the mid 16th century when King Philip II of Spain ordered the construction of a watch tower to alert the surrounding countryside when Berber Pirates were close to the coastline.
It seems strange to be talking about these historical facts which are still brought to life every year in local fiestas, the Berber invasions, or incursions as they are known here being a popular fiesta which takes place the week following Easter in Los Alcazares, but the Berber pirates who came from Africa, were a real problem along this coastline, raiding and kidnapping, stealing flocks and crops and taking local people hostage or selling the ones with no ransom value in arab slave markets.
As late as 1815 there are still records of pirate attacks, a famous battle between US Naval forces and Algerian forces taking place in what is known as the second Berbery war. In this battle, the Battle of Cabo de Palos, the US forces captured the Algerian flagship which was taken into Cartagena before chasing after the Estedio, a 12 gun Algerian Brig to Cabo de Palos where they engaged, with the US winning after gunning down 23 the crew in lifeboats who were trying to flee the ship!
There are a large number of wrecks in these waters, which make it an exciting place for divers, but which necessitated the construction of the lighthouse we see today in 1865.
It's an imposing structure, which is capable of transmitting a beam of light for 40km, and undoubtedly saved many lives during the time it was in service, but sadly, failed to save the crew of the Sirio, when it foundered in 1906.
The wreck of the Sirio
This is such a sad tale of greed, corruption and disregard for human life that it deserves to be told. This wreck is commemorated by a photograph of her captain at the top by the lighthouse itself, along with a photograph of the ship as she broke apart.
The Sirio was traveling from Spain to America in 1906, carrying the Spanish poorest of the poor, heading for the colonies in search of a better life.
She should have carried 610 passengers, but is said to have had more than 1000 on board, a bunk which should have held 1 child sleeping four, and the captain is known to have taken on board many extra passengers at 100 pesetas a head for the journey to America.
For some reason which is still not clear, the captain chose to ignore the warning of the lighthouse and charts, taking a short cut between the islands where the waters concealed hidden rocks and hit a ridge. A massive explosion split the ship in two and it went down in two sections of deep water, either side of the ridge it had hit. The captain and his crew were the first to abandon ship, leaving the frightened passengers to fight for the few lifeboats, and only the efforts of local fishermen who mounted a rescue effort saved the lives of 580, with everyone else perishing when the boat went down
To date, no-one knows how many died that day, as no records were kept of the illegal passengers on board and no further action was taken against the captain who caused the deaths of so many through his recklessness and greed.
The final major event to take place here is the biggest naval battle of the Spanish Civil war in 1938, the battle of Cape Palos. If you'd like to read more about this interesting battle, click here.
Each year in August a festival of Habaneros is held up by the lighthouse, welcoming choirs from across the region to a celebration of choral music, with free concerts for the public to enjoy in the atmospheric setting of the lighthouse.
Full details of the performances will be posted in the What's on section of the site. The programme isn't normally released until a week or so before, but check at the end of July and we'll have the dates confirmed and posted each year.
What else to do in Cabo de Palos.
From the lighthouse back up to the mainland, the peninsula is fringed with small rocky inlets and sheltered beaches. The Cala Fria beaches are right next to the lighthouse, with good driveable access and parking, and offer outstanding snorkeling facilities. They are widely used by local dive schools for those making their first dives as the bay is shallow and sandy, yet fringed with rock formations harbouring an extensive range of marine life.
The islands surrounding the peninsula form part of the Islas Hormigas wildlife reserve and the Isla Grosa is a well renowned stop-off point for migrating birds, as well as being a sanctuary for wildlife.
Driving back down towards the mainland, you'll find the marina. Whilst this is a lovely place to stroll on a summers' evening, it's also a pleasant spot to sit and watch the world go by, with a steady stream of pleasure boats coming and going during the summer months or sunny weekends. A jetty is popular with local fishermen and families ( NB-Licence required, click for info about how to obtain one, )and a number of bars offer superb people watching opportunities, as well as being the ideal place to soak up the busy port atmosphere. The marine is still a working fishing port, so there are fishermen coming and going, and of course, the result of this is that a superb range of fresh fish dishes are available in neighbouring restaurants.
We've highlighted a selection for you, so that whether you'd like a dish of tapas and a beer, an ice cream to watch the world go by, fresh seafood or a good value menu del dia, there's something here to fit both your budget and your requirements.
Practical points to be aware of.
Access- the walk up to the lighthouse is fairly steep, so is not easy for those with limited mobility or wheelchairs. The only toilet facilities are in nearby hostelries.
There is plenty of parking at the foot of the lighthouse.
Would we recommend it?
We had a lovely morning out, exploring the beaches, eating ice cream in the marina, walking up to the lighthouse, then enjoying an excellent menu del dia, although it's also an excellent place for a walk on a summers evening when the heat has gone out of the day, and we were pleasantly surprised by the scenic, rocky bays which dotted this coastline, so yes, absolutely.
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