Last summer I fell in love; I was introduced to Tarifa. A tiny, whitewashed, Andalucian, beach town that miraculously ticks every box my demanding little heart could desire: Yves San Lauren blue skies; a wind to obliterate any sniff of sticky humidity; traditional yet bohemian Spain; and endless supplies of tuna so fresh it could have a pulse.
The real clincher though, is that with wind and sea, comes buff body water sports. Tarifa is awash with chilled, bikini and board-short clad, painfully beautiful, wind and kite surfers and groupies. Of all ages. Gulp.
I confess I’ve been an bit reticent to publicise; Spain’s most southern tip (see the African coast a sangria spit away above) is still relatively unknown to us Brits. Instead Tarifa is popular with Spanish families, Italians, French and of course, those (30 something) kite-surfers of all nationalities. Ever the altruist however, I caved and decided to let you see for yourselves.
A brief history
Tarifa’s roots can be traced back to 710 when a berber crossing from Morocco established the harbour. It remained Muslim until 1292 when Christian King Sancho IV seized the city and Muslim control has been miraculously resisted ever since. Given Tarifa’s proximity to Africa and the fact Muslims occupied Spain for 800 years (touchy subject, sshhh), it’s little wonder the town could almost be a shrine to the defending Catholic kings.
Until 25 years ago, Tarifa was largely a fishing village but since the arrival of windsurfers, tourism has become the main source of income; the town’s 16,000 population effectively doubles July to August. Go in September or October!
Since my first trip with family this time last year, I’ve returned twice with friends. Only my brother is the wave and wind chaser, so Tarifa’s in no way exclusive to surf junkies. With history, beach and a culture drenched in food and wine, there’s something for everyone.
Daytime Tarifa centres around the beaches and Chiringuitos [cheer-een-gee-tos] extending west of the port. In fact, said beach shacks don’t open before midday – sleepy Spanish towns are ideal for bagging a lounger. Bien Star (below) is at it’s busiest for lunch and from 4pm when Tarifeños flock in for post work sun downers and beach volleyball. Every. Single. Day.
As you’d expect with any laid back surf beach, yoga is available. If battling with a gargantuan kite in what could effectively be termed a tornado isn’t your thing. Try: Tarifa Eco Centre or Hurricane Hotel.
Windsurfing & kitesurfing
Valdevaqueros beach is wind and kite surf central, and party HQ it seems. For lessons and / or kit hire, try Club Mistral. With buff body water sports and chiringuitos (beach bars) comes followers: Valdevaqeros is also ideal for sunbathing and, when the wind drops, stand up paddle boarding.
There are a number of kitesurf schools along the out of town beaches. I’m told the following are good: Rebels Tarifa and Dragon Tarifa. I was the epitome of Tantrum Kitesurf when I tried. My tip for beginners: Take semi-private lessons, ideally with one friend and request two kites – one each. That way you won’t haemorrhage the morning on kite swaps (multiple line changes is a lengthy process. In a wetsuit. In 30 degree heat) and waiting for 4 other people to have their turn.
Eating & drinking
Spaniards are famed for their love of the night and no where more so than Andalucía; the restaurants are at their busiest around 10pm and the bars, well after midnight. Think of the sun loungers.
Head for Vaca Loca (Crazy Cow) for Argentinian steak and Rioja, and the heart of the bar scene. Taco (all class here) next door churns out endless supplies of expertly mixed mojitos.
El Almedina (next to Los Melli restaurant) is a lively, though less full on bar and has highly recommended live Flamenco every Thursday night.
Breakfast: Churros y chocolate
Perhaps the only activity to be found pre 11am is in the town’s churreria, which opens at 5am to supply post partiers with a Spanish doughnut (kind of) breakfast. Most of the town will flock in for take-away throughout the morning. My Andalúz Dad used to make churros for us as kids; this is Spain for me.
You can buy churros (the mini ones in the picture) or porras, a larger, though greasier version. For clarity: porras are not to be confused with porros, unless you’re in search of Señora Mari-Juana. And let’s face it, a churros shop probably isn’t her standard hang out. You’ll entertain the owner and his punters no end if you make this mistake, however. I have first hand experience.
For the record, churros are made solely of flour, water and salt and fried at such super hot temperatures (100C+) that less oil is absorbed. We have a fear of frying in the UK, I think; I’ve witnessed several friends self righteously sniff at my churros kick, then inhale the Easyjet triple (fake) cheese and ham panini on the late flight home.
Breakfast: Café Central
Even the cake shop only opens 5pm to post midnight. As does the ice cream parlour. Take a slice of Orange & almond cake to have with a café con leche (strong latté) in Café Central – the best coffee in Tarifa, in my opinion. Note: the wind element is sometimes cause for a jumper at night, potentially thermals outside of summer. The above shot was taken early May.
Bar El Francés
Entirely Spanish, the not so aptly named Bar El Francés (French bar) is well worth the almost constant queue. It’s open most of the day so an ideal lunch or pre plane option. For the record, Bien Star chiringuito offers a decent menu you can eat in your bikini.
Star dishes: Octopus with saffron (above), Gambas and my favourite, Chipirones a la plancha (grilled squid). Meat’s on the menu but the fish is particularly good here.
Another hugely popular restaurant where queues are inevitable 8pm onwards. Pork’s a must here in Los Melli. The tuna’s also a winner, although it’s pretty much a safe bet anywhere in Tarifa. Gin and spirit measures across Spain are as they should be. Count to 10 when pouring apparently.
Star dishes: Anything with chorizitos (mini chorizo sausages). Amazing. Especially with egg and chips. Don’t knock it!
Possibly the best pork you’ll ever eat. Spaniards love their acorn chomping pigs. Even the jamon, Manchego and Rioja combo is on a level I’ve never known before. Queues are unavoidable from the moment this meat shrine opens it’s doors in the evening.
The fish markets are open every week day morning and are worth a visit. Every restaurant offers tuna cooked to perfection though. La Pescaderia and Lola are a must. Make sure you have local speciality Atún Rojo de Almadraba (red tuna).
Pepe’s cornucopia of Spanish eating is perfect for a beach picnic, or if you want something other than bread for breakfast before the town wakes up. Pepe will give you tasters of jamon and Manchego. He also stocks the increasingly unbiquitous London coffee shop staple, Ines Rosales Tortas de Aceite. Yes, that is his actual height. Tiny Spanish man.
If you have a car, and a large suitcase, stock up on Spanish supplies in the local supermarket, Mercadona. Two tuna steaks tasting better than anything you get in Waitrose cost 1.35 Euro and a perfect jamon 45 Euro. On one trip I brought back 10 frozen steaks (again, better than Waitrose), 3kg of anchovies in vinegar and a leg of ham for Papa. Staff kindly sawed off the hoof to fit said carcass in my hold luggage.
Where to stay
Tarifa can effectively be split in two: whitewashed, winding streets of the Casco Antiguo (old town) and the beach, extending west of the harbour. I like staying in the town; that’s where the restaurants and bars are, the beach is only a 5 minute walk and you can easily drive to the surf beaches.
Given Spanish life is in the cafes and restaurants, most accommodation is comprised of rooms or apartments within houses (which you can also rent as a whole), as opposed to a hotel setup. Prices almost double July and August but quite honestly, it’s way too busy; the months either side are ideal.
Pick of the best
Try: Riad Lolita, such a favourite I’ve blogged it here: Travel Pick: Riad Lolita. Or my failsafe, Tarifa Beach House, lists Cat’s edit of Tarifa’s best properties, including Riad Lolita. Of course.
Apartamentos Caravane, Casa San Rosendo (room 5 or the entire house as a group), La Residencia or hotel, La Sacrista.
If you’re after a pool (you’ll only get this with La Residencia in the town), there are one or two hotels out by the surf beaches and lots of minimalist, white washed villas. I haven’t tried the hotels but 5 star All Inc. they are not. But then, if that’s what you’re after, Tarifa’s possibly not for you.
How to get there
Gibraltar airport is 40 mins away in a car or taxi. Booking a hire car in advance is the easiest option in my opinion. Alternatively, four buses run each day, taking an hour. You’ll need to cross the boarder (2 minute walk) to La Linea for all transport links and car hire.
Malaga airport runs frequent flights and is a 1 1/2 hour drive on the same coastal road. Buses are available via La Linea. I often fly in through Gibraltar and out from Malaga due to flight times, taking a car. Note: it’s best to book in
When to go
Now. Hence this post. Tarifa’s mobbed July to August, September’s my favourite time for temperature, crowd and fiestas – the month of Catholic festivals and end of summer parties in the chiringuitos.
End May and mid October would be my cut off. Beyond that the wind chill is up at night and weather slightly unpredictable. I’m told the wind drops in winter months and temperatures are still in the balmy 20’s… Bars are busy as you get surfers pretty much all year, but the atmosphere doesn’t compare to summer.
For a taste of Spain in London, try Morito, blogged when I was in search of a Spanish food hit post a Tarifa trip last year.