Tarifa is the most southerly tip of Spain where the Mediterranean joins the Atlantic. One of the results of this union is a stretch of sea between the Spanish and Moroccan coastlines which has claimed countless lives of African immigrants trying to sail across to Spain in overloaded, makeshift rafts. On a more positive note the winds that are produced in the area are fine producers of electricity (look at all the windmills on the surrounding mountains) and Tarifa is a haven for wind sports enthusiasts ranking alongside Hawaii and Fuerteventura as prime worldwide spots for wind and kite surfing.
Many visitors to Tarifa arrive by coach or rental car and head straight to the port to catch one of the catamarans which sail across to Tangiers in a mere 35 minutes. At the end of their day excursion to Morocco they return back to their Costa del Sol resort without seeing anything of Tarifa itself. If you’re on a coach excursion then you have no alternative other than to go with the itinerary, however, if you’re driving try to find a little time to take a look around what is an attractive and very interesting little town.
Coming from Algeciras through the coastal hills laden with windmills you’ll spot the Atlas mountains of Morocco across the Straits of Gibraltar on a clear day as they’re a mere 14km away from the Spanish coast. You’ll come to a clearly marked left turn for Tarifa and follow the road into town along Amador de los Ríos. On your left you’ll see the old city walls and should take a left after the Puerta de Jerez heading down to the maritime station. You can park on this street next to the Alameda for up to two hours at a time using the pay and display meters but you’re better off going to the end of this street and driving through the gates of the maritime station and parking in the land to your right where you can leave your car all day if you’re going over to Morocco.
Overlooking the maritime station is the Castle of Guzman el Bueno which has an interesting museum inside which describes the role of the castle in the area’s history. Walk along Guzman el Bueno street and you’re heading into the charming old centre of Tarifa where the chilled out ambience is popular amongst the European hippy community. The old walls of the town stretch beyond the castle and close in the whole of the original site of the town. It’s well worth walking from the old town up to the ayuntamiento (town hall) building where you get stunning views out to sea and can watch the movement of ferry traffic back and to to Morocco (that’s if you can stand up straight on a windy day!).
The other main attraction of Tarifa besides serving as a ferry port and wind sports destination is as a centre for whale and dolphin watching trips. With the meeting of two oceans of Tarifa there is a high concentration of marine mammals including three species of dolphins, pilot whales, sperm whales, orcas and fin whales. Various companies offer their services but we strongly recommend that you choose Firmm. They are a team of research biologists who conduct an ongoing study of marine life in the Straits of Gibraltar who actively promote Eco-tourism in their quest to protect the marine mammals. You’ll find their office next to Café Central on the main street. You’ll need to book trips in advance and reconfirm on the morning of your trip to make sure conditions are good enough to take the boat out. They find whales and/or dolphins on 98% of their outings and give you a free trip the following day if they don’t spot anything.
Café Central is a good spot for breakfast before heading out on a whale watching excursion. It’s also a popular evening spot where a young crowd tend to gather outside for beers and tapas. There are several other attractive bars and restaurants in this same street and in the labyrinth of tiny whitwashed streets that cross one another behind Café Central through to the town market which is right near the tourist information at the top of Paseo Alameda where you first arrived in the old town. Other attractions of the old town include the Iglesia de San Mateo at the end of the main street and the Iglesia de San Francisco in the back streets near the market.
Another interesting area of town is the beach beyond the fishing port. Follow Alc. Juan Nuñez (left as you leave the maritime station parking) as far as you can go and you’ll pass the Gaudi style castle of Santa Catalina. Continue to the headland where you’ll see a sign to your left indicating that this is the Mediterranean Sea and one to your right showing that this is the Atlantic.
Just a few kilometres along the coast from Tarifa heading for Cadiz you’ll see a sign for Bolonia. This is a fascinating place to visit as it is the location of the Roman ruins of Baelo Claudia. This is an extremely well preserved archeological site right on the beach where the Romans used to produce a fish sauce concoction called ‘garum’ which was popular throughout the Roman Empire. On your way out of Bolonia look out for the lamas in a paddock on your left … I’ve no explanation at all!