El Peñon d’Ifach is huge. A massive slab-sided rock rising more than a thousand feet (332m, to be precise) straight out of the Mediterranean Sea. It looks just like a Rock of Gibraltar replica transplanted a few hundred kilometres up the coast and it’s an iconic symbol of the Costa Blanca.
Climbing it looks impossible, at least without full-on mountaineering kit. But there is a way to walk up, right to the top – thanks to a tunnel.
It’s not much of a tunnel, you understand. About a hundred metres long, no lights, and a floor so uneven and slippery that you might need to grab the chains fixed to the walls just to stay upright.
But it does get you through the otherwise impenetrable rock face that confronts you as you head up the zig-zag path from the town of Calp (Calpe).
Once you’re through the tunnel, the climb to the top of el Penyal d’Ifac (as it’s called in the local Valenciano language) is no picnic either. In plenty of places, it’s a path in name only – just a jumble of limestone rocks loosely joined together and worn shiny with the passage of thousands of boots and shoes.
There aren’t any guard rails to speak of, and some of the vertical drops are alarming, to say the least. Avoid if you’re afraid of heights!
You can’t help feeling that the Peñon paths must mean plenty of business for Calpe hospital’s emergency department. It’s really easy to turn an ankle or twist a knee up here. The trick is to either watch where your feet are going, or admire the view – but not both at the same time.
But the views make the scramble all worthwhile. They are astonishing, which is why there’s a steady stream of walkers heading determinedly for the top.
The trail takes you along the eastern face of the Peñon, with spectacular vistas up the coast to Cabo de la Nao. The best part is when you’re on your own on the cliff path, with the wind blowing off the sea and just the screaming, wheeling gulls for company. Wonderful!
The path divides after about 15 minutes – you either head up to the summit or take the side path to the Mirador de Carabiners, right at the tip of the Peñon. It’s well worth the extra ten minutes scramble to the mirador to take in the panorama and get a bit of a sit down.
Retrace your steps and then take the summit path up to your left. The signpost says just 550 metres, normally a few minutes gentle stroll, but this is slow going, sometimes using your hands to haul yourself upwards.
It’s about a 25 minute hike to the top. If you were up there alone, I imagine the experience would be magical. But if there are plenty of others up there too – as there were when I was at the top – the summit can get a little cramped, with climbers all queueing for the best selfie spot. Not a good place to step back for a better shot!
The high-rise hotels and apartment blocks look like toytown down below. Calpe is not the Costa Blanca’s most beautiful town, but from up here it looks spectacular. You can see across the bay to the Sierra Helada and the skyscrapers of Benidorm beyond and way up into the mountains.
Then it’s time to start the descent. Perhaps even trickier than the way up – scrambling downhill doesn’t seem any easier. It’s certainly no quicker!
The round trip is about three hours and by the time you’re back at the Centro de Interpretación at the base, you know you’ve had a decent workout.
There’s an exhibition there about the history and geology of the Peñon; in Spanish only, which seems a bit odd considering most of the hikers when I was there were from every country except Spain.
Back in the 1950s when tourism was getting going on the Costa Blanca, the owner of the Peñon decided to build a hotel at its foot. He went into business with General Franco’s son-in-law, the Marqués de Villaverde, and you’d think that was a gold-plated guarantee of success back then.
Work did start in 1959 but stopped two years later – apparently because the Marqués didn’t deliver on his financial commitment. I guess if you were married to Franco’s only daughter, you could get away with a few things. The structure fell into disrepair and in 1987 the army was called in to blow it up. Seventy five kilos of high explosive did the job pretty effectively. The Valencian provincial government had bought the Peñon the year before for 100 million pesetas (about €600,000).
You might be wondering why it’s called the Peñon d’Ifach (or el Penyal d’Ifac in valenciano) The Peñon bit is easy – it means crag or rock. The Rock of Gibraltar, which looks pretty similar, is el Peñon de Gibraltar in Spanish. Ifach is supposed to come from the Arabic word for north – the implication being that this is the northern Peñon, while Gibraltar is the southern one. But I can’t find a proper Arabic translation of Ifach – if anyone knows for sure, please leave a note in comments!
How was el Peñon formed?
I’m no geologist, but the limestone of the Peñon was originally laid down 150 million years ago in a shallow sea. The rock was then thrust upwards to create a mountain, which over millions of years was joined to the mainland via an isthmus created by rivers carrying debris down into the sea.
Get a different perspective
Back down at sea level, there’s a great walkway – Paseo Ecológico Príncipe de Asturias – that takes you from Calpe port for 700 metres or so along the western flank of el Peñon.
You see a completely different side of el Peñon from here – vertical cliffs hundreds of feet high tower above your head. It’s a gentle stroll with great views out to sea thrown in.
A few tips for hiking the Peñon:
You’re supposed to book a timeslot if you are going through the tunnel to the top on the red route – do it here. The site is in Spanish, but click “Tramitar telemáticamente’ and when the link opens, click ‘Ámbito’, select ‘Parcs Naturals’, then click ‘Subámbito’ and ‘Penyal d’Ifac’, then ‘servicio’ and ‘ruta roja’. Put your details in and book your slot. The idea is to keep the visitor numbers down to 300 a day to ease the pressure on the environment. But nobody checked any bookings when I was there.
Take walking boots or trainers with plenty of grip. Flip-flops are a short cut to the casualty ward. Avoid doing the walk if rain is forecast (that doesn’t happen too often!)
Leave your little kids at home! There’s an age limit of 18, ignored by a few parents who frankly need their heads examining. It’s dangerous! FFS!
Take water – there’s no bar at the end of the hike! A small backpack is best, so you keep your hands free for keeping your balance. There are toilets and a picnic area at the bottom.
Walking up to the tunnel is easy. The path is paved and most people can manage it. The views are pretty good, though clearly not as spectacular as from the top.
Park on Calle Isla de Formentera and walk up to the entrance at the end of the road – you can’t park at the visitor centre itself.
Check the flamingos on the way out! Calpe has an old salinas where they harvested salt from seawater back in the day. You can see it clearly from the Peñon – and there’s a flock of photogenic flamingos feeding there.
© Guy Pelham
Check out my posts on some more great walks nearby here: