Tarifa: Spain's Southernmost Port

Tarifa makes a great gateway to the Arab world, even if you skip the boat to Morocco.
By Rick Steves

To experience a laid-back town and a chance to day-trip to Morocco from Europe, make Tarifa your home base. Spain's (and Europe's) southernmost port is a pleasant Arab-looking town with a lovely beach, an old castle, restaurants swimming in fresh seafood, inexpensive places to sleep, and enough windsurfers to sink a ship.

You can tour Tarifa's tapas bars for tasty appetizers, take a whale-watching excursion, or just kick back before your whirlwind trip across the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa. Tarifa has no blockbuster sights (and is quiet in winter), but it's a town where it just feels good to be on vacation.

A visit to St. Matthew, the town's main church, offers a glimpse into Tarifa's history. A tiny square of an ancient Christian tombstone embedded in one of the church walls (dated March 30, 674) proves there was a functioning church here during Visigothic times, before the Moorish conquest. Some years later came the church's "door of pardons," dating back to the late 15th century, when Tarifa was on the edge of the Reconquista. During the period when the Spain's Catholic Kings were driving the Moors back to Africa, Tarifa was a dangerous place. To encourage people to live here, the Church offered a huge amount of forgiveness to anyone who stuck it out for a year. One year and one day after moving to Tarifa, they would have the privilege of passing through this special "door of pardons," and a Mass of thanksgiving would be held in that person's honor. Nowadays, in the evenings, it seems life squirts from the church out the front door and into the fun-loving main street, lined with cafes and bars.

For fine views of the harbor, climb up to the base of the Castle of Guzmán el Bueno. The castle, today only a concrete hulk, was named for a 13th-century Christian general who gained fame in a sad show of courage while fighting the Moors. Holding Guzmán's son hostage, the Moors demanded he surrender the castle or they'd kill the boy. Guzmán refused, even throwing his own knife down from the ramparts. It was used on his son's throat. Ultimately, the Moors withdrew to Africa and Guzmán was a hero. Bueno.

Tarifa has a third-rate bullring where novices botch fights on occasional Saturdays through the summer. Professional bullfights take place the first week of September. The ring is a short walk from the town. You'll see posters everywhere.

If you prefer to watch animals in their natural habitats, several companies offer whale- and dolphin-watching excursions. For any of the tours, it's wise to reserve one to three days in advance, though same-day bookings are possible. You'll get a multilingual tour and a two-hour trip. Sightings occur most of the time. Dolphins and pilot whales frolic here any time of year, while sperm whales visit May through July and orcas stay July through August. Depending on the wind and weather, boats may leave from Algeciras instead (drivers follow in a convoy; people without cars usually get rides from staff).

The vast, sandy beach Playa Punta Paloma lies about five miles northwest of town. On windy summer days, the sea is littered with sprinting windsurfers while the beach holds a couple hundred vans and fun-mobiles from northern Europe. Under mountain ridges lined with modern energy-generating windmills, it's a fascinating scene. Drive down the sandy road and stroll along the beach. You'll find a cabana-type hamlet with rental gear, beachwear shops, a bar, and a restaurant or two. For drivers, it's a cinch to reach. Without a car, you're in luck July through August, when inexpensive buses do a circuit of nearby campgrounds, all on the waterfront.

Day Trip to Morocco from Spain

For me, Tangier is the main reason to go to Tarifa. The fast modern catamaran ride (a huge car ferry that zips over every two hours all year long) takes less than an hour. You walk from the Tangier port into a remarkable city — the fifth-largest in Morocco — which is no longer the Tijuana of Africa, but a booming town enjoying the enthusiastic support and can-do vision of the Moroccan king.

Most tourists do the mindless belly-dancing-and-shopping excursion. They're met by a guide, taken on a bus tour and a walk through the old town market, offered a couple of crass Kodak moments with snake charmers and desert dancers, and given lunch with live music and belly-dancing. Then they visit a big shop and are hustled back down to their boat where — five hours after they landed — they return to the First World thankful they don't have diarrhea.

The alternative is to simply take the ferry on your own and leave the tourist track. Things are cheap and relatively safe. Since more than 90 percent of visitors choose the comfort of a tour, independent adventurers rarely see another tourist and avoid all the tourist kitsch.

You can catch the first boat (9:00) and spend the entire day, returning that evening; extend with an overnight in Tangier; or even head deeper into Morocco (you'll need someone else's guidebook for that).