Spain’s Slice of Africa: The Vacation Spot Even Spaniards Don’t Know About
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because none of your globe-trotting friends have probably been here.
“Where’s that?” asks my friend when I tell him about my upcoming trip. “Why are you going there?” inquires the ticket vendor at the ferry station, looking slightly puzzled.
I get it: Ceuta is not your typical tourist destination. You won’t find photos of it on your Instagram feed or articles about it in in-flight magazines (Ceuta doesn’t have an airport). This Spanish enclave in northern Africa is a mystery. Even Spaniards tend to know little about that piece of Moroccan land their country annexed in the 17th century.
It’s also one of the most culturally diverse corners of Europe.
And yet, this small province is a brilliant vacation spot. Not only does it have the prerequisite stunning beaches and year-round sun, it’s also one of the most culturally diverse corners of Europe. Ceuta’s 80,000 inhabitants come from all four corners of the world. The city is home to dozens of ethnicities and religions, including Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus — each with their own temple. A quick stroll down Ceuta’s seaside boulevard and you’ll likely see a couple of blond, bikini-wearing teenagers buy ice cream from a Chinese vendor while a headscarfed Muslim mom Rollerblades with her daughter and a young Guinean man wheels a Moroccan grandma in a wheelchair.
It’s been this way for centuries. Ceuta’s geostrategic position made it a must-conquer location for every major empire, each of which added its own essence to the province’s cultural potpourri. Today, the capital’s museums host Phoenician artifacts, Roman tombstones, Arab baths and Portuguese cannons — to name just a few.
Not a fan of museums? Head down to the beach. Ceuta is a peninsula, with 13 miles of coastline and two distinct bays. The southern shore offers calm, warm Mediterranean waters, while the northern coast, which faces the Atlantic, sees colder currents, strong winds and serious waves. Besides the occasional backpackers, beaches are mostly frequented by local families and weekenders from Morocco. You also won’t have to fend off vendors peddling bracelets, massages or mojitos. Beach vendors typically hawk snacks like fresh coconut and dried fruits for $1 a handful.
Travelers who visit Ceuta as a mere stopover point can be caught off guard by its charm. “I have never been to a place like this,” says Marta Garcia, a bookbinder from the south of Spain traveling with her British boyfriend. The couple was only passing by Ceuta on their way to Morocco, but decided to park their van and stay a few days to explore the province. With no prior expectations, Garcia says she was “surprised to learn it has such an interesting history.”
If you’re feeling adventurous, leave your smartphone behind, grab some fresh fruit at the local market and head to El Desnarigado on the northern coast. This gravelly cove with crystalline waters is secluded — and quite nudist-friendly (but don’t tell them we told you). When your skin starts to sizzle, drive up to the long beach of Benzú and enjoy a bright-pink sunset over the ocean while you sip a cerveza.
Granted, Ceuta doesn’t have much tourist infrastructure. Most hotels have not changed a lightbulb since the 1980s and there are no trendy nightclubs or beach bars with Wi-Fi. All you can do in this in-between land is learn, swim, eat and nap.
But isn’t that plenty?
GO THERE: CEUTA
- Directions: There are daily ferries from various cities along Spain’s southern coast. The ride costs about $40 and takes about an hour.
- How to say “Where is the beach?”: “Donde está la playa?”
- Stay here: Complejo Rural Miguel de Luque is a quiet haven on the hills with small wooden cabins, a big, bright pool and plenty of bougainvilleas.
- Pro tip: Why walk when you can float? Take a boat! There are several companies offering tourist cruises, which are the best way to explore hidden beaches and learn about the enclave’s wild history while you get a tan.