It’s the unrelenting aridity — that first makes you thirsty, then fascinates — the scorching coastline of hardened lava, the agaves, prickly pears, fan palms and esparto grass that put their spell on you. However, it was not among its beaches or salt marshes, nor in the nearby desert, that we found the region’s essence, but in the wisdom of its inhabitants. People who find happiness in small things, the comforts of daily life; who keep the knowledge of traditional crafts alive. People like Manuel, working with esparto grass, or Isabel, weaving jarapa rugs. People of a land where, under the fierce sun, nature and the simple life have survived unchanged.
With rounded, spiny pads branching out from each other, and fruit growing along their outermost edges, the silhouette of the Opuntia cactus, the prickly pear or Barbary g known in Spain as the chumbera, has been an integral part of the Andalusian landscape for four centuries, especially in Almería, in dry, sunny Cabo de Gata. One of the rst tropical American plant species to arrive in Spanish ports, it was brought from the New World in the 16th century and cultivated in the hopes of farming cochineal bugs, which were used to produce scarlet dye. The plan was not a success, and the cactus spread into the wild, becoming part of the scenery in many areas on the Mediterranean coast. However, in Almería the cactus was introduced on a massive scale as a result of the of cial policy of reforesting arid areas in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The low rainfall meant that the chumbera plantations failed to thrive and were nally abandoned. Today, the tuna, as it is also known, while of cially classi ed as an invasive species, is part of the local ecosystem. As well as collecting its sugary, aromatic fruit, the higos chumbos, locals use it as a natural fence to mark land boundaries, and, once the spines have been removed from the pads, as animal feed.