The Alpujarras: Spain's Shangri-La

Jake Threadgould
The architecture of the Alpujarras harks back to when it was the last Moors stronghold in Spain

Tucked away in the southern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains is Spain's answer to Shangri-La, a place where crystalline waters trickle down ancient channels to irrigate groves of fruit trees so bountiful that oranges and lemons rubbish the valley floor.

There is an undeniable beauty to the Alpujarra valley.

White-washed villages are dotted along a network of gorges where almonds, grapes, olives, and citrus thrive in fertile soils wetted by irrigation channels called acequias, an inheritance left behind by the Islamic Moors who cultivated this land as far back as 1200 years ago.

In the high pastures, local farmers carrying on age-old family traditions toil away on terraced farmland with mule-drawn ploughs.

"We have all the necessary elements: a good climate, good water and good resources," said farmer, Antonio Perez, who alongside his 90-year-old father tends to potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries and green beans above the village of Pampaneira.

This traditional way of life is now under threat.

Since the 1960s, the Alpujarra has witnessed an almost 50 per cent drop in its population. Young people have left in droves seeking opportunities in the city. They take with them vital knowledge of the local area that has been handed down from one generation to another for centuries.

"The hope of recuperating this area lies with the local people, if not it?s very difficult, everything is more complicated; it?s hard to start from scratch," Perez added.

With the departure of one community from the Alpujarra came the arrival of another.

Tune into the din of a cafe crowd in Orgiva, one of the area's main towns, and you'll hear that English has become a lingua franca for a population that boasts some 70 nationalities.

Since the 1970s, the Alpujarra has welcomed a steady flow of international immigrants and tourists seeking an alternative lifestyle centered around organic farming and a sustainable, eco-friendly ethos.

They found the natural beauty and fertile land of the Alpujarra to be a perfect alternative to the humdrum routines of mainstream society.

These trailblazers have put the valley firmly on the radar of those attuned to sustainability and ecological awareness, turning it into an unlikely cosmopolitan haven.

You will find veteran hippies, a growing Sufi Muslim community, aspiring young agriculturalists, travellers and those simply seeking an alternative to urban life.

"Normally you'd have to live in a city to have so many people from different cultures, countries and religions," said Lore Ruegg, a Swiss woman who moved to the Alpujarra in 2000 and now owns an organic bakery in Orgiva. "It enriches the zone and is a factor that continues to bring people here."

The influx of new arrivals made the most of cheap property prices in the valley and salvaged farmland otherwise destined for almost certain abandon.

They relied heavily on the knowledge of the local population in order to set up their new lives, but over the years the benefits have been mutual.

While the demographic in the valley shifts and evolves, other features remain unchanged.

The plantations of contorted olive trees in the low pastures date back millennia, meaning their first fruits would have fallen on soil belonging to the rulers of Al-Andalus, the name the Islamic kings who ruled southern Spain from 711 AD to 1492 gave to the land.

And some of the trees alive today would almost certainly have been producing olive harvests before Christopher Columbus first set foot in America.

Those same trees continue to find sustenance from the spring water that to this day cascades down the centuries-old acequia system.

Together with the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multicultural society that now resides here, these ancient features have turned the Alpujarra valley into an other-worldly place whose air of mystery has enchanted visitors for decades, and will do so for decades to come.