Murcia's best cycling guide
12 min read by Laura Fletcher
A hidden gem with rugged coastlines, fruit orchards for miles and sun-drenched hills.
Cartagena was named after its first Roman conquerors: The New Carthage. Europe’s version of the warrior city in North Africa, known for its fearless bravery and ruthless tactics. The Spanish version took on its namesake by rivalling military centralness, with the creation that lasts to this day of a fully functioning and strategically unparalleled Naval centre.
And what better base could we have for a cycling trip to Murcia than a place that brought out our inner warrior essence? Reminding us of the valour, strength and perseverance we all have in our hearts, to conquer our enemies – in this case, the hardest of climbs.
Tranquility is taken to a whole new level in Murcia.
- When to travel: Spring months are incredible with fruit trees in full bloom
- Hill & Climbs: Rugged coastlines, flat rolling plainlands, and sharp climbs in the Sierra Nevada Nature Park
- Weather: Sunny and warm, year round.
- Road surfaces: Great condition with off-road trails aplenty as well.
- Getting there: Murcia is served by Murcia airport and Alicante Airport.
Rugged coastlines, fruit orchards for miles and sun-drenched hills hold a certain untouched Spanish charm.
Overshadowed by the busy tourist areas of Alicante to the north, and the sprawling popular region of Andalusia to the south, quiet Murcia, with its rugged coastlines, fruit orchards for miles and sun-drenched hills holds a certain untouched Spanish charm. Away from international influences, quiet country roads are dotted with authentic home-cooked eateries. The cities hold an art deco magic from a golden era of the country’s history, weaving in art nouveau from before and brutal modernism after. With a history going back to Roman time, the valuable area of land passed between many hands. However, the calm and gentle ways here give no hint to any turbulent past. Gentle winters give way to perfect early springs and long autumns, with the constant smell of citrus in the air. Without the same anchor of tourism (albeit there is some), Murcia creates the perfect backdrop for a cycling holiday, with new roads constantly waiting to be discovered.
If you are lucky enough to travel to the region from late February through to March, you will catch the famous blossom season. Through about six weeks, peach, apricot, almond and plum trees erupt in a glorious colourful display. Try the Cieza area for the best concentration of blooms in the northern part of the region.
But back to the bike riding, of course…
Cartagena to Batería de Castillitos
We set out heading south from Cartagena, with the sea to our left as we wound our way down the undulating road. The cliffs rising high above Cala Mojarra, home to the naval outpost bases – the Batería de Jorel and the Batería de Castillitos.
The landscape is rare of trees in this area, creating a feeling almost of a rocky moonscape, charred by the sun.
Heading out on the E-22, the “main road” south, we were worried at first that it would be heavily trafficked and dangerous to ride, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. The few cars and trucks that did pass us on the two-lane road gave ample room and moved around us without any urgency or speed, the southern “tranquilo” lifestyle extending to the mood on the tarmac. We rolled down this main road for about 25 km.
The first part of the ride was a gentle warm-up, both for the mind and the body. Towards the end of the time on this road, some sharp inclines and descents started popping up, just in time for the legs to kick in. The scene in front, where the road kicks up, seems steeper than it is in certain places, but we were caught off guard not having our phone cameras ready for these vistas.
The road is a smooth beautiful tarmac in this area, and as we came over the last climb, with the city of Isla Plana in front of us, we turned onto a smaller road, the RM-E23, that would lead us out to the peninsula forts.
This rural track didn’t have the same smooth tarmac, but what it did possess was a real feeling of wild adventure as we headed for the massif that would give way to the cliffs perched high above the sea.
The climb comes in two parts. The first, after a few flat-lead-in kilometres on the road, all inland and sheltered from the wind and sea, is around 3 km with a gentle gradient, never too lung-busting. This road was designed for giant weaponry to be moved up and down it. Leg cannons included for the bigger riders. A small technical downhill opens up the second part of the climb, which revealed a simply spectacular view of the Mediterranean in it’s more southern parts. The road was narrow and twisty, in parts taking our breath away as we wound our way along the sides of the steep hills and cliffs. Good barriers were consistent and cars almost non-existent, minus a few tourists heading to see the naval outpost. Walkers and cyclists outnumbered the motor traffic significantly, making even the narrow sections of the road feel plenty big enough. The rough road surface really did lend to the feeling of coming across something off the beaten track – a true exploration on two wheels.
As we turned the last corner, we were confronted by the site of two castle style outposts looking over the sea, protecting our little peninsula from invaders near and far. Both of the sites were pretty astounding to walk through. Constructed in the 1930s, in the interwar period with the second world war looming, the two forts were built in a medieval castle style. The juxtaposition of modern style cannons amongst the turrets is quite a sight. The grounds are free to walk around and explore, but there are no facilities, cafe or restroom, at the end of the climb. But we took our time, roaming the walls and fortresses before heading back down for a quick lunch stop in the valley.
As we rode back, we could see the hills and cliffs dotted with dirt tracks below us, momentarily longing for the gravel bikes. When we got to the finish, we did see the mountain bikers arrive, and realised a coastal route back via fire roads would be possible with an off-road set up for the adventurous sort.
Epico’s local partners, Etiquette Cycling, are based in Murcia.
Meet Chris and Simon.
We met up with them on a sunny afternoon, beachside in front of the gentle waters of the Mar Menor. This large natural lake inlet is protected from the rough waters of the southern Mediterranean by a narrow strip of land and sand, creating a calm bay of Mediterranean waters, shallow and gentle against the beach.
Etiquette Cycling was started a few years ago by Chris and Simon, two British expats who now proudly call the region home. Unlike a lot of cycling holiday providers, they focus on their home roads solely, delivering the best local knowledge and authentic experience to their guests. They have a full fleet of Cannondales for rental, for easy travel, and can put together cycling trips for any level, any length, any size or shape.
Aside from the Asiaticos (a local coffee delicacy), the stand out for Murcia as a cycling destination is its sheer diversity. There are so many cycle route options.
Looking out across Mar Menor, the tall high rise hotels can be seen in the distance – the holidaymakers’ paradise beaches separated by the gaping body of water. The beauty of this “more desirable” beach area across the bay means the first coastline remains untouched by large scale tourism, a rare occurrence on this sun-soaked shore.
Chris and Simon filled me in on the best of the local wine culture. Most of Spain is favourable for vine growing, and this area, in particular, is known for the Mourvèdre grape (Mataro in Spanish). They mentioned they even have a specific cycling camp based around the wine season and heading to tastings.
Wine tasting is offered in a number of the bodegas in and around the rural town of Jumilla. The town is the focal point during the annual wine festivals – celebrated during the annual wine harvest.
To fully experience the beauty of the Mar Menor and the area, Etiquette suggested their “Portman Loop” – albeit, with its strangely English name, the terrain was anything but pastoral British.
The Portman Loop takes in the coastline, the peninsula north of Cartagena and quiet inland places. It can be started from any point along the route, the beauty of a good loop! The juxtaposition of the coast section out of the north of Cartagena is quite drastic: a rugged coastline, industrial estates and behind a dry, stunning mountainside inland.
We started out on the undulating coast hills, up and down all the time, with a wide breakdown lane. The loop extended and flattened along the side of the Mar Menor, as we passed the high rise peninsula, and headed inland with the beauty of the bay beside us. The road is flat and calm here, a great place for efforts or to test the sprinting skills, and good repose from what we knew would be a hard day of climbing the next day.
Of course, we don’t want to give it all away here, to fully experience Etiquette’s Portman Loop, get in touch with them or book on to one of their amazing tours.
Being locals, we trusted the tips of Simon and Chris with their suggestion of where to eat.
The top 3 restaurants according to Etiquette Cycling:
- La Encarnacion Hotel in the coastal town of Los Alcazares is a historic spa hotel with stunning views over the Mar Menor
- Restaurant La Catedral in the Roman city of Cartagena. The restaurant is nestled adjacent to the amphitheatre in the ‘old town’ district
- The Cubana Seafood restaurant is tucked away in the somewhat sleepy village of Portman. Enjoy the fresh local cuisine whilst admiring the sea views and unique black sand.
We had to enquire with Simon and Chris what an “Asiatico” was. They said to try one, but maybe best after a ride…. Well, they were right. The drink, born out of Cartagena is an espresso with condensed milk and brandy or cognac. A must-try when in the area.
For those gastronomically curious, the region is renowned for its seafood – unsurprising as most of it is coastal. Try the Bacalao Fresco: fresh cod served with tomato and any of their cauldron-cooked rice from a local restaurant. The mild climate year-round is also advantageous for fresh and local produce. This area is also famous for its artichokes. Be sure to try Alcachofas de la Abuela or any variety of the local ratatouille, made from all the spoils of the garden.
And if the Asiatico coffee and seafood isn’t an adventurous enough choice, and your visit happens to fall in the spring season, we dare you to try the Paparajotes. Incredibly specific to the region, it can take a few tries to master the technique of eating these fried lemon leaves. Many on their first try will bite firmly in, chewing up the green inner leaf. But the locals will tell you, the leaf is there mainly to offer a true citrus flavour to the fried batter, and the locals can show you how to eat the batter off, sliding the whole leaf out in one smooth movement, to be left behind on the plate.
Climb to the top of Sierra Espuña Natural Park
Start and end in Alhama
Heading inland and south from Murcia or Cartagena is the large natural expanse of the Sierra Espuña range that greets us in the distance. This ecotourism haven holds the largest area of forest in the region, with multiple peaks along a Ridgeline rife with rare natural wonders. The headway into the park is rural flat roads, dotted with farms and fragrant citrus trees.
We opted to do a challenging double ascent to the top of Espuna Park, just over 1,500 metres at the peak.
Make sure you have your climbing gears on for this day and be ready for steep roads and switchbacks. The downhill sections are super fast and the foliage creates soft shade throughout. We definitely thought this was a hard day on the bike, even all within under 100 kilometres. For a true high-intensity ride, this natural park is a great option. Compared to the dry moonscape of the open plains of Murcia, the super green lush park was temperate and moist – a dense forest in the middle of a desert. The trees and cover offer cooler temperatures in the hot Spanish summer, although on our visit, the misty rain was coming in and the air was brisk near the peak. Get ready for some serious switchback action near the top of the climb, we lost count both times.
On our first ascent, we went as high as 1,150 metres skipping the spur road to the true top, knowing we would loop back around to bring that in. The park is well maintained with good road surfaces and facilities, such as cafes and signage regularly. The second ascent is when you really start to feel it in the legs. It was a real push for the body and the mind as we looped back on ourselves to set another challenge and head up to the true top. At 1,550 metres, with 6-7% average gradients, the climb is not an easy one. But it’s a real reward, especially with a little kick at 11% near the top. Afterwards, we rolled back down to Alhama de Murcia, where our ride began, letting the legs and body cool down on the long descent into town.
The further south we explore Spain, and the further away from big tourism or urban centres, the more rustic and authentic the local culture becomes. Far from the plethora of Anglo brew shops, both beer and coffee in Girona or the international calibre cuisine of Barcelona, the quieter region of Murcia is known for a less disturbed Iberian tradition.
If you find yourself in the town of Murcia though, and yearning for a strong cup of Joe, try CafeLab. With its large street terrace, it is perfect for resting the legs mid or at the end of a ride. Pair the coffee with any one of their sweet treats – we recommend the red velvet cake.
Really though, our recommendation would be to take the area for what it is. We both exclaimed after our first ride: “Why isn’t everyone talking about Murcia?!”
Far from the madding crowds, far from the tourist beaches of Benidorm or Barcelona. This quiet, yet stunning, region offers the best of the old Iberian tradition, with charm, hospitality and truly amazing roads and vistas. Take on the epic climbs of the area in Carthagean-warrior style, and remember, at least you aren’t weighed down by body armour.
Murcia is a great destination to visit year-round, but the heat can be a bit much in July and August. Opt for March to enjoy the tree blossom season and the best of early spring weather. The region is served by Murcia airport, and further afield by Alicante airport if needed. The roads are in great condition and there are no toll roads. Of course, you can also access Cartagena via many cruise ships, but if you are reading this Murcia cycling guide, we doubt you are the type to take a holiday confined to a boat.
If you have a bike emergency or any other bike needs, try CostaBici Los Alcazares, or of course, our friends at Etiquette Cycling.
By Laura Fletcher
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