The most sustainable places to stay in Spain
Discover Spain’s planet-first destinations, from wildlife-rich biosphere reserves to a gastronomy that’s scooping Michelin’s new eco-focused Green Stars
Sunshine, beaches, irresistibly priced wine and now sustainability are topping the long list of reasons to love Spain – ranked 12th on Earth.org’s global sustainability index. Spain has the world’s highest number of Unesco biosphere reserves (52, boasting more than 70,000 wildlife species), while Valencia is making serious strides to become emission neutral by 2025. What’s more, 27 Spanish restaurants have earned Michelin Green Stars for their commitment to sustainable gastronomy. As Spain’s 2030 Sustainable Tourism Strategy invests €4bn into fighting climate change and protecting the environment, the country is leading green travel – as these hero eco-destinations showcase.
Our focus is on one of the smallest, El Hierro. Not yet a household name – though its location, less than an hour’s flight from Tenerife or Gran Canaria, could soon change that. Dubbed the ‘self-powered island’, it introduced a game-changing hydro and wind energy plant in 2014 that propelled it towards being entirely self-powered by renewables – now thought to be as little as four years away. The power of nature is everywhere to be seen here, from crystal-clear bathing pools (see: Charco Azul) to wilderness trekking and dive sites among parrotfish, dolphins, manta rays and even whales or sharks. El Hierro’s geology is so special that it’s now a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve and Geopark, while its native language, Silbo Herreño, is one of the world’s last remaining whistling languages.
Spanish and Basque
The Navarre region has one of only 44 towns in the world that have been honoured by the UN’s World Tourism Organization for preserving local culture and biodiversity. Called Lekunberri, it’s a handy 90-minute drive from Bilbao airport. So, what bags the accolade of being the best tourist town on the planet? In Lekunberri’s case, a clever mix of technology and nature. The village is dotted with QR codes that offer insights into its heritage and attractions. While, offline, the Plazaola Greenway – a former railway line connecting Pamplona and San Sebastián – has been reconditioned into a 68km walking and cycling route between Sarasa and Andoain. For the most part, it’s blissfully gradient-free, and you’ll retrace the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, who regularly visited the region. The scenery takes in waterfalls, valleys, rewilded tunnels and traditional hamlets, with semi-circular doors and window lintels heaving with flowers. Plus, if you’re very eagle-eyed, you’ll spot griffon vultures in flight.
It’s a juicy idea. Gather the leftover oranges that fall on the streets at the end of fruit season and turn them into power. Seville’s novel pilot scheme is expected to produce enough methane to power a water purification plant, but the hope is that all of its sweet-smelling but bitter-tasting unwanted oranges could be recycled in the future. Seville joined the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) last year, and it’s already ‘greenifying’ its streets: it is the fifth best city in Spain for green areas per inhabitant, the fourth for the number of pedestrianised roads, and it has 200km of cycle lanes – making it one of the world’s finest city breaks for cycling, particularly alongside the regenerated banks of the Guadalquivir river.
The sky’s the limit when it comes to Menorca’s eco-credentials. The Balearic island was declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 1993; since then, economic development has been carefully balanced with environmental impact. To see the success of this, look up. In 2019, Menorca was the first Mediterranean island to be named a Starlight Tourist Destination and a Starlight Reserve – meaning you can gaze at the night sky without any light pollution. As well as pioneering astrotourism, Menorca is also the 2022 European Region of Gastronomy – awarded for both the sustainability and quality of its food, which includes red scorpion fish, carn-i-xulla sausage made from native black pigs, cheese produced using ancestral methods, and spirits distilled from native camomile. Menorca has also applied for Unesco World Heritage recognition for its Talaiotic archaeology. There are 1,586 sites, dating back to the Bronze age, featuring talaiots – buildings made from enormous, horizontally stacked stone slabs.
Somewhat surprisingly, 40!
Before you wonder: yes, all 40 volcanoes are long extinct. They are found in a vast nature reserve called La Garrotxa: smooth and flat in the south thanks to those lava flows, while the steep valleys of the Fluvià river in the north boast neck-cricking ravines. With 700km of trails, the area is a magnet for hikers: one of the loveliest routes – El Carrilet Greenway – takes you to Costa Brava, via Girona. All areas are part of the Natura 2000 Network – a European initiative to protect the rarest and most fragile natural spaces. Hot-air balloon is possibly the most spectacular way to see the region, followed by lunch at one of La Garrotxa’s eight Volcanic Cuisine restaurants. This collective of zero-km eateries creates dishes from ingredients that thrive in volcanic soil, such as kidney beans, turnips, truffles and chestnuts, served with local pork, snails or wild boar.
Find out more about Spain here.
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