The Pillars of Hercules: Climbing Jebel Musa


Living in Marbella, certain things become a delightful part of your daily routine: the forecast predicting sunny weather with 90% accuracy throughout the week, the sight of Antonio Banderas savouring coffee at an unassuming Old Town cafe, and the breath-taking view of Africa and Gibraltar on the horizon – a rare opportunity to effortlessly gaze upon another continent and country simultaneously while lounging on your sunbed.

Pilars of Hercules at Sunset, Jebel Musa (left) and Rock of Gibraltar (right)

Article by Anastasia Sukhanov

The Pillars of Hercules

Few of us realise the true significance of this view. The Pillars of Hercules is the ancient name referring to the two promontories at the eastern entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, a narrow opening 14 kilometres wide between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean separating the continents of Africa and Europe. The northern pillar is the Rock of Gibraltar (known as Mount Calpe in ancient times). The location of the southern pillar, Mons Abila, on the African side of the strait is under constant debate, but the two most likely candidates are Monte Hacho in Ceuta and Jebel Musa in Morocco, eleven kilometres to the west. Jebel Musa rises 851 metres from the sea and is part of the Rif Mountain chain in the northernmost part of Morocco.

In Greek mythology, Hercules, the son of Zeus, was given the task of retrieving the cattle of Geryon, a monster with three heads. To reach his destination, Hercules had to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar, which was considered to be the edge of the known world. According to the myth, Hercules created the pillars by using his strength to separate the mountains on either side of the strait. The pillars became a symbol of his incredible power and were later considered to mark the limit of the Mediterranean world.

View of Jebel Musa from the Mirador del Estrecho, close to Tarifa
View of Jebel Musa from the Mirador del Estrecho, close to Tarifa

Representing the gateway to new worlds, both real and imagined, the Pillars of Hercules are quite an impressive addition to a hiker’s bucket list. While reaching the summit of the Rock of Gibraltar is hardly a challenge with a cable car, taxis and busses all providing an easy way up to the views, Jebel Musa is another story altogether.

While there are several hiking trails to Jebel Musa ranging in difficulty and length, we are ready to walk you through the experience tested by the editorial team of BRIGHT themselves, a route that starts in the Moroccan village of Belyounech near Ceuta.

The nitty-gritty

Length: 12km

Time: 4-5 hours

Difficulty: medium

Getting there

Embarking on a hike to the summit of Jebel Musa is already a thrilling adventure, but adding to the excitement is the journey itself. With regular ferries departing from the port of Tarifa to Tangier in just 1.5 hours you’ll be transported across the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, and into the vibrant landscape of Morocco.

As you prepare for the journey, it’s important to keep in mind that this is an international border crossing. Don’t forget your passport, and make sure to fill in your immigration cards as soon as you board. To avoid any unnecessary delays, immediately join the border queue once inside the ferry, as it takes a while and you want to be ready to disembark as soon as you arrive.

BRIGHT’s editorial team on the way down from Jebel Musa
BRIGHT’s editorial team on the way down from Jebel Musa

The journey from Tangier to Belyounech may be brief, taking only about one and a half hours, but it’s a crucial step in reaching the summit of Jebel Musa. To make the most of this experience we recommend hiring a guide to ensure a smooth and enjoyable journey. While Morocco is generally a safe country, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and have a local expert by your side. Your guide will not only navigate the nuances of local car hire but also ensure that you discuss the price of all expenses in advance to avoid any misunderstandings.

With a guide, you can rest assured that you’ll reach the starting point of the hike safely and on time. They will also ensure that you stay on the trail and reach the summit of Jebel Musa well-hydrated, a crucial factor in such a challenging hike.

Spectacular rocks and a view of Isla Perejil, a tiny and rocky piece of Spanish territory on the African side of the Strait
Spectacular rocks and a view of Isla Perejil, a tiny and rocky piece of Spanish territory on the African side of the Strait

The trail

The trail starts in the village of Belyounech and takes hikers through a rugged but lush (at least in spring season!) terrain. Along the way, you’ll be treated to stunning views of the surrounding countryside, including the Mediterranean Sea, the Rif Mountains, and the nearby town of Ceuta.

The ascent from Belyounech to the summit of Jebel Musa takes around 2 hours and is a challenging but rewarding experience. The final stretch is particularly difficult, with steep ascents and rocky terrain, but the breath-taking views from the summit make it all worthwhile. From the top, you can take in the stunning scenery of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Moroccan coastline. Moreover, it is a good place to reflect on the following: Jebel Musa means “Mount Moses” in Arabic. The name is derived from the belief that the mountain is where Moses stood to see the Promised Land before he died.

The summit of Jibel Musa
The summit

It’s worth noting that the descent can be just as challenging, particularly for those with knee issues. To ensure a safe and comfortable descent, we recommend bringing walking sticks and knee protection if necessary. With the right gear and precautions, however, the trail can be enjoyed by hikers of all skill levels.

The comeback

Believe it or not, it’s possible to pack this whole adventure into just one day, allowing you to be back in Tarifa for dinner. This means that you can experience the stunning natural beauty and cultural significance of Jebel Musa, catch some waves in Tarifa and be back in time for a new work week.

To make the most of your day, be sure to check the ferry schedule in advance, purchase your tickets online and keep an eye out for the local mountain goats that are known to accompany hikers on their journey and lead them astray! (Joking).

View of Ceuta and the Moroccan coastline from the trail
View of Ceuta and the Moroccan coastline from the trail

In conclusion, the summit of Jebel Musa should be at the top of every Marbella-based hiker’s list for many compelling reasons. For starters, it provides the perfect excuse to hop on a ferry to Morocco and explore its incredible culture, adding even more adventure to your journey.

But that’s not all. The bragging rights alone are worth it. Once you’re back on the Costa del Sol, you can point to the horizon and proudly declare to your friends and family, “See that stunning mountain? That’s one of the Pillars of Hercules, and I’ve been to the summit!”