Every once in a while, you come across a place that you just have to visit in person.
That was my immediate thought when I first laid eyes on a photo of Lake Hillier – a bright pink lake on an island just off the coast of southwest Australia.
I stumbled across the magenta mere while scrolling through a random listicle that appeared on my Twitter feed. I don’t recall the exact title of the article, but it was something in the realm of “world’s 50 most surreal places.” Surreal is certainly an apt description. Honestly, I wasn’t sold on the fact that what I was looking at wasn’t a doctored photo. It wouldn’t be the first time I was fooled by a Photoshop savant.
But after a quick Google search, I learned that not only was Australia’s pink lake real, but it was just one of many bright rose reservoirs on the planet.
Most pink lakes are typically given their color by types of algae and bacterium that thrive in water with high levels of salinity. Those organisms produce carotenoids – organic pigments found in the chloroplasts of plants and other photosynthetic creatures.
After reading through Traveleering’s “10 Best Pink Lakes in the World,” I could hardly contain my excitement. I had already mapped out an August trip through Spain and one of these alien bodies of water happened to be just off my path.
Laguna Salada de Torrevieja
Located just down the coast from popular tourist destination Alicante, the city of Torrevieja is home to one of the world’s most unique pink lakes. Laguna Salada de Torrevieja, located less than five kilometers from the city center and the beach, is easily one of the most urban pink lakes in the world.
Torrevieja’s salt lagoon is also unique due to the fact that a relatively narrow strip of land separates it from another salt lake, Laguna Salada de la Mata. But while the two lakes are a mere 1.5 kilometers apart, Mata’s water has a deep emerald hue. The salinity level of Laguna Salada de la Mata isn’t quite high enough to support the organisms that dye the opposite lake. The twin lagoons are both protected wildlife areas and give Torrevieja and the surrounding area a unique microclimate that supports many species of migratory birds and plant life. Many bird-watchers head to Torrevieja to get a glimpse of the area’s native flamingos. The lanky birds literally turn pink due to feeding on the brine shrimp that live in the lagoon. The brine shrimp are also dyed pink from feeding on the algae and heliobacterium. It’s the circle of pink.
The contrast between the green and pink lakes is especially prevalent when approaching the city from the north. After seeing Mata’s green waters and surrounding vegetation, Torrevieja’s blinding white beaches and quiet pink waves look completely ‘not of this world.’
Taking a dip
I had very little time to spare on my day trip to Torrevieja, so upon arrival, I grabbed the first taxi I could find and asked to be taken to the ‘laguna rosado.’ My driver let me out on the corner of two streets, at the head of a small dusty trail. He pointed one finger down the trail to the now visible body of water and enthusiastically proclaimed, “sandy beach, there!”
Before heading to the lake’s edge, I made sure to jot down my cabby’s phone number. This particular entrance to the beach was near a residential area, but not much else. There were no restaurants, shops or gazebos anywhere in sight, and I wasn’t planning on walking back to the city – on the complete opposite end of the lake.
As I headed down the trail and got closer and closer to the water, I began to wonder if my taxi driver had ever stepped foot on this beach. I certainly don’t imagine anyone who had walked on it would describe this particular beach as “sandy.”
As soon as you take your first step onto the glassy-white coastline, you’ll feel and hear a peculiar crunch. That crunch is from the tons of jagged crystallized salt beneath your feet.
Pro tip: Bring sandals or water shoes. As I approached the water line, I did what I always do on a typical beach. I kicked my shoes off and felt the sand salt between my toes. Walking on rock salt is unpleasant at best and painful at worst. I wish I’d had the foresight to pack a pair of flip-flops. Instead, I was resigned to put my sneakers back on hope they would dry as quickly as possible. They didn’t.
It’s difficult to tell where the shore ends and the actual lake begins. The salt beach is littered with shallow, water-filled craters as far as the eye can see. There isn’t exactly a spot to put down a towel and sunbathe. And finding a place for your belongings is a challenge.
I noticed a bench and a lonely chair about 50 meters into the water, which seemed like the only logical spot to leave my backpack and camera while I went for a swim.
I’m not exactly sure how popular the lake is among locals and tourists, but during my visit, I was one of the few souls bold enough to brave the pink waters. There were only two other people on the bench, both Spanish tourists. I asked the two women a couple of questions about the lake in my best broken Spanish, but like me, it was their first time in pink waters. When I asked if they were going to swim, I understood quite clearly. “¡Nooo, es peligroso!”
Dangerous? Why? Because it’s pink? I wasn’t convinced.
Perhaps it’s dangerous to become over exfoliated by the salt. Or perhaps there is a danger of a quicksand-like salt sinkhole. But I’d read enough about pink lakes to know there is no inherent danger of swimming in them so I laughed off their warning and headed in. I walked and walked and walked – wet shoes slogging along with each defiant step. When I finally turned back to look toward the shore from which I had came, the two girls and my belongings were hardly specks on the horizon.
Disappointingly, the water was only just above my knees. So much for swimming.
I did sit down and feel the viscosity of the lagoon keep me afloat, but the water level was surprisingly low. Also, I didn’t want to leave my belongings unattended for too long so I made my way back towards the shore and relaxed on the lonely bench.
I wish I’d had a bit more time to spend at the lagoon, but a day trip was all I could fit into my jammed pack travel schedule. Perhaps if I’d had more time, I would have walked around the lake’s edge to find the local mud hole.
Many Spaniards claim the salty black mud around the lake is therapeutic. I’ve seen photos of men and women completely covered in the dark sludge. Some even claim the mud’s natural brine can heal skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. I’m still skeptical of the lake’s spa therapy properties, but I can say the extremely salty air was wonderful for my sinuses.
The city of Torrevieja started as an outpost with a single guard tower – from which the city derives its name. (Torrevieja translates to “old tower”). A rising demand for salt in Europe led directly to the establishment of a permanent settlement in 1803.
The small settlement was eventually destroyed by an earthquake, but rebuilt soon after. Torrevieja was granted official city-status in 1931 thanks to a special grant from King Alfonso XIII.
For most of its history, Torrevieja thrived as a salt port and fishing town. The city’s home to a Museum of Sea and Salt that chronicles the economic and cultural history of the region.
To this day, the salt industry plays a huge role in Torrevieja’s economy. However, in recent years, salt’s taken a back seat to tourism. A large number of British, Irish, German, Scandinavian and Russian expatriates call the city home. Torrevieja indeed hosts the highest number of British residents among Spanish cities, earning it the nickname, Costa del Yorkshire.
There’s no train station in Torrevieja so visitors will most likely need to travel by bus or car.
There are direct bus routes to Torrevieja running from Alicante and its airport that leave at the top of every hour on weekdays that cost around 4-6 euros per ticket. Costa Azul is the bus company that services the Alicante and Murcia provinces. Click here to view all timetables and locations for Costa Azul’s lines.
Alsa, Spain’s largest and most well-known tourist bus company, provides service to Torrevieja from Madrid. Travelers heading to Torrevieja from Malaga, Granada, Valencia or Barcelona can easily catch a connecting Costa Azul bus in Murcia, Cartagena or Alicante.
Head to rome2rio.com to map out the best route for you.
BlaBla Car is also an option for those who don’t mind strange company. The ride-sharing service is widely used in Spain and carpools up and down Spain’s Mediterranean coast are plentiful during the high season.
The search for pink waters
While the lagoon is technically one of the most urban pink lakes in the world, it’s not actually that easy to access. The lake is privately owned and therefore not highly promoted by the local government and tourism board. Many sections are also closed off to bathers because they are nature reserves.
There are two official public entrances to the lake, but only one is open year-round.
Visitors can take a radio taxi ride from the Torrevieja bus station for about 10-13 euros (one-way). Other options include renting a car, or taking a public bus to the closest stop and walking from there. Parking is available on the side of the street on Calle Munera (just north of El Chaparral.)
Where to stay
Lodging options in Torrevieja are few and far between for backpackers and budget travelers.
If you want to stay as close to the pink lake as possible, Air B&B is the most economical option. There are several homes available for rent around the lake and in the city proper. (Click here for a free $35 travel credit when you book your first stay on Air B&B!)
Torrevieje has no hostels, but there are many affordable hotels in the area (ranging in prices from $40-150 per night). Hotel prices typically skyrocket in most of Spain’s coastal provinces during high season in July through August.
If you plan on taking a day trip to Torreviaje, the nearby cities of Alicante and Murcia both have plenty of lodging options and even more attractions.
I can confidently recommend at Hakuna Matata Hostel, located just north of Alicante on El Campello beach. It’s rare to find a hostel within walking distance of two beautiful beaches. And in addition to its prime location, Hakuna Matata has an outstanding atmosphere. It’s not a rowdy party hostel, but its pool and patio make the hostel a great place to meet other travelers.
Things to do
There’s much more to do in Torrevieja than simply gaze at glistening pink waters. Here are a couple activities I would suggest if you plan on an extended stay in Torrevieja and the Coasta Blanca.
• Rent a bike – Bicycles (electric and traditional) are available to rent at different locations throughout the city. Spain, in general, is a very bicycle friendly country and most its cities have bike lanes that run parallel to their roads and sidewalks. There is also a bike route in the nature reserve at Laguna Salada de la Mata.
• Take a ferry to Tabarca Island – Just off the coast of Alicante is Spain’s smallest permanently inhabited island. An 18th century pirate refuge, Tabarca has as much history as it does natural beauty. Formerly a Genoan settlement, Tabarca was captured by Tunisian pirates in the late 1700s. From there, pirates used it as a base to attack Spain’s Costa Blanca. Nowadays, it’s home to a small fishing community and has grown as a tourist destination in recent years. It’s characterized by clear waters, mild weather and sandy beaches. The island coast is ideal for snorkeling and watersports. I didn’t get the chance to visit but I heard great things from other travelers I met in Alicante. You can purchase a ticket from the local port in Torrevieja. Boats depart daily at 11 a.m. and return at 6 p.m.
• Fishing – I’m not much of a fisherman myself, but I’ve read the Costa Blanca has some of the best sea-fishing available in Spain. Several private companies offer fishing tours where you can catch mackerel, dentex, snapper bream and/or tuna (depending on the time of year.) For information on fishing licenses, it’s best to visit local tourist bureaus or visitor’s offices.
Have you spent any time in Torrevieja or Spain’s Costa Blanca? Share your experiences and thoughts below!
Also published on Medium.