Official name: Kingdom of Spain

Area: 504,782 square kilometers (194,897 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Mulhacén Peak (3,478 meters/11,411 feet)

Highest point in territory: Teide Peak (3,718 meters/12,198 feet), located on Tenerife Island

Lowest point on land: Sea level

Hemispheres: Northern and Western

Time zone: 1 P.M. = noon GMT

Longest distances: 1,085 kilometers (764 miles) from east to west; 950 kilometers (590 miles) from north to south

Land boundaries: 1,918 kilometers (1,192 miles) total boundary length; Andorra 64 kilometers (40 miles); France 623 kilometers (387 miles); Gibraltar 1.2 kilometers (0.7 miles); Morocco 16 kilometers (10 miles), Portugal 1,214 kilometers (754 miles)

Coastline: Total: 4,964 kilometers (3,084 miles); Mediterranean Sea 1,670 kilometers (1,038 miles); Atlantic and Bay of Biscay 2,234 kilometers (1,388 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)


The mainland of Spain covers most of the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe and shares borders with France, Andorra, and Portugal. The country has northern and western coasts along the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Biscay and an eastern coast along the Mediterranean Sea. With a total area of about 504,782 square kilometers (194,897 square miles), the country is slightly more than twice the size of the state of Oregon. Spain is administratively divided into seventeen autonomous communities.


Spain controls "places of sovereignty" ( plazas de soberania ) on and off the coast of Morocco: the coastal enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, although Morocco contests these territorial claims; and the Alhucemas and Chafarinas Islands. Spain also administers the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean and Canary Islands in the Atlantic. Finally, Spain continues to have a centuries-old dispute with the United Kingdom over Gibraltar, a small enclave to the south of Spain.


Daytime summer temperatures in Spain can reach 35°C to 39°C (95°F to 102°F) in the northern Meseta and are even hotter in the south. Temperatures of 43°C (109°F) have been recorded in the Ebro basin. Nights are significantly cooler. The climate is more moderate in the northern Atlantic maritime region. In the Mediterranean region, winter temperatures average between 10°C and 13°C (50°F and 55°F) and summer temperatures average between 22°C and 27°C (72°F and 81°F).

Rainfall is highly irregular, but annual averages usually fall between 30 and 50 centimeters (12 and 20 inches). The northern Meseta enjoys two rainy seasons: from April to June and from October to November. In the southern Meseta, the spring rainy season begins in March and is wetter than the fall. The maritime northwest receives abundant rainfall throughout the year, with the wettest season from October through December. The Mediterranean region receives the least rainfall, with most of its precipitation occurring in the fall and winter.


Overall, Spain's terrain is mountainous, with major ranges running throughout the country. The Pyrenees system is particularly noteworthy. One of Europe's most effective natural boundaries, the highest terrain of the main portion of this range marks Spain's border with France. The tiny nation of Andorra is also located there. Most of the level land in Spain is situated in river valleys, along the coast, or on the Meseta Central (Central Mesa), the large plateau at the center of the country.

Topographically, Spain is divided into four parts: the temperate region in the north and northwest, the marginal mountain ranges, the Meseta Central and the surrounding interior region, and the coastal areas. The boundaries between regions are far from clear-cut, however. The temperate region, for example, includes significant portions of the mountains and coastal areas. The Meseta Central contains two large, low-lying river valleys and is traversed by several major mountain systems.


Seacoast and Undersea Features

The Atlantic Ocean lies to the west of Spain. The Bay of Biscay, an arm of the Atlantic, runs along the northern coastline. The Mediterranean Sea lines the eastern and southern borders of Spain. The Mediterranean Sea is an almost completely landlocked body of water situated between southern Europe, northern Africa, and southwest Asia. It links to the Atlantic Ocean at its western point through the Strait of Gibraltar, and to the Red Sea at its southeastern shore though the Suez Canal. The Mediterranean also connects to the Black Sea in the northeast through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus. The Balearic Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean, lies at the northeast coast of Spain, separating the mainland from the Balearic Islands.

Sea Inlets and Straits

The Gulf of Cádiz, at the southwest coast of Spain, is an extension of the Atlantic Ocean. The narrow Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea. The Gulf of Valencia is an inlet of the Balearic Sea.

Islands and Archipelagos

The Balearic Islands are an extension of the Baetic Cordillera, which stretches across the southern border of Spain and reaches underwater into the Mediterranean. The major islands of the archipelago are Majorca, Miñorca, and Ibiza, with Majorca by far the largest. Formentera and Cabrera are smaller islands within the Balearics. All of the islands are mountainous.


The Rock of Gibraltar is part of a peninsula that juts out from the south-central coast of Spain into the Mediterranean Sea near the Strait of Gibraltar. The rock contains a number of limestone caves and a long tunnel that have been used for shelter and defense. A large number of archaeological finds have been uncovered in the caves. The Rock of Gibraltar was once known as one of the Pillars of Hercules, which stand at either end of the Strait of Gibraltar. The other pillars are Mount Acha in Ceuta and Jebel Musa (west of Ceuta), which are also sometimes called the Gates of Hercules. Though the area has been under British rule since 1704 after the War of Spanish Succession, the Spanish government continues to work toward regaining the territory.

The Canary Islands are an archipelago of ten volcanic islands in the North Atlantic not far from Africa, about 1,324 kilometers (823 miles) southwest of mainland Spain. They have been a possession of Spain for centuries and thus are considered a part of the country. Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, and Gran Canaria are the largest of the Canaries. La Palma, Gomera, Hierro, Graciosa, Lobos, and Alegranza make up the rest of the archipelago. The islands are predominantly mountainous and Teide Peak (3,718 meters/12,198 feet) on Tenerife is Spain's tallest mountain.

Coastal Features

The northern coast extends about 724 kilometers (450 miles) from France to the northwestern corner of the country. The Cantabrian Mountains are never far from the shore in this region and the coast is generally even, marked only by occasional river estuaries. The largest of these, the Betanzas Estuary and Arosa Estuary, are in the extreme northwest on the Atlantic Ocean.

Spain's tourism thrives on the beauty of its sun-drenched southern beaches. In fact, the southern Atlantic coast is called Costa de la Luz (Coast of Light) because of its bright sunshine. At the Strait of Gibraltar is Point Tarifa, the southernmost point in Europe. East of this is the narrow Costa del Sol (Sun Coast), which extends to Cape Gata (Cabo de Gata). The Costa Blanca, from Cape Gata to Cape Nao (Cabo de la Nao), has white and sunny beaches facing the warm Mediterranean Sea. Cape Palos forms the Menor Lagoon along this coastline.


Most of the larger lakes in Spain are formed along the courses of the rivers. The most significant, however, are man-made reservoirs.


Spain has some eighteen hundred rivers and streams, of which only the Tagus (Río Tajo) is longer than 965 kilometers (600 miles). Only ninety of these rivers are longer than 97 kilometers (60 miles). The Tagus, Duero, Guadiana, and the Guadalquivir all have their sources in the center of the country and drain to the west, into the Atlantic Ocean. The Ebro rises in the north and runs southeast between the Pyrenees and the Iberian Cordillera into the Mediterranean. The Júcar, whose source lies in the southern Iberian Cordillera, also flows into the Mediterranean. The mountain rivers in the north all have short courses, owing to the nearness of their sources to the sea. Those in the northwest are the longest, particularly the Miño (Minho). Many of them encounter the sea through deep estuaries, similar to fjords, which extend from the mountains to the sea.

Owing to scant and unpredictable rain, many of Spain's lesser riverbeds are dry most of the year. All of the Meseta Central's rivers are sluggish most of the year, except for a few days each spring and fall when raging waters fill the riverbeds. Even the Tagus, the largest of the three, is variable in its volume of water. The Miño carries a volume of water equal to or greater than that of the Ebro, although the Miño's course is less than half as long and its basin covers only about a fifth as much area. South of the Meseta and the Sierra Morena, and draining most of the Andalusian Plain, the Guadalquivir is the country's most consistent and valuable river; Spain's only major river port, Seville (Sevilla), is located on it. The delta of the Guadalquivir is marshy and frequently saline.


Except in the north and northwest, the Meseta Central is substantially denuded and desert-like. Scrub growth has replaced forests. Portions of the Mediterranean region are dry and desolate, especially the Baetic Cordillera, which receives dry, hot winds from the east or southeast originating over North Africa.


Grasslands are sparse in Spain due to its semi-arid climate and are found primarily in the valleys of the major rivers. The Andalusian Plain, in the valley of the Guadalquivir, is the largest and most important of these. It is the best farmland in the country and the only low-lying area that permits easy entry from the sea. The La Mancha Plain is found near the Guadiana River. Grasses also cover parts of the Meseta Central and the high Sierra Nevada.

The land between the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Mountains is hilly, with an average elevation of 610 meters (2,000 feet). This verdant region is fairly broad in the west, but it becomes narrower in the east, where it is confined to the ocean-side slopes of the mountains.


The Pyrenees Mountains extend across the country between the Bay of Biscay and the Balearic Sea, a distance of about 418 kilometers (260 miles). Their width averages 80 kilometers (50 miles), with a maximum of 129 kilometers (80 miles). The French-Spanish border runs through these mountains, connecting six of the highest peaks. On the Spanish side, three of these peaks exceed 3,353 meters (11,000 feet); Aneto Peak, the highest of these, reaches an altitude of 3,403 meters (11,165 feet). The Pyrenees summits are very steep and rugged with few passes.

In the north, the Cantabrian Mountains (Cordillera Cantábrica) extend across the country parallel to, and in some places adjacent to, the Bay of Biscay. There are drops exceeding 1,524 meters (5,000 feet) within 20 miles (32 kilometers) of the shore. Generally, peaks in the Cantabrian Mountains range from 2,133 to 2,938 meters (7,000 to 8,000 feet).

The Iberian Cordillera (Sistema Ibérico) extend southeast from the center of the Canta-brian Mountains, reaching nearly to the Mediterranean coast. This region's 20,725 square kilometers (8,000 square miles) are covered with barren and rugged terrain. The Spanish call it the "area of difficulty." It separates the Meseta Central from the northeastern river valleys.

The Baetic Cordillera (Sistema Penibético, sometimes called the Andalusian Mountains) of southwestern Spain extend from Cape Nao to Gibraltar, a distance of some 579 kilometers (360 miles). The most impressive part of this range is that which is closest to the coast, the Sierra Nevada; much of it is desolate, however. Its 3,478-meter (11,411-feet) peak, Mulhacén, is the highest point on the Iberian Peninsula. The coastal Sierra Nevada is separated from a sister range in the north by a geological fault line that runs roughly parallel to the shore. The northern range is equally forbidding, with the exception of a few exotic places, such as Granada. Further north is the Sierra Morena, a lower chain with elevations between 152 and 610 meters (500 and 2,000 feet).


The Iberian Peninsula contains only two countries: Spain and Portugal. It is a botanical crossroads between Africa and Europe, with more than eight thousand species of plants.


Although there are many caves in Spain, one of the most interesting is the Altamira Cave. Altamira has been called the "Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art." The main hall of the cave, which measures about 18 meters by 9 meters (59 feet by 30 feet), features paintings on the ceiling that are about fifteen thousand years old. Most of the figures are animals, such as bison, horses, and wild boars, along with a few anthropomorphic figures (human-like creatures with animal features). The paintings are remarkably detailed, with various brush-strokes providing a sense of texture and realism. The artists depicted most of the animals poised in the midst of movement, and they painted with only three colors: ochre (yellowish-brown), red, and black. Because the paintings deteriorate when exposed to the carbon dioxide which is exhaled by tourists, a limited number of people are allowed to visit the cave. A nearby museum contains an exact replica, however. UNESCO has designated Altamira Cave as a World Heritage Site.

The Sierra de Guara Canyons, located in the Spanish Pyrenees, are popular sites for climbing and canyoning enthusiasts. The area includes nearly sixty limestone canyons that contain stunning rock formations and views.

The Guayadeque Gorge, located on Gran Canaria Island of the Canary Islands, is a spectacular canyon that stretches halfway across the island. The canyon contains the Purple Caves (Cuevas Bermejas), some of which are still inhabited by humans.


The Meseta Central, the vast Spanish tableland, dominates central Spain from the Cantabrian Mountains in the north to the Sierra Morena in the south and from the Portuguese border in the west to the Iberian Cordillera in the east. Generally, the Meseta varies in elevations between 610 and 762 meters (2,000 and 2,500 feet), except in the river valleys. It also contains many small mountain ranges, however; two of these are the Toledo Mountains and the Cordillera Carpetovetonica, the latter of which reaches 2,591 meters (8,500 feet). In general, the Meseta gives way to higher land in the western part of the country between the basins of its three largest rivers.

The El Torcal de Antequera, located in the southern hill regions, contains a number of limestone rock formations resembling towers, sculpted figures of various shapes and sizes, and even some dramatic balancing rocks. The rock sculptures were formed primarily by erosion.


There are about twelve hundred dams located along the rivers of Spain. They have been constructed for irrigation, hydropower, and water supply storage. The Alcantara Reservoir, located on the Tagus River, is one of the largest in Western Europe.



Cross, Esther, and Wilbur Cross. Spain . Chicago: Children's Press, 1994.

Schubert, Adrian. The Land and People of Spain . New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Simonis, Damien. Spain . 3rd ed. Oakland, CA.: Lonely Planet, 2001.

Smith, Angel. Historical Dictionary of Spain . Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1996.

Web Sites

Sí Spain. (accessed April 24, 2003).

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