The South Coast, though smaller, has many features in common with the Levant coast. Physically, the region consists of an alternation of alluvial lowlands and barren hills, but the plains are small, and the uplands less pronounced, especially as they lie parallel to the coast, and form no spectacular headlands. Of the plains, those of Almería, Motril, Málaga and Vélez Málaga are most important. The names of the highlands backing the plains are, from west to east, the Massif of Tolox, north of Marbella, the Sierra de Alhama, the Alpujarras and the Sierra de Gádor. Mulhacén, the highest peak in Spain (11,420 feet), is only 23 miles from the sea, which is visible from villages on its southern flanks. The proximity of sea coast to the highest peak gives an exceptionally steep gradient to the slope. Consequently the rivers of the area are short and swift flowing. Nearly all have names with the prefix guad, derived from the Arabic wadi (river). There are the Guadalhorce, Guadiaro, and the Guadalfeo which comes to the sea at Motril. The Horcajar, which waters the Almerian plains, is also important. All are used for irrigation near their mouths and some, for example the Guadiaro and Guadalhorce, form valuable routeways through mountain passes.
The frequent passage of depressions in winter, and its littoral position, combine to give this area a higher annual rainfall than that of parts of the Levant coast; nevertheless, the annual total still remains low -- Málaga receives 1808 inches, and Almería 1805 inches, as compared with the very low figure of 1306 inches for Cartagena. Summer temperatures are high, especially so inland away from the moderating action of the sea, but at the coast the high humidity in summer counterbalances the alleviating effect of marine influence.
With slopes facing the sun, valleys and coast sheltered from cold or very strong winds by high mountains, and water available for irrigation from many perennial streams, augmented by rainfall, the area is naturally well endowed for agricultural pursuits. The fertile irrigated plains are here called 'vegas', as in the rest of Andalusia; this word, believed to be Iberian in origin (the prefix be in Basque means low), generally refers to a low-lying, flat, open and uncultivated plain. Perhaps in Andalusia the long association of cultivation with flat lowlands has caused this slight confusion of ideas; whatever the cause, it should be remembered that a vega in Andalusia has more in common with a huerta of Valencia than with a vega (for example the desolate, barren and scarcely cultivated Vega de Tera, near the river Esla) in northern Spain.
The fertility of alluvial soil is here augmented by small-scale irrigation schemes, some of Arab origin and design, which enable a great profusion of both tropical and Mediterranean crops to be grown. Sugar cane, bananas, rice and cotton flourish, sufficient indication of a beneficent climate, while Almería and Málaga produce several varieties of grapes, those from Almería providing table grapes and a medium quality of wine, and those from Málaga providing rich sweet wines of muscatel type. Olives thrive on the drier hill-slopes, particularly at Alora and Vélez Málaga, and cork oaks occur near Málaga and around Níjar, where extensive new groves, recently planted, have not yet come into bearing. Beyond the cultivated zones there are vast areas of exceptional aridity, such as the Alpujarras, where cultivation is impossible. In fact the south coast consists of small cultivated plots of incredible fertility -- oases of green in a dry, dusty upland.
Some minerals are found in this area, for example iron and a little gold at Rodalquilar in Almería, but as deposits are small they are not extensively worked. There is no industrial area, but industry, such as it is, is concentrated in the main towns. Fishing takes place along the coast, and the catch, for local use only, includes anchovies, sardines, tunny, squid and lobsters.