Welcome to the Cañada Real: Madrid’s forgotten barrio

It’s a bitterly cold night and people are burning wood and plastic to keep warm. I look up at the stars, which are strangely bright – Madrid’s light pollution, glowing orange in the distance, doesn’t quite reach here. The wet, uneven path in front of me is shining in the moonlight and I can hear music coming from the old furniture factory I’m about to enter. I’m in the Cañada Real, Europe’s largest shanty town, for the launch of its film festival, 16kms – something that residents desperately hope will help destigmatise their neighbourhood.


The Cañada Real is an unofficial, 16km-long linear settlement whose origins date back more than half a century. Residents have been arriving to this ancient north-south cattle trail for generations, building makeshift homes and raising families. This winding settlement, which bends southbound around the outskirts of the city (parallel to the M-50 motorway) is a place almost every Madrileño knows exists, but few know the reality.

Around 7,300 people call this 16-km settlement home – a third of them children. Seventeen nationalities live alongside one another in an eclectic compendium of self-built houses. Some homes are several stories high, and others are like a quaint, Andalusian bungalow. Other buildings look unfinished, and are studded with satellite dishes pointing south towards the equator.

Palm trees grow from inside patios alongside pylons on which children climb. I can hear the electricity hum, like it’s passing through my own body.

Vegetable gardens behind the houses bring a rainbow of greens to the surrounding, arid landscape, softening the roar of the passing M-50 motorway.

The Cañada has become so established that the stretch itself has been divided up into six distinctive sectors:

SECTOR 1 is the oldest sector, where the Cañada’s first settlers, mostly Spanish, arrived in the 1970s. These illegally built homes have now been permitted and integrated into the village of Coslada. They have municipal facilities such as bin collections, running water and electricity, just like they’re neighbours.

SECTOR 2 is like Sector 1, but with larger houses – even mansions – towering above more humble but solid homes. Most residents here are Spanish and Roma.

SECTOR 3 is like Sectors 1 and 2, but with pockets of poverty; nice houses interspersed with small nuclei of slum dwellings. Sector 3 is set for complete demolition, and neighbours are protesting to stay.

SECTOR 4 is similar to Sector 3, but with a higher number of slum dwellings. Sector 4, however, is not set for demolition, for now. Cats and chickens roam the areas, fighting with each other.

SECTOR 5 straddles the village of Rivas, and most residents are Moroccan and wear traditional dress. Local city councils haven’t yet decided what to do about Sector 5 – there is a risk that it could be demolished, just like Sector 3, especially now that Madrid has a rightwing mayor.

SECTOR 6 is the newest, largest and poorest sector. It’s also notorious for its “drugs supermarket”. For around a decade, a 1.5-km stretch of Sector 6 has been the port for most of Madrid’s illegal narcotics – the stretch which gives the whole Cañada its unjust notoriety.

Below is a picture of the Santa Domingo church, which lives in the heart of the worst part of Sector 6. It recently suffered an apparent arson attack, and drug users live around it in tents and makeshift shacks.


We drove through it, slowly.

In between single-storey houses, I see piles of rubble, broken furniture, large puddles of dirty water and low-hanging electricity cables. The atmosphere is both bustling and menacing, but I’m surprised to see very few men.

If you see women waving to you and gesturing you to enter their homes, don’t go in. Keep moving. They’re drug dealers.

…said Ana González, the director of the 16kms film festival happening right now. Women dressed in all black, with children on their laps, are sitting in front of these piles of rubble, waving us down on the assumption that we’re here to buy drugs. Users are hanging around nearby, slowly shuffling along the street with little life in their step. The drug users appear to live in an unbalanced symbiosis with the dealers, who enslave them in return for cannabis, cocaine and heroin.

Despite the drug dealers reigning over their addicted subjects, those piles of rubble were once their homes. Solid structures appear to have been torn down by something more akin to a hurricane than city council bulldozers, but plans for a clean-up operation have so far failed to materialise – a hostile move seemingly intended to make it difficult for these residents to build a new house in the same location. Instead, they have settled a few metres in front and live in shacks made of chipboard, plastic sheets and whatever structural elements they can reclaim from the rubble of their former home.

On the same stretch, women wearing niqabs and burkas pick up their children from the school bus. Some children are wearing school uniforms and wheeling schoolbags branded with their favourite cartoons. They’re staying close to their mothers but don’t seem phased by what they see. To them, this is what the whole world is like, and it’s heartbreaking.

Photo from series, Mi Mirada Cañada Real, 2019

Carrying on south through Sector 6, however, we watch as piles of rubble give way to solid walls decorated with paintings by Boa Mistura, an internationally famous group of street artists known for their works in marginalised neighbourhoods around the world.

In an email interview, they told me…

The objective of the project is threefold: to change the perception of the Cañada Real, to strengthen the bond between neighbours and to break down the invisible barriers between the six sectors and the different ethnic groups that live in them.

Art puts us on the map.

…says Ana. And this two-week film festival is doing just that: putting the Cañada Real on the map and encouraging Madrid to accept it as just another neighbourhood of the city.


For sixteen days, from Saturday November 16 to Sunday December 1, visitors are invited to sectors 2, 3, 5 and 6 of the Cañada Real to attend performances, concerts, workshops, and watch films and documentaries chosen and created by the children who live here.

Here’s the festival programme to work out which of the many events you’d like to attend.

Films shown during the 4th edition of the 16km festival range from award-winning masterpieces to amateur shorts. Fragile equilibrium is a powerful documentary by Guillermo García López, partly about the harrowing migration that many Cañada residents will have experienced in getting to Spain, as well as the unanticipated nightmares they were met with upon arriving into Spain. Golden Dream, a Mexican drama film by Diego Quemada-Diez, tells the tragic story of two optimistic brothers who were trafficked across the Mexican border, which some members of the audience may well have endured. A Place to Stay is a documentary by Marta Arribas and Ana Pérez De La Fuente showing the plight of two homeless teenagers living on the streets of Madrid – a familiar situation for the Cañada’s residents and possibly even their current situation.

A highlight of the film festival will be the short documentary film The Journey: 45 minutes, following a group of women on their walk from Cañada Real to nearby towns – an odyssey that many of the seven thousand inhabitants have to perform daily (screening tonight!). The festival will also include mini documentaries directed and filmed by children of the Cañada Real. These light-hearted shorts filmed on camcorders act as a window into children’s lives in the Cañada.

There’s also homemade food…


Yes! This community is very happy to welcome you and take care of you while you’re visiting their world. The film festival does not take you into the drug-dealing area of Sector 6, though if you do find yourself there, just keep driving through until you reach the edge.

Do be aware that you will see poverty you didn’t think existed in Spain, but this is also why you’re here; to see the truth and understand that this unfairly segregated community should not be living like this.


The 16kms film festival is expected to bring in thousands of Madrid’s residents, and they will see that the Cañada Real is a humble community of 7,300 forgotten people who deserve better. By visiting the Cañada and realising it’s not all like Sector 6, preconceptions will begin to disappear and the shocking inequality imposed on thousands of people will take its place.


  • Read my article for the Guardian about the Cañada’s film festival.
  • Find the programme for the 16kms film festival here, which runs until Sunday Dec 1.
  • How to get there: The easiest way is to drive, but if you don’t have a car, there’s a free shuttle bus put on by the film festival that leaves from outside Hotel Claridge, by metro Conde Casal, and takes you directly to each event. See the bus timetable here, and remember to email the organisers to reserve a seat.
  • To Madrid No Frills Map Holders! I’ve located eight points of interest along the Cañada Real to visit! Don’t have a copy of my map? Find it here.
  • Explore the artworks by Boa Mistura all along the Cañada Real with this map:

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