Missing the full impact of the sunrise I described (or at least tried to) in my last post I would normally have sulked (at best), but on that day I was able to be delightfully zen about the missed opportunity. Why? Because I was on my way to crossing an item of my bucket list, and that was to walk the Siete Cañadas trail, a walk which takes you some 16 kilometers, across the breadth of the caldera in the Teide National Park, from the parador to El Portillo, the crossroads where the downward journey to the northern side of the island begins. Crossing the top of the island you might say.
I’ve been hearing for a long, long time about this walk, that it’s a challenge on a hot day; that it’s a journey through time – from the volcanic eruptions of pre-history, through the legends of the Guanches (the aboriginal island inhabitants); through the remains of more recent pastoral and colonial history to present day status as a World Heritage Site; that it’s a dream for photographers, botanists, birdwatchers and geologists; and that the surreal landscapes of the area, at times majestic, at times ghostly, are even more dramatic at these close quarters.
All of that was true, and more.
I’d walked a part of the trail twice in recent months, around an hour into the four-and-a-half of the whole each time (once en route to my memorable night sleeping in a cave before we diverged as it joined another trail, and once as a short walk a couple of weeks back), so my imagination was already in overdrive when we set out on Saturday from the village of La Camella, just above Los Cristinos.
The early start was utterly worth it. We passed hardly any other cars on our ascent, let alone buses or motorbikes. That alone was dream-like, curving lazily around the bends, slowing down when we passed something interesting, and relaxing for the walk ahead. When we alighted at the parador, which nestles in the heart of the crater, there was the faintest chill in the air, just enough to don a light windbreaker, but we had risen above the cloud cover and the crystal clear skies promised heat in the hours ahead.
The beginning of the walk, if you set off from the parador end, is, arguably, the most impressive part, with its truly weird and twisted rock formations, and this was the part I already knew. The photographer in me was glad I’d done it before, because at 8.45 the sun was only just rising over the mountainsides, leaving the tortured volcanic shapes in shade. The picture below is from a previous visit.
More and more, as I walk this island, I realize how connected its history is to the landscape. It flows out of its peaks and woodlands, and it’s almost tangible. This route, on which we were setting out, previously called camino chasnero, was at one time the quickest way of connecting north to south. Last Saturday we probably didn’t meet more than a couple of dozen walkers in the five hours we rambled, but it may well have been much busier in the past than it is today, as farmers from the north, with mules laden with chestnuts, pigs, and farm implements, traveled southward, and figs, potatoes and cochineal were hauled north, and this was the easy part, the plains of the caldera, there were mountainsides to climb first and then to descend after the crossing. The stories remind me of those of the “Wild West,” of the wagon trains which crossed North America around this same time in history.
Along the way traders would have met goatherds and their flocks; folk hoping that the mountain air would cure illnesses like asthma, bronchitis or tuberculosis, and in later years scientists and astronomers studying earth and sky. The central plain is littered with crumbling, one-or-two-room buildings, which are probably a mixture of goatherds’ shelters and the simple cottages used by the infirm. I knew from January’s bivvy how cold it can get at night, and these simple buildings seemed totally inadequate protection!
Even before the route was used by farm folk taming and colonizing the island, evidence suggests that it was used by the Guanches. The mountainsides which form the wall of the caldera, like so many places here, are pockmarked by caves of some dimension or other, and archaeologists have found remains, including mummified bodies along the route, most famously in Cañada del Capricho. Mummies have been found in these surreal rocks in caves so high up that they could only be accessed by modern climbing methods. How they were placed there remains just one of the mysteries which died with the Guanches. Of course it’s hard to separate fact and fiction now.
The Guanche princess Guajara is said to have thrown herself to her death from the mountain which now bears her name, as I mentioned back in January, but there are other versions of that story too, and somewhere the aboriginal beliefs and real history intertwined and soon became lost under the rule of the Conquistadors. Guanche folklore, or as much as has been gleaned from the remnants of the past, told of the fire god, Guayota, who kidnapped the sun-god and hauled him down to the depths of hell through the portal which was the mountain top, El Teide. Magec, the sun-god, was rescued by the god of gods, Achamán, who then trapped Guayota inside the mountain. Thought about logically, all of that makes prefect sense as an interpretation of volcanic activity by a Stone-age people. El Teide (or Echedye as it was called by the Guanche) was both feared and sacred. When you walk Siete Cañadas he watches you, brooding, waiting. You can’t ignore or escape it. Its colors seem to change with the light or the angle from which you view it, its lava flows speaking of times even before the eruptions the Guanches remember.
Before man walked here, the earth’s violence scattered these plains with rocks, boulders, pumice and finer sand, which were wrenched from its bowels and vomited over the landscape. Sometimes, in a field of small, black rocks you find an enormous, red boulder, which doesn’t fit with the other types of rock you see around. Was it flung from some more distant eruption? Which one? How far did it soar into the air before it landed just here?
This walk is far better than any theme park, back-to-the-future-type ride.
About half way we stopped to eat, seeking shade from the sun in one of those crumbling shelters, with Teide hovering above, all-seeing. Up to that point we had seen little fauna, but as we rustled our wrappers and bags, tiny eyes appeared at seemingly every crevice in the stonework, and a few, braver lizards came out to inspect us. Bird life apart, the zone’s fauna is mostly invertebrates, and I’m far from knowledgeable about them. Spiders’ webs decorated the space, strung between plants, but there was little sign of anything more to my ignorant eye.
Birds were another matter, thanks to Pilar, I have new knowledge of the birds of the high mountains. Kestrels, of course, are everywhere on the island. They swoop over autopistas; you look down them as they hover in valleys, their reddish feathers gorgeous in the sunlight, as you drive or walk upwards; and they soar above you at this height, perching on high rocks to survey their territory, as they did this day. I’ve seen the odd buzzard sometimes, and at the beginning of this walk we disturbed a couple of really brightly colored blue tits, as we approached our first tajinaste of the day. However, the treat of the day, and I got excited by Pilar’s enthusiasm, was when we heard what sounded like a gaggle of mini chickens, making a fair old din. It stopped us in our tracks, and Pilar, in stealth mode, neared the tangle of plant life from which it came. As she tiptoed closer another sound which I would never have identified as a bird. It was deep and sudden, and not at all animal-like, clearly a warning, which reminded me for all the world of some tone for a mobile phone. I stayed back for fear of disturbing them more than necessary, but it turned out to be a great grey shrike nest. We had already spotted one a couple of miles back. Eventually momma bird flitted off in search of sustenance, and I got a nice view as she scooted from branch to branch, her head with its Zorro-type mask cocked to listen for possible dangers. She was far too quick for my camera, though. I’m thinking that a serious birdwatcher might have a great old time there right now.
From time to time as we walked there was a whisper of the scent of broom on the air, but whether it was that last year’s display of flora was so utterly magnificent that everything was worn-out and recuperating, or whether two years of scant rainfall have taken their toll, I have no idea, but nothing was as abundant. In fact, flowerings were sparse, the odd tajinaste (Tenerife’s emblematic plant) braved it here and there, fragments of the broom bushes were ventured into blossom, and here and there other species popped up. The skeletal ghosts of tajinaste still stood erect as reminders of last year’s opulence, and tangles of dead and dying broom were all around. At the southern end of the trail rosalillo were beginning to flower, but it was too soon to say if they will extend to the vast carpets we saw last year. At the northern end they were barely sprouting.
The “find” of the day, almost at the end of our trail, was a tajinaste picante, the delicate, blue flowers looking vulnerable in the heat compared to the hot pinks of its sister the tajinaste rojo, and here was something new for me.
After the walk we called into the Visitors’ Center across the road from its ending, where I learned that the plant I thought was the tajinaste azul is actually tajinaste picante, and the blue variety grows only on the island of Fuerteventura. Looking at photos on the internet now I can see the difference, with the tajinaste azul being much bushier and denser, more akin to the familiar tajinaste rojo. I know a couple of years back I described plants I’d seen as tajinaste azul, so my apologies to anyone who may still be reading. I can’t tell you how much of a thrill it is to learn new stuff, though, especially when it’s about flora and fauna which occur nowhere else on the planet. It makes me realize what an amazing place I live in, how much there is to learn, and how lucky I am to be here when I can’t be in motion!
Notes: The National Park (one of the earliest created in Spain in 1954) entered the 21st century with the added honor of being a World Heritage Site, having received the award in 2007. In the citation it is described as being “well managed and resourced,” and I couldn’t see anything to make me disagree with that. We came across only one piece of obvious litter, and, sadly, of the sort we didn’t want to pick up and remove with bare hands. Note to the ladies – we all have “calls of nature” when hiking, but please, please carry a bag to take the paper you use away with you!! This was a very easy walk, with no sharp gradients. Last Saturday there was a very welcome breeze, but in summer it must be very hot, it’s very important you take sufficient water, sun screen and protection for your head. There is no shade at midday at all. It’s described, variously as four or four and a half hours. We took five because we stopped to look at flora and fauna, to take snaps and to eat, so if you intend to walk both there and back it’s a long walk. If you do one way, as we did, you need to note the bus times to return you from the end of your walk to your car or back home. They are infrequent, but comfy and air-conditioned :=)
All my pictures were shot in automatic mode, because that’s what I do when I’m hiking with friends who are not as nuts about photography as I am. They’re snaps. If any turn out to be “photographs” there is a lot of luck involved!
When I was in the parador some weeks back I picked up a great book in their gift shop, “Flora and Fauna del Parque Nacional del Teide” by Juan Manuel Martínez Carmona and Francisco Torrents Rodríguez, which I used to check information. I don’t know if there is an English translation, but it’s a good, little resource with loads of information set out in easy-to-read style, and with lovely sketches, although the few photos, describing walks at the end, are less good. I hesitated about buying it, given the state of my bank account, but I’m really glad that I did. I can see it’s going to be much-used.