Thursday, 10 February 2011


You may be led to believe that this picture shows paintings by the aborigines of Gran Canaria, the Guanches. This would not be far fetched, since similar paintings have been found in caves on most of the Canaries, above all on La Palma. However, these red spirals and symbols are of more recent origin, painted as they were by an interesting artist living in an isolated, self constructed, compound deep down in the clefts of Barranco de Tirajana.

Since the issue of the Guanches has come up by itself, so to speak, let me briefly present to you these intriguing people. They lived on the Canaries for thousands of years (although not continuously, they seemed to have died out and come back intermittently) and had colonised the islands out of Northern Africa. Genetic research shows them being closely related to the Berbers still living in the Atlas area.

The saying on the Canaries nowadays is that these aborigines are sorely extinct. This is not exactly true, as more recent genetic research has shown. Intriguingly, a majority of the population (not counting the many immigrants that have arrived during the past 50 years) has its female tracer gene (mDNA) in common with their counterpart found in mummified remains of the Guanches. In contrast, this is not the case for the male tracer gene (Y Chromosome)! This tends to corroborate what has been hinted at, but never openly told, about the colonizing behaviour of the Spanish Conquistatores: that they used to kill off male adversaries, whilst keeping women as slaves, servants and, sometimes, living partners. So we have a lot of "Guanches" still living on the Canaries, directly descended, in female lineage, from the aborigines.

Now to the topic of today's posting! Yesterday, I participated in a charming hike through the bucolic lower reaches of the Southern inland, organized by Free Motion and again led by valiant Dieter, well known by now from our earlier exploits. The tour started a bit upstreams in Barranco de Fataga and went from there steeply uphill towards a pass on the mountain ridge dividing it from its brother, the Barranco de Tirajana. From there we had a stupendous descent all the way down to the deepest clefts of that huge canyon. Up again we trudged, through oases lush with vegetation, until finally arriving in Santa Lucia, the regional capital. As if this was not enough, we continued our hike on a steep ascent towards another regional capital, San Bartolomé de Tirajana (also known by its Guanche name of Tunte).

Small potato farm, halfway down Barranco de Tirajana. The Oasis of Ingenio lies way up on the upper left, across from a deep gorge all the way down, hidden behind the brushes starting in the lower left corner.
This hike brought a pleasant change of pace and altitude, after two mountain hikes in the upper reaches. It provided an interesting insight into how people used to live, and partly still live, on this island. The South is getting increasingly humid, the higher up you tread and the reaches of between 500 and 1000 meters' altitude have always been the most proficient for sustaining a small, but still sizable, rural population. The limiting factor for sustenance in those parts is water, as always. As soon as a small brook, a well, or even the run-off from pine groves higher up the slopes, provides a sustainable supply of water, peasants on the island will always find ways to hook on to ground for cultivation, be it very small plots among cliffs, sustained by walls keeping the scarce earth in place, larger systems of terraces, or, in rare cases, more extended stretches of reasonably straight ground.

By crossing Barranco de Tirajana from flank to flank, and from top to bottom, you get an amazing overview of nature and its interaction with human cultivation, as it has persisted for ages, probably already since the time of the Guanches.

But let's get on with the march. We started our tour in Fataga, which is located in the Barranco that bears its name and dominates vast stretches of citrus and mango(a) plantations. What used to be a small peasant community, with church and basic services, has now become a tourist spot with many an artist's shop and ateliers. Still, well-kept as it is, it has preserved the basic appearance of yore. Maybe we will come back to this nice place at a future blog posting, time and perseverance permitting.

Whilst trekking slowly upwards, on a narrow path, along the flank of the ridge dividing Barranco de Fataga from Barranco de Tirajana, the air got increasingly dimmer and it looked like rain may be coming soon, which would have been a disaster for my photographic ambitions. I hastened to take some pictures of the village, while the sky was still reasonably clear, but had scant hopes of good vistas, once the pass would be reached and we would gain the overview of Barranco de Tirajana.

As we continued upwards, the sky started to change into darker grey, which did not exactly lift my spirits. Still - I tried to console myself - it is not the weather that makes the photographer, it is his eyes and the motives he chooses. And indeed, there were still pictures to be had even in these dreading surroundings. I hope you agree with me on this, when looking at my companions striding steadfastly towards the pass.

On we went, rather stolidly, determined to face any adversity in store for us, once arriving at the pass and looking down Barranco de Tirajana. The weather gods must have looked benignly at our dedication, since - "surprise, surprise!" - the clouds dispersed and the sun came in full swing as soon as we were on top of the ridge. Below our feet a wondrous vista spread its wings, allowing us to savour the sweep of the barranco, from its lofty heights at the caldera rim opposite us  down to the village of Santa Lucia and, onwards from there, the vast oasis of Ingenio.

A warning to you readers: the eyes are tricking you. You are not seeing a broad valley floor, flanked by moderate hills on the horizon. In fact, Santa Lucia, with its typical domed church, is hovering at the foot of a steep precipice, stretching close to 1000 meters straight upwards. And, what looks like a  green valley floor beneath the village is in fact a further declining slope, ending in another steep precipice (hidden in the picture), which leads down to a final narrow gorge, through which a small brook is spluttering contentedly, after having carved out these deep cliffs through erosion during the past million years or so. The greenery you see at the lower right is not a dense pine forest; rather, it represents groves of the indigenous palm tree, Phoenix Canariensis, which tend to accumulate in oases wherever run-off from the Caldera rim resurfaces as springs further down in the barrancos. We are seeing here the oasis of Ingenio, located below Santa Lucia.

Where I was taking this picture, I was standing at about the same altitude as Santa Lucia and we had a steep descent ahead of us, having to trace our steps carefully down the beginning of the traditional, stony and narrow path between the two villages. And if that was not enough, after groping our way down some 300 meters in altitude, and having forded the small brook at the bottom of the final precipice, the exercise had to be reversed on the other side, lifting our weighty bodies up these same 300 meters all over again.

Goat farm on the brink of the final gorge
Do I sound like I was complaining? Far from it! The continuing change in scenery made the exercise seem feather-light. From vineyards to potato farms, from goat farms to artist's hideout, from cactus plantations to almond trees, we saw it all and admired it along the way! Not to speak about the stupendous nature surrounding all these human endeavours.

The most spectacular scenery was savoured when approaching the final gorge and carefully climbing down the narrow cliffs leading down to the brook at its bottom. Here we are standing at the brink of this final gorge, contemplating the narrow path leading all the way down. I have stood on that same spot two times before in earlier years, but not seen the cliffs all GREEN, as this time. They usually have a yellow-gray flavour to them, with the brushes being in their ordinary dried out stage after long periods of drought.

But let's get on with our tour! At the bottom of the gorge, when fording the purpling brook, a strange animal cast its wondering eyes upon us, with an almost scary intensity of color and shape. But never fear! We had arrived at the artist's lair - recall the image at the top of this Chapter! The originator of these paintings on the gorge's stone walls is a very original hermit who chose to establish his abode smack down in the gorge, just beside the small brook that is so conveniently providing him with freshwater year round.

This picture of his lodging was taken from the opposite cliff, on our way down, and it shows how diligently and intelligently he has used native materials to construct a cosy combined atelier, villa and museum, all for the benefits of a few knowledgeable friends who know their way down the gorge and have stamina enough to make it back up.

The artist's name is José, his family name being unknown to me. That notwithstanding, I have known him for many years, although he usually does not remember me when I am passing by on my hikes across Barranco de Tirajana. How did I get to know him? On my very first hike into the interior, with José Vanderveken from Happy Hiking as guide, way back in 2003, we had approached the gorge from the opposite side, on a tour through the Oasis of Ingenio. At a midday picnic spot on the gorge's fringe, José had encouraged the most eager of us hikers to dare the descent, with the majority having been content with munching their sandwiches. I had been a lot younger then - as I see it know - and of course had rushed down the steep incline full of enthusiasm, arriving down there far ahead of the few others daring the deed.

The brook looked so inviting that I could but surge upstream, in the hope of getting a better picture of the beautiful scenery. None had followed me on this venture; probably I was the only serious photographer in the group. Suddenly, around a bend, a yellow construction had appeared to my unbelieving eyes, not unlike a crow's nest, located a bit up in the cliffs. How could that be, right in the middle of an enchanting wilderness?

Hardly had I articulated the thought that a man had popped up, like out of thin air,  looking at me with stern eyes, as if I was an unwelcome visitor to his manor. Smiling at him, I had fired off a quick shot and retreated, so as not to disturb his spiritual equilibrium.

You don't believe this tale? Have a look at the photo I have scanned in for you from the slide film I still held in use in those days. You can see the yellow edifice about two thirds up in the picture. In retrospect, I must have witnessed the very beginning of José's building activities and I can but admire the elaborate compound of artifacts he has managed to construct since then.

At subsequent crossings of the brook, down in the gorge (three times by now), we have always approached his housings with friendly greetings and have in return been graciously welcomed by this hermit among artists. I have sent him the picture that you are seeing here last year and was glad to hear that it had been well received. Let's wish him luck in his solitary paradise and let's get on with our journey!

Upwards we strived on the gorge's opposite wall until, heaving a sigh, we could settle down on its rim for a well earned picnic. Dieter had chosen the place with diligence. Just below our feet, as he explained to us with glee, was the ancient site of a male fertility cult. We could easily observe the reason for this cult, looking at a prominent stone pillar rising proudly to the sky, as if challenging the gods on who was the most masculine of them all. I hesitate to show you here a picture of this monument, common decency prevents me from doing so. But I can probably be excused for showing it in the slide show you can watch as a video, as usual, at the end of this blog.

Whilst we were gulping our sandwiches, Dieter regaled us with many a tale of Canarian customs, among them the story of the savory Canarian olive and its preparation. I don't have to tell the story myself, since we have our knowledgeable guide on record here:

But let us not dwell too long on this enchanted spot. Half of the tour still remained to be conquered. The next section held a more mildly rising slope in store for us, leading us through the fruitful landscape of Oasis of Ingenio. Among palm trees, Almond trees and cute little farms we slowly advanced upwards.

Soon we started to see intriguing cultivations of a special sort of cactus, which seemed a favorite for fencing in the small plots of cultivated land.

As Dieter could explain to us, this was nought else but the famous Prickly Pears Cactus (Opuntia); a cactus of Mexican origin, but imported to the Canaries in the eighteenhundreds. Contrary to its name, the main reason for cultivating this stranger was a small insect, called Cochineal, housing on the stickling leaves.

It can be discerned as living in small, white, lichen-like growths. When taken off the plant and crushed in your hands, an intense purple color will taint your hand. This color, originating from the insect's intestines, is among the few substances allowed in food nowadays, commonly used to enhance red colors. Cinzano anyone?

There used to be huge cactus plantations all over the island until the beginning of the nineteenhundreds. This stopped abruptly, ruining a pillar of livelihood for the poor inhabitants, when the aniline colors were invented. Since then, the cactus is slowly clawing back its raison d'être. The Canarians have always continued to keep the it as a house plant, since its fruit, tasting very much like fig, could be used in various ways, for instance, as fresh fruit on the table or as marmalade. Recently, it has made its comeback as basis for food coloring, in an age that is getting more knowledgeable about risks with chemical additives in food.

We got a chance of tasting the delicate flavor of this cactus fruit, when Dieter braved the prickles with a newly bought brush and collected some "figs" for us to savour. The taste is indeed delicious, just like figs, even fresher and not so sugary.

Time went fast with gaining these biological insights and we forgot to complain about the last steep steps to take before arriving at the second hamlet of this tour, Santa Lucia. It is as well preserved as Fataga (apparently all villages in the interior are being well maintained; no doubt due to the huge tax incomes stemming from the coast trade, as well as to EU money).

Taking a brief detour up to the village church, I could not help noticing an intriguing statue in front of it. Could this represent the patron saint of the town? "Yes", but with a twist. Instead of the appropriate representation, as seen in respectable catholic churches (for instance in the Cathedral in Syracusa, Sicily), this statue had a distinctly Nordic flair, with candles in the saint's hair and with her being partnered by Staffan (Stephen), the little "Stjärngosse" (Starboy).

As far as I know, this combination of Santa Lucia (13 December) with St. Stephen (25 December) is uniquely Nordic. In more knowledgeable countries (as religion is concerned), the Starboy(s) would appear (with or without the Three Kings) in processions starting at Christmas and ending with Three Kings' Day (6 January). So why this Nordic statue in the interior of Gran Canaria? I honestly don't know. Hopefully one of you readers knows the story behind it and can convey it to us as a comment to this blog post?

By now you may feel that this was a loong hike through Canarian fields. And you have a point there. We were already a bit tired when leaving Santa Lucia, but had nonetheless to collect all our remaining stamina to conquer THE STEEPEST ASCENT of the hike, which now lay yet before us! We decided to collect our wits for a group picture before starting (and before getting too exhausted to be seen on  photos).

Take another look at this picture, that is, at the signs, not at the spritely hikers! Do you recognize the name on top? "Yes", indeed, we have regained our old friend of mountain climing lore ("To the Top!!"), the old pilgrims' trail! This time we had to take it in the right direction, from South to North, as the islanders use to do, when hiking the long way to Santiago de Compostella. Let us not dwell too long on the story of how we made that last painful stretch of upwards trekking. Suffice it to say, that we were helped greatly by Dieter's instructions and encouragements, as can be seen in the video below.

And finally, we had arrived, at the lovely hamlet of Tunte (the Spanish name being too long to be repeated all the time). This village is not only the regional capital of the lower reaches hereabouts, its régime extends all the way down to the coast. Indeed, Tunte is the regional capital also of the major tourist region of Spain, Maspalomas. No wonder that its buildings are spitting clean and preserved, as the final picture of this blog post demonstrates, showing the fine church of Tunte.

This has been a loong blog post, I know, filled to the brim with informative texts and pictures. But don't give up, dear readers. It would be a mistake to leave it now. You won't regret playing the video here at the end, guiding you through the hike in a very amenable manner.

Double click here to see the video!


  1. Emil, you seem to enjoy life by learning a lot of interesting facts and views. I have follow your previous trips and expect even to long for the Canaries!
    Göran Wikner

  2. Hi Emil,
    I loved the picture of the grey sky! And the one of Lucia and Staffan Stalledräng. It would, indeed, be very interesting to find out how it ended up there? Must be a Scandinavian connection somehow.

    Thanks so much for sharing your nice stories and beautiful pictures with us!