Tuesday, 20 December 2011

It is not an abyss. The wind sweeps through the false flat in the old glacier basin. Your eyes fill with frothing tears in the cold morning air, a razor to your skin. The air gets cold. The dew melts delicately. The bright blue sky plays host to the silent griffon vultures overflying the peaks. Grey summits about to crumble down. Impossible shapes. In this landscape, the steep, shapeless mounts blend with the ductile basin –a plain reaching for the horizon and beyond, skirting another plain full of twisted ancient oaks, cows, sheep, and pigs grazing freely around. A trail cuts across the heart of the plains –a visible scar long forgotten in a landscape that seems quite oneiric but no, here, beneath my feet, it is perfectly real. A land of grooves and scars, of lapies and poljes, of sinkholes and peaks. Welcome to Sierra de Grazalema Nature Park and the mysterious Llanos de Líbar.

Zooming In

Glaciers –moving ice-cold tongues– have shaped the karst formations of Grazalema at will, with the wisdom of time and amazing strength. Ice became water and water kneaded the earth as if it were dough (rock dough), breaking it, sinking it, enhancing it, tearing it off to create a landscape full of vertigo-inducing ravines, idyllic valleys, and steep walls. Water, a mere spark on the surface, has been leaking for ages, gnawing at the rock to create huge sinkholes or add zillions of broken scars. Llanos de Líbar are in fact one of the largest poljes in this Nature Park, and one of the most remarkable in Europe. Nooks and crannies where lambs hide and griffon vultures or eagles make their nests. Holes where guerrillas took shelter during the War of Independence, bandits hid in the nineteenth century, and the Maquis resisted authority in the twentieth. Dark cows browsing in the green meadows, munching the green oak sprouts, and pigs being fed in the shade. Málaga’s Grazalema goes beyond Llanos de Líbar to the banks of the Guadiaro river, spanning the village of Jimera de Líbar, Benaoján, and Cortes de la Frontera, sinking into El Hundidero en Montejaque and appearing 4km later in Cueva del Gato (Benaoján), boasting a world-class cave complex, and showing flabbergasting figures (a fish within a fish, a winged man) in Cueva de la Pileta. Málaga’s Grazalema is glorious, impressive, and different. Today, I am visiting Llanos de Líbar, a place where you can feel the power of the earth and get turned into a speck of dust.

Sierra de Grazalema Nature Park

First of all, let’s feed you with some breadcrumbs about this Nature Park. It has a surface area of 51,695ha, 14,900 of which are in Málaga Province (4,556ha in Montejaque, 4,531ha in Cortes de la Frontera, 2,919ha in Ronda, 2,152ha in Benaoján, and 742ha in Jimera de Líbar). Nature knows nothing about administrative puzzles, so the park jumps from one village to the next, from one province to the next, making a whole that is greater than the sum of its territorial parts. Since 1977, Grazalema has been a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. In 1984, it was designated as a National Park. Overall, it spans 13 towns and villages: to Benaoján, Montejaque, Cortes de la Frontera, Ronda, and Jimera de Líbar in Málaga, we should add Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra, Villaluenga del Rosario, Benaocaz, Ubrique, El Bosque, Prado del Rey, and El Gastor in the province of Cádiz. More facts: The park’s highest peak is El Torreón (1,654m) and the lowest point can be found in El Bosque. They are just 10km apart, which gives an idea of how abrupt things can get: impressive slopes and twisting roads for a breathtaking landscape. Man settled in the area in the dawn of time: traces of Upper Palaeolithic life were found in Cueva de la Pileta. However, it was only when prehistory was over that settlements became permanent: the Romans, the Arabs, the Christians... Later on, the valleys and gorges of Grazalema were stage and silent witnesses to the bloody battle of the War of Spanish Independence against France. In the nineteenth century, they made shelter for bandits, and in the twentieth they protected the Maquis against Franco’s dictatorship. What remained unchanged throughout the ages, however, was farming and shepherding. In them, man struck balance between livelihood and sustainability, feeding off the park and feeding their cows and sheep too. This respectful ways of living shaped the landscape too; just like water. Cherish the trees, nurture the meadows, protect the valley –this has been locals’ motto for ages. This is why plant and animal species have come down to us as they were in early times. Over 1,300 higher plants, including oaks, holm oaks, gall oaks, wild olives, cork oaks, a few Spanish firs, mallows, Friar’s cowls, thorny brooms, thistles, poppies, thyme, junipers and, on the banks of the river, poplars, willows, and elm trees. Likewise, many animal species have their habitats in the region: wild goats and griffon vultures, foxes and otters, deer and roe deer, golden eagles, Bonelli’s eagles, ospreys, Eurasian eagle-owls, black kites, Egyptian vultures, and even peregrine falcons. It rains a lot in Grazalema. It rains non-stop. About 2,000 l per square metre a year. It is one of the wettest regions in Spain –wetter than many areas in the north. All these features have given rise to an unusual landscape where nature and man have come to terms and coexist peacefully. A densely populated area where man is respectful and nature can be seen at its wildest and most glorious. A seemingly impossible combination that makes the landscape and your trip quite rich.

Los Llanos de Líbar

A zigzagging track across the polje, like a child’s drawing on the sand. Smoothly winding, flanked by sand castles, by lapies. Shaped by water acting like the tongue of the sea. Man feels too little here, faced with geological grandeur... I cannot even imagine the forces required to create this moonlike landscape. A modest cattle trail starting in Montejaque –the “Lost Mountain” according to the Arabs– connects El Hundidero with Cortes de la Frontera, cutting across Llanos de Líbar. 10.5km further afield, in the depths of Sierra de Grazalema, they morph into Llanos del Republicano. Trails and paths crisscrossing a valley carved in stone, a valley that shows its heart to the bright blue sky, a valley geologists call “polje” and laymen cannot find the words to name it. My tour begins in the north of Montejaque, just behind Hostal La Cabaña, where an information panel shows a route and a brief description of it. Reading it, I begin to picture the route. After the first climb up the Sierra de Juan Diego, I reach Llano de los Almendros. Then, an impressive lapies leading to the plains and meadows of Pozuelo. Crossing an ancient oak grove, I come to Llanos de Líbar, where there is a cortijo. Then, a boundless plain leading to Fuente de Líbar, and I am now at Llanos del Republicano. The whole route is made of roads or trails in different condition. Although some can be difficult to drive along, they can all be negotiated on foot. Most visitors do the first –tougher– part by car (up to the oak grove) and then walk to the end of the route. However, discovering all the surprises in this landscape and doing so little by little is one of the best things about this tour. The route is best enjoyed exploring its layers, looking at its ever-changing heart, feeling the impossible formations standing against the bright blue sky (which remind me of El Torcal) with your fingers, watching the majestic, almost static flights of the griffon vultures (there is a huge colony in the area), walking past the grazing cows and their munching of oak leaves, hearing a tiny lamb bleat as it trots by its mother’s side, taking a look at the aggressive Iberian pigs as they feed behind the fence, seeing a thousand and one figures in the twisted oaks that wave their hands at the valley, taking shelter in an ancient hollow tree, staring at the sun as it glitters on the flat summit rocks, trying to count the grey shades painting the surrounding landscape, comparing the tractor ploughing the land to a huge mechanical horse in the style of the Far West, feeling the freezing cold cut your face upon leaving the sheltering trees in the valley, staring at the final plain –the promised land– in astonishment: an open circus backstitched by the pointed mountains, peppered with the ochre spots of cows; stepping on the soft grass, breathing in the suddenly intense aromas of nature. On my way back, silent and magical, I can feel the power of the earth, the connection with it. I have the feeling I am one with the universe, just a tiny particle in it. A prosaic ritual –a must for travellers: lunch under an oak on a deck behind a stone wall. The smell of my potato tortilla, the energy of cold meats, the intoxicating flavours of Moroccan sweets, the good company, the deep, comforting talk, the feeling of freedom, the sense of union with the universe. I return with my senses tuned, feeling the warm sun on me as it rocks in the horizon –a loyal companion putting his arm around my shoulders. Upon leaving Llanos de Líbar, I make a promise to myself: I’ll be back.


Embracing the mountains in an endless dream. Imagining the figures drawn by karst against the horizon. Letting the plains drive you across town boundaries. Letting them make their own map with thick woods, farming fields, and mountain tops. Málaga’s Grazalema is unusual and provocative. It invites you to explore and enjoy, to go down its trails and plunge into adventure. It invites you to have a really intense experience.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Other hiking routes in Grazalema, Málaga: Besides the route described here in Llanos de Líbar, the Sierra de Grazalema has other hiking routes across Málaga Province to offer. These include: Cueva del Gato, Guadiaro river, Camino de Huertas Nuevas (New Orchards’ Trail), Camino de la Dehesa (Meadow Trail), Camino de la Fuente (Fountain Trail), Old Road to Ronda, Cañada del Olivar, El Pimpollar, and Hundidero.

Hundidero-Gato system:

Hundidero-Gato system: “In the early twentieth century, the idea came up of building a dam on the river Guadares, just before it disappears into El Hundidero, with the aim of generating electricity. After conducting studies and preparing the roads, the dam was built using the Hundidero gorge, a wound in the surface of the earth down to the opening of the Hundidero-Gato system. But the spillway never worked and the dam never filled. The best two fills occurred in 1941 and 1947. What’d happened? The engineers who built the dam hadn’t taken leakages into account. The water in the reservoir leaked through the porous rocks and the river fed further below. This mistake resulted in an impressive water retaining system and an empty dam. However, the engineers didn’t give up. They came up with a second ingenuous plan: sealing off the access to the Hundidero-Gato system. This meant waterproofing a pit which was 5km long. Two teams of ten workers each would come in from both El Hundidero and Cueva del Gato to take a look at the cave in full, which had never been fully inspected before. This happened in 1929. The two teams, carrying carbide lamps, rope ladders, and barges made with barrels, took thirty days to accomplish their mission. They met at the centre, guiding themselves by shouting. When they got out, they talked of beautiful things inside.. It was an oddly-shaped cave, the result of centuries-old water erosion, a geological wonder that has become a must-see among spelunkers. By October 1929, the trail inside had been finished. But the water always managed to find its way through new crevices. The Spanish Civil War brought the project to an end, and now the cave is a haven for cave experts or adventurers only. Those who’ve been inside this huge natural pipe say you can still see the traces of the old unsuccessful work. Dilapidated ladders, bridges, and elements pointing to human activity. The project failed; what remains is a monument to man’s hubris and victorious nature.” Excerpt from “Montejaque: On the Brink of the Abyss of El Hundidero,” post No. 14 of this blog.

Useful links: All the information on Grazalema can be found on the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas. The Jimera de Líbar, Ronda, Cortes de la Frontera, Montejaque, and Benaoján Town Hall websites also contain information about it. Likewise, you can find useful data on food, historical and cultural heritage, things to do, hiking routes, etc. in this blog’s entries on these five villages. You can search for the texts using the search tool on the right.

Images: Here you can see all the photos of this blog entry.

Geolocation: Find the exact location of this Nature Park on the Google map below.

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I would like to thank Paco and Sara for their company, high-spirited talk, and food supplies