Monday, 16 May 2011

They appear in the background in the early morning mist, like long-legged spiders silhouetted against the sea and the mountains. They move slowly, like ghosts at dawn, as if they were creatures from H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. They are the huge cranes of the Port of Málaga. In front of them, in the foreground, there is the marshlands. A tangle of twisting meanders drawing self-closed spirals. Glittering lakes –Escondida over here, Grande over there– that absorb the morning sunlight. Echoing honks, quacks, and trills and the distant murmur of the hustle and bustle in the dark road A-7. There is a well-kept secret here, a world crisscrossed by trails and paths where you can hear the muffled sounds of the city. A hidden yet accessible treasure of Nature, where the roving flight of birds shares the bright blue sky with the routes leading to Pablo Ruiz Picasso Airport. It is a treasure I have seen many times before, spotting it between the highway rails, guessing it was there in my hurried daily errands. This is where the river Guadalhorce flows into the Mediterranean, creating marshlands brimming with life –lakes, birds, small mammals, insects, plants and flowers. A land of hybridisation between the sweet river and the salty sea. A pleasant green oasis lying between Málaga City and Torremolinos. This is the Natural Area of the Guadalhorce Estuary.

Natural Area of the Guadalhorce Estuary

The Guadalhorce is a waterway laden with citrus aromas flowing through the entrails of Málaga Province, feeding the fruit tree groves and the vegetable gardens, and then flowing into the Mediterranean. The river and the sea play an overlapping game in which appearances can be deceiving. The sea gets sweet and the river becomes salty in a uniquely beautiful ecosystem. The Guadalhorce Estuary was designated as a Natural Area in 1989. In a 67ha/165.6ac surface area, it has a wide array of bird species. Given its strategic location between Europe and Africa, it is part of the route used by coastal migratory birds every year, and the area where many of them stop to rest and feed. The place was altered by man: its present appearance is the result of man’s burdensome intervention and later rehabilitation work. In the 1970s, aggregate extraction unearthed a series of gravel beds in the mouth of the river which were colonised by various plant and animal species. (A gravel bed is a natural gravel deposit due to river transportation in suspension, followed by sedimentation and consolidation. The particles carried in suspension result in gravel whose edges, unlike those of rocks in quarries and mines, are not angular. Source: Wikipedia in Spanish.) In 1989, the place became a Protected Area. Nine years later, rehabilitation work began; after a long process, the place got the appearance it has today. The man-made lake complex features two main trails, 1.5km/0.9mi long each, five viewpoints where you can watch the marshlands, and the longest wild littoral-coastal area in Málaga Province.

The Well-Kept Secret

Coming across such a natural paradise only 7km/4.4mi from Málaga City is quite a shock. The marshlands are surrounded by a well-developed urban environment, but they have managed to keep their natural essence, maybe thanks to their location. There is only one way of getting to them –a bridge where the river forks and the area gets surrounded by two waterways leading to the Mediterranean. The bridge is closed to vehicles and can be accessed from the housing developments in Guadalmar. Upon crossing it, you enter a deceivingly calm world. I get ready and stay motionless and silent for a few seconds. I forget about the buzzing of cars and the roaring of planes. I forget about all city sounds and begin to hear splashing, clucking, honking, grass swishing, trilling, flapping of wings. I close my eyes and let the early morning sun warm my skin up. I take a deep breath and gaze at the glittering green of the marshlands, the misty blue of the sea, and glowing mirrors in the lakes. Laguna Grande, La Casilla, Escondida, Eucaliptal, Costera, Limícola, Río Viejo… I am ready to unveil one of Málaga’s best-kept secrets.

The Walk

The well-signed dirt trails are flat, ideal for footing, hiking, mountain biking, or just hanging around. The place is great for kids, who can spot birds, small mammals, or insects, and try to track them down. According to the information boards, there are two things you must not do: go off the beaten paths and make noise. If you are silent, your bird watching chances will be higher. Many birds stay in their nests, hidden in the foliage, and fly off when they hear you coming, frightened and surprising at once. I come across a few riders and runners. Everything looks so quiet. I take pictures. I take a look at the plants. I make comments on the various species. I walk at a relaxed pace. Only 300m/328yd to the right, there is the viewpoint of Laguna Escondida –and my first contact with local fauna. I slip in quietly. Its windows afford views of the lake. I move slowly. A board tells the story of the lake complex: how it was discovered, what its characteristics are… I sit down on one of the wooden benches, getting my tripod ready. I spot a small flock of ducks. Click, click. I stay put, staring at the reflection of light on the water. Depending on the season, the lakes are visited by grey herons, egrets, cattle egrets, black-crowned night herons, common shelducks, little grebes, buffleheads, Audouin’s gulls, ospreys, black storks, and common kingfishers. I enjoy the peace, the splashes, the morning breeze. I move on, slowly, silently. I spot the tracks of birds and reptiles across the trail. They are wet; they must be recent. They are all over, like messages from an old, whimsical, subtle animal world. I reach another viewpoint, Laguna Grande, located on a mound. It is a window to paradise: a small, self-closed sea surrounded by reed and bushes. A shallow lake, only 1m/3.3ft deep, where ducks and wading birds play survival game. I let a sigh out and let the sun dwell in my eyes. Before taking a few pictures, I take a look. The cranes and the old chimney in the background. The colourful flowers and shrubs in the foreground. This is the secret of the Guadalhorce Estuary: very different landscapes in a few metres distance, wild nature and urban development separated by a bridge. I reach the sea and take in its smooth waves. Retracing my steps, I come back to the fork in the river in search of Río Viejo. I explore its banks, its subtle meanders, its special features. And the lake of La Casilla, which is where rehabilitation began of this unique and delicate, fragile yet powerful area. I walk without saying a word. I come across more runners. I reach more viewpoints. I take more pictures. I speak in a hushed voice. I look at the sea. I get lost in my own daydreaming. Suddenly, a question comes to mind: What does this well-kept secret look from the outside, from the other side of the waterways protecting it, far from the bridge?

A Look from the Outside

Leaving the marshlands behind, I take a dirt road leading straight to the sea. A wall of tall reeds hides the treasure, protecting it from inquisitive looks. Moved by the breeze, the reeds seem to rock the marshlands. I follow the river amidst lilacs and daisies, dressed in bright violet and spotless white. I can hear the ducks splashing, diving underwater when taken by surprise by visitors. I imagine other birds living in the area, and I can see small flocks of them swaying in the sky, flying and turning all of a sudden, perching on shallow pools along the way, lowering their beaks to drink some water. In front of me, the sea and its reflection. More cyclists. More sportspeople. The Guadalhorce flows smoothly (or so it seems) by my side, bringing the smells of La Hoya with it: orange and lemon blossoms filling the spring air with sweetness. As I get closer to the sea, I can hear a different sound: the waves against the sand. The grass is rocked by the breeze. Two fishermen throw their rods in the Mediterranean as they smoke a cigarette sitting on a multi-colour chair. A barge sails past the river mouth towards Málaga City. Looking back, I can see the delicate yet powerful secret, weak and strong at once. The city flaps its wings beyond the marshlands, with its skyscrapers and its spider-like port cranes.


I stare at the glittering lakes. The ducks and herons move in the kaleidoscope, disturbing the quiet water sheets with splashes and subtle tracks left in the marshlands. Off they fly, only to quieten down a few meters away. They quack and get involved in birdy arguments. They flap their wet wings against the bright blue sky. I am sitting on a wooden bench in the observatory, camouflaging to be part of the environment, catching its breathing rhythm, changing to green and darkish shades. I take off my intruder’s clothes and feel at one with the world.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Useful links: To read more about the Guadalhorce Estuary, go to the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas. The Estuary is quite close to Málaga City.

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

Geolocation: Find the exact geographical location of this natural area, between Málaga City and Guadalmar, on the Google map below.

El Color Azul del Cielo "Espacios Naturales de Málaga" en un mapa más grande