Tuesday, 28 June 2011

It is delicate and fragile: a lake complex disappearing in the summer and reappearing like a phoenix in the late winter (almost spring), only to disappear again with the next summer. Its fragile and subtle: a cyclical ecosystem dying and germinating with the seasons, fighting to come back and dying again. To the sentimental observer, it is a land of impossible contrasts, mirages and illusions, amazing apparitions, kaleidoscopic colours. There is green and blue and yellow and white and ochre and brown and grey and pink and black. They are all there, against the horizon that throbs beyond the corn fields and the olive trees and the lonely tractors and the whistling trains. Campillos Lakes: a delicate, subtle, fragile, unique ecosystem.

Lagunas de Campillos Nature Reserve

There used to be seven of them, but they were so fragile that two of them –Redonda and Toro– vanished years ago. Now they are five within the boundaries of Campillos: Dulce, Salada, Camuñas, Capacete, and Cerero. They are connected by trails, walks, paths, back roads, rail tracks, and even a royal cattle drive, connecting Ronda to Algeciras. You can get around this 1,126ha nature reserve on foot, on a mountain bike, on horseback, or by car (although not all of them are accessible this way), enjoying the surrounding plains and their olives and wild olives, corn fields and sunflowers. Lagunas de Campillos was designated as a nature reserve in 1989. Given the dramatic changes the area undergoes with the seasons, it is better to come from fall to spring. In times of drought, the lakes become white saline mirages –a sort of shrunk magic veil.

Five Lakes and Corn Fields

Given the fragility of this ecosystem, it is surprising to read that, in the nineteenth century, the people living in Campillos used to go fishing in Dulce Lake. This means that, 150 years ago, this lake may not have gone dry in the summer and had a stable fish population. An 1833 manuscript proves this. Thinking about this, I park my car and get ready to explore the lake area. Dulce is a big lake. Getting off my car, I can hear the first sounds that transport me to a different space with a unique yet universal language. The wetlands in Málaga Province are well cared for; most of them feature a bird-watching area where visitors can take a look at local birds and other animals without disturbing them. Of course, I am carrying my binoculars with me (together with my camera and notepad). Bird watching takes time and patience. You can first hear them in the reed: wing flapping, cawing, clucking, splashing. Then you can see a static landscape, where everything looks so quiet. On closer examination, things begin to move. You can see the wings, the wakes on the banks, the glides in the warm air. Pieces fit in, as in a puzzle: clucking and wakes, cawing and glides, flapping and splashes. Then you start to match images with names. Water birds –common shelducks, little egrets, ducks, Kentish plovers, typical waders, flamingos, common stilts, coots, avocets– are the most abundant. If you stay for a while, you can see many of them. (It could be a good idea to bring a handbook of Málaga’s birds if you want to enjoy your trip even more.) From my vantage point, leaning on the wooden shelves, I can see how the birds dance gracefully by the lake –a smooth, tender dance.
The lakes in Campillos have the same bird population as the lakes in Fuente de Piedra, Archidona, and Alameda (La Ratosa). The birds fly from south to north or from north to south, and some species feed and nestle here. A sign shows a route that must be interesting in spring: 22km in 7 hours, from Dulce Lake in Campillos to Los Gaitanes Gorge in Ardales. It can be done on foot, by bike, or even on horseback. The route covers most of the Guadalteba region, visiting some of the best bird-watching spots. It is perfect for bird lovers. Write it down. The five lakes beat at the same rate, but each has a character of its own, either because it is closer to the fields or to the passing train, or because it was put to commercial uses in the past, or because it barely shows seasonal effects. Salada Lake, for instance, has had an eventful history. The whole lake complex is characterised by low salinity. However, until 50 years ago, locals got sodium chloride in non-industrial ways from this lake. It is in the middle of the complex, behind a hill. Together with Capacete, it is the second lake in terms of size. It is also remarkable for its aquatic plants: Althenia, Chara, ruppia, and so on. Going from one lake to the next, I can spot more animals. The paths crisscrossing the fields make it possible to see ocellated lizards, Montpellier snakes, viperine water snakes, green frogs, common parsley frogs, common frogs, rabbits and hares, weasels, or foxes. The ecosystem is self-sufficient and we are just visitors here, so reptiles and their friends do not care about our curiosity and do not show. We just get hints: an orange speck behind a gorse bush, an astonished rabbit in grey and brown in the middle of a trail, a hissing snake… The road from Dulce to Capacete Lake, past Cerero Lake and Camuñas Lake, cuts across the fields. I can picture farmers in old times, loading their mules with olives, chewing rosemary, wearing caps against the sun, their skin weather-beaten and their hands hardened. Few signs remain of that past life. Donkeys and mules have been replaced by tractors and baling machines that greet the world with their clouds of ochre dust. I wander about slowly under the morning sun. From time to time, I can feel the refreshing breeze. I you are planning to visit all five lakes, do not forget your bottle of water. The tour is short and the course is flat, which is great for mountain bikes. However, fountains are nowhere to be seen. Water can be found in the lakes only. So bring some with you. Some of the nearby paths show silvery threads across them. They form a fine network that can only be seen in the reflection of the sun. Some of the birds feeding in the lakes build their nests in the reed beds surrounding them, so they leave their wet footprints on the trails when they move around. These are fresh. The aromas in the lake complex are unique, giving rise to a special blend: salt from the water, sweet thyme and rosemary from the sierras (these two abound in the fields, alongside rockrose, sage, gorse, or lentisk around Camuñas. The clouds are reflected in the quiet water like a mirage floating in the air. Colours –ochre, green, blue, yellow…– mix to create a perfectly unique landscape. Whereas in winter everything turns green, in spring ochre and yellow prevail. A single landscape dominated by different hues, depending on the season. I stroll down the fields between the trees, skirting a sunflower field. Bales of corn rest on the hills. I step on the earth and then on the asphalt. I can hear the train from Ronda to Algeciras in the distance. It could be a nice route. Note it down.


Sitting on a wooden bench, I can hear wings being flapped. Then a pink and white flame shines before my eyes. Just a shake. The flamingo stretches its neck and sinks its beak in the water once more. Then it flaps its wings again. It takes off. It glides above me. It draws a circle above the lake and flies away to the north/northeast, in the direction of Fuente de Piedra. A white and pink stroke ripping the air. The clucking, buzzing, and splashing in the area seem to die away. Everything is so quiet.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Useful links: To read more about the lakes in Campillos, go to the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas. Lagunas de Campillos Nature Reserve lies between the township of Campillos, in the region of Guadalteba.

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

Geolocation: Find the exact location of this nature reserve, located in Campillos, on the Google map below.

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


The breeze, made of shadows, tempers the morning heat. Frays of light pass through the Aleppo pines and change, painting the slopes of a majestic hill in a state of Grace. History and nature blend in a perfectly subtle mix. Wall ruins, delicate poppies, buzzing bees sucking flowers, generous views of a chapel of Arabic origin, a thousand bird tunes, an imposing fortress. Welcome to the Gracia Suburban Park in Archidona, cradle of kings.

Sierra de Gracia Suburban Park

The park has a surface area of 35.3ha. Its privileged location earned it a high geostrategic value in the past. It is bounded by the village of Archidona to the South, olive and almond fields to the North, the amazing Sierra de Calderón to the East, and Camino de la Hoya to the West. Designated as a suburban park by the Andalusian Ministry of Environment in 1999, it stands on a mound, a plateau whose slopes are covered with Aleppo pines and whose top is crowned by the Chapel of Virgen de Gracia, an Arab architectural gem housing the classical arcades of old mosques. It takes some 30’ to 45’ to get to the summit from the centre of Archidona, depending on your pace and the stops you make. The ascent is quite steep, but the landscape is worth the effort –great views and amazing attractions revealed at each new step: Peñón de los Enamorados (Lovers’ Rock), the meadows, and the olive and corn fields in Antequera, the walls around the old fortress… Locals use the trail in their daily work-out, hiking their way up and trotting their way down. Let’s get ready: camera, journal, hat, water bottle, binoculars… Done.

Up to the Chapel of Santo Cristo

I can already see the white Chapel of Virgen de Gracia –up there, imposing and inaccessible. Although it is early, the morning sun is hot; I search for the cosy protection of the shady pines. An all-pervading smell comes from the trees; it is fresh, subtle, and persistent. If I could keep it in a bottle, I would take it home. Then I would open the bottle and let the aroma fill the air: the corridors, the kitchen, the living room... The breeze brushes past my skin. A cluster of prickly pears over here; poppies painting the green fields in red or yellow over there. As I go up, Archidona gets smaller and smaller, and the grey massif of Calderón gets closer, its broken outcrops become one with the fortress walls. The climb is punctuated by the Stations of the Cross. Now I am within the pine forest. A thousand songs from a thousand beaks make the delicate soundtrack of my ascent: trills, quavers, caws, whistles. I can imagine them flapping their wings to escape visitors; I can see them motionless for a while after guessing I am coming closer. Maybe they are specimens of native species: booted eagles, Bonelli’s eagles, short-toed snake eagles, cuckoos, common wood pigeons, great spotted cuckoos, Eurasian eagle-owls, red-legged partridges… I can see the white chapel among the tree tops. Despite the uphill walk, I enjoy the cool of the morning: the breeze, the shadows… I can hear the buzzing noises from the town of Archidona –a distant murmur made up of voices, horns, barks, ringing bells… At a sharp bend, I go off the beaten path to explore a scenic viewpoint protected by a railing. Archidona stretches out before me: the Chamfered Square, the Minim Convent, the old Town Hall… To the East, Peñón de los Enamorados appears in the mist, and the road zigzags across the olive and corn fields like a black serpent. I sit on a rock and let my eyes wander. I outline the nearby mountains, the roads and the streets of Archidona with my finger in the air. Back on trail, I head for the Chapel of Santo Cristo. It was built in the eighteenth century and renovated in 1997. Preceded by a yard flanked by stone benches, the simple building features a brick lintel framing the door. It is cool and shady in here.

Up to the Chapel of Virgen the Gracia

The climb is winding and steep, but it can be negotiated without effort. I get closer to the fortress walls: stones laid by the Romans, strengthened by the Arabs, and used by the Christians. The Pico del Conjuro –the hill where the chapel and the walls stand is protected on its southern slope, for a chasm makes access impossible from the North. I walk my way up, greeting a couple of women runners and then a man running on his own. They reach the summit in a jiffy. The soundtrack of whispers, creaks, and drones never stops. Lots of animal species live here: amphibians (frogs and toads), reptiles (ocellated lizards, ladder snakes, Iberian worm lizards), and mammals (deer, wild boars, foxes, rabbits). At night, you come across bats, shrew mice, Algerian mice, European badgers, and garden dormice. The majestic shadow of the walls is on a par with the majestic sierras. The rocky crags and the wall stones become one, blending man’s intervention with nature’s work. I reach the remains of the battlements. The pine forest has been left behind and the summit is clear. I can now understand the geostrategic importance of this place, at the crossroads of Málaga, Granada, Córdoba, and Antequera. I can even picture an Arab guard standing right where I am standing now, scrutinising the clouds of dust made by the carts of merchants or the troops of soldiers. I let my imagination run wild. The Chapel of Virgen de Gracia is right in front of me, and it is not a figment of my imagination.

The Chapel of Virgen de Gracia

The chapel can be accessed by car, but you would be missing the beautiful landscapes afforded by the climb. They get better as you walk up, and they are viewed against the backdrop of animal sounds. I am happy to be here. Archidona played a key role in Al-Andalus. “Arsiduna,” as the Arabs used to call it, was the capital of the district of Rayya. It was here that Abd al-Rahman I was proclaimed emir. Hence the importance of the local fortress and the mosque (the only one that has come down to us in Málaga Province). An information board at the summit tells you, “The temple is accessed from an eighteenth-century porticoed courtyeard. Once inside, you can first visit the prayer room (haram) of the Al-Andalus mosque, its horseshoe arches supported by columns with Roman shafts. The presbytery shows the signs of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century renovation. The chapel is dominated by a painting of Our Lady of Grace. The belfry tower has kept the structure of the Arab towering minaret, which was used to summon Muslims to prayer.” Outside, a row of beautiful balconies invite you to look at the nearby sierras and villages, indicated in a board: Sierra Chimenea (El Torcal, Antequera), Sierra Pelada, Sierra de las Cabras, Villanueva del Rosario, Villanueva del Trabuco, the Lakes in Archidona… I take a look at the landscape, spotting the peaks with the binoculars. I am having a great time.


EmbWith my eyes filled with the blueness of the sky and the whiteness of the chapel, I climb down the trail leading to the town centre. New sounds add to the familiar soundtrack: tinkling bells and bleating sheep. I come across a shepherd with three dogs. We talk for a while. His flock comprises over 500 sheep. I say goodbye. The bleats vanish amidst the pine trees. Sheep and church bells blend.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Useful links: To read more about the lakes in Campillos, go to the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas.

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

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

Geolocation: Find the exact location of this nature reserve, located in Archidona, on the Google map below.


Friday, 3 June 2011

The blue sheet plays hide-and-seek with the olive trees. It emerges between two olives, then vanishes. My eyes play tricks on me, as if I were before a mirage in the desert. And it is not just today. La Ratosa appears and disappears, depending on the season. It is bright blue in spring and in winter, brownish in autumn and in summer. It is an ever-changing territory in a delicate balance. Now it is brimming with life: clucking, trilling, swishing, whispering, murmuring, wing flapping, splashing, squelching… It is the soundtrack of the lake, a symphony of nature accompanying the distant murmur of human life, with its tractors and high-speed trains. The dark red earth lies in sharp contrast to the blue lagoon, the pale green olives, or the pink flamingos. So we have the soundtrack and the palette. We just need to let go now.

Laguna de la Ratosa Nature Park

La Ratosa Lake was designated as a Nature Reserve in 1999. It boasts a series of features that make it so special. It is a fragile ecosystem, surrounded by heavily cultivated areas. Moreover, it is subject to the whims of the seasons, drying up in the summer to be reborn in winter and spring. It is a small area, covering only 24 hectares, originating in the natural drainage of an aquifer. Located between Alameda and Humilladero, in the hinterland of Málaga Province and close to the border with Seville, this ecosystem suffers the summer heat, which evaporates the water in the lake. As a result, La Ratosa is surrounded by a narrow reed bed and birds do not nest there; it is only a passing and feeding area. These features make the lake inaccessible except to researchers, who must get permission from environmental authorities. But if you are not an expert, you can still have a great time skirting the lake on the outside. I can tell you you can. La Ratosa Lake is part of a larger ecosystem comprising other lakes –Fuente de Piedra, Campillos, Archidona– and the Guadalhorce Estuary, which is the gateway to Spain from Africa.

Walk, Silence, Life

I have parked my car next to the sign of Laguna de las Castañuelas. I am welcomed by a cloud of white butterflies and blue dragonflies dancing by the lake. The earth is bright red. Getting out of my car, I can hear clucking. Ten flamingos making a V against the bright blue sky fly over me. The flap their wings slowly and rhythmically, like ballet dancers. They are so close to me but they do not get frightened. Changing directions, they hide in the shadow of the olive trees. Taking a look at the lake, I can see some of the inhabitants of La Ratosa: as many as fifteen different bird species, including great crested grebes, black-necked grebes, little grebes, grey herons, cattle egrets, greater flamingos, Western marsh-harriers, common moorhens, Eurasian coots, black-winged stilts, black-headed gull, lesser black-headed gulls, gull-billed terns, and black terns. I begin my walk around the lake. Silence can be a tool and an ally here. I skirt the lake amidst the olives, greeting a couple of men spraying the wild trees. I keep walking, always silent. It is the only way of becoming familiar with the subtle sounds in the area –cluck, splash, swish… I can make out the green rings of a snake fleeing the main road, a yellow alligator almost 0.5m long just five steps away from me, a static rabbit in the grass surrounding the lake… Every now and then I stop and listen. I give the landscape a closer look and what seemed motionless begins to move in a unique secret dance. The reeds rock to reveal the blue lake behind them. I am walking down an earthen trail used by tractors which draws a sort of belt surrounding the lake. Behind a bend, hiding in the tall grass, a bunch of greater flamingos show their huge beaks and their pink wings. I take out my binoculars and watch them. Then I get my camera and take a couple of pictures. But I do not want to frighten them. I walk slowly, step by step, trying to make no noise. As I come closer, they swim across the lake, without flapping their wings, just moving smoothly in the water. They are so delicate… A heron is pecking at the water. As I make headway, the lake gets hidden behind a large field of daisies, lilacs, and poppies, framed by the ever-present olive trees. A high-speed train moves across the horizon in the distance, like a fleeting, muffled arrow. Fresh, sweet smells. I take a deep breath. I come as close to the lake as the reddish mud surrounding it allows me to. More moorhens –black body, white beak– swimming in V-shaped arches with their chicks trailing behind. The butterflies suck the daisies and the lilacs and the poppies, flying in erratic ways. The dragonflies buzz in the corn fields. And there is more. I cannot see it, but I know it is there. I have read about it in A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas: La Ratosa Lake has a high botanical value thanks to its underwater species and to the presence of specimens of Althenia orientalis, a plant living in shallow water. In the clearings by the lake, given the water’s salty nature, there are white salt pan traces –a harbinger of the forthcoming summer, of the ephemeral character of life at La Ratosa, of its fragile, changeable existence. I keep walking.


I stay put. Silent. Trying to become one with the environment. At first nothing happens. But then, little by little, life goes back to its old rhythm, impervious to the presence of man. I can hear the clucking again, and the flapping of wings, the drone of dragonflies, a hidden trill amidst the olive trees, the subtle sibilant sounds of reptiles, the creaking of branches, the swishing of reeds, the chirping of crickets, even my own breathing. I am now part of La Ratosa.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Useful links: To read more about La Ratosa Lake, go to the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas. You can also read the entry for Alameda in this blog. >

When to come: The best time of year to visit La Ratosa is from February to June. After June, the landscape changes dramatically due to water evaporation. The vast sheet of water becomes a salt pan in the summer and remains like this throughout the autumn.

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

Geolocation: Find the exact location of this natural area, between Alameda, Humilladero and La Roda de Andalucía, in Seville, on the Google map below.

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