Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Summer paints the lake shores in ochre and copper shades. The water is a glittering mirage reflecting our yearnings. The sun’s rays shimmer on the surface, giving rise to a play of deceiving appearances and fragile certainties. A white cloud here and now, perched on the water. It spreads out and you can see the pinkish sparkles. It is really hot, and the elusive flamingos can be seen in flocks, in small groups, on their own. They know the lake protects them: they are impervious to the murmur of men around them. They sink their smiley bills in their little sea, wading their way across the lake and cackling. The whole picture is a little bit surreal. The vapour from the earth wafts up the horizon like a morning veil. It looks like a mirage, an apparition in the middle of the olive groves. The banks show the salty traces of evaporated water. This salt aroused greed in men: In 1835 and then again in 1969, they tried to drain the whole lake. But nature vanquished them. Now, Fuente de Piedra Lake is one of the most complex, richest wetlands in Andalusia and Spain. It is hot. A flamingo flaps its wings and takes off gracefully.

Fuente de Piedra Lake

It was the Romans who first realised the lake was rich in salt. By 418 AD, they had settled in the area to exploit the salt pans in times of drought. The exploitation remained until the mid-twentieth century. In 1951, the last salt refining plant closed down. This meant man lived by the lake for many centuries and thus affected the ecosystem, preventing some of the water birds (flamingos among them) from flourishing. For the past 60 years, however, the flamingo population has grown steadily, and the local authorities decided to protect their breeding and nesting habits. Fuente de Piedra is a must-stop for birds migrating to or from Africa, and this is why it is so important. On January 11, 1984, it was designated as a Nature Reserve. Covering 1,354ha, Fuente de Piedra is the largest lake complex in Andalusia and one of the most important wetlands in Europe. Many bird species make their nests here –foremost among them, flamingos– and this make it an area that needs to be protected. In fact, it is the second most important flamingo nesting area in Europe and the Mediterranean, behind Camargue in France. In August 1990, there were as many as 50,010 individuals belonging to 170 classified species. The staff at the visitor centre told me there were 12,000 specimens now and the water was 90cm deep, which was quite good for the summer. The meticulous collection of data and the dedicated care of the area are key to the survival of this delicate ecosystem. Fuente de Piedra is subject to the arbitrariness of the weather and the change of seasons, morphing into different settings throughout the year but always looking beautiful, even when it is almost dry in summertime. One of the special treats given to Fuente de Piedra is the ringing of flamingos in July or August, depending on the environmental and bird factors. The ringing of flamingos has grown into a (necessary) environmental festival where people show their solidarity. Local authorities support it vigorously. On the Town Hall website you can read, “Depending on the rain, every year the flamingo breeding season begins in the late winter or early spring. Depending on the number of mates and the availability of food, it continues until the late summer. In order to study various aspects of flamingo biology, when chicks reach a certain age, they are captured and banded. As they group in crèches and cannot fly, they are led into an especially built pen at dawn. The pen is close to the breeding colony. About 300 volunteers coming from all over Spain, and even from foreign countries, are in charge of this delicate operation” (for the full account, go to Fuente de Piedra, “Ringing of Flamingos”). Let’s now take a dive into Fuente de Piedra Lake. The best place to start at is the visitor centre.

Visitor Centre

I leave my car in the parking lot. It is very hot, so the views of the lake suggest a pleasant idea of freshness. I spot some flamingos very near the building dominating the hill known as “Cerro del Palo” and housing the Fuente de Piedra Lake Visitor Centre. It is a must to begin your tour here. Learning about the characteristics of this ecosystem and getting information on the services available will help you enjoy your visit. Moreover, the centre affords spectacular views of the lake. The boards, in flamingo shades, tell you how the birds live and breed in the Nature Reserve: what species to find each time of year, how the ecosystem works, and so on. If you touch some of the boards, you can hear the sounds different birds make: their cawing, clucking, screeching, or singing. Additional services available at the visitor centre include binoculars to rent (€3/hour), bikes or strollers to rent (€5/hour), and guided tours (€6). Guided tours start at noon. They are available in Spanish or English, for groups of at least eight people. The meeting point is the visitor centre itself. Besides a guide and special telescopes, they give you access to observatories that are closed to the general public. There are many of them around the lake. Some of them are accessible to everyone, whereas others are restricted to qualified staff only, and you need a special permission to use them. General-access observatories, however, are perfect to get a panoramic view of the whole ecosystem, the lake and its shores.

Lake Tour

I have got everything I need: camera, binoculars, cap, bottle of water (which you can otherwise get at the visitor centre, alongside a wide array of souvenirs and gifts), comfortable shoes, sunglasses, and a pair of strong legs to walk a lot. I want to get to the tree main observatories: Cerro del Palo, Laguneto, and Vicaría (about 2km away). The distances between them can be covered on foot. Skirting the visitor centre and walking about 100m, you reach Cerro del Palo. Under a shady tree, I take a look at the lake. A bunch of flamingos are elegantly standing in the water, peering it with white and pink clouds. They sink their hooky beaks in the water, wade their way around moving their long and skinny legs, bending their knees. Suddenly, they just take off as others land on the lake. They are not the only inhabitants here; they have to share the lake with common stilts, wild ducks, common moorhens, Eurasian coots, little grebes, black-headed gulls (whose sounds you are very likely to hear), great crested grebes, black-necked grebes… Since life in the ecosystem depends on the season, the flora and fauna change a lot throughout the year. In winter you can find cranes, common shelducks, Northern shovellers, Kentish plovers, little egrets, and red-crested pochards. In fact, there are two different plant ecosystems in the lake area. The first one, which is heavily dependent on rainfalls, includes sunflowers, olives, holm oaks, oats and barley, mastic, Kermes oak, and thyme. The second one is affected by water level, salinity, and soil texture, featuring reed, salt grass, barilla plants, grass and algae in the wet area around the main lake.
The scene is overwhelming: a rich colour palette, a multiplicity of textures –from the polished water sheet to the twisted holm oaks to the leaden summer sky–, mountains peppered with white villas in the background. Green olive trees, brownish hills, white sparkles emerging from the area known as Las Albinas –a nice collection of sharp contrasts. Visitors walk down the clearly signed, fenced trails. The Laguneto viewpoint lies 200m away from Cerro del Palo. Water here is only 40cm deep –the lake is almost empty. The earth looks reddish as a result of the salt contents of the soil. Walking in silence, I can hear the buzzing dragonflies. The flamingos are very near, only 20 or 30m away; although they do not seem to fear the presence of man, I have no intention of scaring them. Just a picture or two. I watch them as they move gracefully and clumsily at once, with their elegant yet stiff legs. The trail leads to a bridge to Las Albinas, the area of the white earth. The path to La Vicaría is 2.4km long, running across dried ground. In the nineteenth century, they planned to turn it into farming fields. The Andalusian Ministry of the Environment bought the land to rehabilitate the salt pans, which are the reason why they earth is white. The path meanders about the mouths of the Santillán and María Fernández streams. I keep walking, talking, and taking photographs. The lake seems to be playing hide-and-seek behind the reeds. An ocellated lizard slices across the trail 1m away from my feet. Insects buzz, the fields sleep, a tractor makes a noise in the distance. All the croaking and clucking and splashing die away to burst again a moment later. Two cyclists ride past me. I can now see the viewpoint of La Vicaría. I am surrounded by nature but I do not feel like a stranger. I am part of this ecosystem right now. At the observatory, an English-speaking man and his two little daughters (one of them is ginger-haired) are watching the birds with binoculars. They take down notes and make drawings. They look at the birds again and take more notes. I walk in to discover a breathtaking view of the lake: the town in the background, the glittering water, the birds. I stop to regain my strength in the shadow. Quiet and silent, I let the horizon seize me. I find new images or new nuances by the minute. A flock of flamingos fly over my head.


In the dead of dawn, the volunteers break stealthily into the lake. Wearing boots and waterproof trousers, they push the reeds apart. The dark grey chicks cannot fly, so they rock in their quiet nests. Their home is suddenly invaded by the peaceful horde of men, who are coming to ring and number them. A few months later, one of these volunteers will be watching with his telescope when he spots a new flamingo, dressed in pink. He will recognise his chick in it. He still remembers the number, the letter, the series. The man smiles to himself. It is one of his chicks.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Useful links: To find out more about Fuente de Piedra, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window into Natural Areas. Also, the Fuente de Piedra Town Hall website contains all the information you need to plan your trip to the lake.

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

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

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


Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Like a protective embrace, Dehesa del Mercadillo Park holds northern Ronda in its arms. A thick pine forest peppered with centuries-old holm oaks, looking at the depression of El Tajo gorge and the majestic mountains of the neighbouring village of Montejaque in the eye, and watching over the roads that lead to Antequera or Seville. Strong Mediterranean scents –of pines, rosemary, and thyme– greet visitors hailing from the north, and the ancient fragrances reach deep and profound Ronda, the city of El Tajo gorge. Silence: just a buzzing insect, a cicada with its fiddle, a dog barking in the distance, a singing bird.

Dehesa del Mercadillo Suburban Park

Far away and long ago, when men had few memories, someone called this place “Dehesa del Mercadillo” after the cattle market in the area. The connection between the park’s location and its use as a marketplace is only natural. The park lies in northern Ronda, just before the entrance to town. Travellers coming from Seville had to cut across it; those hailing from Antequera had to go across too; and the inhabitants of Málaga or Sierra de las Nieves had easy access to it (the latter via El Burgo). Meeting point and crossroads. The park is crisscrossed by multiple cattle roads with picturesque names: Cañada Real de Setenil, Cordel de Ronda a Olvera, Vereda al Molino de la Fuente, Camino del Llano de la Cruz, Cañada Real de Ronda a Jerez y Sevilla. Dehesa del Mercadillo was designated as a Protected Natural Area in 2000. It covers 137.77 hectares.

In the pine forest

I have left my car in the northern area of the suburban park, next to a recreational area and the entrance to the Ronda Reforestation Centre, housing several environmental vehicles, a fire truck, and a helicopter. I am about to go through the pine forest from north to south, treading upon the trails that lead to the depression of El Tajo gorge, the granite wall of Montejaque’s hill (El Hacho) and the chasm known as “El Hundidero.” The toilets, swings and barbecues in the recreational area are quite dilapidated. The holm oaks dominate the scene, reaching high above the slides. A low metal fence separates the recreational area from the pine forest, where cool shades prevail over the early morning sun, which is beginning to warm things up. Silence rules here, broken only by subtle buzzing sounds from insects and fiddle tunes from isolated cicadas. Beyond the fence, if you remain quiet, you may spot a disoriented rabbit or two. The guidebook I have read adds that badgers and foxes are quite common too. The forest in Dehesa del Mercadillo Park abounds in stone pines and Scots pines, but you can come across the twisted trunk of a holm oak here and there –amazing shapes in the air, tops resting on gnarled branches growing horizontally. The forest is dressed in dry shades: ochre, yellow, dark orange, and so on. The area is so quiet that you will not feel you are walking uphill. As I move on, I can smell rosemary and thyme, and see thorny brooms, brooms, rockroses, hawthorns, marjoram. It is the quintessential Mediterranean forest. The area has retained its stockbreeding atmosphere. For one thing, it is crisscrossed by cattle roads. Every year, the Armed Forces, coming from Jerez, bring a bunch of studs to Llano de la Cruz for locals to get their mares mounted and thus improve breed quality. It has been done this way since the nineteenth century. In autumn and spring, the inhabitants of Ronda use the trails to go hiking, mountain biking, or horse riding. I reach the depression.

The Depression of El Tajo Gorge

Leaving a nursery behind, I reach for the upper part of the park. Birds of prey fly over my head with majestic calm; there are several vultures and at least two eagles. The suburban park is home to many local bird species: finches, serins, crossbills, goldfinches, woodpeckers, treecreepers, rock sparrows, hoopoes, green woodpeckers, robins, blackbirds, booted eagles, griffon vultures, and owls. In front of me, the city of Ronda, which seems to be hanging from the walls of El Tajo gorge. I cannot see the town itself, or the New Bridge, but the depression is visible. The fields look like marquetry in yellow and ochre, framed by country roads: tight olive groves and mildly-rolling hills that narrow down as they approach the gorge. The mountain range dominated by El Hacho in Montejaque is also in front of me: El Palo, La Ventana, San Cristóbal, Torrejón, Peñón de las Mures in Sierra de Grazalema Nature Park. I look at the clouds of dust moved by the wind. I can picture the lines of donkeys coming to Ronda from various places, the Arab troops besieging the town, Orson Welles taking a stroll before a bullfighting evening, romantic travellers intoxicated by the fragrance of the pine trees. Suddenly, I hear a screech in the air. There they are: a pair of eagles. One of them turns in the air and sinks at breakneck speed. I lose sight of it. A couple walk past me, holding hands. They are heading for the pine forest, in search of the cool shadow of the trees.


Just a moment. Sitting on a rock with my eyes closed. I can only hear insects crackling. I breathe in the thyme and rosemary aromas. I feel the tall grass with my fingertips. I open my eyes. A huge holm oak stands before me, its roots carving the earth for centuries. It is watching me. It is playing hide-and-seek with the surrounding pines, in a beautiful continuum of green shades.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Useful links: To find out more about Dehesa del Mercadillo, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas. The suburban park is in Ronda.

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

Geolocation: Find the exact location of this Protected Natural Area on the Google map below.

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