Friday, 19 August 2011

The scars in the stone skin tell a story so old it sounds like legend. It is a story about a prehistoric sea known as “Tethys” that used to submerge the rocky landscape that now defies the sun. A sea that is quite difficult to imagine, inhabited by stone beings carved right out of the bottom of the earth. A landscape populated with fanciful shapes, imaginary beings, volatile summits, soaring crests, twisted rocks, impossible balances… According to Málaga-born poet Salvador Rueda, this place used to be home to disturbing individuals and archaic forces:

El Torcal is heraldic; it combines
Dungeons and dragons in stone
And, like giant dominoes, it lines
Up swirling towers with broken rocks.

Rafael de la Linde christened the shapes with names of cathedrals, glorious temples, and inspiring muses:

Your proud sierra with its rocks
Forges temples and cathedrals,
Weaves illusions and dreams,
Majestic Torcal, brave sierra,
Hiding poetic treasures
You are the poison of inspiration!

The poets are right. There is more than one reason to dedicate beautiful, heartfelt words to El Torcal, a natural area spanning both Antequera and Villanueva de la Concepción. The winding and narrow alleyways between these amazing geological formations could contain all possible legends. There live in El Torcal as many imaginary beings as you can see in the rocks, carved by water, wind, and rain under earth forces that make oceans disappear and mountains emerge in their stead. You should not expect a theme park here, for there is no such thing. There is just the astounding, chaotic, savage, and resistant work of Nature. Welcome to El Torcal, the garden in stone.

El Torcal Natural Area

This place has a long history. The transformation of this rocky area into a natural area is very old. Local inhabitants and visitors soon realised this was a valuable area, and so they turned it into a Site of National Interest in 1929, a Nature Park in 1978, and a Natural Area now. El Torcal is the most important karst topography in Spain and Europe. It is the geomorphology that makes it so special. Here the rocks have been eroded, dissolved, and polished, giving rise to flabbergasting mutations into dragons, ships, or human faces. And this has all happened in a surface area of 20sq km, in a Protected Natural Area of 1,171ha. On misty days, if you look at El Torcal from Villanueva de la Concepción, you will experience a magical feeling that scientists have taken pains to record. The power of research + imagination has made the place even more special. Now we know a lot about El Torcal, but still we can imagine a lot about it if we want to. We now know that El Torcal comprises four distinct areas: Sierra Pelada, Torcal Alto, Torcal Bajo, and Las Escaleruelas y Cortijo del Navazo Verde. We also know that the peaks are separated by unfathomable abysses: Azul (114m deep), Sima de la Mujer (90m), or Sima de la Unión (143m). And that there are caves like Marinaleda (where burial pottery has been found) or Toro (housing meso-neolithic archaeological remains inside). Both geologically and archaeologically, El Torcal is a rich area. But its richness has to do with biodiversity too. 116 vertebrate species (amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) have been found and classified. Moreover, it is a Special Bird Protection Area, so you can usually spot ominous yet majestic birds of prey flying over your head in circles. It would be preposterous to make a list of all the bird species you can find in El Torcal, so let us name the most common ones: golden eagles, griffon vultures, peregrine falcons, Eurasian eagle-owls, blue tits, and European goldfinches. Reptiles are abundant, too: ocellated lizards, snub-nosed viper (be careful with these!), Montpellier snakes, and lizards. Mammals are perhaps more visible: Spanish ibexes (they are ever-present), foxes, badgers, rabbits… Now pay attention to numbers: against 116 recorded vertebrate species, 664 plant species live in El Torcal, including lichens, moss plants, ferns, and spermatophytes. The largest plant community is that of rock plants, which use any crack to grow. Water (aquifers) plays a silent yet all-important role in El Torcal, crowning and toppling mountains with an inveterate subtlety in the form of raindrops, leakages, dew, and mist attached to the skin of rocks and solidifying into snow or ice. Water is the architect of El Torcal, the sea that left the traces of its salty past in the form of fossils. Besides all these scientific facts, there are the creatures of the imagination. In El Torcal you will find hidden dinosaurs, galleons run aground at the top of a mountain, old totems, fearful sphinxes, camels, you name it. All these figures have nothing to do with reason; they appeal to the fables you want to create in your mind. Let my tour of El Torcal begin. I have been here before, but every time I come, it is a brand-new experience.

The Tour

My car zigzags along the dark tongue of the road like one of those Montpelier snakes living in El Torcal. The landscape in Antequera and Villanueva de la Concepción is yellow and ochre, peppered with the white strokes of “cortijos.” Gradually, it gives way to something new. It is amazing in a way different from anything you have seen before, even when still in the car. Grey shades here and there, white rocky outcrops, impossible sculptures, mounds. The fields (not apt for farming) are everywhere interrupted by rocks: a thousand rises in a thousand sizes. Words like “lunar,” “Martian,” or “ET” immediately come to mind. A naked area, categorical and fascinating. I keep zigzagging in my car until I reach the parking area next to the visitor centre, which can hold about 100 cars. When it is full, a free bus service takes visitors from the road to the centre to avoid unnecessary jams. Climbers with their gear (and their permission), families, well-trained hikers, national and international tourists, biologists… they are all here. The best time of year to study the local fauna is the late spring or the early autumn, when you can watch all the animals in their ever-changing, profuse communities. Before choosing one of the two routes across El Torcal, you should visit the visitor centre, where you will learn how this natural area came into being, how Nature transformed the ocean into a garden made of stone. Information boards, sounds, smells, touch… A journey of the senses (minus taste) across El Torcal. It is a modern visitor centre, efficiently fulfilling educational tasks and giving information on the various geomorphological systems. It is ideal for experts to check what they already know and for neophytes to learn a lot of interesting things. With all this knowledge inside my head, I set out on my tour. As I said before, there are two routes to explore El Torcal. Both of them are circular, and they have one section in common. The Green Route is an easy to moderately difficult route that takes 45’ to complete. The Yellow Route is also easy to moderately difficult, but longer (120’). The Green Route gives an overview of El Torcal, including a nice sample of formations. The Yellow Route guarantees an in-depth approach to the whole system. Both run inside the natural area, using broken dirt roads, so remember to bring comfy shoes and water. You could add your camera, binoculars, and cap to the gear. My choice: the Green Route. In a sort of mysterious game, the trail first hides and then, all of sudden, shows the heart of El Torcal. It is a world in which imagination reigns supreme –a world of dragons, pirate ships, giants wearing extravagant hats, hands making all sorts of gestures, Indian totems, prehistoric animals, castle walls and battlements. You will probably come across fellow visitors. However, the area is silent, and the soundtrack of Nature prevails over the noise of man. As I walk, I feel the millenary rocks beneath my feet, I comment on this or that formation, I take pictures, and I let go. Everything seems to be impossible at El Torcal, and suddenly I am seized by a barrage of questions: How can that wall stand up? How can this rock be in this position? How can? How come? It seems not possible, but Nature shows you that you are wrong: it is possible. It is there. The trail is clearly signposted. You cannot get lost. Whenever you get to a path fork, a sign tells you which way to go. And this is how I get to the fork connecting the Green Route with the Yellow Route. I leave the latter behind and move on. I spot some goats and a few slippery lizards too. Then I reach a cirque dominated by a 25m-high wall. It is quite overwhelming, with its damp, even wooded walls. My voice reverberates and comes back to me, as if I were in an echo chamber. Then I enter a narrower path, lined by trees and white rocks. Being yellowish, it somehow reminds me of the yellow brick road in “The Wizard of Oz.” In fact, the rocks seem to have been arranged by a magician. Other visitors, kids included, are playing the same game as me: trying to see things in the rocks. With so many visitors a day, El Torcal continues to be indomitable, a place ready to close upon itself at any time, or just when man stops walking down its trails. It gives you that kind of empty feeling. Metaphysics aside, El Torcal is an ideal place for kids, to stimulate their imagination as they try to find images where there are only rocks, as they construct their own imagery in the wood of stone. The last section before getting back to the visitor centre is a climb leading to another cirque and a walkway to the viewpoint of Las Ventanillas. I feel as if I had emerged from a magical world. But the viewpoint brings me back to reality, as I can see the village of Villanueva de la Concepción at my feet, protecting the secrets of El Torcal, the Mountains of Málaga and the Mediterranean to the east. The Mediterranean: the little heir of Tethys, the ancient water sheet that used to cover each and every one of the rocks you can see or step on today. The breeze brushes past my face. I turn around and there it is again: El Torcal, a secret in the heart of Málaga, and enchanted garden made of stone. Now let us head to our next natural area, very near here: the Natural Monument of El Tornillo del Torcal.


Walking slowly down the trail, I enjoy the silent sound of stone, the perfume of flowers, the brightness of colours. I look up and spot a bird of prey, flying against the bright blue sky. I am getting used to the fanciful formations; I can understand the shapes now give meaning to them, have them fit characters in stories or films. But I am still surprised. I smile and walk on, painting more imaginary beings with the finger of my imagination. I am in El Torcal, but these shapes could take me wherever I wanted to be.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Useful links:
To read more about El Torcal, visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window into Natural Areas. Also, the websites of Villanueva de la Concepción and Antequera Town Halls contain useful information to plan your visit.

Country travel: The region of Antequera and its area of influence feature three natural areas: El Torcal, El Tornillo del Torcal, and Pinar del Hacho. If you want to visit all three without winding up exhausted, you can stay at a country hotel with fully-equipped facilities. You can come in the summer, for most of them have swimming pools. “El Torcal” Country Travel Southern Association offers a full catalogue of country hotels very close to all three natural areas. This time, I stayed with my usual companion and nine other travellers at Villa Alba.

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

Geolocation: Find the exact location of this natural area on the Google map below.

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

Thanks to Jon, Mariví, Arregui, Paco, Sara, Andrés, Pepa, Rosamari, Jesús and specially to Antonia.


They are invisible. You need to look for them and find them, get to them, to their apparent silence and their glittering water. You need to go beyond the olives and holm oaks surrounding them and tread on the brownish earth leading to them. They are invisible and they are not easily accessible, but there they are, waiting for you, a promise of bright blue shades in the midst of ancient wild olives. Twin lakes in two sizes, Grande and Chica, slipping through your fingers. Two invisible lakes revealing their secrets only to the bold or the chosen ones. There they are, 760 and 823 metres above sea level, surrounded by strong hills peppered with olive trees. You can almost touch them, but you will have to be content with seeing them. The sun shimmering in them, a bird flying over your head and perching on the water. I hear dogs barking and hunters shooting in the distance.

Lagunas de Archidona Nature Reserve

Their invisibility is their blessing and their curse too. The lakes of Archidona cannot be seen from any major road. The A-92 highway, connecting Málaga with Granada, runs at about 1km from them, but you can barely hear the noise of vehicles riding along. Furthermore, they are private property, which means access must be authorised by the environmental authorities or the owners of the land. However, you can get to the shore and watch the landscape surrounding them: the water sheets, the holm oaks covering the slopes of Sierra de Gibalto, Sierra de San Jorge, and Sierra Gorda. The peripheral protection area covers 187ha and it can be freely accessed so, even if you cannot get to the lakes themselves (which together cover 7ha), you can walk around in the area. This protection measure has resulted in the abundance of all kinds of animal species, which meet visitors as they make their way around the lakes. The Archidona Lakes were named a Nature Reserve in 1989, but they are quite different from other lake reserves. First of all, they are surrounded by hills that hide them from view and so they seem to be sunk. Secondly, they are high above sea level. But enough of preliminary talk; let us get in.

The Tour

Exiting the A-92 at the Salinas detour, in the direction of Fuente Camacho, you drive into an asphalt lane where you can leave your car after you see the sign reading “Reserva Natural Lagunas de Archidona, 1km.” I park my car and get out to step into an uneven forest trail, perfect for a walk. I can feel the hug of olives as I leave the noisy highway behind –a dull, fading sound. The soundtrack changes: I can hear the first birds singing, the vibrant buzz of a cicada, a rodent gnawing at the bushes. I walk amidst the olives and the holm oaks, silent, in the hope of spotting an animal or two. But soon I realise that it is not necessary to be so quiet. Rabbits and hares jump here and there before me, and it is they who surprise me. I can see their white tails, their scurrying in the fields… According to what I read about this area, other mammals live here: hedgehogs, foxes, least weasels, common genets, European badgers… But I’m not that lucky this time. The olive trees punctuating my itinerary show their fruits, green or black and thin-fleshed –the Mediterranean essence at its purest. Our olive oil comes from here: the golden liquid making local flavours taste stronger. Do not try to eat one of these olives: they are so bitter! No signs of the lakes yet; it was true they were hidden from view. The lane goes up and down. The earth beneath my feet reveals small, star-shaped traces. Reptiles are common in the area; you may come across a Montpellier snake, a ladder snake, an ocellated lizard, a gecko, or a blind snake. There is no-one to be seen in the area. Just a dilapidated cortijo on the right and crop fields are the only signs of human presence. In the distance, shooting and barking. I walk on until I stumble upon two signs that indicate the lakes are private property. But there is no fence or anything. 10m ahead on the right-hand side, I spot the signs of human presence. Two white fences warn you, “Propiedad privada. Prohibido el paso. Do not enter.” A huge board and two traffic signs reinforce the idea. But the reserve’s sign is also there, so I come closer to read it. The lake opens up before me, sheltered by the nearby hills, which are covered in olive trees and holm oaks. Their invisibility is the key to their beauty: apparently calm water only rocked by a mild breeze. I focus my telephoto lens in an attempt to spot some water bird and there they are, swimming calmly in the distance: little grebes, black-necked grebes, great crested grebes, herons, mallards, Northern shovellers, red-crested pochards, Eurasian wigeons, common moorhens, Eurasian coots, little ringed plovers, Kentish plovers. The Grande Lake is 6 to 10m deep; in 1997, it was observed to be 13m deep. The Archidona Lakes are inner lakes fed by an aquifer that contributes water even on the driest summer days. More shooting: this time it sounds closer. I take a break, sitting on a rock facing Laguna Grande. I take a look at the setting: the thirsty olives, the holm oaks in the northern shore, the thick bushes. I go back to my travel guide, which tells me that in the bottom of the lake there live fish like barbels or mosquitofish (a surprising fact), and amphibians and reptiles such as frogs, common toads, natterjack toads, viperine water snakes, or even turtles (not so surprising). I take a couple of pictures and move on. The same trail gets to Cortijo de Las Lagunas, which affords spectacular views of the sierras and the oak grove surrounding the lakes. I take a look at the plants. More “Do not trespass” signs. One across the trail blocks access to Laguna Chica, which is only 0.5km away. What shall I do? Walk ahead or return to Laguna Grande? I do not want to be reckless, and the shooting and barking is now closer than ever, so I decided to return to the other lake. Secrecy is the key to the lakes’ beauty. The fact that only authorised visitors can go beyond the limits is the key to their conservation. The views of the Grande Lake form the hill are beautiful enough to make the tour worthwhile. The silence, the olives and the oaks, the singing birds… As I walk back to the starting point, I come across two cyclists. Their faces show signs of physical effort. No wonder: the trail contains some uphill stretches that must be difficult to negotiate on two wheels. They smile at me; I warn them about the road block; they say they will get as far as they can. Then they get lost amidst the olive trees. I can feel the lake at my back. In two more steps, it will vanish by sleight of hand. Oops: it is no longer there.


The light reflected in the water is still in my eyes, sparkling in my retinas with an iridescent tarnish. I think about the past, about how men related to lakes, about crops reaching their shore and pleading for something to quench their thirst with. I think about the dual nature of man: exploitation and conversation of nature. Together with Fuente de Piedra, La Ratosa, and Campillos, the lakes in Archidona make a large and valuable complex, essential to life in Málaga and Andalusia. Each of them has a nature of its own, they are all very different, but they share the reflection of the bright blue sky in their sweet and salty water. Here, on the hill, I can feel I am one with nature; I am part of something bigger. I touch the earth, I listen to the birds, I feel the harsh and intense smells of the summer, I watch the lake. And the lake is watching me.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

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

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

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