Monday, 19 December 2011

The crowned head leaned out. He saw the gorge carved by the wise hands of Nature. The mountain split in half and a mighty river flowing in the middle. A walkway hung from the walls reaching up for the bright blue sky. The king stepped on it. He felt the powerful vibration of the water coming up from the rocky outcrop. Gently, Alfonso XIII turned on his feet and left. Since then, the walkway has been called “El Caminito del Rey” (King’s Trail). Nobody knows if the name has to do with its being so narrow or with the King’s visit on May 21, back in 1921.

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Los Gaitanes is a legendary natural area, an open secret, a magic place hikers and mountaineers tell stories about. Every new murmuring voice makes the myth grow bigger. They say birds fly beneath your feet, the air flowing up is so powerful it can tear all anchorage off, the stone walls shudder at the roaring river, a train took two hikers by surprise in the middle of a long tunnel, the concrete in the trail gives way when inexperienced travellers tread on it, leaving them hanging in the vacuum, in some areas the stone walls get so close no sunlight can get in, at night you can hear the footsteps of those who died due to lack of care… Myth, legend, and reality blend in this impossibly beautiful natural area. Now it is closed to the public until the rehabilitation work comes to completion. When it is finished, Los Gaitanes Gorge will be one of the most outstanding tourist attractions in Málaga Province. In this trip, I can only take a look from the outside, but it will be enough to tell you about it, to take pictures and shoot images, to make the legend grow.

Los Gaitanes Gorge Natural Area

I can feel the might of falling water thumping beneath my feet. Man has taken advantage of this power to generate electricity and give rise to the landscape surrounding the gorge. In the hilly plains of Guadalteba, three sheets of water glitter under the sun. They embrace the gorge where the Guadalhorce river flows whose name it has lent to the whole area. The reservoirs are Conde de Guadalhorce, Guadalteba, Guadalhorce, and Tajo de la Encantada. Together, they capture the deceitfully mild landscape of the region. But the gateway to the secret world of the never-ending gorge housing one of the oldest hydro-electric power stations in Spain is the reservoir of Gaitanejo. Man and Nature seem to have agreed to create an amazing landscape here. And History has played her role too: riots, conquests, impregnable castles, Umar ibn Hafsun, the ruins of Bobastro, Mesas de Villaverde, churches carved in the rock. I can fancy those legendary horsemen galloping past the Aleppo pines and the stone pines, the holm oaks and the eucalypti, the hawthorns and the gorse, the rockrose and the savins. Or looking up at the golden eagles, common kestrels, sparrowhawks, and griffon vultures flying over their heads. Or feeding on Spanish ibexes, rodents, and freshwater fish swimming upstream. All these species still live in the 2,016 hectares of this natural area. Biologists even say they have spotted a couple of Egyptian vultures. The gorge has a slope of almost 800m: it is 240m above sea level on its lowest point and 1,195 on its peak in Sierra Huma. It was designated as an Outstanding Area in 1987 and a Natural Area in 1989. The natural area spans the villages of Ardales, Álora, and Antequera. The gorge itself has its origin in Ardales and its terminus in Álora. In between, there is a 5km ravine whose stone walls can be up to 70m high and get as close as 10m to the opposite side. In some stretches, the gorge’s depth is 400m. It owes its beauty to erosion, sandstorm and limestone, and the power of water. There are three main trails inside the natural area: Sendero de Haza del Río, Sendero de Sierra Huma, and Sendero del Gaitanejo. I have chosen Gaitanejo –a moderately difficult-to-easy 5.5km trail that takes two hours to complete. Clearly signposted, it leads from Mirador de los Tres Embalses to the Gaitanejo Hydro-Electric Power Station. From the station you can access, off the beaten path, the entrance to Caminito del Rey, and then back to the viewpoint skirting the cool, shady reservoir.

Trail of Gaitanejo, Part 1

It is clearly signposted and easy to follow. Before reaching the Conde del Guadalhorce reservoir housing complex and restaurants, a detour to the right shows the way to the trail of Gaitanejo. A dirt road before a tunnel leads to the viewpoint of Tres Embalses. 400m ahead of the viewpoint there is the entrance to the trail, accompanied by an information board, a map, and a barrier blocking access to unauthorised vehicles. I park my car nearby and get ready to go. The delicate trail stands in sharp contrast to the majestic mountains in the direction of El Chorro, which seem to pop out of nowhere –a fit of the earth, an angry gesture. They reach up and up, the gorge being a wound in the rocks. Peaks that seem to be the result of chisel work before erosion. The emerald-green water of the Guadalhorce river glitters down there, at the bottom of the valley. If you follow the course with your eyes, you can see the dams of the Gaitanejo reservoir. I get wrapped in the fresh aromas of the autumn morning, the intense smell of pines. I can hear my footsteps in the gravel: crish-crish-crish. A flock of tweeting birds in the crown of a tree takes me by surprise. Green against green, the Guadalhorce zigzags between its carved banks, past the woods, the shrubs, the reed. Voices of men suddenly come to me. The acoustics of the place brings them so close… They seem to be right here, by my side. I turn around but see nothing. The voices come from down there, from the river bed. I reach a 100m tunnel. No need for a torch: both the entrance and the exit are visible, and the tunnel lets the sun in. My footsteps echo in the vaulted space. As I walk down the trail, I can see the peculiar rock formations: how the clay has crumbled, leaving cavities and holes. In fact, the phenomenon known as taffoni is usual in the region, becoming evident in the trail connecting the exit of Los Gaitanes in El Chorro and the Ardales road with the reservoirs along the bank of the Granadillo stream. Taffoni in all shades and sizes. Since the dawn of time, man has taken advantage of erosion for shelter, making houses or cattle enclosures out of caves. In the next reservoir I am going to visit, some of these houses can be seen. They used to belong to the workers of the power station. I can now hear the murmur of water. As I get closer to the dam, it gets louder and more persistent. I can also see the power station, the access blocked by the metal gate. To the left, the water falling in the dam and the trail sign. Next to the gate, a path leads to Caminito del Rey, but the sign warns, “Caminito del Rey: impassable trail. Stay clear. Danger.”

Caminito del Rey

I cannot resist the temptation to get to the place and lean out. It is just 200m around the power station. Access blocked, but it is there. The legendary trail: Caminito del Rey. Still, you can take a look at the impressive gorge. In 1921, King Alfonso XIII visited the area on the occasion of the opening ceremony of the Conde del Guadalhorce dam. Besides admiring this large-scale engineering feat, the King wanted to see Los Gaitanes Gorge from the Gaitanejo reservoir and the railway by El Chorro. For the King, and also for the men working in the area, the engineers leading the project designed a projecting 5km walkway going into the gorge with a 400m slope. The walkway was 70m high in some stretches, hanging above the narrow bed of the river. The gorge became really narrow at times: only 10m wide. The wind roared amidst the rocks at breakneck speed. The beauty of the whole thing was undeniable. Official chronicles say the King went all the way along the caminito, making wise remarks on the hydraulic works and the railway project and laudatory comments on the beautiful landscape. The workers who went with him, however, say that, when he say the walkway, only 1m wide and hanging in the middle of nowhere, he kindly refused to take a step forward. The trail has since then been known as “Caminito del Rey.” We will probably never know if the diminutive has to do with the trail’s width or its length. Leaning out is an overwhelming experience. The roaring water falls abruptly into the narrow river. The thunder seems to climb up the steep walls, reaching up for the open sky. The trail shakes at the power of the river. I can see the first stretches of Caminito del Rey, hanging like a sort of balcony. Endless walls up and down. The trail is dilapidated and broken. The warning does not leave room for doubt: stay clear. There are lots of videos on the Web from people who have done it anyway, walking along the shaky trail. Some use ropes and harnesses. Some do not.

Nature makes us feel so small. Certainly, a majestic, aggressive, radical, intoxicating, impressive, unique environment.

Trail of Gaitanejo, Part 2

Back to the trail of Gaitanejo. The images and sounds of the narrow gorge keep bubbling in my head. The sound becomes an echo, a murmur, a part of the legend. When you see the peaceful water in the reservoir, you cannot guess that, 200m from there, a cut, a wound in the mountains changes the whole thing. The trail back to the viewpoint is cool and shady, amidst pines and eucalypti, by the greenish Guadalhorce, in an interplay of bends and meanders. Taffoni can be seen on the rocks across the river. Some of them are protected by what looks like adobe walls. “The Cathedral” is right there: a natural monument resembling the frontispiece of a church. The sandstorm has come off, giving rise to countless cavities on a huge vertical wall. An arch seems to crown the whole structure. “The Cathedral” is reflected in the undulating river, which constructs and deconstructs the image all the time. I can hear the voices again, but now they come from up there. More birds flapping their wings and flying away. The clucking birds splash around. They fly very low, almost hugging the water with the tips of their wings. A great walk, ideal for kids. And one of the most important power stations in Andalusia. From the river bed, you get back to the viewpoint of Tres Embalses from the lower part. The huge mouth of the Guadalhorce reservoir becomes visible first, followed by the Conde del Guadalhorce reservoir. Their drainage systems reach the bottom of the river, pressure withhold the mighty water. The pine trees lead to forking paths: up to the viewpoint and the car or ahead to a tunnel and panoramic views of Conde del Guadalhorce. Right of the tunnel exit, there is El Kiosko, a restaurant to replenish your energy reserves. My choice: going up. Great views. Stark contrast between the quite water in the reservoir and the chaotic gorge. It cannot be the same water, boring through the rock and splitting it in half. Leaning on the wooden rail, I stare at the landscape of Guadalteba, with Ardales and the Turón river in the background. I take a deep breath and think how variegated, polyhedral, and unique Málaga is.


The roaring beneath my feet. The thundering water. The steep walls reaching up for the bright blue sky. The rickety balcony plunging into the gorge. The echoes of a thousand myths and legends, of stories going down a narrow path, of History, of bold and reckless adventurers. The workers who built the trail did not know they were carving the link between human action and nature, thus giving birth to a matchless environment. I think I can make out a tiny king, swallowed by overpowering Nature. Let us wait for the rehabilitation project to be completed, and it will be our footsteps that can be heard, echoing those of the people who walked along the trail before us. My companion whispers in my ear, “I did it. I walked along Caminito del Rey.” I turned around, but the voice vanishes in the rocky walls.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Useful links: All the information on Los Gaitanes Gorge can be found at the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Government of Andalusia, A Visitor’s Window Into Natural Areas. The Ardales andÁlora websites also contain useful information. Likewise, the posts on these villages in this blog also offer information on food, heritage, culture, events, and hiking routes. See Ardales: An Ancient Encounter and Álora: The Fenced-in Town and its Royal Road.

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

Fotografías: Se muestran en este apartado la colección completa de fotografías correspondientes al post.

Geolocation: Find the exact location of this Protected Natural Area on the Google map below. See The Blue Colour of the Sky: Málaga’s Natural Areas on a bigger map.

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