Steve Barham describes his experience of trekking the still-developing GR131 long-distance route across all seven of the Canary Islands, covering 651km and 20,000m of ascent in five weeks and crossing an infinite variety of dramatic volcanic landscapes. 'Rambling Man' Steve spent some time quizzing our author Paddy Dillon on various aspects of the route, before embarking on this amazing journey.
Many people think of the Canaries as simply a place of sea, sun and sangria – on the beach by day and in the karaoke bars by night – but walkers know that they offer an enormous range of unique landscapes to explore on foot. And there is no better way to get a feel for their amazing variety than to complete the GR131 long-distance trail across all the islands.
My journey through the Canaries ended as it began, at a lighthouse on the edge of a desert. 650km after I had started the trail at the Faro de Jandia, on the empty southwestern tip of Fuerteventura, I found myself crossing the Dunas de Maspalomas on Gran Canaria to reach the lighthouse that towers above the teeming bars and restaurants of the popular resort. Bookended by these two sandy coastlines had been a wonderful range of trails with very little road walking and an ever changing environment.
They call Gran Canaria the smallest continent because of its many micro-climates and it’s certainly not alone among the islands for that.
Roughly speaking the easterly islands of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote are the lowest and driest and the westerlies – La Palma, El Hierro and La Gomera – are the most rugged and wettest but you will find contrasting elements within all of them.
The new GR131 route is well signed over all the islands now, with the sole exception of Gran Canaria (which still adopts a different system with trails marked as both PR GC and S) and with Paddy Dillon’s guidebook to that island you can’t go far wrong. Although camping is technically not allowed I didn’t hear of any problems if done discreetly and there are many stages that end in towns or villages with accommodation and if not a bus or taxi can get you to some.
It doesn’t really matter in which order you tackle the islands. For logistical reasons of ease of getting from one island to the next by ferry, or aeroplane, it makes sense to travel West to East or vice versa, but I wanted to build up track fitness over an easy first couple of weeks and so I started with Fuerteventura and Lanzarote before heading West to El Hierro.
Fuerteventura has the longest trail of the group, 160km over 9 stages and includes the little island of Lobos at the northern end. My first few days there gave me a good insight of the contrasts to come by starting at the barren tip of the Jandia peninsula, a lunar like landscape of muted beige tones with a range of low mountains as backdrop followed by a day amongst the tourist trappings of the coast around Morro del Jable and another across the vast Sahara-like El Jable to the western coast at La Pared.
From there the GR takes to the high ground to travel across the rugged interiors past abandoned old stone walled terraces at 500m with views over the ancient eroded holds towards the stage end at Pajara, a pretty, well-kept town. From the first of many information boards along the trail I was learning about the history and geography of the place and how, unbelievably in this infertile looking ground, grain was grown for export and Fuerteventura was known as the bread basket of the Canaries.
Over the next couple of days the GR weaves its way up and down old mulo tracks over crests and ridges, down into the lush valley of Vega do Rio Palmas, through the earlier capital of Betancuria with its preserved colonial buildings and plazas and up to 588m at Corral de Guize where two statues of the pre-Hispanic inhabitants the Guanche gaze out over the flat Northern plains where their sacred mountain Timdonya rises up like a pyramid. Then, after La Olivia, the chaotic jumble of a newish lava field, El Malpais (the Badlands), and again, nearing Corrlejo, more volcanoes but now with cones of ash or lappilli, finally ending with a 12km circle of Isla de Lobos, a miniature version of its neighbour.
First impressions of Isla de Lobos are of a barren mass of rock, lava and sand and yet it historically grew barley, wheat and lentils, hemp and flat and had lime, salt and fishing industries.
A short ferry trip across to Lanzarote and once out of the resort of Playa Blanco you are again transported into an alien world of lava fields and black ash, which surprisingly supplies the fertility the famous wine-producing vines need, trapping the nutrients and moisture below the drying winds. The GR crosses miles of these ash fields dotted with thousands of semi-circular stone-walled vine shelters.
Through Yaiza, where you can call into the aloe vera centre and learn about the skilful farming methods employed to utilize scarce resources, and on down a camel trail in a narrow gully through the lava with views across to the Timanfaya eruption site of 1730. Higher ground is reached on the chain of hills overlooking the coastal resort of Puerto del Carmen before coming down again into San Bartolome, where the must-see ethnographical museum, in a large colonial townhouse, is stuffed to the rafters with a collection of artefacts from the island and has charming mosaic-covered terraces and tranquil gardens.
An open, flattish and sandy area follows, El Jable, well known for supplying a wide variety of vegetables from its unpromising soils. At the next stop, the original capital Teguise, I was surprised by the fashionable shops, galleries and restaurants housed within its fine stone buildings, surrounded by spacious plazas and overlooked by an imposing castle atop the hill.
But outside of the gaudy brashness of some of the beach resorts, Lanzarote is indeed a very stylish island in a subdued and subtle way.
This is reflected in its typical architecture of simple cubist blocks, painted white, and often a great crossover of modern and traditional design, exemplified by the home, now a museum, of the artist and designer Cesar Manrique in Harria.
Before you reach there, however, you have to cross the highest point on the island at Penas del Cache. It‘s quite a climb from Teguise, mainly on a dirt track that steadily rises up the broad shoulder of the hills, but it reaches glorious views of the Famara Massif and a wonderful clifftop path.
There is more climbing to high ground after Harria too, on ash and rock, before the final descent through lava fields and aloe vera plantations into Orzola, the trail’s end.
Valverde, my next port of call, was the opposite end of El Hierro to the start of the GR, another lighthouse (faro) at Punta de Orchilla, next to the original 0 degree meridian marker at the westernmost point of the known world at the time of Columbus.
El Hierro is the youngest of the Canaries, and is still taking shape as the recent under-sea eruptions near the faro prove and the raw, jagged and twisted lava deposits around me looked fresh. In fact the islands are aged from east to west with Fuerteventura emerging from the ‘canary hot spot’ 20 million years ago and El Hierro the youngster at 1.2 million.
The walk up from the coast is fairly long and fairly steep, passing the Ermita de Los Reyes from where a statue of the virgin Mary is carried by pilgrims every four years to Valverde along the GR route. As you gain height you move into a lusher, greener world. One with grassy fields on either side of a walled track that could be in Northern Euope. One with cows and sheep and moss and bracken. As you gain still more altitude, above 1200m, the world changes again and you’re among giant heather trees, juniper, pines and laurel. The chances are you’re also in the cloud. I was, and as I climbed higher still all vegetation disappeared and I was hiking across a bare ash mountain to the top of the island, Malpaso, where views were sadly lost in the mist and cloud.
Occasionally, as I lost altitude, the clouds would draw back to reveal a view of the lower landscapes to the east and the fertile flatlands of Frontera beneath dramatic cliffs to the west.
The path continues all along the high spine of the island slowly descending through the vegetational zones again. A mix of the exotic and the mundane – brambles and agave, willow and avocado, clover and geranium and giant cistus – lined the muddy track.
Finally a stone-paved path takes you down through scrub to the ferry port at Estaca
La Gomera is larger but is still completed in 2 days. A day is spent climbing from the coast at Vallehermoso with its palms and vegetable plots, up past the terraced fincas and into the Garajonay National Park and the dripping laurisilva cloud forest, nourished by the trade wind mists and garlanded with lichen, at about 1000m, then before Chipude open ground is reached with truly dramatic ravines and the Valle Gran Rey displayed in all their glory.
The day stage after Chipude started equally awe-inspiringly with marvellous paths and vistas before descending into the cloudy forest and emerging below it again to the sun and a very rugged boulder track down to San Sebastian and another ferry.
La Palma, the steepest island on the planet, was the one I had been preparing for and there are two stages I’ll have to return to complete. Again, it contains enormous variety and again it holds the cloud closely to itself on the higher ground.
Starting at yet another faro at Punta de Fuencaliente the GR climbs up past the recently (1971) erupted volcano of Teneguia and climbs up through dry pine forest to reach the ash slopes of the ‘volcano route’ which rises through an unforgettable landscape of cones and calderas before entering cloud forest again with a stage end at El Pilar recreational zone.
The route continues for two tough days from there up to and around the ridge of the Parque National de la Caldera de Tabuiente, the highest ground on the entire GR getting up to 2400m. Unfortunately the wind, rain and cold didn’t allow me to continue so instead I enjoyed a hike into the centre of the 9km wide crater, sleeping below the magnificent Roque de los Muchachos at a campsite location well worth getting to.
The ferry schedule to Tenerife left me with a day to explore Santa Cruz de la Plama, the picturesque capital of attractive and colourful old buildings with flower-bedecked wooden balconies overlooking cobbled streets of shops and cafés.
In Tenerife I left my pack behind for a few days, staying in lodgings in Vilaflor and taking the first two stages downhill before getting a bus up to the Parador in Parque Nacional del Teide to carry on across the high and dry plain along the top of the island with Spain’s snow-capped tallest mountain rising up to 3720m above. The trail passed by the Canadas, the flat areas traditionally used for summer grazing in the cooler mountains, although it was hard to see what the goats can find to eat there. It wasn’t until the end of the day’s route at El Portillo that the pine trees began again as I started to lose altitude and found myself a nice pitch for my tent on a small buff overlooking a sea of cloud that parted later to reveal the lights of Puerto de la Cruz far below, in carnival it seemed as fireworks and the sound of drumming filled the night sky.
A long descent down the lush and fertile northern slopes was like entering a different island with moist dewy grasses and deep rich soil replacing the arid barrenness of the high plain.
But the GR131 soon climbs back up from the La Caldera recreational zone on dramatic tracks across cliff faces and under teetering buttresses of rock. In many places the path is lined by wooden railings and furnished with wooden steps as it climbs up and over forested ridges, Mt Teide’s snowy peak often visible above the pillowy clouds. 1400m of ascent resulted in an 11-hour sleep that night on a bed of soft pine needles, and a series of stepped paths the following day brought me down, once again into the mossy world of the cloud forest to finish on muddy tracks through the laurel.
Gran Canaria, my last island, has long been a favourite with hikers, and justifiably. Although not marked as the GR131, the route is signed from Puerto de las Nieves on the northwest coast, up through the cloud forest of the Parque Natural de Tamadaba, across the dramatic and mountainous interior and finally south over the dry and rocky Parque Natural de Pilancones to finish at the lighthouse beside the dunes of
Maspalomas at the bottom of the island. I think some of the routes I took across Gran Canaria stand out as the most beautiful and enjoyable with stunning vistas and a range of different types of path and trail, including, on the stretch across the mountains leading down into San Bartolome, the highlight for me of the entire trip.
This was an exquisitely made stone-paved mule trail, flat and smooth enough that you don’t need to watch your footfall, allowing you to soak up the glorious views surrounding you as you zigzag down on massive buttresses across the face of towering cliffs with the scent of lavender, almond, thyme and a potpourri of other flowers filling the balmy air.
But that stretch on Gran Canaria was only one highlight among many and its the richness of contrasts between and within the seven Canary Islands that make hiking the GR131 such a special and rewarding experience.