Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Lanzarote: Caldera Blanca

I'm sure I must have walked over a fair amount of volcanic rock in my time on the hills of England and Wales but none of it displayed its origins as obviously as the terrain we hiked in Lanzarote earlier this month. This was our first visit to the Spanish island just off the north west coast of Africa and we were determined to make the most of our week there, alternating hiking days with days exploring the local culture and history.

The choice of Caldera Blanca as our first walk of the holiday was pretty much made for us - almost every website we visited (including the Happy Hiker's excellent pages about Lanzarote) said this volcanic cone was a must-do. We were staying in Arrecife so it was easy enough to set the alarm for an early start and jump on the bus to Mancha Blanca*, a village just a few miles away from this dormant volcano.

Caldera Blanca from Mancha Blanca.

The bus dropped us off in the middle of Mancha Blanca, a small village built in the island's characteristic architectural style - low, rectangular houses, painted dazzling white to reflect the sun's heat, with interesting quirks of detail that ensure there's no risk of dull uniformity. Bright flowers adorned walls and gardens. It was around 8.30 am and there didn't seem to be a soul about, although the Spanish sparrows were making enough noise for the village's human and bird populations put together.




We made our way to the outskirts of the village, gazing at wonder at the views to the south west of us, where the Timanfaya National Park lay just a few miles away.




Not long after we'd left the houses behind we joined a rough - but drivable - track through farmland. This led us to a visitor car park at the edge of the lava fields, where our hike would begin properly. From here we began to follow a winding path through an extraordinary landscape of fractured volcanic rock that stretched as far as the eye could see. Caldera Blanca and neighbouring mountains rose starkly from this dark sea of lava like islands in an archipelago.

The winding path through the lava field.
Montaña Tenezar.

Lanzarote is actually the oldest of the Canaries, emerging from the nascent Atlantic Ocean millions of years ago after the African and American continental plates began to break apart.** The ancient volcanic mountains that originally formed the island have long been eroded though and the calderas that dominate its landscape now are far younger. The lava fields around us were created by continuous eruptions that took place over the course of six years, from 1730 to 1736. They devastated the islands economy, destroying swathes of fertile farmland and eleven villages. These arid plains became known as the malpais or badlands.

Hostile though the environment remains, with a near total lack of soil and rainfall to nourish the infertile rock, life has made inroads into this otherworldly landscape, lichens and mosses leading the way.




And there were occasional flowers and small shrubs growing alongside the trail too, adding a welcome splash of colour to the walk. After a while we arrived at the base of La Caldereta, the smaller cone that sits beside Caldera Blanca. There was soil underfoot and across the hillside here - and the wildflowers took full advantage of it, providing ample evidence to back up Lanzarote's claim to be an island of perpetual spring.






A side path branched off from the main trail and we made a quick diversion along it to take a look inside the crater of La Caldereta. Lanzarote's dry climate is exacerbated by prevailing winds that draw what little moisture there is off the land. The calderas of some volcanoes not only provide shelter from these winds but also channel precious rainwater down onto the floor of the crater. This brings down nutrient-rich sediment and creates a natural "nursery" in which to practice agriculture. La Caldereta was used in this way to grow cereals and there are remains of dry-stone structures inside and outside the cone.

La Caldereta
Old farm buildings on the northern slopes of the crater.

You can walk up onto and around the rim of the caldera but we decided to press on and do the main climb of the day first and then see how we felt afterwards. We returned to the main track and carried on westwards - in doing so we crossed a vast channel of lava that had poured between the two peaks and down onto the plain below, like a river flowing into the sea. Even with the variegated colours the lichen had created across some of its surface this dark river of basalt still stood out in stark contrast to the lighter slopes of the volcanoes on either side.

Looking up at the lava cascade as we made our way across it on the trail.
Looking down the lava flow to the plain it created and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

Once across this solidified cascade we left the main trail and doubled back on ourselves sharply, following a narrow and rough path up to the base of Caldera Blanca.

A narrow path up the edge of the lava flow took us onto the side of Caldera Blanca.

None of the walking we'd done so far was technically difficult by any means but the volcanic rubble wasn't the most comfortable terrain to walk on even in our boots. The ground underfoot on the side of Caldera Blanca was different altogether - solid rock that was a pleasure to walk across. The path lay in a narrow channel and this led us upwards on a gentle incline. Aside from the views opening out below, it barely felt like we were gaining height and we reached the rim of the volcano in no time and with what felt like little effort.

The path up.
To the north east, La Graciosa.
Montaña Tenezar
Nearing the rim of the crater.
Stepping up onto the edge of the caldera was one of those take-your-breath away moments. It was immediately obvious why this hike is at the top of nearly everyone's list of recommendations.





The summit was pretty much directly opposite where we stood and we set off to the left, following the ridge around clockwise. I'm not sure how much more height there was to gain once we were up here but it wasn't strenuous walking and the near constant breeze mitigated the heat of the sun which was now burning off the light cloud of the morning.



Some scrawny-looking sheep paused to give us the once over and - evidently not very impressed with what they saw - moved slowly away as we headed in their direction. I can hardly blame them. I hadn't shaved that morning and I'd also somehow contrived to smear sun screen over my scruffy, old cargo shorts. Add my beer belly to the equation and they probably decided I was a poor substitute for the sporty young couple who'd previously overtaken us and were now on their way back down from the summit marker.

Shunned by the sheep, I consoled myself with the scenery. The Timanfaya National Park had come into view again with the height we'd gained.

Following the crest of the ridge.
Looking south west to Caldera Roja and the mountains of the Timanfaya National Park.
Tubes in the rock on the ridge.

Just before we reached the summit marker we were passed by another group of walkers, who posed there for photos and engaged in a little song-and-dance routine before settling themselves down on the base of the pillar for lunch. We carried on a bit further along the ridge and found some rocks to sit on that looked out over Timanfaya. Here we ate own sandwiches, waiting for them to depart, watched closely all the while by a pair of beautiful Canarian ravens.







Energy levels replenished and summit pillar free, we posed for the obligatory photos before carrying on along the crater rim, which now began to head downwards. The gradient wasn't steep but the loose sand and gravel was surprisingly slippery and we had a few moments where we thought we were going to end up on our backsides - including one where I wasn't even moving! I'd stopped to look at a butterfly and suddenly one of my feet went from under me. I managed to retain my balance and made sure I had a sure footing on solid rock before doing a quick 360 degree scan to ensure there'd been nobody around to witness my flailing arms.

At the summit.
Looking east from the summit - Mancha Blanca visible just left of centre.
Looking roughly west to Risco Quebrado.

There is a col lower down the ridge which you can cross to ascend the neighbouring summit of Risco Quebrado. This name translates as broken crag or cliff and presumably derives from the fact that the original caldera had partly collapsed during or after its formation. It was a handsome peak and we thought it was probably more fun than climbing La Caldereta on the way back, which seemed to offer only the same views as Caldera Blanca but on a smaller scale.

Heading across the col.
Looking back to Caldera Blanca.
Panoramic phone pic of Caldera Blanca from Risco Quebrado.
The broken cliffs of Risco Quebrado.

After returning to the saddle between the two peaks, we had a couple of options. The rim of Caldera Blanca drops down considerably here before climbing again to where we'd first joined it - we could follow this route and return the way we'd come. Alternatively, there was a path down from the lowest point of the rim to the base of the cone which would offer the chance of some slightly different scenery. We decided on the latter.

The path down the north western flank of Caldera Blanca.
Looking back up to Risco Quebrado.

Below Risco Quebrado we were surprised to see some isolated patches of farmland, including some enclosed pastures with animals grazing. It seemed a little incongruous in the middle of the lava field but we surmised that maybe the two volcanoes provided shelter and channelled water, creating an effect the same as inside the craters.

Farmland below us.

Eventually we reached the main track we'd been on before our ascent and we followed this through more fertile ground back towards La Caldareta.

La Caldereta in the distance.
One of several kinds of Euphorbia that flourish on the island.
Great grey shrike.

It wasn't long before we were back on the winding path through the lava field, heading towards Mancha Blanca, where we paused to buy some ice cold cans of pop before catching the bus back to Arrecife.

Re-crossing the lava field.
Back in Mancha Blanca.
Bus stop view - Montaña Tinache.

It really had been a cracking walk, even if the final couple of miles had been a bit of a slog in the early afternoon sun. We both agreed we'd happily do it again on a return visit to Lanzarote and, like many others before us, we thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking to hike on the island.

Date: January 2019

Walk length: 7 miles 

Duration: 5 hours

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For our next two walks on Lanzarote, please click here:


Montaña Corona

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A note on the title of this blog:

"Caldera Blanca" refers properly to the crater of this dormant volcano and the summit is marked on the map as Montaña Blanca. I've used Caldera Blanca (a) because that's how it was generally referred to when I was researching the walk beforehand, and (b) to avoid confusion with the well-known Montaña Blanca that dominates the skyline in Arrecife.

This is not the Montaña Blanca you're looking for...

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* One thing that soon became apparent to us on our trip was that Lanzarote boasts an excellent bus service that's frequent, reliable and cheap to use. The buses (more like coaches than the usual British vehicles) are clean and modern, have friendly drivers, and are a pleasure to travel on.

** There is a fascinating paper on volcanism in Lanzarote available to read in English here.

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