Lanzarote‘s volcanic landscape is completely unique and, although it may appear to be as inhospitable as the moon, it is in fact home to some rare plants and animals. Visiting the "Fire Mountains" is an experience you never will forget.
The eighth of Spain's fourteen national parks, Timanfaya represents the volcanism of the Canary Islands, which extends into the present day. The Canaries are the only part of Spain which is actively volcanic, Lanzarote's volcanic landscape is completely unique and, although it may appear to be as inhospitable as the moon, it is in fact home to some rare plants and animals. And what's more, the "Fire Mountains" act as a kind of outdoor laboratory where we can observe life returning to a once-barren landscape.
How Timanfaya was created ...
"On 1st September 1730, between 9 pm and 10 pm, the earth suddenly opened up at Timanfaya, two leagues from Yaiza. A mighty mountain formed in the first night, and flames shot from its summit, which continued to burn for a further nineteen days." So begin the diary entries of Don Andrés Lorenzo Curbelo, then the priest in Yaiza, who wrote down what he saw during that first period of what was to amount to six years of volcanic eruptions in the eighteenth century. These were hard years for the Lanzaroteños, even though the volcanoes did not rage without rest. There were periods of inactivity which might last several months, giving the people some periods of respite. Yet even when no lava or ash was being spewed out, the earth would still occasionally be shaken by recurring earthquakes.
The story has it that during these six years, not one person was killed by the volcanic eruptions. This could just be sheer luck, but it is also without doubt due to the type of volcanic activity which occurs here on Lanzarote: the local form of volcanism is not explosive, but effusive. Rivers of lava and pyroclastic matter erupted from fissures over distances of several kilometres, all with relatively little explosive power. So little, that is, that in Yaiza , only "two hours away," people could watch on as the "Caldera de los Cuervos" volcano was created.
Although, as we have said, no one was killed, many villages were destroyed all the same. Chimanfaya, for example, which gave its name to the national park, and Santa Catalina, whose residents moved away to the north and founded the hamlet of Los Valles. In all, around 200 square kilometres of Lanzarote were buried under lava and ash, about a quarter of the island. Only around 51 square kilometres of this area are part of the National Park. And it is surrounded by the Parque Natural de los Volcanes, another conservation area, which acts as a kind of buffer zone around it.
Most of Lanzarote's volcanic cones emerged along a fissure which runs west-south-west to east-north-east, spewing magma from the depths of the earth, which poured out over the surface as lava. That's why Lanzarote's volcanoes are typically arranged in a linear pattern. There was another fissure running north-north-west to south-south-east, and along this one, too, small volcanoes formed. The volcanoes we find on Lanzarote are of the type known as cinder cones: small cones made of pyroclastic material which has been thrown out and piled up all around. Each of these cinder cones has one or more craters, and there are about 25 of them in the area of the National Park.
When the eruptions occurred, most of the lava flowed from the volcanoes' vents down towards the coast and into the sea. As a result of the eruptions from 1730 to 1736 the area of the south-west of Lanzarote grew quite considerably. When the volcanoes were finally quiet again, we were left with extensive lava fields of aa and pahoehoe lava, hills of volcanic ash, volcanic tunnels, and little hornitos. Of the once fertile farmland there was no trace.
Volcanic activity returned in 1824, but only lasted three months. In this period three volcanic cones were created - Tinguatón, Tao and Chinero, of which only Chinero, the "Volcán Nuevo del Fuego," is inside the National Park. Since then Lanzarote has been quiet - at least in terms of volcanic activity.
... and came back to life ...
Immediately after the eruptions, the "Montañas del Fuego" region was as empty and uninhabited as it is possible to imagine. Anything which had legs or wings had fled from the lava flow, hot ash and volcanic bombs, and all vegetation was destroyed. Yet in the midst of this rocky desert there were still places where life went on: the so-called "islotes" are old volcanoes, created by eruptions in the distant past. The lava flowed around them, and so they remained as little areas of refuge where animals and plants could survive. And it is from these points that the re-colonisation of the lava plains and fields of ash began after the eruptions.
But how can a plant take root if there is no loose soil, no earth? Before vascular plants can grow, the rock must first be turned into soil. This task is accomplished by lichens. They loosen the rock and over time turn it into soil. In the Timanfaya National Park over 170 species have been found so far, an enormous variety for such a small area. And it is thought that there are even more, but they are difficult to identify, often requiring microscopic examination. However, there still isn't any real topsoil on the lava plains to speak of. The lichens' activity and their effectiveness are very dependent on the weather - the damper it is the more efficiently they can break up the rock. Here in Lanzarote, though, there is very little rain - less than 200 millilitres a year - and so the transformation of the rock is a slow process. This is exactly the stage which Lanzarote's volcanic landscape is in now - the slow metamorphosis of the lava - and in several hundred or thousand years the thick carpets of lichen will increasingly give way to vascular plants.
Nonetheless, there are a few true survivors among the plant world, thriving on lava and ash despite the almost complete lack of water.
In the Timanfaya park there are over 200 plant species, most of which are found on the islotes, as there is a well developed layer of topsoil there due to their age. A large number of these species are endemic, in other words their natural habitat is very restricted: six species exist only here on Lanzarote, seven only on Fuerteventura, twelve on all the Canary Islands and four across Macaronesia. This is the region covering the islands of the Azores, Madeira, the Savage Islands, Cape Verde, and of course the Canaries.
The tough conditions - very little water or food and high temperatures - also make it difficult for animals to survive in Timanfaya. There are only three species of mammal: rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), rats (Rattus rattus), and the Canary shrew "musaraña Canaria" (Crocidura canariensis), and two species of reptile: the Atlantic lizard (Gallotia atlantica) and the East Canary gecko (Arentola angustimentalis). On the other hand, invertebrates are well represented, primarily insects and spiders. There are a staggering 120 species of them, many of which have adapted extremely well to the unusual conditions.
Timanfaya is also the habitat of numerous species of birds, and because of its location (just 125 kilometres from the African continent) a resting place for many migratory birds escaping the cold European winters. 22 species overwinter in the Timanfaya park and 20 actually nest there. In particular, the National Park's long, isolated coastline provides perfect breeding conditions for sea birds, for example, Cory's shearwaters (Calonectris diomedea), petrels (Bulweria bulwerii) and of course seagulls (Larus argentatus). Two species of falcon live in the park (the common kestrel, Falco tinnunculus, and the Barbary falcon, Falco pelegrinoides), there are barn owls (Tyto alba), fish eagles (Pandion haliaetus), ravens (Corvus corax), Barbary partridge (Alectoris barbara) and many others.
Each ecosystem a world of its own
Lanzarote's volcanoes can be divided into different ecosystems, each having its own special characteristics: the recent lava plains, formed by the eruptions of 1730 to 1736 and in 1824, the islotes - old land which escaped the effects of the eruptions, and the caves and volcanic tunnels, namely everything which is underground.
Conditions on the coast are different again from those inland, being strongly influenced by water and the wind. This habitat is ideal for halophiles - organisms which thrive in a salty environment.
The sea is also an important part of the National Park. There are three factors which have particular significance in the Canary Island region: the proximity of Africa, influences from southern Europe and the Mediterranean area, and the relatively cold Canary Current which flows past the islands. The sea which is within the area of the National Park is teeming with life: there are 59 species of fish, 120 invertebrates and 105 species of marine plants.
Visiting the Timanfaya National Park
Coming from the north, even before you enter the Park itself, you will come to the visitor centre - the "centro de visitantes e interpretación", where there is a permanent exhibition about the National Park, with lots of clear explanations of volcanism, lava, the history of the region, its habitats, etc. You can see documentary films and even watch a simulation of a volcanic eruption. The visitor centre is open every day from 9 am to 5 pm and admission is free. You will also find the Park guides here, and can book a guided walk, the "Ruta de Tremesana". This walk is usually offered three times a week for small groups and given in Spanish or English. On the three hour tour you have the chance to see volcanic landscapes up close and find out plenty of useful information. It's worth booking several weeks in advance if you're interested, as the limited number of places goes very quickly. You can book the tour only online on the website of the Timanfaya National Park www.reservasparquesnacionales.es If you need any help phone 0034-928 118 042.
Once a month, the guides also conduct a coastal hike, the "Ruta del Litoral". However, you don’t need to go with a guide to do this walk, unlike the Tremesana trail. The coastal trek is as beautiful as it is demanding - it covers nine kilometres, taking around five hours, over tough, rugged aa lava - and all in very hot weather and often in strong winds. It's definitely advisable to bring sun cream, a hat and plenty of water, along with something light to eat. Information is available at the visitor centre or on the number given above.
Some kilometres to the south of the Timanfaya visitor centre is the "Taro de Entrada" - the entrance to the heart of the "Montañas del Fuego" National Park. There's an admission charge here of € 8, and then you can drive about another kilometre to the "Islote del Hilario". A visit to César Manrique's "Restaurante del Diablo" is very worthwhile, but the real attraction up here comes in the shape of Lanzarote's geothermal curiosities. Artificial geysers shoot water metres up into the air; dry juniper bushes in a hole spontaneously combust, and meat is grilled on the heat coming up from the earth. At a depth of twelve metres underground temperatures can reach 600 degrees centigrade in places.
The Taro de Entrado admission ticket entitles you to take one of the Park's buses on the "Ruta de los Volcanes" - no one is allowed to take their own car right into the Park any more. The buses go about every 20 minutes, the tour through the main sites where the eruptions took place from 1730 to 1736 takes a good half hour and is a real experience, even if there's a window between you and the scenery outside.
And last but not least, if you go further to the south, shortly before Yaiza there is the "Echadero de los Camellos" - a small museum with information for visitors, and for a few euros you can have a short ride on a dromedary.
Whichever of these features most appeals to you, you simply must not leave Lanzarote without visiting the Timanfaya National Park - there's even a saying: if you haven't been to the Timanfaya, you haven't been to Lanzarote.
How the Fire Mountains became a National Park
In 1973, José Ramírez, then President of the Island government, received a postcard from a national park in New Mexico in the USA. The postcard pictured a volcanic landscape very similar to that of Lanzarote. Ramirez was impressed, and drew some parallels: what if the Fire Mountains were also granted National Park status?
At this time, well-known personalities such as César Manrique and Jesús Soto were working on the island, and Ramirez knew he could count on their support. They joined forces in their bid to have Lanzarote's volcanic region declared a national park. Scientific research was commissioned, concluding that the natural parameters of the volcanic region were unique and deserving of protection. And so it was that on 9th August 1974, the Fire Mountains were added to the list of Spanish national parks by Real Decreto (Royal Decree) number 2615/74. The National Park was re-categorised by the Ley (law) of 6/1981, which was in turn modified by the Ley of 4/1989. Real Decreto 1621/1990 finally set out the "Plan Rector de Uso y Gestion" (the land use and management plan).
Today the Timanfaya National Park is also a part of UNESCO's network of biosphere reserves (1993) and was also declared a ZEPA bird sanctuary (Zona Especial para la Protección de Aves, 1994) as part of the European Union's Natura 2000 campaign.
Not permitted in the National Park:
Walking or driving in the park except on the roads and paths provided.
Stopping or parking vehicles except in allocated areas.
Hunting of any kind or bringing firearms into the Park.
Collecting plants, animals or rocks.
Pot-holing or any other outdoor sporting activities.
Use of high volume sound equipment or megaphones.
Taking photographs or making films or videos for professional purposes. Special authorisation to do so can be applied for at the National Park office.
As per the definition given by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), national parks are areas of land or sea designed to protect the integrity of one or more ecosystems and maintain them for present and future generations, to prevent exploitation and other activities damaging to the area, and to create a foundation for spirituality, research, education, relaxation and visiting which is ecologically and culturally compatible.