Lanzarote: The Volcanic Landscape of Timanfaya National Park
The Island of Lanzarote is one of seven large islands and many smaller ones which comprise the archipelago of the Canaries. The group lies in the Atlantic Ocean, just 100 kilometres (60 miles) off the North West coast of Africa, close to the border between Morocco and the Western Sahara.
A semi-autonomous Spanish territory, the Canary Islands is today a hugely popular destination for holiday makers from all over Europe - people who are attracted mainly by the guaranteed sunshine and the beaches, and who come for a relaxing laid back vacation in a safe and stable part of the world. Safe and stable politically, but one wonders how many visitors know of the intense violence which lies just below the surface of these islands - a natural violence which has moulded them throughout their entire history? This archipelago was formed in a series of great volcanic eruptions many millions of years ago, and these volcanic origins and more recent seismic events still impact on the appearance of the islands today. And none more so than on Lanzarote, the fourth largest of the Canaries. Of all the islands in the archipelago, Lanzarote is the most unique, with dramatically alien volcanic debris covering a large part of the western side of the island.
This page is the story of the Lanzarotean landscape, it's explosive creation and its subsequent history, and its existence today as one of the most forbiddingly beautiful environments in the world - now established as a very important site of geological interest and a National Park. The story is told through the author's own experiences, and photographs taken on a visit to the Island of Lanzarote in February 2014.
THE CANARY ISLANDS AND LANZAROTE
About 23 million years ago there was nothing visible at the surface in the region of ocean where the Canary Islands now exists. But far beneath the ocean surface there had been magmatic stirrings for many tens of millions of years. Submarine volcanic eruptions which were associated with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean and the movement of the African Tectonic Plate on which the Canaries stand, had been laying down lava deposits on the sea bed, and eventually these would break through the surface to create Fuerteventura, the first of all the Canary Islands. Further explosive eruptions led to the emergence of Lanzarote c15-20 million years ago. Since then this zone of activity has tended to move westward, creating Gran Canaria, Tenerife and La Gomera between 9 and 15 million years ago, and La Palma and El Hierro just 1-2 million years ago. The process is still continuing today. Even in the past few years indeed there have been submarine eruptions in the vicinity of the smallest, most south westerly and most recent of the main islands, El Hierro. Here, molten lava has once again begun to break the surface of the water. It appears that the island of El Hierro is still in the process of growing and expanding its borders, or possibly yet another new island is forming in the ocean nearby.
The precise nature of the rise of the Canary Islands is still debated by geologists, as all geological models which seek to explain their evolution seem to throw up some contradictions, though it is generally accepted that they were created by the force of magma pushing through the ocean crust on the African Tectonic Plate. Formation of the two most eastern islands, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, was rather different to that of the other islands, because both Fuerteventura and Lanzarote are founded on a raised submarine plateau, the 'Canary Ridge', c1400m (4500 ft) above the deep ocean floor. The more western members of the archipelago all rose directly from the ocean floor, and consequently have much deeper, more expansive bases, and today most of these - Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Palma and El Hierro - have also achieved much greater maximum elevations well in excess of 1200m (4000 ft) above sea level.
Subsequently, the islands have also developed differently according to their dates of formation and the manner in which hot spots have progressed on the African Plate. The islands have gone through a phase of initial expansion, phases of less activity when erosion has been the predominant process, and then phases of rejuvenation manifested in sporadic volcanic eruptions. And despite the 20 million year age of some of the islands, the slow moving nature of the African Plate means that these processes have by no means finished. They continue today. Indeed, all of the islands except La Gomera (believed to be in the erosional phase) have been active within the past million years, and four have been active in recent centuries - most notably Lanzarote. Lanzarote is believed to be currently undergoing the rejuvenation stage.
Eyewitness Account of the Eruptions in 1730 -1731
During the 18th century eruptions, a local priest, Father Andrés Lorenzo Curbelo recorded the events in his diary. Selected entries are reproduced here:
"On the first day of September, 1730 between 9 and 10 o'clock at night, the earth suddenly opened near Timanfaya, two miles from Yaiza. An enormous mountain emerged from the ground with flames coming from its summit. It continued burning for 19 days. Some days later, a new abyss developed and an avalanche of lava rushed down over Timanfaya, Rodeo and part of Mancha Blanca. The lava extended over to the northern areas to begin with, running as fast as water, though it soon slowed down and ran like honey.
On September 7, a great rock burst upwards with a thunderous sound and the pressure of the explosion forced the lava going northwards to change direction, flowing then to the North West and west North West. The lava torrent arrived, instantly destroying Maretas and Santa Catalina in the valley.
On September 11, the eruption became stronger. From Santa Catalina lava flowed to Mazo, covering the whole area and heading for the sea. It ran in cataracts for six continuous days making a terrible noise. Huge numbers of dead fish floated about on the sea or were thrown on the shore. Then everything quietened, and the eruption appeared to have come to an end.
But on October 18, three new fissures formed above Santa Catalina. Enormous clouds of smoke escaped, flowing over the whole island, accompanied by volcanic ashes, sand, and debris. The clouds condensed and dropped boiling rain on the land. The volcanic activity remained the same for ten whole days with cattle dropping dead, asphyxiated by the vapours.
On March 20 new cones arose, with more eruptions continuing for 11 days.
On April 6, the same cones erupted again with even more fury. And on the 13th, two more mountains collapsed into their own craters making a frightful sound.By May 1, the fire seemed to have burned out, only to start up again the following day, with yet another new cone rising and a current of lava threatening Yaiza itself.
Towards the end of June, 1731, all the western beaches and shores were covered with an incredible number of dead fish of all species -- some with shapes which islanders had never known before. In the North West, visible from Yaiza, a great mass of flames and smoke belched forth accompanied by violent detonations. In October and November more eruptions took place which worsened the islander's fears.
On Christmas Day, 1731, the whole island shook with tremors, more violent than ever before. And on December 28, a stream of lava came pouring out of a newly risen cone in the direction of Jaritas. It burned the village and destroyed San Juan Bautistas chapel near Yaiza".
(The full text is referenced at the foot - 'Volcanic Eruptions': Lanzarote-Guide)
Lanzarote - the History of Eruptions in Recent Times
Even though Lanzarote long ago passed away from the centre of the North Atlantic hot spot, the island is by no means geologically dead. And indeed, Lanzarote has been the site of the most extensive eruptions in the Canaries in recent centuries. A major geological upheaval occurred in the 18th century. Between 1730 and 1736 more than 100 volcanic vents in the west of the island began ejecting lava in an area which is now known as 'Montañas del Fuego', the Mountains of Fire. And 32 new volcanoes rose up during this period to become permanent features over an 18 km (11 mile) southwest to northeast stretch of land. During the prolonged eruptions of the 1730s, which was one of the most sustained seismic events in our recorded history, lava flowed over fully 200 sq km, or about one quarter of the island's surface, burying eleven local villages. Fortunately, it seems nobody was killed by these eruptions, as the villages had already been evacuated, but the effect was to be profoundly devastating on the island's agriculture based economy, as these had been some of Lanzarote's most fertile soils. The tearing apart of the island finally came to a temporary halt on 16th March 1736.
The graphic account by an eyewitness which is translated opposite gives a vivid impression of what it must have been like to see this event first hand.
Lanzarote wasn't finished however. After a period of dormancy, sporadic earthquakes signalled a new eruption which occurred over three months in 1824 at Nuevo del Fuego in the region of Tiagua. Alhough this was much less violent than the events of 1730-36, a new cone now known as the 'Black Volcano', was created at this time.
Since 1824, the area has been quiet. However, the climatic conditions in this part of the world - no ice and no rivers, and very little rainfall, has meant that any erosion of the now solidified lava fields has been minimal. The consequence is that the entire landscape created by these eruptions has remained in an almost pristine condition. Today, primitive lichens grow on many of the rocks but higher forms of vegetation have found it hard to gain a foothold because of the lack of soil and the lack of significant rain. And just a few metres beneath the surface, temperatures today still reach 400-600°C, whilst even at 10 cms, the temperature in places can be as high as 160°C. The result of this is that the entire area has become something of a geologist's paradise of craters and cones and lava fields, and volcanic rocks of every kind.
And in 1974, the region's importance was recognised with the designation of a protected National Park status. The 'Parque Nacional de Timanfaya' or Timanfayo National Park (named after one of the unfortunate destroyed villages) was created. And since then, the whole region has become a tourist attraction, and the most distinctive feature on the Island of Lanzarote.
THE REST OF THIS PAGE WILL CONCENTRATE ON A VISIT TO TIMANFAYA
Interactive Map Showing the Timanfaya National Park
This Google Map
This interactive map of Lanzarote shows all the main towns and resorts, and the location of the Timanfaya National park. By zooming in or out by using the + and - button options, the details of the park routes can be seen.
Dragging the little man figure to the map will show some photos of the area which can be rotated to different viewpoints.
Getting to the Park
Visitors can take the coach excursions organised by most of the resort hotels or travel companies on Lanzarote to visit Timanfaya, but if self-driving, the route to take is the LZ-67 between Yaiza and Tinajo in the west of the island. This is not difficult to do, and with few side roads, there is no real danger of losing one's way.
Timanfaya Camel Rides
The National Park can be approached from either the north side or the south side along the main road LZ-67, but if one approaches from Yaiza in the south, then before entering the park there is an opportunity to take a camel ride through the volcanic landscape.
It is very easy to find. One enters a car park on the left side of the road, and the camels are already lined up waiting for their passengers. there is a small gift shop and museum at the site but it's not necessary to go in - tourists who wish only for a camel ride can just pay the camel driver outside before getting on board. Seats are arranged one on either side of the camel's back.
Is it worth it? The ride is rather short - about 20 minutes - and it costs six euros. And there really is only one sight to see from the back of the camel which cannot be seen from the roadside below - the view shown in the photo at the top of this section. But it's an experience, and vacations are about experiences, so why not try it?
Entering the Park
Heading on from the camel riding attraction, it is only a short distance to the National Park itself, and a visitor's fee is required here. At the present time the fee is 9 euros if you are driving yourself to the park, and entry is via a small toll booth. There is only one road which can be taken from there, and it leads up one of the volcanic hills to the main tourist centre - a restaurant and car park. During the drive to the car park, it is not permitted to leave the car - preservation of the delicate surface features and some rare flora which exists here are the reasons for this restriction.
Irrespective of whether you arrive at the park by excursion from a resort or by using your own hire car, there is only one way to drive further around the most impressive areas, and that is on one of the official tourist coaches parked up near the restaurant.
Satellite Image of the Park Entrance and Restaurant on the Lz-67 Route Between Tinajo and Yaiza
The Restaurant and the Demonstrations of Heat to Be Found Beneath the Surface of the Earth
The starting point for the coach tours through Timanfaya is the area around the car park and the restaurant in which meat is cooked by geothermal heat rising from a volcanic vent in the ground - a natural barbecue.
The restaurant - El Diablo - receives mixed reviews and doesn't offer a huge selection of meals, but visitors may like to try it just for the novelty of having one's food cooked in this way.
Adjacent to the restaurant, there are periodic demonstrations of the activity beneath the Earth's surface. Water is poured down a short metal pipe, and instantly it is turned into a geyser of steam. In another demonstration, dry brushwood pushed into a hole in the ground ignites in a burst of flames.
And the many volcanic cones which surround the restaurant site afford a great panoramic view as one waits for the next coach tour to start.
The author's visit to Timanfaya National Park was on 2nd February 2014. The camel ride and the coach tour were undertaken, but regrettably I was unable to book a guided walk in advance as no walks were available on the official web site. Photography was not ideal either. The day was predominantly sunny, but there were patchy clouds and sporadic bursts of rainfall, including one whilst on the coach tour. As a result some images were taken through a rain spattered window. The point I am making is that under good conditions, anyone can take photos as good as or better than those displayed here.
Sight-seeing in the Park
The official coach tours around the National Park are included in the park entry fee. The coaches follow a 10 kilometre (6 mile) winding road called the 'Ruta de los Volcanes', through the most dramatic scenery - a route not open to car drivers. Although the coach will stop along the route, photos have to be taken through the windows because sadly, even when taking the coach tour, one cannot disembark.
For those who really have a desire to experience the raw atmosphere of the park away from the restaurant area and without a pane of glass in the way, it is possible to do so, but only with a lot of forward planning. While no one is allowed to just wander unescorted around the volcanoes, the Spanish National Parks authorities have launched a guided walk service (available in Spanish or English) along routes in the park. In order to use this service, you must book at least 48 hours beforehand, but possibly very much further in advance than this as demand is high, and these walks are only occasional with a maximum of 7-8 walkers allowed on each. There is now a choice of different routes including a coastal hike and a walk close to the site of the 1730-1736 eruptions. Walks last for a minimum of 3 hours and cover a distance of 3 km or more. Bookings can be made through this link to the National Parks Site.
Opening times of the restaurant and park vary during the year, with the park being open for longer in summer. Check before you go, but usually the restaurant is open from noon to about 4.30 pm. The last coach tour leaves soon after this, and the park is open from about 9.00 am to 6.00 pm or 7.00 pm.
Mention must also be made of the Timanfaya Visitor's Centre. this is an exhibition with audio-visual displays and general information about Timanfaya and vulcanicity in general. It is free to enter and can be found on the LZ-67 a short distance north of the park, close to the village of Mancha Blanca.
And Five More Images to Conclude This PhotoessayClick thumbnail to view full-size
It is rare in this world to find pristine sites of scenic wonder so accessible to all. By their very nature such sites attract crowds, and the commercial interests soon follow. But Timanfaya National Park is less than an hour away from major tourist resorts, and yet remains unspoiled - an hour away in Earth time but seemingly more like a million years away in its raw nature and its alien atmosphere.
Indeed, Timanfaya was extensively used as a setting for the 1960s movie 'One Million Years BC' (Remember? The one with Raquel Welch in a fur bikini plus assorted dinosaurs?) Many other films, usually involving primeval settings, have also been made here.
Timanfaya is easy to visit in relaxed and comfortable style, but it offers a chance to see the real Earth and perhaps to reflect on just how fragile our existence on its surface may be; the mighty forces which shape this planet still go on, but only just a few metres down in places like Timanfaya.
Of all the millions who visit this island each year, only a fraction will get to see Timanfaya, and the tiniest of fractions will walk in the Park. The author of this article couldn't, but if you get the chance then take it, because experiencing this other world will stay in the memory long after the hotels and hotel pools have begun to fade.
All photos taken by the author on 2nd February 2014
Please feel free to quote limited text and photos from this article, on condition that a viable link back to this page is included
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References and Links
- Canary Islands - Mantleplumes.org
- Volcanic Edifices and Morphologies of the Canary Islands - Excerpt
- Canary Island volcano: A new island in the making? - BBC News
- El Hierro Volcano eruption - Mail Online
- Volcanic Origins - Canary Islands: Latitude of Life
- Montanas del Fuego - Lanzarote isla mitica
- Volcanic Eruptions - Lanzarote-Guide.com
- Volcano Timanfaya, Canary Islands - Active Volcanoes
- Lanzarote Timanfaya National Park - Lanzarote 37
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