Like the spokes of a contorted wheel, rugged ridges and volcanic ravines radiate outwards from the island’s mountainous core to the coast. Roque Nublo, the core of an extinct volcano, is only the most emblematic of weathered crags.
Gran Canaria is the place to gorge on canyons, spent volcanoes and fortress-like peaks. But if you’re a dreamer, you’ll feel the Canarian warmth behind the canyon-ravaged terrain. This rocky hinterland was the last stronghold of the Guanche, the Pre-Hispanic people, whose presence is scored into the cliffs and tombs. But I didn’t expect to find their spirit lingering on in the lives of today’s Canarians, who still cling onto their ancestral caves, both as a cultural reflex and as a weekend escape.
It’s a ravishing drive from the southern beaches, over switchback mountain roads. Although only an hour away from partying Playa del Ingles, it’s like being catapulted back into troglodyte times. The hills of Acusa Seca, near Artenara, are pitted with ancient caves, some abandoned, some restored, and a few, like these, welcoming visitors.
We’re in a cave-dwelling once inhabited by Canarian aborigines but now lived in by a charming woman called Dolores. She was brought up here but now treats it as her weekend retreat. The cueva is cosy and `civilised,’ complete with bathroom and kitchen, though she still hankers after her outside oven. But the views are wild. I’d happily live here if I could wake up to this view every morning – volcanic craters, slashed ravines pitted with caves and prickly pear. When more space is needed, the locals simply burrow into the soft volcanic ash to carve out new rooms. Lava-stone caves keep a constant temperature so are cool in the heat but warm when chill winds blow. Some homes even have small chimneys to let smoke out of the kitchen. Since the 1960s most residents have moved to neighbouring Artenara but keep their caves as second homes and wine stores.
Just as I’m romanticising it, Pablo, a weather-beaten neighbour and full-time resident, reveals the unvarnished truth. As a child, he had to trudge to the bottom of the ravine to fetch buckets of water twice a day. His sister was killed by a falling rock. His family was so poor that he was only allowed to smell, not eat, the cheese his mother made to sell. Everything was transported by hand or on mules. Dolores delivers a steady look, as if to say, `you’re still here; it’s your home.’ Her memories are happier, from the cave-chapel to the school that flourished in her grandfather’s day, when the cave population was closer to 300 than six, today’s tally of full-time residents. Dolores shrugs: “It’s just as well most of us moved out as there was so much inter-breeding.”