Thursday, 7 February 2013

A camino with sun, sand and excellent mountain walking

January. Santiago. The rain beat down. Day, after day, after day. Streets like rivers. Don Jenaro had died. The Dean of the cathedral had resigned. Everything was wet. Few pilgrims arrived.  It was depressing. On one of those bleak January days a new Dean was elected. Don Segundo Pérez. He has also been appointed Director of the Pilgrims’ Office until later in the year when the Archbishop will review the situation. He is an academic by background and is well known to us in the Pilgrims’ Office. A clever man who is very interested in pilgrims. We get on well together. I battled my way through driving rain to attend his inauguration. The ceremony was colourful. He spoke well. At one point I was startled by movement above me. I looked up and thought a bird was flying towards me. It crashed to the floor and smashed into hundreds of pieces. A piece of the cathedral roof loosened by the relentless rain had just missed my head.
In that instant I took a decision. I phoned the Big Man and asked him if he wanted to escape the winter. Scotland was freezing in deep snow.  “Let’s go and walk a camino” I suggested. I could hear the groan. “John, it is the dead of winter, all of the routes will be wet or cold or both.” “Not the route I have in mind.” I replied. And so we made our way to Gran Canaria to walk the 3 or 4 day route which links the churches of Santiago on the island. We also had details of other day walks including the magnificent Paseo Maratimo in Las Palamas.
Maspalomas – Tunte – 29kms                                                    
I had never been to the Canaries before and the first day was spent exploring Maspalomas where the route begins. It was everything I loath about tourist Spain. Overly commercial and seedy. The sign for “Benny Hill’s” says it all. The beaches and sand dunes would have been magnificent had it not been for thousands of German and Scandanavian grossly obese tourists wobbling half dressed across the landscape. I felt strangely out of place in my walking gear but there again I wasn’t there to bathe in the 26 degree sunshine. We soon found the first waymark of the route and set off early the next morning to walk the 29 kms from Maspalomas on the coast rising to the church of Santiago de Tunte some 1100 metres above sea level.
The idea of a Camino to Santiago linking the churches on the island has been around for a long time. However I understand that this first stage was invented fairly recently, and as you will read I am not convinced it is advisable to attempt it in one day. But we were here to explore and enjoy the good weather. Within a few kilometres we were walking along the floor of a magnificent valley with clear views of the mountains ahead. We would soon climb them. The initial ascent wasn’t harrowing but it was long although we were well compensated by the views. A few cyclists passed us some, pushing their bikes up the long hill. Generally the route is well waymarked. We followed the arrows until we came to a right hand turn from which the outline guide told us we would now start to go more steeply uphill. Tough but up we went. The sun shone. More sun screen. A picnic lunch looking back over the valley.
The main road which travels the length of the island is never far away from the route and can be seen from many points along the way.  This was just as well as after an exhausting 6 hours walking steadily uphill the waymarks disappeared. Our destination was obvious. It was the hill top town straight ahead and the climb up to it looked perpendicular!  At about 23 kms we sensibly made our way to the main road, had a coffee at a local café and took a taxi the final 6 kms. As the car zig zagged up the very steep road we knew we had made the right decision. Next time I'd split this first day into two.
We stayed in a magnificent hill top hotel with breathtaking views in Tunte with the church of San Bartolomé Apóstol with its image of Saint James and the sword of Santiago watching over the village. After a substantial breakfast we set off on the second stage to walk a further 19 kms up the mountain to the summit at Cruz de Tejeda, 1560 metres above sea level.  

Tunte – Cruz de Tejeda – 19 kms
As we set out up a restored Roman road it became clear that this was truly a mountain path. The peak loomed ahead of us obscured by low lying cloud which billowed in the wind. But the sun was shining and the views back down the valley all the way to the beaches of Maspalomas were beautiful.  It was tiring walking. Like 3 hours on a step machine without stopping. But it was very rewarding.
We reached a sign which assured us we were walking the Camino to Santiago and were about to start the “Via de la Plata” stage. We had read that this was the most beautiful section of the Camino de Santiago and were not disappointed.  The elevation was steep. We walked up a path formed by man-made walls which created a ledge on the edge of the mountain. The sun beat down and the views were as promised. We met a solitary hiker strolling down towards us. “Did you reach the summit?”  I asked. “No” he replied, “up there in the clouds it was raining and very cold.” Being Scottish we were prepared for sudden changes in the weather especially on the mountains. But it seemed unlikely here on Gran Canaria. Up we went. Now were resting every few minutes. A drink of water at the next corner. I took to sending photos of the views to friends in the Pilgrims Office. They reported the rain was still beating down and called me all sorts of names for making them jealous. However in a few short kilometres nature was to deflate the boastful Johnnie Walker. As we reached the plateau on the summit and entered the pine forest the sky grew dark and the wind picked up. Rain clouds burst all around us. In an instant we had on three layers, a rain shell and waterproof gloves. Visibility was reduced but we could see the way ahead marked by cairns. Every now and again the clouds parted and in the far distance we could see the sun drenched beaches on the coast whilst the ice cold wind buffeted us. I was reminded of the Scottish mountain walking of my youth and also of the maxim that lone walking in these conditions should be avoided.
Soon we began the descent. I sent off another picturesque photograph to Santiago. The reply is not printable here.
Then heavy rain assailed us. The path was soft underfoot and became more muddy with every step. I slipped and fell in the mud. I struggled to get up again. My walking stick broke. The Big Man started to come to my aid but his footing was also unsure. I looked at him. “Laugh and you’re dead” I said as I gave in and slithered down the muddy path on my backside. At the bottom I stood feeling like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Lashed by rain I changed into other shorts behind a bush and then we slowly made out way to the Parador which nestles on the edge of the mountain at Cruz de Tejeda.  I kept in the background as we checked in. The only clue to my presence were the tell tale muddy steps I left in my wake.
We met a delightful lassie in the local Tourist Office who had walked the Camino Francés. She said the weather the day before had been an idyllic 16 degrees with sunshine and full visibility. She imparted the unwelcome news that the unexpected storm was likely to continue for two days. “you will not be able to continue on foot” she announced. Having checked out the restaurants, wine lists and particularly the excellent spa of the hotel I glumly prepared to dig in for a couple of days. It was a real sacrifice but it had to be done.
By lunchtime the following day the weather had lifted enough for us to walk down the mountain just a few kilometres to the beautiful village of Tejeda. Later  the weather turned again but we were assured of sun and clear skies the following day as we made our way to the coast. The Tourist Office girl described some of the sections of the next stage as “exquisitely beautiful”. She showed us a photograph in a brochure:
Cruz de Tejeda – Pinos de Gáldar – Santiago de los Caballeros – 30 kms
With the description of the stage ringing in our ears we breakfasted at 7am and waited for first light. As we set out the wind picked up again and the mist rolled in. We decided to keep going. We had a steep climb for a couple of kilometres and then the route began the descent of 1547 metres we would make during the day. The weather closed in further. It rained. Occasionally the clouds parted revealing spectacular scenery. The problem was I couldn’t see a damned thing. We walked down tracks formed when the volcanoes were active. Down and down and down. After a few hours we came out of the mountains and the weather improved. I realised that although I was disappointed not to have seen the promised views I had a ready-made excuse to return to Gran Canaria.

The trip ended with a very pleasant couple of days walking the coastal path around Las Palmas. The weather was 26 degrees the day we left. I sent another photograph of a road side thermometer to the Pilgrims’ Office. There was a one word reply.
For strong walkers interested in an unusual variant of the Camino to Santiago on an island with excellent weather (I was just unlucky) I highly recommend this route. The hotels are expensive but of high quality. The walking is superb.

Next time (which might be soon) I won’t linger on the coast. I now know the bus schedule which will take me direct to the mountains on this island of sun, sand and excellent mountain walking.

Hasta la proxima! 

The village of Tejeda - I know where the bus stop is!



  1. Glad to learn that you had a successful and partly/sunny walk! Your photos are great.

    All the best.


  2. Now when I was looking for a walk to beat the winter blues I should have come up with this. I knew there was something out there but I didn't discover it.

    So your discovery is tucked away for later, and thanks for not hoarding your walk.

    Scottish hillwalking is indeed a preparation for rapid weather change. But no bothies on Gran Canaria! A wee tent will have to do.


  3. Interesting blog! I'm planning to walk the Via de la Plata some day, but want to start with this camino on Gran Canaria. What do you think is a good place to break up the first day?