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Spain: Life on Mars

The lofty Martian landscapes of the volcanic Teide National Park make for an unforgettable walking experience

Spain: Life on Mars
Image: Getty

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It’s no wonder that sci-fi film crews love Teide National Park, I think to myself, as my hiking boots scrunch along the Roques de García Trail. Androids and monsters would look totally at home in this unearthly landscape, galumphing across the malpaís badlands or duelling among the twisted, timeworn towers of burnt rock that give the trail its name.

The park’s Martian qualities, volcanic origins and gin-clear skies draw space programme technicians, volcanologists and astronomers, too, who test equipment on its jagged contours, monitor its subterranean tremors and scan the heavens from Tenerife’s Teide Observatory, the largest solar observatory in the world.

But you don’t need to be a filmmaker, a scientist or even a hardcore adventurer to enjoy this unusual place. Over 30 hiking trails loop through the park, none of them overly technical, and the two-mile round-trip route I’m sampling is so accessible you could tramp it with young kids.

That said, even a short walk in a high-altitude volcanic region is not to be taken lightly. The Parador de Las Cañadas del Teide hotel, which sits in solitary splendour in a lava-strewn crater, is around 7,220ft up — 64% higher than Ben Nevis. Mount Teide, the dormant cone at the heart of the park, is the highest peak in Macaronesia (the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and Cape Verde) and over 650ft higher than Mulhacén in mainland Spain. Soaring 12,198ft, with a snowy cap in winter, it casts an imposing, triangular shadow and creates climate effects that impact the entire island. The sun up here is piercing. And the air is thin.

The tarmac roads leading up from the coast make the ascent to the Parador hotel a breeze. But when I step out of my car, my head spins a little. It isn’t just the rapid jump in altitude; there’s something about Teide that sends your sense of scale haywire. Freckled with boulders and low-slung plants, this sprawl of ancient, russet-coloured lava is so vast, it’s hard at first to comprehend exactly what you’re looking at. As I scan the scene, I spot a pair of hikers in the distance. They seem impossibly tiny, like action figures viewed through the wrong end of a telescope.

After settling into my own hike, the dizziness fades and I’m ready to focus on the details surrounding me. Despite its barren appearance, Teide supports rare flora and fauna, adapted to the aridity and fluctuating temperatures. In early summer, the gravel blooms with broom, mustard-yellow flixweed, thrift-like rosalillos de cumbre and delicate Teide violets, while the rocks and crevices hide over 1,400 species of invertebrate.

Then there’s the lava. Beneath the monumental Roques de García — one shaped like a cathedral, another like a sculpted head — the trail passes some beautiful solidified basalt lava flows: pahoehoe (smooth enough to tackle barefoot) and a’a (chunkier and spikier). The vistas are so open that Mount Teide’s mighty cone is a constant, brooding presence. “To the Guanches, it was the home of Guayota the Destroyer, the god of fire,” says Ancor Robaina, my guide.

The Guanches, who migrated to the Canary Islands from North Africa around 1000 BC, were right to treat Mount Teide with respect. The island of Tenerife is packed with evidence of the cataclysmic geothermal events that have and shaped it since the Miocene; the most recent eruption, in 1909, lasted nine days. When I ask if the present-day residents are expecting another one soon, Ancor is quick to reassure me. “Our experts don’t think so,” he says. “The Volcanology Institute of the Canary Islands keeps a constant watch for seismic activity. For now, I can assure you, this giant is fast asleep — and snoring peacefully.” 

volcanoteide.com

Read more tales of European walking trails here.