A road trip to Barranco de las Vacas from Las Palmas
“Barranco de las Vacas? Never heard of it.” After getting nowhere quizzing locals about this ravine – which bears more than a passing resemblance to Arizona’s Antelope Canyon, we start to think it might be a myth, or an Instagram fabrication.
“I’d never heard of this place either until about a year ago when photos of it started popping up on social media,” says Michelle Segura, a born and bred Canarian and graduate of University of Las Palmas. “It’s so exotic-looking that I assumed it must be located in the American Southwest, not here on the island.”
To find out if this highly photogenic spot really does exist, we set off on a road trip – or rather a convenient combination-tour of bus rides, short taxi trips and an unforgettable two-hour mountain hike in and around the spectacular Guayadeque ravine-style valley. Easily accessible from Las Palmas, but thrillingly remote in feel, it stretches some 15km across the southeast section of Gran Canaria.
Stop at the Botanical Garden of the Canaries
Heading south from Las Palmas, whizzing past the beautiful harbor and into the mountains, we can’t resist a pit stop at the Botanical Garden of the Canaries, which is partially set on the slopes of the Guiniguada ravine.
The bus stops at the top entrance of the 27 acres (10 hectares) garden, where a statue of 18th century botanist and scholar Don Jose Vieray Clavijo greets us. Behind him, majestic views across the mountains spread as far the eye can see. The rustle of palm leaves in the wind, and the solemn call of a buzzard over our heads add to the soothing ambiance.
So far, so tremendously relaxing, but we only have to amble a short distance along the labyrinthine path before a warning sign demands our attention.
“We warn our visitors that you are entering a highly dangerous track. Enter at your own risk.” And one for the adrenaline junkie it is. Little did I know I suffered from vertigo until I progressed like a shaky-footed sloth down the unfenced zigzag steps built into the side of the ravine. (Do take care and wear sturdy footwear!)
Down at the bottom, the only sign of life – aside from some 500 types of plant species that thrive in this expansive world of green-growth – are chirping birds, and chirruping, pond-skating frogs. It’s in this lush, tranquil part of the garden that its founder Erik Ragnar Svensson has been put to rest. His grave is hidden among the trees at the side of the path. Proving he’s not forgotten 47 years after his death, a fresh bouquet of flowers rests on his grave.
Time to get some rest
Following the cardio-style workout this wondrous place has afforded us, we refuel with some much-needed caffeine in the resident restaurant. Next, we continue south in the direction of the municipality of Agüimes, located some 29km from Las Palmas, and a short car ride or about an hour’s hike from the Vacas ravine. The historic quarter of Agüimes, often described as an “open air museum,” has several centuries-old buildings of note, such as the Church of San Sebastian.
Other places of curious architectural note are hiding in the mountains – as in the actual mountain-wall – some 6km away in Cueva Bermeja. Taking a seat within the cave-like setting of Bar Restaurante Guayadeque, we eagerly tuck into local specialties such as Jamon Serrano, chipirones (baby squid) and papas arrugadas – small potatoes boiled in extra salty water and smothered in a tasty chili and garlic-infused sauce. (If, like us, you want to sample several dishes in one sitting, make sure to state that you’d like half portions or tapas-style servings, unless you plan on feeding an army! The same goes for most restaurants in and around Las Palmas.)
There are a couple of residential houses embedded into the mountains, too. You’re allowed to step inside some of these dinky dwellings, in which souvenirs and pots honey from the region are lined up for sale.
Don't miss the hamlet of Temisas
Determined to weave a mountain-trek into our adventure while also getting to experience more of the island, we take a taxi from Cueva Bermeja to the little hamlet of Temisas in the Santa Lucia district. From here, we’re able to hit the S-40 mountain trail that will take us to Barranco de las Vacas (the trail continues to the center of Agüimes, with the ravine located roughly in the middle).
Temisas is a gem in its own right, its white houses looming out of the distance like clusters of sugar cubes. We can’t resist a quick walk among them. A lady notices our arrival, curiously peering out from a window to the soundtrack of what we assume (and hope) is a garden goat.
The streets are lined with olive trees – in fact, they’re everywhere. It so happens that this little spot, surrounded by ancient olive groves, has the oldest olive press still in use on the island, producing what’s considered to be its finest oil. Temisas is also home to Gran Canaria’s astronomical observatory.
As much as we enjoy the tranquility of this unique hamlet, the siren call of Barranco de las Vacas is getting stronger. Turning back to locate the trail, we meet a man in his Sunday best – cobalt blue, tailored trousers and a patterned shirt – and a lapdog by his side. He helpfully points us in the right direction and off we go.
Continute towards Barranco de las Vacas
Leaving the colony of white houses behind, we start our ascent. It feels as if we’ve been teleported into some sort of wild-west movie. Clouds of sandy, reddish earth form around our feet as we trample along the trail under the beating sun. Enormous fruit-bearing cacti spread out like a powerful, prickly army. Progressing down the steep valley and up across the next elevation, we pass row after row of waist-high aloe plants – a super species the Canarians make sure to capitalize on. There are several shops in Las Palmas (and at the airport) dedicated solely to aloe product, cherished for its healing properties.
The dizzyingly beautiful Guayadeque terrain is home to an array of endemic plants and creatures. We keep our eyes peeled for a Gallotia stehlini lizard, a giant species that can reach 80 cm (31 in.) in length. Alas, no sightings today.
Edging closer to our final destination, we meet a young Portuguese couple asking for help in locating the somewhat hard-to-find Vacas ravine.
There’s more than a hint of desperation in their voices as they’ve traveled from the far south of the island specially to see it.
As we traipse down the trail leading to the tunnel under the bridge (we’ve been told to look out for this), another couple appears from the other direction. Beaming, the German pair tells us to prepare for something “epic.”
As the clock strikes 6pm, we’re privileged to be the only worshippers of this natural wonder. Bathed in the soft, early evening light, it looks even more extraordinary than on camera. The ravine’s curvaceous walls and linear rock-pattern usher us forward seductively. It’s a soothing otherworldly experience – as if we’ve been swallowed down into the belly of some alien yet benign organism.
So what gives this ravine its remarkable appearance? Its distinctive rock formations are called Tobas de Colores, a striped effect found also in the famous Antelope Canyon. Depending on the type of light it’s exposed to, it shifts in color from deep terracotta and amber to silvery beige. The curved shape of its walls, meanwhile, has been formed by water flowing through the volcanic rock.
The most picturesque section of the ravine – the one people come from afar to experience – is not sprawling by any means, measuring about 50m in length. But its manageable scale simply adds to its therapeutic appeal – it’s a difficult place to leave.
The silence within is almost absolute, punctuated by the occasional soft echo of fluttering dove wings. These birds have set up nests in the hollows of the rocks above. Barranco de las Vacas’ hypnotic charm clearly attracts wildlife, too.
Published: October 25, 2019