Just two days ago I was sitting in my high heels under fairy lights, eating gourmet Thai food and drinking fine wine, now I am sitting in absolute darkness, somewhere under the earth’s crust. The only sounds are a faint voice somewhere deeper into the earth, and the breathing of the folk I know are around me. Under my feet, even through my boots, I can feel sharp, volcanic stone, and my hands rest lightly on the cold ledge on which I’m sitting. The one point of reference is someone’s watch face glowing eerily in the otherwise perfect lack of light. The darkness heightens my other senses. It’s a strange and interesting feeling.
Two experiences more different are hard to imagine, but they are both part of the rich variety that is part of the magic of Tenerife, and that’s what has pulled me back every time I’ve tried to leave so far.
I’m in Cueva del Viento, the fourth largest lava tube in the world. It’s the largest lava tube in the European Union, since the first three are all located in the Hawaiian Islands, and the longest labyrinth of tubes. So far 17 kilometers have been explored. On an island famous for its caves – the native Guanches were living in caves when the Conquistadors arrived – this is special, although no signs of habitation have been found, it has revealed many other mysteries.
“These rocks, these caves, where else can you shine a light where no human’s been? There is nowhere else left on the planet to explore.”
Those are the opening words of the trailer for the movie “Sanctum”, which I saw recently. They send a thrill through me which I can’t possibly explain. We reach for the moon and study the stars and other planets, and yet there is a universe beneath us, whether under the oceans or under our feet, which we haven’t fully explored. If I could live my life over this is one thing I would love to do, explore the unknown, try to understand the links between what happened millions of years ago and now. So much of the Earth’s early history is hidden under our cities and farmlands and mountains.
In these labyrinths in Tenerife skeletons of fauna now extinct have been found, animals which must have wandered or fallen in and lost themselves in the myriad tunnels, which became their grave, including a giant lizard, never seen by human eyes. The animals which do live here, only one of which we have seen, have adapted, as cave-dwellers do, losing pigmentation, growing antennae to compensate for the lack of sight, and learning to survive for long periods when there is no food. Water does seep through and so do the roots of plants and trees for some sustenance.
Cueva del Viento (Cave of the Wind) lies just outside Icod de los Vinos, one of my favorite villages, and I even enjoy the drive, which takes just over an hour from the south. It meanders along the hillsides of the west coast, before dipping into the pretty village of Santiago del Teide and then climbs upwards again into the Teno region, possibly the oldest part of the island, before winding its way through the narrow streets of the outskirts and suburbs of Icod, where you have to pull over to let cars going in the other direction pass.
We have booked for the 11 o’clock tour. There are four per day and numbers are limited to 16, so booking in advance is a good idea. Before we set off we are given a short talk and watch a video. We learn that this tube is the result of eruptions of Pico Viejo, which is the volcanic peak which rises close to El Teide in the National Park. Leaving our daypacks behind, but taking cameras, we climb aboard two mini buses which take us to the beginning of a short walk which will lead us to the cave.
When we arrive at a clearing on the forest road we are given helmets with head lights, and cosy, kind of head warmer caps in bright pink – you can judge from the photo whether we look more like Smurfs or as if we are about to pick up our knitting alongside Madame Guillotine!……and if anyone wants to send in a caption they are most welcome.
The walk, through a wood of Canary Pine, however, is all a part of the tour, as we learn to identify different types of lava, and our guide, Raico, talks about the plant life around us. This is all to be relevant later. It’s all about the connections between life above and below ground. He speaks with passion and enthusiasm, and soon has us hanging on every word, as he throws in an odd joke and a quirky local tale about how the cave was first discovered; this last as we gather around a grating in the middle of the wood, which protects the entrance to a chasm which we lean over to see falling away into the bowels of the earth. This isn’t the entrance though.
The entrance, when we arrive, almost takes me by surprise. It certainly isn’t the showy, touristy place I thought it might be. We descend through a gap in the earth, quickly, down steps and into the yawning space beneath. We are told how to walk, picking up our feet, any shuffling would have us flat on our faces on the prickly floor, and of course, we mustn’t touch the sides of the cave unless it’s an emergency.
There are no lights along the tunnels, any “interference” with nature has been kept to an absolute minimum, hence the head lamps. There are handrails and steps only where it is essential for safety, and other than that the only sign of man is the information boards at various points to illustrate and explain what we are seeing.
These are well-done, explaining the formation of this cave and volcanic activity in general in easy-to-understand language, embellished by Raico’s knowledgeable descriptions and nuances. As well as gathering around the boards, we stop at various points where he explains how the passageway along which we are walking was formed, as fresh lava cooled quickly (within twenty to thirty minutes to my surprise) along the walls, and points out different types of rock; how this tube differs from the ones in the Hawaiian Islands; roots of the hardy Canary Pine thrusting through the ceiling or tells us about the five species of fauna known to be exclusive to this cave system.
At the end of our walk is the chasm which we had seen from above, now we are looking up and blinking at the shaft of light and the bracken trailing over its edge. This last talk informs us that this labyrinth is actually on three levels, and we learn how this can happen, basically, as new eruptions occur and new lava flows over the original tube. Sometimes the floor of the new lava system collapses onto the one below, forming a new tunnel. More information and now my head is swimming in an effort to both translate it and remember it all (there are tours in both English and German btw). After everyone has taken their snaps we turn around and head back, very reluctantly.
About half way back we hear voice ahead of us, another tour group. This is, apparently, unusual, for two groups to cross, but this is a special group from one of the cruise ships which now regularly put intoSanta Cruz. We sit on the handy shelf the cooling lava formed and wait as they pass.
Once they are gone, Raico instructs us to turn off our lights to experience how it must be to live underground, and that’s when other senses begin to stir.
It’s over far too soon. As we arrive back at the compact visitors’ center another group is heading off, this time with an guide speaking English. We spend a little time chatting with Raico and looking at the information boards there with a new understanding. We understand better the relationship between above and below ground, about the connection between the elements and the earth, about how volcanoes are formed and what happens to the ground when they cool, and a dozen other things. Caving, for instance, which is classified as a sport-science, became popular only at the end of the 19th century, and here, in Tenerife, began in the 1960s. An information board pays respects to the first explorers of the region.
I ask Raico if all of the information he’s given us is on the website, and he says no, because if they give too much information perhaps people won’t come, and they need people to come to fund further research and maintenance. As yet it isn’t a protected site, (unlike the Teide National Park or the city of La Laguna, which are both World Heritage Sites) despite its status as the largest lava tube in Europe, despite the fact that there are no less than five species unique to the cave and despite the fact that skeletons of extinct fauna have been discovered there. They hope to be able to offer more extensive tours in the near future, and we eagerly put our names down for information when it’s available.
If you are visitingTenerifeor if you live here I highly recommend you to visit, to help promote and maintain this unique witness to history. It’s a fascinating tour, and since getting there and the tour takes about half a day, you can combine it with something else in the area, or just visit one of the excellent restaurants around Icod de los Vinos. (Just one word – don’t try the one opposite to the visitors’ center – more about that another time!) It is just €15 with a discount for residents, and you need sturdy shoes and a jacket or sweater.