Beth Hancock, 25 March, 2022
Spain’s protected spaces range from impressive national parks to small but significant archaeological sites. Inntravel’s Beth Hancock takes a look at four sites which, to protect them for future generations, are only visitable with a permit.
Isla de los Lobos, Canary Islands
‘Lobos’ translates as ‘wolves’, but there were never any lupine creatures on this tiny isle. Instead, its name is derived from the colony of monk seals which once inhabited its shores – locals referred to them as lobos de mar (‘sea wolves’), presumably because of the large quantities of fish and octopuses that they consumed between them.

Although there are no seals nowadays, there is still plenty of flora and fauna to warrant this idyllic, road-free island being designated a nature reserve, accessible only with a permit. Characterised by volcanic cones, salt marshes, sand dunes and lava fields – a microcosm of its parent island, Fuerteventura – this diminutive isle’s variety of habitats means that it is home to no fewer than 130 plant species, some unique to the island, plus colonies of shearwaters and petrels.

Which Inntravel holiday? Ancient Fuerteventura (centre-based walking)

Trivia: The lighthouse on the island’s northern tip was manned until the late 1960s. The keeper and his family had to be largely self-sufficient, surviving for months on end without any contact from the outside world.
Teide National Park, Tenerife
Not for nothing was Teide National Park chosen for the filming of scenes depicting the seat of the gods in Clash of the Titans. The stark volcanic landscapes, striking colours (almost every conceivable shade of red, brown and grey), weird and wonderful rock formations, and the fact that its upper reaches are often above the cloud, lend it an otherworldly feel.

And then there are the views from the summit itself. At 3,718 metres – the highest point in Spain and in all of the Atlantic archipelagos – you really do feel as though you are on top of the world.

To enjoy this privilege, you’ll need to apply in advance for a permit. They are free of charge, their purpose being to limit the number of people on the summit at any one time – you’ll be asked to choose a two-hour slot, which is more than ample time to ascend from the upper cable-car station to the summit, and to drink in the astounding views.

Lower down, there are some fantastic walks within the massive volcanic crater from which Mount Teide rises. The route past the bizarrely shaped Roques de García is not to be missed, and the ascent to the highest point of the remaining crater wall, Alto de Guajara (2,715 metres), is also worthwhile.  

Besides the scenery itself, you’re also likely to be struck by the variety of plants which grow in this arid landscape. 50 of them are endemic to the Canary Islands, including the Viper's Bugloss or Tajinaste which, with its three-metre-high spikes, seems perfectly proportioned and in keeping with its striking surroundings.  

Which Inntravel holiday? To the Top of Spain (hotel-to-hotel walking) and Valleys, Vines & Volcanoes (centre-based walking)

Trivia: The original inhabitants of Tenerife believed that Mount Teide held up the sky, a notion that actually doesn’t seem that ludicrous.
Grazalema Natural Reserve, Andalucia
Ever heard of a species of tree called the pinsapo? No? I admit I hadn’t, either, until I joined Inntravel. As I learned from our Spanish route-finder, it is a rare type of fir (Abies pinsapo) that is only found in three forests in Spain (all in the south) and in tiny pockets in Morocco’s Rif Mountains. And that’s it. Since the last Ice Age, it doesn’t occur anywhere else on the planet.

It’s no surprise, then, that walkers need a (free) permit to enter the pinsapo reserve within Andalucia’s Grazalema Natural Park; that park rangers patrol regularly, checking visitors’ passes; and that the reserve is closed completely at times of fire risk.

As well as protecting the existing trees – some of which are 300 years old – the park authorities are ensuring the forest’s longer-term future by growing young pinsapo trees from seed in the park’s nursery. Nearby are the remains of an ancient saw-mill, a poignant reminder of how this now-rare tree was once felled to make masts for ships, sleepers for railways, and pit-props for mines. Hopefully the nursery can reverse the decline.

Besides granting you access to the forest, the permits also gain admittance to La Garganta Verde, which is special for another reason: 200 pairs of griffon vultures nest here. As you descend the stone steps of the ‘Green Gorge’, you are likely to see some of these raptors flying above your head, sometimes remarkably close. Having a wing-span of around 2.70 metres (for comparison, the ceiling height in modern houses is about 2.30 metres) they are impossible to miss, and fill you with just as much awe as gazing up at a 300-year-old tree.

Which Inntravel holiday? White Towns & Rugged Mountains (hotel-to-hotel walking) and The Grazalema Sierra (centre-based walking)

Trivia: Griffon vultures’ eyesight is good, but not that good – they often rely on the flapping of crows’ wings to alert them to the presence of carrion on the ground.
Tito Bustillo Caves, Asturias
An explorer needs to be prepared for all eventualities, but the cavers who entered a hitherto uncharted pothole near Ribadesella in northern Spain in 1968 probably hadn’t planned for the possibility that they might re-emerge as celebrities (in the archaeological world, at any rate).

What they discovered were vast chambers with all manner of Palaeolithic cave paintings – deer, horses, bison, representations of humans, and various symbols – plus tools and other objects dating from before 10,000 BC, all of which have enabled archaeologists to piece together a pretty clear picture of what life was like for the cave dwellers.

To protect the paintings, visitor numbers are restricted to 30 per day, making advance booking essential. Our advice, since the guided tours are only in Spanish, is to visit the adjoining museum (whose displays include English translations) first, so that you can learn about what you’re going to see in advance of the cave tour. Seeing the paintings with your own eyes feels like a special privilege.

If you don’t manage to book a place, you can experience some prehistory in the form of dinosaur footprints in the rock just north of Ribadesella. There are no restrictions other than ensuring that it will be low tide when you visit!

Which Inntravel holiday? Slow Train through Asturias (journey by rail)

Trivia: The site is named in memory of one of the cavers who discovered the paintings. Sadly, Celestino ‘Tito’ Bustillo was killed in a mountaineering accident in Tenerife shortly after the caving expedition. 
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