Caldera Blanca

Lanzarote 1 : Volcanoes of Timanfaya
Lanzarote 2 : Diving Puerto del Carmen
Lanzarote 3 : Hiking Caldera Blanca

Caldera Blanca

UNESCOTimanfaya National Park (Spanish: Parque nacional de Timanfaya) imposes strict regulations on visitors and does not allow them to wander around freely through the lava fields. This is done in order to reduce potential erosion from footfall to the vulnerable volcanic terrain. There is however, another protected area that surrounds Timanfaya National Park, which functions as a buffer zone of sorts, that is called Los Volcanes Natural Park (Spanish: Parque natural de Los Volcanes).

The Natural Park encompasses large portions of the massive fields of Timanfaya lava as well as a trio of volcanoes that contrast dramatically with the vast black sea of lava that surrounds them. The trio consists of (from east to west) Montaña Caldereta (elevation : 324m), Caldera Blanca (elevation : 458m), and Risco Quebrado (elevation : 312m). The most prominent structure of the three is the massive Caldera Blanca, its actual name being 'Caldera de Montana Blanca' (English: Caldera of White Mountain). Despite the peak of this caldera being much lower than Lanzarote's highest peak, Peñas del Chache (elevation : 670m), Caldera Blanca is not only one of the best preserved craters on the island, but also the widest, measuring 1.15 kilometres across. To get there, however, you first have to walk through a field of lava.

Difficulty Rating : 1.8 / 10.0 (Class 1 - Extremely Straightforward)

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Getting There

From Puerto del Carmen, you need to take the LZ-504 northwards towards the town of Macher. Continue north from there along the LZ-502 via La Asomada for approximately 4 kilometres, through the wine-growing region of the valley of La Geria (Geosite LZ36), until you reach the junction of the LZ-30. Turn right here and head eastward until you get to the next junction. Turn left here and head northwards once again.

Continuing north from there will bring you past the collapsed Los Cuervos caldera on the left (Geosite LZ28) and the distinctly red volcano of La Montaña Colorada (Geosite LZ43) on the right. You will need to either go through the town of Mancha Blanca and turn left from there, or turn left at a small junction to follow a road that bypasses the town. Just to the west of the town lies an intersection where the west turnoff leads to the parking lot for the trail head. The entire journey from Puerto del Carmen should take you about 20 minutes.

Getting to the Caldera Blanca trail head from Puerto del Carmen

Timanfaya Lava Fields

The lava fields of Timanfaya are very dramatic and consist of a variety of formations that range from lava channels, tubes, and lava terraces, to accretionary lava balls and ejected pyroclasts. The area is so unusual that some planetary biologists have even drawn striking similarities between the lava fields and the volcanic planet of Mars. These planetary biologists use Timanfaya as a model to study the relationship between volcanism and water, as well as to observe the evolution of volcanic structures over time, to further their understanding of the red planet.

The lava fields predominantly consist of a'a type lava, which is when the viscosity of the lava is high, either due to gas bubbles or relatively low temperatures. When a'a lava starts to cool, it breaks up and begins to fragment, which releases gases from the lava in the process. This creates fragments that are sharp, irregular in shape, and are covered with a large number of holes, that are referred to as 'scoria'. Terrain that is made up of scoria is rough and blocky and is very hard to walk on, and is known as 'malpaís' (English: Badlands) by residents of the Canary Islands.

"From one side to another extends 'el malpais', as the lava fields are known to the Canarians.. if you climb the rough slope of loose and unsafe fragments you can see that the surface at the top has a similar appearance.. Frequently, twisted fragments can be seen or marks on the lava. It is very difficult to make progress on these (lava) streams because in such a heap there is almost no safe place to firmly put your feet down.

Naturalist, Eduardo Hernández-Pacheco (1907)
Timanfaya Lava Fields

The Caldera Blanca trail, covered with scoria

Hike to the Caldereta

We began the hike fairly late, around 17:30. The entire area is extremely exposed and we wanted to do whatever we could to escape the brunt of the searing afternoon sun. Leaving late also meant that we would not only be able to enjoy the magnificent Lanzarote sunset, but that it would be dark by the time we descended from the caldera, which meant that we would be able to squeeze in some stargazing before having to head back to town for dinner. The path was wide from the start, but the ubiquitous scoria, albeit already having being flattened to some degree by hundreds, if not thousands, of footsteps before us, still made the path quite unstable. Lichens of various colours were splashed around on the volcanic rocks, and the occasional shrub could sometimes be seen trying to squeeze its way through narrow gaps in the rocks.

Montaña Caldereta

Looking west towards Montaña Caldereta (Geosite LZ19), Caldera Blanca lies just behind it

The first part of the trail was a 1.5 kilometre walk westward from the carpark towards a junction at the base of Montaña Caldereta (Geosite LZ19). The trail was wide and conspicuous enough to always be easy to follow, and the only real danger was the chance of one of us losing our footing. We passed all manner of volcanic formations, and the sheer size of some of the pyroclastic boulders left me in awe of violent forces that would be required to launch such masses over such large distances. On the horizon over to our right was the conical Montaña Tinache (Geosite LZ18) and straight ahead of us the vibrant blue of the Atlantic Ocean seamlessly blended into the sky. We would occasionally hear the sounds of lizards scampering away as we approached, but try as I may, there seemed to be nothing that I could do to dampen my crunching footsteps over the uneven scoria.

Montaña Caldereta

From the east flank of Montaña Caldereta (Geosite LZ19) looking south east; behind the small mound just to the right of the centre of the image lies Montaña los Rostros, whereas Montaña Tinache (Geosite LZ18) is on the far left of the image

We reached the junction at the base of Montaña Caldereta after half an hour of walking with a fairly slow pace. From here, we could either continue straight on towards the much larger Caldera Blanca, or take a slight detour and circle the base of the caldereta. We decided to do the latter, and so turned left instead. Montaña Caldereta is one of the many geosites that make up the UNESCO Global Geopark of Lanzarote. Although this volcano was formed long ago in the Pleistocene (the epoch that is often colloquially referred to as the 'Ice Age'), its eruption almost 300 years ago was responsible for a large area of the Timanfaya lava field. The previous existence of the trio of volcanoes, of which the caldereta is a part of, were obstacles to the flow of the lava that ensued, which was ultimately forced to flow around their bases. The calderas and other areas that were left uncovered by lava like this were known as 'islotes' (Volcanic terminology: Kipukas).

Pico Partido

The volcanic complex of Pico Partido-Montaña Señalo (Geosite LZ26) can be seen looking south from the base of Montaña Caldereta. The white-lined lava channel that was created when pressure built up and broke through the side of the lake can clearly be seen

Next: Caldera Blanca (Part 2) - Flora & Fauna

Flora & Fauna

The almost non-existence of soil and water makes it very difficult for vegetation to colonise the barren malpais. The lack of rainfall also brings erosive processes, which are needed for the development of fertile soil, to a slow crawl. Lichens, on the other hand, help with soil formation and are essential to 'restart' the process of vegetative colonialisation in barren areas, due to their adaptability and survivability. I elaborated a little further in one of my Annapurna Base Camp posts:

Lichen are a product of the symbiosis of fungus, which gives the lichen its form, and either algae or cyanobacterium, which gives the lichen the ability to photosynthesise. This consolidation is quite powerful, as the new 'composite' which behaves as a single individual is now able to receive nutrients from photosynthesis, and is hardy enough to resist dangers such as exposure to ultraviolet radiation, which tends to increase with elevation.

Lichens are very sensitive to their surrounding environments, however, which can make them good indicators when trying to access how well a specific area has been conserved. This is also why hikers should always remain on the trails, as a footstep on a patch of lichen can sometimes still be observed many years later.

Firedot lichen

Firedot lichen (Caloplaca sp.); Bushy lichen (Ramalina sp.), a type of fruticose lichen

Before this point, lichens had been the dominant life-form, but as we began to circle around the sides of the caldereta, we noticed that shrubs and other vegetation were concentrated in an area that formed a large ring around the base. This is because the shape of craters channel rainfall both into the interior as well as outwards towards the base of their slopes. The accumulation of rainfall, especially in environments where rainfall is scarce, as well as the sedimentation that the water flow picks up, helps with the formulation of fertile soil. In fact, the interior of the caldereta used to be used for cereal cultivation, which is why there are several abandoned structures nearby.

African Baconfig

African baconfig (Aizoon canariense)

The shrubs that we came across varied both in size and in colour. There were red plants, such as Mediterranean saltwort (Salsola vermiculata) bushes and slender iceplant (Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum) succulents, to yellow flowering plants such as gorse (Launaea arborescens), which is from the dandelion family, and tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca), which is a species of wild tobacco. Tree tobacco is not only smoked (by Native American communities like the Cahuilla for instance), but is also known to have been used for medicinal purposes as a poultice for superficial wounds like cuts and bruises. The plant is toxic and ingestion can sometimes be fatal. Another flowering plant that was spotted that has medicinal properties was the Heliotropium ramosissimum. In parts of Africa, the sap from their furry leaves is said to be good for burns and as a topical ointment to treat headaches.

The largest plants that we saw were the strange root-like branches of the milky spurge (Euphorbia regis-jubae). This flowering plant is endemic to the Eastern Canary Islands, Morocco, and Western Sahara, where the plant's toxic latex is used as an analgesic. In the Canary Islands, the latex used to be poured into pools of fish (a process that is called 'embarbascar' in Spanish), in order to stupefy them so that they would be easier to catch. We were also fortunate to see the plant's fruiting heads ('Infructescence'), which were reddish trilobed capsules that emerged from greenish-yellow floral bracts.

Milky Spurge (Euphorbia regis-jubae) with corticolous lichens growing on its stems - Hover the cursor over the image to take a closer look!; Montaña de Teneza can be seen in the background on the top left of the image

Milky Spurge

The trilobed fruit capsules of milky Spurge (Euphorbia regis-jubae) with a snail (Theba geminata)

Next: Caldera Blanca (Part 3) - The Caldera

The Caldera

As we circled around the south end of caldereta's base, we caught sight of the barren Montañas del Fuego in the distance. The volcanic complex of Pico Partido-Montaña Señalo (Geosite LZ26) was the most notable of all the structures, as the white-lined lava channel that was created when pressure built up and broke through the side of its lake could clearly be seen. The massive structure of Caldera Blanca also appeared in front of us and gradually swung around to our left as we progressed around the base.

There were colossal blocks and boulders of ejected pyroclasts that were heaped on top and around one another haphazardly just to the right of the path. This was where the huge sea of lava was funneled through the narrow opening between the two calderas, and imagining the immense forces that could move such masses so easily left me a feeling a little exhilarated. The path gradually began to leave the base and make its way up the slopes, just before swinging around to the entrance of the caldereta--an entrance that its larger sibling does not have. We rejoined the main path soon after and followed the trail that we would have taken earlier had we instead continued straight from the junction.

We continued to walk westward and skimmed the northern base of Caldera Blanca. Huge gashes could be seen that cut through the whitish patina that covered the surface of the slopes. These gashes were formed by the flow of rainwater down the sides of the slopes, that at first began as small depressions, but that eventually grew to become large gullies--a process that is known as 'gully erosion'. After we circled the northern base of the caldera and reached the western side, we spotted the start of the caldera ascent over to our left. This was where the actual climb began.

Gully erosion

Gully erosion can be seen on the slopes of Caldera Blanca

The path was narrow on the ascent but was in a channel of sorts that was fairly stable, so there was never a point where I felt unsafe. The terrain underfoot was also a lot more stable than the scoria of the lava field down below. It was quite dusty, however, and especially so when there were gusts of wind, so we used our buffs to cover our mouths as we ascended. There were a few plants that fringed the trail, both on the ascent as well as on the rim itself, that were mainly bushes of Mediterranean saltwort (Salsola vermiculata) and milky spurge (Euphorbia regis-jubae), as well as a few succulents scattered around here and there.

Slopes of Risco Quebrado

Looking north-west with the slopes of Risco Quebrado on the left

We were heading almost directly south, and the sun had already began to set on our right just over the peak of Risco Quebrado (elevation : 312m), the third sibling of the trio of calderas. Risco Quebrado (English: Broken Crag) seemed more like a mound than an actual caldera, as a huge section of it had disappeared (hence the name) either during its formation or through erosive processes. As we continued to ascend, we saw more of the Atlantic Ocean in the background on our right, and more of the inner caldera revealed itself below us on our left. We soon came upon a part of the trail that dropped down to a col before ascending to the peak of Risco Quebrado. We considered taking that trail at first (as can be seen in the GPX track), but due to the time constraints, thought better of it and continued to round the rim of Caldera Blanca instead.

Peak of Risco Quebrado

The sun setting behind the peak of Risco Quebrado

The view of Timanfaya National Park and the Montañas del Fuego over the vast sea of volcanic lava was absolutely spectacular. It became a little hard to appreciate the views, however, as the gusts of wind were so ferocious that they would almost knock us off our feet. Unlike some other calderas that I had hiked on before, the ridge of Caldera Blanca had been rounded by erosion over the many years, and was left fairly wide. This allowed us to duck over to the inner side of the caldera for some shelter each and every time the wind became too much to handle. From there, we were able to see the effects of gully erosion within the caldera, where countless water channels had carved deep gullies that looked like gashes across the surface. It was also very evident that water had been channeled towards the middle, as the vegetation there was a lot more abundant.

Caldera Blanca

Looking north-east from the peak of Caldera Blanca: the Atlantic Ocean can be seen in the background on the left, Montaña de Teneza is in the centre, whilst Montaña Tinache (Geosite LZ18) can be seen on the right with clusters of white houses at its base


There was no defined path on the areas of the caldera that were rocky, but this was not an issue as the ridge was easy enough to follow. There was also a pole that marked the peak a little further along. We continued to round the edge, getting closer and closer to the caldereta, but just as we were passing it (approximately 8.2 kilometre mark), we had to make a dramatic u-turn to follow the trail that began the descent down the slope on the outer side of the caldera. The descent continued in a south-easterly direction until it reached the base. From there, we veered left and made our way northwards past several structures before reaching the main trail once again.

Next: Caldera Blanca (Part 4) - Temperature Inversions

Temperature Inversions

It was dark by the time we rejoined the main trail. Above our heads, clouds rolled across the sky, carried quickly by the fierce trade winds. Looking south, the Milky Way could still be seen with the naked eye despite the cloud-cover, and both Jupiter and Saturn were blazing brightly trying their best to pierce through the veil of clouds. The cloud-cover left me a little disappointed as the temperature inversion of Lanzarote's atmosphere was something that I had wanted to take full advantage of.

Looking south towards the centre of the Milky Way - Hover your cursor over the image to see the constellations and labels

Normally, the air temperature decreases (at a rate of approximately 6.4°C for every kilometre) the higher one ascends. This decrease in temperature makes the air mass unstable due to convection, as there is air constantly flowing from warmer to cooler regions. Temperature inversions, on the other hand, occur when there is a warm layer above a cooler (and denser) lower area. In the case of the Canary Islands, the predominance of the trade winds that moisten and cool the air due to the cold Canary Current, separates the atmosphere into two layers, with the upper layer being warmer and drier. Convection then slows down, sometimes even stopping, which in turn stabilises the air. This not only results in excellent telescopic images, but the combination of the trade winds and the resulting temperature inversion also tends to prevent cloud formation. All these make the skies of the Canary Islands some of the clearest in all of Europe.

The skies are (usually) so clear that they are even protected by law. There are a total of three dark sky protected areas in the Canary Islands, all of which have been officially designated as 'Starlight Reserves'. The purpose of this is to "preserve the quality of the night sky and its associated values, being them cultural, scientific, astronomical, natural, or landscape-related". The reserve in La Palma even hosts the world's largest single-aperture optical telescope--a 10.4 metre reflecting telescope known as the 'Gran Telescopio Canarias'!

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