Fuerteventura, as it is currently called, rises out of the cool waters of the Atlantic Ocean a mere 97 km from the Moroccan coast. The island, the oldest in the Canaries, exists thanks to a volcanic hot spot which was spewing out lava until about 5 million years ago. Since then, the volcanoes have been worn down due to a combination of intense sunlight, incessant winds and occasional storms. This has left a landscape dominated by vast flat-ish plains and a few volcanic peaks that stubbornly resist the inevitability of their own demise. In 2009 the entire island was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
From Tribal Wars to Jumbo Jets
The human history of Fuerteventura would give Game of Thrones a run for its money. Before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, Feurteventura was known as Erbania. It was settled by Berber tribes that crossed over from the African mainland. They etched out an existence from subsistance farming and managed their livestock the best they could given the precious little rainfall the island receives. The tribes were divided into two main factions which were separated by a wall down the centre of the island. The Maxorata tribe enjoyed a vast territory to the north while the Jandia tribe settled for the scenic beaches of the south.
Erbania’s story doesn’t end there…
After the Spanish invasion, which started in 1402, the island was overcome in a matter of a few years. The population then gradually expanded as the Catholic church slowly tightened its iron-like grip on the island. The church’s powerhouse was located in the small town of Betancuria. The Middle Ages saw various pirate invasions from returning Bebers, a war with the British, the establishment and later demise of a concentration camp for homosexual men during the time of Franco and the possible establishment of a Nazi base in the south of the island. International flights began to take off in earnest in 1973 shortly before Franco’s death in 1975. A new dawn was breaking for Erbania, she was opening herself up to the World. Fuerteventura as we all know her was born. Mass tourism arrived and everyone wanted a taste of the mojo picón.
Enter the Accidental Tourist
Anyways, fast forward to 2019 and a nonchalant British tourist arrives for a few days to escape the grey doldrums of a Glasgow winter. I headed to the north of the Island, to a small town called Correlejo. My logic was that I saw a nice picture of some sand dunes on google so therefore it was totally going to be worth it…Most of the rest of this article describes a walk into and around the Corralejo Natural Park. The park itself is simply stunning. The sand dunes are the largest in all of the Canary Islands. They are framed by an azure sea to the east, Lanzarote looms graciously to the north and several volcano craters dot the horizon to the west. The dunes are not just an expanse of sand. They support many endemic plant species. Complicated processes involved in the transportation of the sand makes it a fragile ecosystem.
I am a bit of a misanthrope. So of course the rest of the article isn’t going to be about how pretty the dunes are, or how I took the perfect instagrammable picture of my six pack on the beach *cough cough*. On my whistle-stop tour of the dunes I stopped at three sites. It gradually became apparent that there was a story that needed to be told in Corralejo. One of boom, bust and the battle between the ecologistas and big money. I will use each picture to give a snapshot of some of the issues facing the area so that we can gradually piece together this puzzle.
A Bubble goes Pop
Leaving or entering Corralejo town this is the first sight you encounter. No, I know what you are thinking. It isn’t Chernobyl. It is hard to find information on this particular site. From what I can gather though it has been there a while, it is cheaper to leave it to slowly crumble than to demolish.
I did find out that these ruins were originally supposed to be a luxury marine shopping and housing complex. They are now settled by squatters. Back in the early 2000's Spainish construction took advantage of cheap credit and lax regulation. Spain's already inflated housing market continued to grow at a furious pace. Following the US sub-prime mortgage catastrophe global markets collapsed and Spain was hit by a recession. Building projects were abandoned and in 2008 and most new constructions came to an abrupt halt. The result is that a number of abandonded developments are scattered across the Island giving it a distinctly dystopian feel. After snapping a few photos I hastily crossed the road to head into the Corralejo Nature Park...
An All Inclusive Nightmare
Heading into the park the sand dunes slowly became visible. Windsurfers were dashing back and forth off in the distance. I wanted to get deeper into the dunes, pushing further and further from the coastline where tourists burn to a crisp in the Saharan- strength sun. However, no matter how far away I marched there was an omnipresent monolith dominating the horizon. Said monolith is in fact two separate hotels slap bang on top of the shifting dunes of the Corralejo Nature Reserve. The hotels are part of the RIU chain and are known as RIU Palace Tres Islas and RIU Oliva Beach Resort. They both offer all-inclusive package holidays in which well to do guests stuff their faces with food in the hotel and flop onto the beach. You don’t even have to head into town and contribute to the local economy, that would be far too much of an inconvenience.
Perhaps the most interesting question in relation to these hotels is to ask how did they get planning permission to build on the nature reserve?
The RIU terrible twins were originally constructed in the 70's after a concession from the local administrative government which gave persmission for their existence for a period of 30 years. Corralejo Nature Reserve was then established in the 80's with both hotels located slap-bang in the middle of the park. This meant that in theory the hotels would have to be demolished. RIU fought the sentence tooth and nail. In 2003 the Ley de Costas, charged with protecting the Spanish coast from environmental damage, conceded a concession to the hotel group to operate for another 60 years. Shortly thereafter, in 2005, the RIU chain received more bad news. They were put on an official list of buildings which should be demolished according to the Ley de Costas. RIU managed to squirm out of this predicament by exchanging their part-title of the Isla de Lobos, another nature reserve off the coast of Fuerteventura, for further concessions granted by the Partido Popular (PP) renewable for up to 75 years. Clearly, in the case of the RIU hotel chain, having connections in high places works a treat. All of this is despite RIU claiming to be actively campaigning for sustainability and the environment.
A Walk on the Wild Side
I continued to march on… further and further away from the sea, to the centre of the park where symmetrical golden dunes were lit by the sun setting to the west. I was heading towards a road which on google maps was marked as “Calle Sau”. It seemed to link up nicely with the development where I was staying.
The sand dunes gradually gave way to sharp basalt rocks which were hard underfoot. The light was slowly dimming and everything began to take on an eerie feel. That is when things became a bit surreal. I stumbled upon a pile of bones on the floor and looked up to find the skull of a ram lodged in a bush.
My imagination began to run wild. Were there predators out here in the nature park? Was I grossly under-prepared? If an animal had killed the ram then it wouldn’t have placed its head onto the bush so meticulously — it was as if someone was trying to warn me of something, maybe the park has a resident psychopath.
I decided to put those thoughts to the back of my head. It was too late in any case. I had to push on, the sun was getting lower and I did not have time to head back to the coast.
Further along the path, if you could even call it a path by this point, I found myself carefully picking my way along a small and rocky ravine. There were further piles of bones scattered about but google maps re-assured me that the housing development, where normality would surely return, was just around the corner. I climbed up onto a small pile of rocks where I thought i’d be able to see the houses off in the distance.
As I cast my gaze over what was now a desolate landscape I could see the houses, maybe a 30 minute walk away. But then, all of a sudden, something caught my eye. A elegant looking dog-kind-of-creature was sitting on-top of a rock half way between myself and civilisation. It had a triangular head and pointy ears which pricked at my presence. It gracefully — and slowly — turned its gaze to my direction.
S***, I thought! How could I have been so stupid. Out here in the nature reserve all alone with what appears to be a jackal or hyena off in the distance. Do they even exist here? Maybe they do! I thought, after all I was less than 100 km away from Africa. I ducked behind a large boulder and tried to keep quiet while I formulated an escape plan. At least the animal had not budged, or so it seemed. I decided to trace a circular path towards Calle Sau and hope the jackal (or common hound as it probably was) would not attack. My plan B was to use the surrounding rocks to scare it off should it get any closer. The Parque Natural de Corralejo wasn’t just a pretty place to go and visit, it had reduced me to my primal state in less than a couple of hours.
The Ghost Town
My plan worked, I arrived at Calle Sau with nothing but sweat drenched clothing and an elevated heart rate. But something was amiss. Calle Sau was not the Pleasantville I was imagining. I looked down the road. To my right, there was a fallen lamp post. To my left, the houses did not have windows. The first concrete path I reached was broken up into potholes and slabs. Then it dawned on me, this was an abandoned village. I had crossed the Corralejo Natural Park to reach a post apocalyptic vision of the Planet. There was not another person to be seen.
Anyways, at least I was out of the park. I started to walk slowly amongst the deserted houses of calle Sau. Then, in the distance, something started to rumble. A van was driving towards me, in the middle of nowhere… Not wishing to wait and find out what was going to happen I began to run towards what I thought was the way out of this urban prison. I took the upper road. Glancing below the van was getting ever closer so I decided it’d be safer to drop off the road all together. I began to navigate in the garden space between two rows of abandoned houses. Thankfully the van eventually left so I returned to the road and continued on before taking the picture shown above from a high vantage point.
Further ahead, parts of the road dissipated into rubble, surely washed away during a rare storm. The urbanisation eventually gave way to an abandoned motorway lined with disused light posts. Their shillouete guided me home in the twilight. Parts of the road were narrowed by bushes which invade the tarmac from the wilderness beyond. The flashlights of another vehicle rushed by heralding me to take shelter in the darkness just in-case. I finally reached an underpass after sunset. This led me back into the urbanisation I was staying in, fully lit and re-reassuringly noisy with the hustle and bustle of people.
Again, during subsequent internet searches it proved difficult to find information on this ghost town. locals don’t go there. No-one mentions it or knows much about it but I eventually found out it is called Origo Mare. The development of Oigo Mare destroyed 1 million square meters of protected volcanic landscape to make way for tourism. The European Comission started legal proceedings against the Spanish government for this ecological disaster. The governments response was to propose that Oigo Mare be given amnesty in exchange for the protection of “La Cueva de Llano”, a volcanic cave which houses many protected species. The PP were up to their old tricks. In any case the surpreme court had annulled the project in Feburary 2011. As it turned out, the houses were erected with zero environmental consideration and in direct conflict with European directives. Oigo Mare remains in disrepair and the Spanish government are still trying to salvage it to this day — much to the surprise of the European Comission. The reality is that it never should have been constructed in the first place.
Build Bridges Not Walls
After a good nights rest I set out for one last walk. This time near to where I was residing in an urbanisation known as “La Capellania”. If I would have known how difficult it was to pronounce this place in Spanish I would have chosen elsewhere to lay my head.
My idea was to go for a walk up to some of the old volcanic craters which cradled the valley using a trunk road called Camino Calderas. Two of the better known volcanoes are known as Bayuyo and Calderon Hondo upon which a family of friendly chipmunks resides. I set out full of beans and ready for this new adventure. However, things started to get complicated…AGAIN. The road ended abruptly, cut off by mining operations. The whole area was fenced off and I could not progress any further. I could not find any public information about the mine in question. It seemed a shame that the mining operations were so close to the residential area (see last pic) and the beautiful natural landscape of Las Calderas.
Fuerteventura is undeniably beautiful. But it is also the victim of its own success. These photos testify that the last few decades have already seen several crimes committed against the delicate natural environment of the area. It is in the local governments interest to protect the landscape with strong legislation in order to continue to attract tourists from around the World. On a personal level, I learnt that I need to do my research before hiking into the unknown so that I do not end up a future consular case. Since the early walls of Erbania, human construction has left a profound impact on this island. Homo Sapiens have dissected and scarred the precious rocky landscape that was formed here millions of years ago. Hopefully we can learn from our past mistakes and limit the construction of new developments in what is an environmentally sensitive area. Disused constructions need to be torn down and renewed efforts made for the land to be rewilded.
Note : If you live in the Corralejo area and have further information to give or would like to correct me on any aspect of the article please comment below. I am happy to build this story further and to find out more about new environmental developments in Fuerteventura.