Witness Post: El Chorro Gorges
Nancy Hooper, my sister, and I reluctantly agreed to leave the paradise of Granada, Spain, and headed for El Chorro, which the Michelin Guide had raved about as a great adventure. Completing our tours of the Alhambra and Generalife, we ventured to hop the bus, which, at 12 1/2 pesetas, was a bargain. That said, physically getting on the bus and securing a seat were other matters.
Just like the Chinese women in San Francisco, the Spanish women believe that they have the right to a position at the front of every line. Tourists be damned. Spanish mothers and their children get first dibs. It is amusing to see Spanish women working together, walking arm-in-arm in lines or down the street. When they are talking and strolling, it’s usually at a snail’s pace and you have to navigate around them. When they are getting in a line, they join forces and form a phalanx of opposition that is impenetrable. We made it on the bus, but stood with our backpacks banging around the floor ’til we arrived at the station.
Buying some fruit, cheese and bread for lunch, we prepared to board the train. At the RENFE station, the ticket office worker said that there were no tickets and no printed train schedules. Really? She said the printers were on strike in Spain, even in Madrid, and she handed us a hand-written tickets. Talk about the old-fashioned way! So it goes in 1979 Spain.
We got on board our train headed for the town of El Chorro. Not far from Granada, we transferred in Bobadilla, and arrived just in time for our Malaga connection. Two stops later and we were in El Chorro.
The train had chugged through about 15 miles of tunnels and we emerged at this hot, smelly town with a view of a reservoir. We stepped off the train to nowhere. No station, no real platform. I was not psyched, but Nancy kept her spirits up by chatting away with the men who were working on the railroad tracks nearby. They told her about the Gorges, the camping, and the beauty. We bought some fruit and a semi-cold beer and ate our lunches. After dessert of a Popsicle, we walked to the train enter-area (almost a station) and made plans.
“Well, if you wait here,” said a dark-haired man in a blue shirt, “you can relax, sip some beer and I’ll take you two by train to an ideal spot.” At least that is what Nancy said were his words. What did we know, other than the Caminito del Rey (The Path of the King) having a three-star designation by Michelin guides? Tourists have abused the Caminito over the years and the metal and wooden trails, attached to the cliffs, are exceedingly dangerous.
The El Chorro Gorges, from the little view we got on the train, were magnificent. They look like the narrows of the Virgin River in Zion National Park in Utah. The trail, however, is man-made and built against the side of sheer cliffs. They are a wonder to inspect, much less traverse. Nancy and I decided to wait for these railroad men and see what happened next. We heard stories the men told about refrigerators, lizards, ice cream and cockroaches, while they played dominoes, sipped beers and finished their break.
Finally at 6pm, they were ready to work and walk, several of them ambled off. The dark-haired man said that he was ready to give us a lift. He invited us to come aboard his engine, so we climbed up. He shoved bread and cheese at us, which we accepted gratefully, and we were off. Traveling through three small tunnels, the engineer had Nancy blow the train whistle, as we left each of the tunnels. Before we entered the fourth cavern, he stopped the train, pointed to an ideal spot, told us to depart and stoked the engine to drive off. The spots he designated were for swimming and camping. A nicer man we could not have met, although Nancy claims that the next person you meet in Spain is nicer than the last one. We offered him a bottle of wine for his extra trouble, but he turned it down and refused a cash tip I offered.
What could we say? Muchos gracias, Senor.
We found a great spot to relax not far from the river and it was surrounded by pink and white oleander in full bloom. Some short, palm-like bushes offer us cover and privacy from the train tracks, but the ants were not going to be denied.
Escaping the insects, we trekked down river and found an azure pool approximately 50 feet across. The water had a whitish-blue/green tint and was frigid, but inviting. Sunning ourselves on the rocks near the far side, we talked of the Gulch in New Mexico and some of the people we knew there. Lots of gender issues surfaced.
We went to the water’s edge of another pond and the banks smelled peculiar, so we dare not drink it. Instead we cooled some wine in the pool, poured it in some Sierra cups and drank that instead. Nancy told me stories of Don Quixote and Moors invasion of Spain. We ate our dinner of bocadillos and cheese and I simply relaxed, while Nancy talked. This was an excellent spot to let the past school year drift down stream, and the vacation to begin.
We brought out our bottle of Cutter’s as the sun set and the flying, biting bugs arrived. The moonlight was beautiful, but the mosquitoes were fierce. Struggling valiantly, we crawled into our sleeping bags and slept until dawn.
Our original plan was to cross the river in the morning and walk along the Caminito del Rey back to El Chorro. Unfortunately the river rose about two feet overnight (they must have released water from a dam upstream) and it was impossible for us to carry our backpacks to the other side. The water was almost over our heads, and moving fast. Time for plan B.
We made our way back up the slope and walked on the railroad tracks. No train came through the tunnels and we were afforded an excellent view of the geologic upheaval that took place to cause these gorges. The Guadalhorce Valley is some 1,300 feet below the town of El Chorro. The rock face is limestone and it is completely turned up on its opposite end. By looking at the sedimentary layers, they are at near-exactly 90 degrees. The Guadalhorce cuts a steep gorge through the stone and offers some spectacular views. The surrounding landscape is so totally different, it is hard to imagine how all of this geological configuration came to be. However it arrived, it is worth the trip to see it in person.
The walk back to the town of El Chorro, at a 3% incline, was easy, so we took our time. Stopping at several good spots, we were conscious of the goal to be in town for the 2:30 pm train to Bobadilla. By noon we were in town and writing lazily under a huge eucalyptus tree. One small cafe in town was run by a man who was “house sitting” for some friends.
We thought that the town might be relatively new, perhaps being built after the dam was built. The reservoir and electric company employ almost 80% of the population in El Chorro. Instead, the town is an ancient one that has been around long before current developments. It has stood as a steady stop-off location between the coastal city of Malaga and the other towns in Andelucia.
The eucalyptus and pine groves in the area are many, many years old. The image of age shifted when we saw a deaf couple with a young, shirtless child bumbling along. The boy had a diaper that was hanging so low, he was bound to trip on it. Somehow the diaper pins held his loin cloth on and he teetered without tumbling.
We left the open area to the family and returned to the bar, where our Gorges journey had started the day before. Sitting at a large table were a few of the same workmen who had sent us off on Tuesday, and they invited us to join them for a beer. Nancy told them all about our night.
One of the men brought out his lunch and literally forced us to sit down and share it with him. Nancy was right about the next person being nicer than the last. Reluctant, but hungry, we joined him for filet of beef, ham, bread and, of course, beer. A few moments later this man’s older brother showed up at the bar and laid before us his tuna omelette, with banana cake for dessert. The brother insisted we have a bite of his meal, lest we offend his wife. In the midst of all of the hospitality, we missed our 2:30 train! As joyful consolation we sat and talked with these men. Nancy encouraged stories and more stories and we told a few ourselves, while we waited for the next train.
Ninety minutes later, we were being thanked by the gentlemen in El Chorro, believe it or not, for making THEIR day and they shooed us off to catch our 4pm train back to Bobadilla. Nothing like the kindness of strangers to make foreigners feel welcome.