203. Dream beneath a desert sky – Pechina Canyon, Almería, Spain

desert-palms-sierra-de-alhamilla-above-pechina-almeria-spain-by-roadsofstoneLos Baños de Sierra Alhamilla stands grey and forlorn beneath palm trees in a February mizzle. It’s Hotel California, on a rainier day.

There’s a faded, nonchalant elegance here in this mountain spa. On the main street, a goofily smiling old bloke sits outside the baths, trousers rolled up and feet dangling in the hot stream. We smile and wave, because frankly, we’re more mad than him.

canyon-run-sierra-de-alhamilla-almeria-spain-by-roadsofstoneThe unforgiving Andalucían desert stretches far and wide below us. Scattered plantations, yucca, palm trees. Grey gravel, scrub and miles and miles of waste, magnificent in their desolation. Far in the distance beneath low-hanging cloud lies the city of Almería and the steely Mediterranean Sea beyond.

In the 1960s, the lonely lands behind these hills formed the film backdrop to the spaghetti westerns we all loved so well. Four decades on and for a few dollars more, a different kind of redskin is threatening this environment. Huge and vast and empty it might be, yet the satellite images of this area already show that the Andalucían wilderness is not as infinite as once it seemed.

Our bus journey here revealed the encroaching reaches of the tomato farms — beige bleak plastic oblongs marching relentlessly towards the barren hills. Europe’s salad bowls are gnawing hungrily at this empty landscape.

dream beneath a desert sky sierra de alhamilla pechina almeria spain roadsofstoneDown below the spa, a rough grey trail snakes past sparse and scrubby fields and faded fincas, and into the open desert.

The spa and civilisation fall swiftly behind our footsteps, and as we descend, the wide horizon falls around us. Plants and birds and rocks and things, as far as the eye can see.

duel-in-the-canyon-sierra-alhamilla-to-pechina-almeria-spain-by-simon-hoThe path twists round the curves of a dry river bed, and I hop stiffly across the banks of gravel. The silence grows louder now, broken only by the rasp of breathing and the crunch of running shoes atop gravel.

winter-desert-green-sierra-alhamilla-to-pechina-almeria-spain-by-simon-hoA low ridge leads us onto a wide and muddy plateau, where we lope between sparse patches of soft green grass and ankle-ripping scrub. Fifty metres flat, and then a half metre drop.

Fifty metres more, and then the same again — and belatedly I realise these once were fields carved out of the scree. What could they grow here? Who grew it?

Despoblación — the abandonment of rural areas — is evident all over Spain. I’ve seen empty fields and broken ancient homesteads strewn beside lonely roads right across this country — and yet nowhere ever felt half as abandoned as this.

Up ahead a line of palm trees bissects the sky, and beneath them a broken fence marks out the property of some rich and absent landlord. A retreat for a weekend recluse, despoiling his own patch of desert.

My legs are tiring now. This morning’s gentle loosener along the promenade seems like another lifetime, and yesterday’s city half marathon has suddenly finished just a minute or two ago. I stop to breathe and catch the empty mountains to take them home with me.

running-the-barranco-above-pechina-almeria-spain-by-simon-hoThe path drains deep into the canyon, the gravel swimming wide between steep banks cut into scrub. Huge washing machine-sized boulders are strewn across the streambed — the river is dry today but the storm torrents must truly rip through here in violent flood.

The barranco crunches on and on. A cold sweat is dripping down my back as the runner ahead drifts further away from me, my conviction that I’ll catch him fading faster with every boulder hopped.

olive-grove-above-pechina-almeria-spain-by-roadsofstoneThen suddenly it’s over. We round a corner and the track turns into road beside a ditch. There are houses. Orchards. Under the main road, a crane swings idle above an abandoned development site.

orange-grove-and-palm-trees-above-pechina-almeria-spain-by-roadsofstoneThe country dreams of Almerían commuters and foreign holidaymakers may return here in another season, but for now Spain’s property recession has frozen the future into half-poured concrete and the bark of a security guard’s dog.

The village of Pechina emerges from the orange groves. White houses lie huddled close to reflect a pitiless summer sun, lining streets left empty in the winter afternoon.

town-hall-casa-consistorial-pechina-almeria-spain-by-roadsofstoneThe silence is broken only by a few kids playing football, and the footsteps of a man who ran down a canyon.

The town hall stands within the village square, ornate and proud beneath low desert sky. There’s a feel of Latin America here — this could be Patagonia, Bolivia, or even Mexico, and yet we’re just a few hours from the costas.

Andalucía’s interior seemed vast and immutable when first I saw it ten years ago. But between here and Murcia, and within just that short time, tomato tents and irrigation pipes are spreading ever further into empty space.

This is a different kind of Spain — an empty, barren wilderness. Untamed — it’s not productive, yet its rugged beauty is unique in Europe. As I limp to find the village bar, I ask — what’s important? Primaeval wilderness or trade and jobs? Will it be tourists or tomatoes which one day will destroy this desert?

And the truth is — I hope I never know.

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12 responses to “203. Dream beneath a desert sky – Pechina Canyon, Almería, Spain

  1. Roads, you could probably submit this to the soon upcoming Carnival of the Arid, if you are interested, here – http://faultline.org/index.php/site/item/carnival_of_the_arid_2_coming_march_2/ – at Coyote Crossing.

  2. Beautiful report, R. It´s a pity that the landscape can be changed so easily. When the crisis is over, this beautiful scenery could be turned into a golf residential resort. Let´s hope the crisis is beaten but it teaches us to preserve nature.

    Saludos desde Almería

  3. Hi, Silver Fox — it’s good to hear from you, and thanks for the link and the great idea. I’ll take your advice.

  4. Thank you, Antonio.

    Golf courses in the desert — that would be completing the Californian dream. Or nightmare — depending on how you look at it. Let’s hope it never happens to your beautiful and rugged landscape..

    Saludos desde Londres… y muchas gracias !

  5. Beautiful! When I was last in Spain, in Sevilla, we didn’t have much opportunity to leave the cities (no cars). I shall have to make an effort to visit this area next time!

  6. Many thanks, Rana. I loved Sevilla. It’s a fantastic city — the hottest in Spain in more ways than one.

    The Almerían desert lies in another part of Andalucía, around 400 km and a four hour drive to the east. The area lies just inland of the southeast coast, in the rainshadow of the Betic Cordillera. And if you’ve ever watched any of those Clint Eastwood films, the scenery will be very familiar to you.

  7. Ah yes, and I was there, wobbly legs negotiating perilous drops and unforgiving boulderlettes along the dry river bed. What fun! Even more so when it ended in the smokey wee bar in Pechina.

    My kinda sortie, that.

  8. Yes, Sweder — a memorable day indeed, and one which was remembered in the legs for several days to come.

    Thanks also for the loan of your scenic panorama of Pechina Canyon as featured at the foot of this post. You captured this desert perfectly. From several hundred metres ahead of me.

    Many thanks again.

  9. Great and very interesting article. Not much in favour of a golf course, though.

  10. Thanks, Peter, and I’m glad you enjoyed this article.

    Many of the new golf resorts along the Spanish coast have unsold properties now. Let’s hope they don’t spoil the canyon with development.

  11. Roads, the photos remind me a great deal of Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas — hopefully I’ll get to run through Pechina some day. So many canyons, so little time …

  12. Thanks, BB. Yes, indeed — the scenery here reminded me very much of West Texas, where I had the pleasure of exploring McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains on a geological (not running) trip once.

    Beyond these hills lies the Tabernas area where the spaghetti westerns were filmed. Huge open vistas, mesas and the desert stretching out for ever. It could easily be New Mexico.

    If you’re keen to run here, then that can be arranged — either at the time of the Almería Half Marathon at the end of January, as here, or in the (much harder) annual race each December. That event follows a circuit ascending steeply from Pechina along the road to Los Baños de Sierra Alhamilla, and then back down to the village through the canyon.

    That sounds gruelling. Antonio has run and survived it, as reported here: Subida a los Baños de Sierra Alhamilla.

    Many thanks again.

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