ALUN RHYS GRIFFITHS

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GRAN CANARIA :

THE MASPALOMAS DUNES

Like a scene from the Sahara - but the Maspalomas beach is just metres away

INTRODUCTION

The Island of Gran Canaria is the third largest of the Canary Islands, and one of the most popular of destinations for European holidaymakers, particularly those who are looking for winter sunshine and alluring beaches - beaches which evoke images of warm seas and yellow sand, perhaps sand castles or deckchairs, and just maybe rolling sand dunes with crests for children to play upon and run up or down, and secluded little valleys between the mounds of sand for one to subbathe in in splendid isolation. But when it comes to sand dunes such as these, Gran Canaria is very much the place to go, because this island features undoubtedly one of the best and most accessible dune landscapes on the face of this earth.

Maspalomas is the name of a town in the south of Gran Canaria and the site of several popular tourist resorts. The beach which fronts the town is just one part of an extensive stretch of shoreline which is comething of a magnet for sunseekers as we shall see. But whilst 95% of the tourists will confine themselves to walking and sunbathing along that narrow strip of beach next to the sea, the sand is not so limited in its extent. Because just a few metres away, it rises up in a rolling series of great dunes, 400 hectares (1,000 acres) in area, and in certain places stretching back more than a kilometre from the shore.

This page describes the Maspalomas dunes, their appeal for tourists, and also their importance to the natural ecology of the region.

The author spent two days in the vicinity of the dunes in November 2014, and this article recounts his personal experiences. All photos were taken during these days.

THE TOWN OF MASPALOMAS

Maspalomas is believed to have been named after Spanish soldier Rodrigo Mas de Palomar, who lived here long ago, or possibly Francisco Palomar, a close friend of Alonso Fernandez de Lugo, who was a very important figure in the early conquests of the Canary Islands. The name may be ancient, but modern Maspalomas is very much a product of the tourist phenomenon and consists of several resorts of somewhat differing character. To the east is Playa del Inglés, a mecca for European holidaymakers and a lively centre with plenty to do in the daytime and a good, vibrant nightlife, whilst to the west is Meloneras, a rather quieter, more upmarket neighbourhood with more low-level developments and fewer skyscraper hotels.

Meloneras and Playa del Inglés are both fronted by sandy beaches named after the two resorts, but effectively the beaches merge into just one continuous stretch, the central part of which is called Playa de Maspalomas. Meloneras and Playa del Inglés may be united by the beach, but behind this narrow strip, the resorts are separated by the vast expanse of the Maspalomas dunes. On this page, there is a map which shows the significant presence of the dunes within the layout of Maspalomas.

Facilities in Maspalomas include all the essentials one would expect in a modern tourist haven: hotels, bars, restaurants catering to all tastes, souvenir shops, and car hire services, etc.. Attractions are many. Within the town, there is the amusement park complex known as Holiday World with fairground rides, 10-pin bowling, and other entertainments. Less than 10 kms distant there is Aqualand Maspalomas, the largest water park in the Canary Islands, and Sioux City, a Wild West theme park. Slightly further north is Palmitos Park, a very popular attraction which features bird displays, an aquarium and dolphinarium, a butterfly house, and a cactus garden. There are also three golf courses in the region for visitors to play on.

However, for all these modern attractions which draw tourists in their thousands, there is still nothing here which is as internationally famous as the naturally scenic landscape that is the Dunas de Maspalomas or the Maspalomas dunes.

The western end of Playa de Maspalomas and the 56m (184 ft) Faro de Maspalomas lighthouse which stands in the resort of Meloneras. The lighthouse was built in 1886

A constant stream of holiday makers along the beach from Meloneras to Playa del Ingles. And on the right is the first of the dunes at the Meloneras end of the beach

Dunas Suites and Villas Resort

The author stayed in the Dunas Suites and Villas Resort in Meloneras, which is an expansive development of villas set in attractive gardens, with restaurants bars and swimming pools, and other facilities. Dunas Suites and Villas Resort is quite close to the beach—one can take a shuttle bus or walk about one kilometre to reach the shoreline. The Maspalomas dunes are even closer.

Playa de Maspalomas - in the background, one of the dunes rises above the beach

THE BEACHES OF MASPALOMAS

Before we look at the dunes - the main focus of this page - we should briefly consider the beaches. The beaches are generally considered safe for all ages, particularly in front of the resorts where breakwaters give some protection against the waves, and lifeguards are present. Further away from the resorts, of course, there is rather less supervision and more care must be taken, particularly with young children, but the water near the shoreline is shallow.

Getting to the beaches is easy. Many hotels and villas are very close to the water's edge. For others which are more distant, bus services including the hotels' own shuttles, provide good access. When one arrives, the beach is typically Spanish, with gift shops and places to eat nearby, and with deckchairs and refreshment kiosks in the areas closest to the resorts.

The majority of tourists naturally congregate close to the facilities, but there is also the option of a 5 km (3 miles) walk along the beach all the way between Meloneras and Playa del Inglés which is a popular thing to do. Some however will seek a more isolated place to sunbathe midway between the resorts. And some who seek even more isolation will venture a little further back from the sea into the dunes.

Across the dunes to the east - the beach resort of Playa del Ingles. The scale can be guaged by the figures in the mid-distance

One of the great attractions of the Canary Islands is the scenic appeal which the mountains, the sand, the natural vegetation and the little towns and villages all lend to many a viewpoint

THE SAND DUNES

The Dunes of Maspalomas are by no means uniform. Immediately behind the beach, the sand hills have all the appearance of a desert in miniature. There are places where almost as far as the eye can see, there is nothing to look at but sand and the tell-tale footprints which show where others have walked before you. In low nooks and crannies where moisture has accumulated, there may be isolated pockets of scrubby vegetation, but otherwise very little growth. One can wander around these dunes and scarcely see anybody at all, although some carefree souls seem to love climbing to the very peaks of the dunes to make an exhibition of themselves for all the world to see, jumping up and down or waving their arms (as in the very first photo on this Canary Islands website!) It is possible to lose one's sense of direction here, but it's hardly possible to truly get lost. If in doubt, just head towards the beach and then turn left or right!

The further one moves away from the seafront and away from the hotels of the Playa del Inglés resort, so dune vegetation begins to encroach more and more on to the sand. If one is walking barefoot, then entering this area may be the time to don sandals to avoid the pain of treading on sharp twigs or hard seeds and stones. There are designated paths through the scrubland, but in practice, people wander freely where they wish.

Most who wish to explore the dunes will come up from the beach, but there is also easy access from the resorts of Maspalomas. To the north, the dunes also border the largest of the island golf courses. Describing these expansive dunes may make this sound to some like an enticing place to cross in beach buggies or similar vehicles, but that's not allowed. There is a camel riding option in one area of dunes close to Meloneras, but the only way to cross the entire stretch is on foot. And that's surely the way it should be. The Maspalomas dunes are a place to stroll with a lover or wander alone in quiet contemplation.

Wandering in the dunes

The rolling sand dunes of Maspalomas

Here and there in sheltered locations in the dunes, vegetation grows

NATURISM AND LESBIAN-GAY TOURISTS IN MASPALOMAS

There is one aspect of Maspalomas which should be mentioned. Spain is very liberal regarding dressware in its coastal beach resorts. Topless bathing in Spain is permitted in most places, and nudism is legal and sometimes common away from the main resorts. There are specially designated nudist areas on some of the beaches, and the stretch between Meloneras and Playa del Inglés is no exception. The naturist section is close to the Playa del Inglés end of the beach, but to be honest they may be seen elsewhere, including walking along the shoreline and in secluded localities among the vegetation in the dunes. It's accepted. If you have children or for whatever reason would rather not be "exposed" to this, then stay closer to the main resorts.

There are warning signposts in place, but the "official" naturist section is self-evidently easy to recognise. There is also a lesbian/gay section of beach, though that isn't so obvious. Maspalomas is noted as being something of a Mecca for gay travelers. Indeed it seems all kinds come to Maspalomas, but the great majority of visitors are families and heterosexual couples.

Maspalomas not only attracts human visitors in all their forms—it is also a haven for flora and fauna, as we shall see in the next section.

The dunes and the gradual encroachment of vegetation

WILDLIFE AND FLORA

Sand dune environments of this kind are not common (except of course in the rather different desert landscapes of places like the Sahara) and their extreme nature does make it difficult for life to survive here. Porous shifting sand means that the surface layers are dry, and the loose nature of sand means little plant life can get established. The roots have nothing to hold on to, and the lack of soil deprives the plants of nutrients. Salt tolerance is also required, particularly closer to the shoreline. Consequently, those plants which do survive in places like the Maspalomas dunes tend to be quite specially adapted to this environment.

In certain parts, there are sheltered lower valleys between the dunes, and areas away from the sea where the sand is shielded from the wind. Here, there is more opportunity for these plants to take secure root in damp, more stable ground. And once the best adapted species are well established, colonisation by more generalised species can take place. This process can easily be seen at Maspalomas. Close to the seashore, the dunes are bare rolling hills of sand. Nothing else will be visible to the casual observer. Elsewhere pockets of vegetation may be seen, but the further one moves inland, so the more greenery appears as the sand begins to give away.

Characteristic plant species include succulent types such as Traganum moquinii and Tetraena fontanesii, the sea-grape (Zygophillum fontanesi), and a local species of the Tamarisk (Tamarix canariensis). There is also the Canary Island Palm Phoenix canariensis. Most who visit are unlikely to see many animals. Fauna is sparse, and those smaller species that do live here tend to remain hidden from the sun and from predators under the low growing vegetation. But there is a lagoon called "La Charca" at the western end of the dune complex, and this lagoon - once part of a salt marsh which has been reclaimed - is an important refuge for many species of migratory birds en-route to and from the continent of Africa.

Despite the apparently barren nature of so much of the Maspalomas dunes, the environment and its importance to those species of animal and plant which can only survive in this kind of habitat has been recognised. The dunes were designated a national park in 1994 specifically to protect these species from the high-octane excesses of modern civilisation, and the modern resorts which are so close by.

The Canary Island Palm

A kestrel was the only representative of the local wildlife to hang around long enough for me to take a photo. She proved to be surprisingly tame, this photo was taken from less than three metres in distance. Why so tame? It may be because she knew perfectly well she could escape at any moment, but soon after I took this, she grabbed a lizard and flew off with it. My guess is the kestrel had been hunting it for some time and the knowledge that a meal was in the offering proved to be irresistible, encouraging her to put up with my close presence!

One of the more characteristic early colonisers - I believe this fleshy, low-growing, grey-blue succulent to be Traganum moquinii, though there are also other similar species

IN SUMMARY

There are dunes of sand to be found all around the world, and in surprising variety - coastal dunes, inland dunes, high altitude dunes. From the beautiful orange-red dunes of the Simpson Desert in Australia to the bleached gypsum of the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. From the great Namib Desert to the parched and inhospitably hot Death Valley, California, and the giant 500 m high dunes of Badain Jaran in North China.

One thing that all of these have in common is either their remoteness or their extremeness of climate. The majority of travelers from Europe or America will have to go far to see these natural wonders, and in some cases prepare thoroughly for the adventure. Maspalomas, on the other hand, can be prepared for by donning a swimming costume and sauntering down from the poolside bar. The dunes here may not be either the most dramatic nor the biggest in the world, but for any casual enthusiast who just wishes to see an extraordinary, natural sand dune environment a mere few metres from one of the world's most relaxing tourist destinations, the Dunes of Maspalomas really can't be beat.

The location of the Maspalomas Dunes on a promontary in southern Gran Canaria

Clicking on the Satellite view and zooming in gives a good aerial view of the Dunes (may not be available on smartphones)

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