The Fire Mountains of Timanfaya are Lanzarote’s biggest tourist attraction. Every year, almost a million visitors come to see the landscape that burst into violent existence less than 300 years ago, and which were transformed into a National Park in 1974. We took a trip to meet some of the people who make Timanfaya tick over.
At 7.45 each morning, Susana Hernández de León arrives at work with her keys and opens up. Susana’s workplace, however, is rather different to most. She’s in charge of the Montañas de Fuego visitors centre at the Islote de Hilario in Timanfaya – Lanzarote’s most famous tourist attraction.
At 8 am, workers will arrive to prepare for the arrival of between 3,500 to 5,000 people. The ticket office is prepared, guards prepare the brushwood and water for fiery demonstrations of the earth’s heat, and a couple of guards travel the Volcano Route to check that the road is clear and the wind hasn’t caused any rock spills.
The doors open at 9 am and tourists begin to arrive immediately. As we step out of the office, we hear a geyser whoosh steam into the air, followed by the delighted, surprised cries of the onlookers “It never fails,” smiles Susana, “You never get tired of that noise.”
By 11, the carpark is rammed, while eight coaches endlessly come and go as they ply the Volcano Route. A long queue of cars can be seen waiting in the valley below. “We’ve spent years looking for an answer to the queues,” says Susana. There have been plans to open a brand new carpark behind a nearby volcano, or to ban cars completely and ferry visitors in by coach, but nothing has been approved yet. “We need a solution, though,” she adds “We want tourism to increase as long as we can handle it.”
A second shift arrives in the afternoon, and in the summer season until September 15th, the last tourists will leave the park by 7 pm. For 12 hours, the volcanoes of Timanfaya will stand frozen in silence and moonlight, until the next morning.Read more...
The Park Guard
José Gregorio is one the senior guardias at Timanfaya. In their specially-designed uniform, 14 of these workers organise the smooth running of the centre, directing parking, keeping an eye on visitors and doing the demonstrations – throwing aulaga brush into a pit where it bursts into flame, and pouring buckets of water down metal tubes to create whooshing geysers of steam.
How long have you worked here, José?
14 years. I’m from Mancha Blanca, so it’s just round the corner. We used to come here back in the 1970s – it was a day out for everyone. Fishermen would bring their catch, someone would bring some pork, and we’d cook it for free on the heat of the volcanoes. These traditional barbecues still happen when the centre is closed.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
Doing the demonstrations. People are always amazed and fascinated. Children love the hot pebbles and try and take them home with them. They don’t realise they don’t stay hot.
Are there any accidents?
Sometimes. The temperature can reach 120 degrees at just 10 cms deep. Our job is to warn people, and normally they pay attention. Most accidents happen at the restaurant’s barbecue, where people touch the stones inside to see how hot they are. They learn the answer very quickly.
What other problems do you have?
Parking can be complicated, and sometimes people get out of their cars and wander onto the lava while waiting in a queue. We have to keep a close eye on that.
Do you ever get to wander in the protected zones?
No. If a piece of litter is spoiling the view we’ll scramble out to fetch it, but this isn’t a safe place for anyone, and our footprints will spoil it exactly the same as a tourist’s. There are worse places to work than this, I suppose.
This is a lovely job. For someone born on Lanzarote, among this landscape, to work here is wonderful. I’m very proud to be here.
The Coach Driver
Martín Felipe Martín knows the Volcano Route – the twisty, roller-coaster coach road through Timanfaya – as well as anyone. As he coolly manoeuvres his vehicle through collapsed lava tunnels and past vast craters, he points out rocks that are shaped like faces and the figure of a devil in a distant volcano. He is entirely at home here – in fact, it was once his home.
How long have been driving the Volcano Route?
For 22 years now, but I’ve been working here at Timanfaya for over 40. When I was small, I’d come with my family and we’d take tourists around by camel. We even had a day home here – an adapted underground cave that’s now used as a seismological laboratory.
Was it hard to learn to drive the route safely?
Not really. I trained for a coach drivers’ licence for two years, and drove the route alone a few times to learn it, but it’s not that hard. I do it eight or nine times a day now, so it’s almost second nature.
Were you nervous the first time?
No, not at all, I know this place and I know my vehicle.
Are there ever any problems on the route?
Once in a while a bus breaks down, and that can cause blockages, but usually it all runs smoothly.
Do you ever get tired of this job?
How could you? Even when it rains, it’s magnificent, with steam rising as far as you can see. I love my job.
As he parks back at the centre and another coachload of passengers bursts into a round of applause, it’s easy to see why.
Mark and Ellie Knight and their children Annabel and Sophie, from Chelmsford, are waiting for a selfie opportunity overlooking the vast valley of volcanic lava. “It’s great here – the kids are loving it – but we haven’t taken the coach trip yet”, says Ellie.
Mark’s looking a little pale after what he says was a “nerve-wracking” drive through the lava to the centre. “It doesn’t look very forgiving if you leave the road,” he says.
Across the carpark, Lisa and James Brine from Hazelmere, Surrey, are waiting to see the geysers with their children Harry and Sophie.
They’re coming to the end of a “fantastic” two-week holiday on Lanzarote, and have been “having a great time.”
Although they weren’t impressed by the long queue to reach the centre, they’re dying to discover what’s on offer. Harry’s already made his mind up about one thing: “The toilets are nice!”
In high season, try to arrive early or late. Long queues of cars form between 11am and 3pm. Sundays are also less busy, as fewer tour parties arrive then.
Don’t leave the tarmac or tourist zones.
Get a seat close to front of the coach. We reckon the right-hand side is the most spectacular.