How dark is dark? I was about to find out as I opened my eyes deep below Icod de Los Vinos sitting on a lava ledge that was formed 27,000 years ago when molten lava was spewing from Pico Viejo in north Tenerife. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face let alone the other 15 explorers on this organised tour of Cueva del Viento. A minute into this experiment we switched on our helmet lights and appeared again among the flickering shadows in the Cave of the Wind.
The entrance cave was positively roomy compared to the three layers of volcanic tubes that cover 17 kms making them the longest in Europe. An unfortunate old lady had rediscovered these tunnels 90 years ago when she fell down a chasm and needed rescuing. The lush green undergrowth above gives little indication of the turmoil that has carved out this labyrinth but on our 10 minute walk from the mini bus drop off I saw bizarre rock formations that had bubbled up all those years ago. The pine trees shielded the old volcanic bridle path, the first natural highway for Tenerife.
The tubes were sealed off to the public for 15 years, a closure lengthened by the death of 6 people from volcanic gas in the water filled galleries of Los Silos in February 2007. Safety has been tightened since then and I felt in safe hands as our guide started our voyage of discovery at the visitor’s centre with a brief history of the volcanic process illustrated by recent video footage from Hawaii. It’s pretty staggering to learn that the liquid fast moving lava solidifies and becomes safe to walk on in just an hour, thankfully our party didn’t have to put that to the test.
Approaching the metal entrance grid we descended the stone steps and I could feel a cool chill on my arms and then the rough angular floor pressing into my trusty trainers; hiking boots are a better option. We fanned out into the opening cave as our guide explained in German and English how the lava layers had formed. This was helped by a multi lingual display board, one of several in the 1,200 metre stretch that the public get to see. I was just getting used to shining my helmet light where I needed it when we began our descent into the main tube.
At times I had to duck to avoid scraping the ceiling and picking my way over the rough floor added to the delicate balancing act. Sulphur nodules and solid drops of lava decorated the roof, and although it felt surprisingly dry, there were signs that water had dripped through over the years. I was in one of the first parties to visit in June 2008 when the caves reopened and I noticed a few subtle safety changes. Metal bolts and concrete had been used to secure parts of the roof and rubber matting and metal grids made some of the trickier paths easier to negotiate. What I saw was stunning but the imagination was having a field day at the dark tunnels and fissures feeding off from the main route. At our deepest dip we were facing the 17 metre deep chasm that links the various levels, the sun filtered through a sealed iron gate up on the surface, ensuring no more old ladies have a mishap.
Plans are underway for a more extreme public exploration, 5 hours including a 5 km deep rope descent. A rope already dangles down the tight tunnel but my light couldn’t reveal the bottom, maybe I will try the closer examination, hopefully early next year. There is a bigger more ambitious plan in place, to buy land that sits above the full extent of the tubes. On the approach to the entrance we saw several illegally built houses that are feeding waste into the tunnels and when I walked back down to Icod I noticed the green markings on roads that indicted the route of the caves. Even farming land is a threat as pesticides leak down into the tunnels, it will take 15 years to reverse the damage.
The sun seemed even stronger as we headed back up the stone steps leaving the history behind. It was like crossing the threshold of 2 worlds. The volcanic evolution of Tenerife is still continuing but it’s good to know the past is laid out in lava layers to dip into and learn.
Cueva del Viento, Icod de Los Vinos
Tel information and advance bookings (0034) 922815339
Open Tues to Sat, Visitors Centre 9 am to 4 pm, Tours 10 am, 11 am, 1 pm, 2 pm
Adults 15 euros, Residents 10 euros, Children 5 to 14 years 5 euros
Tours including talk at centre, 2 hours.