In 2019 the fourth site on the Canary Islands was awarded the status of a UNESCO world heritage site: Risco Caido and the sacred mountains of Gran Canaria. During our stay on Gran Canaria we went on a search for the pre-Hispanic culture of the island.
The pre-Hispanic history
Prior to the arrival of Spanish conquerors in the 15th century, Gran Canaria was the most populated of the Canary Islands, and therefore there are more pre-Hispanic remains than on any other island. All of the sites are in the mountainous interior. As the coastal areas are very dry and thus not very suitable for agriculture, and also do not offer much protection against enemies, the pre-Hispanic people preferred the cliffs and ravines in the interior with their fertile volcanic soil. The UNESCO inscription includes cave-dwellings, granaries, temples and burial sites of the native Canarians (antiguos canarios) of Gran Canaria.
This pre-Hispanic, native population had lived on the Canary Islands for about 2000 years, much of this isolated from the world and even neighbouring islands. They seem to have evolved from North African Berbers who arrived in the Phoenician and Roman times. Although the settlers brought knowledge about astronomy, agriculture and irrigation from the Mediterranean, they were not navigators or seafarers themselves. And they did not have any contact with the ouside, after the Roman Empire collapsed. The ancient Canarians thus had to cope with the limited possibilities and materials on the island. They lived together in tribes. They built round houses and villages, but they also used natural and artificial caves for settling, rituals and burials.
Cave dwellings of Risco Caido
The core of the UNESCO inscription is Risco Caido, a cave structure with more than 20 caves, possibly used as an astronomical observatory by the aboriginal people. First, we make our way up into the mountains to the picturesque village of Artenara, nearly 1300 m above sea level. The newly inscribed caves must be somewhere near Artenara, but we are not sure where exactly and how they are accessible. We bring hiking boots and hope for some insights at the new visitor centre in Artenara.
On exhibit in the dramatically lit exposition are some pots and necklaces as well as some farming tools, but most of the artefacts found in Risco Caido are in the museum in the capital, Las Palmas, we learn. On several screens videos show the reconstructed life of the people back in the pre-Hispanic time. The Highlight of the exhibition is a facsimile of the most stunning cave in Risco Caido, which was probably used for fertility cults or astronomical calculations. There are holes in the cave wall through which on certain days the sunlight would filter on the opposite walls, lighting up painted symbols. Archaeologists are still researching the purpose of these light beams and symbols. Unfortunately, the caves themselves are currently closed it turns out.
The Roque Nublo
The Roque Nublo, the “mountain in the clouds” is the most impressive rock of the holy formations on Gran Canaria and visible from quite afar. It looks like a finger pointing into the sky on top of a mountain. Geologically, it is the core of a volcano – while the volcano itself eroded over the years, the solidified lava in the shaft remained in this peculiar shape. Below the Roque Nublo stretches an extensive plateau which the native Canarians used for rituals.
A fairly easy hiking path leads from the nearby parking area up to the plateau. We opt for a longer walk around the Roque Nublo with fantastic views from different angels, before we finally hike up to the plateau. For sport climbers it is possible to climb to the top of Roque Nublo, otherwise you have to be content with the still impressive view from below the rock needle.
The Roque Bentayga
Another distinctive rock formation, the Roque Bentayga, was also used for seasonal ceremonies. Again, there is a good visitor centre, set up along with the UNESCO inscription, that explains how the archaeologists assume the ritual acts may have been conducted. Below the looming rocks the inhabitants had created a plateau with several pits and grooves probably used for sacrificing animals or plants.
There are a lot of man-made caves in the mountain – some of them with traces of paint – but only a few are accessible to the public on a longer hike around the mountain.
Just as impressive – although not officially part of the UNESCO site – was a visit to the museum in Galdar, where we had a fantastic guided tour. The centrepiece is a vast roofed area with the partly excavated remains of a pre-Hispanic settlement. Some of the living quarters are reconstructed and give a particularly good impression of how the living conditions might have been. One cave with painted triangles on the walls is separately protected behind glass, but visitors can enter briefly.
When the Spanish arrived on Gran Canaria in the 15th century there was an estimated population of 15000 people living on the island. After the conquest there were only 200 left. The inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage list is an effort to recognize the cultural past of the islands.
Should you visit Risco Caido and the adjacent UNESCO sites?
To be honest, of the UNESCO sites we have visited this was one of the most difficult sites to connect with. The indigenous people had no scripture and most things known about them today were written down by the Spanish conquerors. Archaeologists still do not know much about the use of the sites and caves and the explanations on site (and in the visitor centres) are accordingly vague. On the other hand, if you like hiking, most of the visits can be combined with good tours in the area. You really need a car to get to most of the sites.
If you liked the post about Risco Caido or are planning a visit to the Canary Islands you might also like our post about the UNESCO-listed town of San Cristobal de la Laguna on Tenerife. Tenerife even has a second UNESCO site, Mt. Teide, at 3718 m the highest mountain in Spain.
NB: Our visit to Gran Canaria was not sponsored in any way and all expenses have been paid by ourselves.