Under the mountain

Intrepid traveler Sophie Merkens shares her experience of spending a European winter living in and working at a cave hostel in the Canary Islands. 

Words and photography Sophie Merkens

I am woken before sunrise by the early bird hikers who are eager to set off. It’s still dark as I get up and leave the warm comfort of my duvet and mattress on the floor. Even before the sun illuminates the terrain outside, I can see the familiar silhouettes and know where each mountain lies. I am deeply in love with this landscape. I want to etch this view into my soul, so I can return to it and ‘top up’ whenever I need some magic. I’m passing the European winter here, working as a volunteer in exchange for free board and enjoying the very slow pace of mountain life. It is bliss. 

The sun sets at Presa de Candelaria

Hostel life

I’m living in an eight-bed cave hostel in the mountains. El Warung Cave Hostel is nestled into the mountain town of Artenara, the highest village (and also one of the oldest) on the isle of Gran Canaria, in the Spanish archipelago of the Canary Islands. At 1270 metres above sea level, Artenara is a world away from the villages you’ll find along the island’s touristic, albeit beautiful, coastline. The village has only two shops, both of which shut for a three-hour siesta each afternoon. There is also a church, a post office, a police station that sells lottery tickets and plays very loud Latin music, and a handful of restaurants. My favourite is the organic Crepería; the owners Sergio and Neus close its doors at dusk to harvest their own vegetables for the menu. It’s a perfect place to drink thick, sweet hot chocolate when the weather turns (it occasionally snows here) and pass the afternoon, though the opening hours are what one might call typically Spanish, and dependent on Sergio’s mood.

When the wind comes from Africa, the sky fills with sand, creating sublime sunsets 

At 8.10am the sun comes up and provides welcome warmth. I set the Italian moka on the stovetop as my mornings don’t begin pre-coffee, and check that the guests are happy. Just in front of the cave sit three makeshift deckchairs, made from recycled wooden crates; I pour the coffee and walk over to them. Here I can breathe. To me these rustic chairs are the best coffee spot on the whole island, perhaps even in Europe. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the view. In the valley below is the small town of Tejeda that grows bitter almonds and produces wine. In front of me sits Roque Nublo, a protected volcanic rock towering over the valley. To the right, below a plateau, is an ancient cave village called Acusa Seca, a group of pre-Hispanic cave homes. They are now available to tourists to rent, but were once lived in by indigenous North African tribes dating back to the sixth century. There are succulents in the garden below and ripe cacti with fruit known as tunos line the roads. On clear days you can see the sea and from the town lookout you can view the impressive volcano Teide with its snowcapped summit on the neighbouring island Tenerife. 

Some mornings the mountains seem shrouded in mist. The Spanish call this Calima, when an oppressive blanket of sand that’s carried on winds from the African Sahara obscure the view. 

My inner romantic loves that there’s Sahara in the air. I revel in the fact that I’m living in a cave, in the mountains, on a Spanish isle, off the coast of Africa, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A local described the island of Gran Canaria to me as having the geography of Africa, the mentality of Europe and the culture of Latin America. 

Slowly does it

Life here is laidback – just leave a note if you’re going out for the day.

Artenara life is slow. Selfishly, soulfully slow. Time is taken to prepare and enjoy meals and my work tasks are few. I’m free by lunchtime to gaze at the view, write, indulge in more coffee, or hike. 

There are splendid day hikes. A walk in the mountains can take you to Cuevas del Caballero, a group of caves believed to be used for witchcraft and fertility rituals. Or a stroll may pass the local beehives or potato fields, planted in terraced gardens on the mountain slopes. A favourite hike of mine is to go up to Artenara Mountain on a small path amidst the pine forests. Sometimes you come across a local shepherd with his herd of bell-wearing sheep. The bells echo in the valley with the whistling wind. Here, my priorities are to enjoy life and ground myself after a nomadic summer. I’ve happily swapped television and internet for the daily spectacles of sunrise and moonset, sunset and moonrise. Everything else that happens in-between is a bonus.

I’ve happily swapped television and internet for the daily spectacles of sunrise and moonset, sunset and moonrise.

Preparing lunch with fellow cave dweller Christian can be a delight. We make papas arugadas con mojo, ‘wrinkled potatoes with sauce,’ a typical Canarian meal. Miniature Artenara potatoes are boiled up in a small amount of water with an excessive amount of salt. These are served with mojo, a sauce made of blended hot peppers, fresh coriander, cumin, garlic and Spanish olive oil. We like to eat it with the local Artenara cured goat’s cheese, which we buy direct from the farmer. This delicious, heavy meal often requires a follow-up afternoon nap, or Spanish siesta, to digest. If we want a snack we go down to the cacti plants along the road. Wearing thick leather gloves, we pick the ripe red fruits and once back at the cave we rub off the thin spikes under running water. 

Some nights all eight hostel beds are full, and rowdy drinking and card games animate the cave. Other nights we make sweet mulled wine and share tales and heartbreaks. The guests provide entertainment and variety. There was Keith, an 82-year-old hiker, who told us with tears in his eyes that he wished he’d travelled when he was younger, as he was now running out of time. There was Yosaiko, a Japanese French woman, who arrived in heels with an oversized suitcase on wheels and prepackaged meals and wouldn’t touch any surface without a tissue, but still stayed three days in the caves sharing her life stories around the table. There was Magnus, a tall, animated Norwegian mountain man who made stews and huddled in front of the heater at night wearing full woollens, while the rest of us wore T-shirts and perspired. There was Matteo, the Italian beer maker, who temporarily turned the cave into a hops-smelling brewery. Each day brings new people, new stories, new energy.

The night ends when the last person blows out the candles and goes to sleep. If all the guests are dedicated hikers, they retire early and the cave is silent before the moon has fully risen. On stormy nights we blockade the doors, grab extra blankets, and share a hearty stew. On clear nights we sit beneath the tapestry of stars and ponder our existence. Venus is bright these days. Cave life is an uncomplicated joy.

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