This blog post was originally a guest post I did for CandiceDoestheWorld.
In the furious Atlantic, Cíes Islands (or Illas Cíes), float in an ethereal space, under-appreciated and vacant for centuries. The islands hug the Northwest tip of Spain called Galicia. It’s an overlooked area of the country excluding its reputable Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Untouched for hundreds of years, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the islands were recognized as a Nature Reserve and opened tours to the public. They were frequented by local fishermen and occasionally a courageous spear fisherman.
Now, the surrounding waters are officially protected and prohibit most fishing activities. We embark on the boat, departing from the Baxiona port, where daily trips occur every few hours from the months of April through early October. Not knowing what I should expect, Márcio assures me that this place will ‘move’ me. Upon disembarking, the crowds rush to the first frontier. It’s a long sandbar, called Rodas beach, which bends along to the island’s south tip (cover image of this post). Clusters of parked yachts face the shore where sun worshipers lounge on towels baking in the sun. My eyes catch a sign that exclaims, “Por favor, recoger la basura cuando te vas! Respetar este hábitat en peligro de extinción.” (Please collect your trash when you leave! Respect this endangered habitat.)
Looking to my right, I see a small fence guarding a turquoise estuary. Flocks of unfamiliar black-bellied, white-winged birds fly frantically trying to catch their insect lunch. Dissecting the estuary, a small stone bridge crosses to the middle island, called do Faro, or “Lighthouse Island” where the campers pitch their tents. The right side exposes the massive Atlantic, reminding me that water – the most powerful force on Earth – will continue to erode away this estuary through the high and low tides of time. I’m awestruck witnessing such a rare, but beautiful geological phenomenon.
“We should see the lighthouse,” Marcio pleads, “But first, let me use the bathroom.” He throws his bag to the ground and dashes up the platform. Masses of tourists stand deadlocked in the bathroom lines. I grab a nearby seat and plop down muddling through a bag of apple cookies. People watching, I getting sucked into Spanish soap operas with children throwing fits and parents arguing over directions and itineraries. When Márcio returns, we gather our bags and head left to most Northern island called, Monteagudo, or in English, Sharp Mount.
The island’s terrain is mountainous, filled with shedding pine and white eucalyptus trees which diffuse into a nutty pine scent. As we trek up the trail gaining elevation, we catching our breath. Behold the greatest prize of all: the blue-green sea sprawls out crashing into the coasts of Galicia. Except something interrupts my fair weather thoughts. Groups of bare-bodied people sunbath in a remote cove. They huddle in closed circles, standing without a sign of embarrassment laughing, swimming and lounging. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, friends and strangers all together in a shameless concoction of nakedness. It’s like witnessing a Spanish version of Woodstock, though I missed that era.
Descending down the trail to the beach, nobody seems to notice our arrival. We place our towels on the sand. I try to resist the urge to gawk. When was the last time I was at a nude beach? Never. Moments after we realize that it’s actually more than a nude beach, but a gay-friendly beach. Márcio didn’t seem to notice, nor care. His love for the water doesn’t shy him away from the bystanders. He drops his pants and dives in. On one hand, I’m fascinated. On the other hand, I couldn’t bear imagining myself unclothed. But looking around, I’m the odd one. The fish out of water. Everyone is naked, except me. Beyond the superficial prisons of our bodies, I couldn’t help but admire the people around me. All shapes and sizes, genders and sexual preferences, everyone seemed to enjoy the sun and sea in a strange, yet harmonious gathering.
While a part of my American upbringing was screaming: That’s awkward! This is wrong! That’s inappropriate! The sun and sea hypnotize me and I float into my bliss again. The water reflects the light, pigmenting into a deep, majestic emerald. It’s calm. Barely a wave pushes to shore. After a noon swim, we gather our bags and resume hiking up the trail. We follow the trail for about an hour finding ourselves alone. We no longer see the Galician coastline, but instead, the abyss of the Atlantic. I could imagine my 12 year old self, at the Jersey shore, looking beyond the horizon. She’s curious, but unaware that her future self would stare back. The remnants of an old stone house sits lopsided on top of the hill.
Perhaps a long forgotten hermit lived here, battling the strong sea winds in frightful storms. We couldn’t see the house from afar so we decide to explore it. We rummage through the thick bush and find the fragments of an archaic fireplace pit and an old stone wall. Isolated and beautiful, I try to imagine what characters lived here. The first inhabitants on the island date back to the Bronze age. Old Celtic, Roman and monk vestiges are just a few of the many isolated clans which settled here. Some lived in secrecy such as pirates and exiles. Others used the island as a pivotal point of attack, like English explorer, Francis Drake, who tried to usurp the Galician fleets of ships, pillaging for pirate booty.
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There’s a fork in the path. One leads up the hill. The other leads down. We decide to take the one where the tourists avoid: going up. As we climb, trees begin to dissipate. Much of the terrain is exposed to the strong sea winds. Even for a mid summer’s day, the gusts are raw and chap our bare skin. The granite boulders pop abruptly from the mountain cliffs. Some dangle, as if any minute they will tumble down to the sea. Close to the edge there’s a sign with a bird silhouette symbol. We’ve reached a vacant bird sanctuary. Towering over the sea, a small wooden fort hangs over a concrete foundation edge. Nervously, we approach the structure and take a step inside. The gusts are so powerful, they shake the fort. Sticking our heads outside the wooden balcony, our jaws drop. The waves crash into the rocks nearly 400 feet below.
We hear screeches in the wind. Glancing to the left, colonies of seagulls huddle in the rocks gathering their fresh catch. To our right, a small lighthouse perches along the side of the cliff. “Did you see an Iberian guillemot?” I ask. “Hm..I didn’t see,” shrugs Márcio. He’s flipping through the pamphlet searching for the picture of the bird. “They say that there’s only been documented 400 pairs these birds.” “Kate, they’re nearly extinct.” Márcio mutters. As we descend the meandering path, something catches us off guard. A lone girl walks along the edge of death. The path abruptly stops by the lighthouse. Somehow she is walking along the fringe. We rush down to the path, hoping that we wouldn’t witness something dreadful. As we come closer to the lighthouse, we realize that the angle of the scene changes.
What appears is not always true. There’s a wide concrete path bending around the lighthouse. It was covered up by the steep rocks. The mountain fools us. ** After circling around the North island, we reach the Rodas base where we started out. We decide to take a quick rest and plan our last hour and a half on the island. The last boat takes off for Baxiona quarter past 8. “Ahh, do you think we’ll have time for the main light house on the other island?” I ask. “I’m not sure,” Márcio hesitates. “It took awhile last time to reach it.” “Over an hour?” I ask. “Probably.” “Ok let’s do this. We will walk for 45 minutes, but then we turn back regardless where we are.” “Alright, let’s see,” Márcio agrees.
We pass over the stone bridge quickly glancing at the shimmery estuary. The sun dips lower into the Atlantic horizon leaving behind Galicia. Crowds of Spanish youth now flood the camp site passing drinks and pieces of jamon around. I wonder if they hear the tides flow in and out at night during the moon’s gaze.
Briskly walking, I urge Márcio to pace faster. I frantically check the time on my cracked cell phone. The path meanders like a snake up the hill. Parents somehow miraculously push their baby carriages up the mountain path. Children jeer and laugh wildly as they outrun their parents. We tread up and take a short-cut, halving up the coiled path. We race past others who are leisurely walking. Panting and out of breath, I ask a local park ranger how far we need to go. Sadly, the lighthouse would take longer than our time available.
We decide to trek on. We reach the fork. Although taking a left would continue to the light house, we go right to the nearest panoramic view. I jog lightly to the edge of the cliff. Looking behind me, green shrubbery rolls along the slopes into a small valley. The Southern island, Saint Martin is in full view showing off its lush vegetation and Baixona’s port in the faint distance. I snap a photo of the scene with Márcio’s bright red shirt popping out against the background. Our final moments on the top were short-lived. Soaking in the beauty, we attempt to imprint the scene in our heads. Cíes won’t be forgotten. As Márcio promised, her glory moved me.