Spain - Gallocanta Nature Reserve

In the lonely landscape of the Aragon plateau, a thousand metres above sea level, lies one of Europe's most stunning nature reserves. Every winter, the basin of the Gallocanta Nature Reserve becomes home to thousands of Cranes.



The village of Gallocanta, quite nondescript in itself, consists of a group of houses aligned along the main road, in an almost surreal setting, with the ruins of the Castle of Berrueco visible on the top of a hill; the ancient walls of Daroca, the canyons of the rio Piedra and the Mesa, and Piedra monastery are all just a few kilometres away. But the mass of bird life which brings this desolate plateau alive every winter is a wonderful sight. As you watch, awestruck, the clamorous, thronging twilight flights of thousands and thousand of cranes, you will understand why Gallocanta is classified as one of Europe's most stunning nature reserves.

Naturally, to view creatures in the wild and enjoy the fine sight they offer, visitors have to adapt to their habits. People come to the Reserva Natural de la Laguna de Gallocanta to see the cranes, so you must be ready and active at the times when they themselves are most active. It is at first light and then again at dusk that the air is filled with the sound of their calls. If you can hear them but not see them, get out of your camper and look up: they are probably flying high above your heads.


An impressive migrator


The common crane (Grus grus) is a bird which belongs to the Gruidae family. Its wingspan may be two metres or more, exceeding that of a golden eagle. It eats mainly vegetable matter such as seeds, fruits and roots. In flight, it is easily distinguished from the smaller but similar herons by the position of its neck, which it holds straight out and not bent. These migratory birds nest in northern Europe and Asia and then move south in winter, to north Africa and Spain. The regions of the Iberian peninsula where they congregate most in the winter months include Estremadura and Aragona.


A salty lake


Fed by rainfall and underground aquifers, the Gallocanta lagoon can be classified from brackish to salt-water depending on the time of year and the water level, which may vary by about two metres. An example of what geologists call an endorheic basin, meaning that it is totally enclosed with no outlets, it can vary even very considerably in size, and in the summer months quite often all that is left is a crust of salt. The Gallocanta lagoon's importance was recognised in 1985, when shooting was forbidden there, and other measures were gradually introduced until the creation of today's nature reserve by the Aragon Regional Government.

The winter months are the best for visiting the area, but they are not all the same. A large number of cranes pass though and stop at Gallocanta in November and December, but traditionally February is the month with the largest numbers: 70 thousand cranes in 2015 and 83 thousand in the last week of the month in 2014. Naturally, at this time of year, potentially adverse weather conditions must be borne in mind when planning outdoor activities. Snow is usual here, and can give the landscape a very special aura.


What is the best way to visit the reserve?


It is advisable to start by calling at the visitors' centre (Centro de Interpretación) at Bello, the little village on the lagoon's southern side. Standing beside the road and about twenty kilometres from Gallocanta itself, the centre is always open and houses a small exhibition offering an introduction to cranes, their migrations and the lagoon. It also provides a very useful map of the visiting routes and viewpoints, and ready-focused telescopes for visitors' use.

Now, map in hand, you can set off in your camper to explore the area.
Bear in mind that the recommended route includes unpaved roads; if the weather is not too wet they can be travelled by camper, with the usual precautions always advisable when driving on uneven ground. The entire route is marked with small green arrows, and all the turnings not open to visitors are also marked with a small sign indicating that they are for use by farm vehicles only. As well as cranes, other interesting bird species including lapwings, avocets, red kites, ravens, red-legged partridges, griffon vultures and hen harriers can also often be seen in these parts. Foxes, roe deer and wild boar are also common.
The tour is a thrilling experience thanks also to the route itself, which winds through lonely fields with beautiful, constantly changing views.

Once back in Gallocanta, leave your camper in the visitors' centre car park. A straight track leads down to a viewpoint right on the edge of the lagoon, with an excellent chance of seeing birds; it is also the ideal location for photographing magnificent sunsets. Once back at the car park, do not return to the main road; instead, turn sharp left, in the opposite direction to the visitors' centre, down the track that leads down to the Los Aguanares viewpoint. The track runs around the edge of the village, with the lagoon on the left, and after a short downhill section comes to an open area with a few old silos and then, a few hundred metres further on, to the viewpoint. We are now at the northern tip of the lagoon, and this viewing point is recommended at dawn, for watching the groups of cranes as they leave the water to go and feed in the fields. Back on the track, taking care always to follow the green arrows, a short climb leads to the hilltop Ermita del Buen Acuerdo, a small church with an adjoining yard and stone cross: this is a wonderful place to stop and look out over the depression in which the lagoon lies, surrounded by barren hills.

The route leads across the fields to Las Cuerlas, a small village on the western side of the reserve. We keep following the green arrow route to the La Reguera viewpoint, which is actually a tower. Once we have climbed a flight of steps, the view opens out to the north and over the corner of the lagoon we have just driven around. Anyone up here just before sunset will see huge flocks of cranes which seem to rain down from the sky to settle in their roosting areas.

We are now in Bello, where a very tall silo has been converted into a hotel. A little further on, we are back at the visitors' centre we already know; this is another excellent point to stop to watch the spectacle at sunset or dawn, as an endless succession of flocks fly overhead. Three small, light-coloured wooden buildings visible on the edge of the lagoon can only be accessed with a special permit. Specifically for photographers, they are in such high demand from enthusiasts from all over Europe that they have to be booked many months in advance.

We continue towards the last raised tower, the Canizar viewpoint. To reach it, we have to leave our camper and cover the short final stretch on foot; there is an excellent view of the southern part of the lagoon. To conclude, we have only to travel the unpaved track along the eastern side, from Canizar to Gallocanta: the last rays of sunlight, reflected on the water, are an unforgettable sight, and thousands of cranes wait in the surrounding fields before flying in to roost.


To photograph the birds, it is essential to use the specially constructed hides right on the edge of the lagoon. They are run by the regional authority itself, and the relevant departments must be contacted at least five or six months ahead of time (Gobierno de Aragon, www.rednaturaldearagon.com). Every hide is able to take no more than two people, and to avoid disturbing the birds users must enter them before dawn and vacate them after dusk. Twelve hours in around-zero temperatures, unable to go outside, is an experience that will only appeal to the very keen.

Campers can use the car parks of the Centro de Interpretacion in Gallocanta and Bello. Allucant country hotel at Gallocanta (tel. 0034/976/803137, www.allucant.com, info@allucant.com). This is also a useful logistical reference point for visitors to the area; it provides a large number of services including a restaurant, a bar with free wi-fi, a shuttle service, binocular and bicycle hire and guided excursions.

Oficina Comarcal de Turismo en Gallocanta, Piazza San Mauricio 4, Gallocanta; tel. 0034/976/803 069, www.gallocanta.org
Spanish National Tourism Portal, www.spain.info.


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