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El Semaforo de Igueste – revisited 

A little over two years ago, in October 2013, the ‘Tenerife News’ published an article I’d written about the Semaforo de Igueste in the Anaga hills. (TN No. 486, 18/10/2013-31/10/2013). In case any of you missed it, here it is again.

THEN, IN 2013 …

If you go to the Plaza de Espana in Santa Cruz, look north along the coast to the rugged outline of the Anaga hills against the sky. Although the view might be a bit hazy, you’ll make out a small shelf of land sticking out of the cliff face going down to the sea. On that shelf you might see with the naked eye, but better with binoculars, something white. That something white is El Semaforo de Igueste, the Semaphore of Igueste.

The purpose of El Semaforo, otherwise known as ‘The Traffic Light’, was to signal to the port authority of Santa Cruz the activity of ships in the area. By a system of flags displayed from a 16m tall mast, the authorities could be informed as to a ship’s nationality and whether it was a frigate, a brigantine, a schooner, a man of war, or a mail-boat. The direction of travel was relayed and whether the ship was in need of help, if it was on fire(!), and so on. At night there was a system of lights. In addition to reporting shipping movements, the signallers made weather observations, noted the condition of the sea and kept an eye on smugglers from Africa (there’s nothing new under the sun). The flag signalling system was superseded by Morse code, powered by eighteen electric batteries, which then made way in the 1950’s for the telephone.

Construction of El Semaforo was funded by the British coal-shipping company firm of Hamilton & Co., the biggest in Tenerife. The station entered service on 20th November 1886 and the Spanish government took over responsibility in December 1895. The Semaphoro operated until its closure in 1971 followed by abandonment in 1979.

The hexagonal observation room with its panoramic all-round views was manned in shifts by three signallers who lived on the station with their families, each with their own comfortable, quite stylish accommodation consisting of a kitchen, a bathroom and four other rooms. Daily life for the families must have been quite a chore, it’s a long walk down to the village of Igueste for shops and the school, and of course a much harder walk coming back up. Water must also have been a problem. There are two room-sized underground cisterns, but how often would sufficient rain fall or ground water collect to keep them filled?

From Igueste, the twisting pavement through the village leads to the lane to the cemetery. From the lane the path to the Semaforo branches off uphill. It’s quite a gruelling walk for about an hour on an average gradient of about 15o, with many stops for a breather and to admire the magnificent views, followed by a short dip down again, before El Semaforo is reached.

Architecturally the building is quite a surprise given its location. The formality, the symmetry and the typical civic, urban style are completely out of context with the landscape. And then, when you consider the effort expended, you realise that it must have been a positively Herculean task to build it. Everything, perhaps even water to mix cement and plaster, would have to be transported up that steep narrow path by donkey or horse.

On my visit, after I had taken in the scenery and explored all around, I made a measured survey of the building and took some notes of its condition which, I’m sorry to say, is dilapidated and even dangerous in places. El Semaforo became a protected structure in 1985, but this status does not cover maintenance. The building is completely open, there are no doors or windows, anything wooden went long ago. Proof of rapid decay is in a video posted on ‘you tube’ in January 2012 that showed the roof intact. Between then and February this year (2013) the roof collapsed over one of the kitchens. Earlier still, photos posted on the internet in May 2011 show hardly any debris on the floor. Now, two years later, much of the floor is strewn with small pieces of concrete from the roof.

The cause is immediately obvious. Many of the iron reinforcement bars in the concrete roof deck have corroded and expanded, forcing the concrete beneath to crack and break away. In some places the bars have failed completely and serve no structural function. In these areas it’s only the integral strength of the concrete holding the roof up. And in the observation room there are vertical cracks in the masonry columns between the windows. The cause of this might again be corroded reinforcement bars or iron stanchions but this isn’t certain.

Occasionally the plight of the Semaphore is raised in the island newspapers and the residents themselves of Igueste are concerned about its future. Certainly the deteriorating condition of El Semaforo needs to be monitored. A simple way to do it would be to sweep the floor clean of all debris and inspect the building periodically, then any concrete that has fallen will be immediately apparent. But a structural engineer’s report of El Semaforo is vital.

It would be a tragedy to lose this lovely building in its stunning, remote and inaccessible location, but practical and economic realities have to be considered before sentiment. If it were to be repaired, what would be the cost, who would pay for its continual maintenance, and then what could El Semaforo be used for? Ideas have been put forward for a hostel for hikers, or a hotel, or restaurant – which would be fine if helicopter transport could be laid on. In the meantime, do visit this spectacular place, but enter at your own risk.

AND IN 2015 …

Soon after the article was published El Semaforo briefly became an issue in the island’s daily papers, raising it as a cause for concern: That was the situation two years ago. Then in November I revisited the place and I was shocked by the deterioration, which had been rapid, and to see that the building is progressively becoming a death trap.

I was about to report, via the Tenerife News, that nothing had been done in the intervening two years to safeguard the building or to protect the public and that something HAD to be done. Even so, I had every sympathy with the authorities responsible for the site.

There’s a Spanish saying that goes, “Nunca se va tan lejos como cuando no se sabe a donde vas”, which translates as, “I don’t know where I’m going if I don’t know where I’ve been.” I’m keenly interested in historical matters, very concerned that our future should benefit from the lessons to be learned from the past (which doesn’t happen often enough), and that, as a consequence, we should preserve what can practically be preserved. But I also live in the real world. There has to be a sound reason to conserve ancient structures for the positive benefit of people today and for posterity. The Semaforo receives very few visitors, it is well off the beaten track, being accessible only on foot by an arduous path. It is designated as a historic structure, but to dream of, let alone to seriously consider, renovating the building is pie-in-the-sky.

To repair the Semaforo would be difficult and hugely expensive, for one thing the roof alone is beyond repair, and to what end? It has to be said that the tangible benefit of its existence to the public at large is nil. There is no financial incentive to develop it or to repair it. An entry charge to the building could not be made, and ideas for a hostel, a restaurant or whatever, are completely impractical – apart from the matter of transport there’s no water up there. So in November it looked to me as though demolition by man rather than unpredictable nature was the only cheap and sure way to make the place safe, and even that would have to be done at a great cost.

All very depressing. At the time I really could not see a future for the Semaforo, and something had to be done urgently before someone was seriously injured or even killed. Then suddenly, by coincidence, within days of my visit I was sent the photograph above to show that action was being taken, the Semaforo was being made safe! This was an expensive and difficult task because everything, concrete blocks, cement, water, tools and equipment and the workers themselves, had to be taken up there by helicopter. As a result the medium term future of the Semaforo is assured and the magnificent panorama can be enjoyed from the terrace without the temptation to go inside the dangerous building, which can still be admired safely from the outside. After a good deal of deliberation, the authorities are to be congratulated for tackling this particularly thorny cactus of a problem.