Duration – about 90 mins there and back from the road, including time for admiring the views from the new walkway in the gorge below the dam. Easy, flat walking, some shade. If walking from Relleu village, add another 30-45 mins each way. Directions and a map at the end of this post.
It doesn’t rain often here on the Costa Blanca. But when it does, it’s usually a real downpour. It rarely lasts for long though. So for centuries, the key thing has been to capture some of that precious rainfall before it runs off into the rivers and disappears downhill to the Mediterranean.
Which means dams. Villajoyosa has a modern concrete dam, a few kilometres out of town near Orxeta. But there’s also a much older dam, built more than 350 years ago, further up in the mountains near the village of Relleu.
And it’s a great little walk with a dramatic gorge at the end of it. Even better, a walkway (una pasarela) has been built right inside the gorge itself. It just opened to the public – in February 2022 – so you’re guaranteed even more spectacular views!
The pasarela clings to the rock face and takes you about 250 metres into the gorge itself, ending in a spectacular glass-floored viewing platform. It’s a bit like a pint-sized version of the Caminito del Rey near Málaga in southern Spain, and the views are breathtaking.
Opening hours are Tuesday-Friday 1000-1730 (last entry 1715) and 0930-1830 at weekends (last entry 1815). Admission is by ticket in 15 minute slots to control numbers. Check which slots are available here then reserve by phone (+34 613033336). You can pay on site with cash or card; prices here. Safety rules (no dogs, wear the right footwear, check weather first etc) here. Details of free car parks in Relleu village here. TIP: the walkway gets a lot busier at weekends, so go during the week if you can.
OK, so here’s a little history to go with the wonderful views. When it was built, el Pantano (el Pantà in Valenciano) de Relleu was not only an engineering marvel – it was officially a miracle! I mean a proper miracle!
Rewind to the 17th century and the countryside around Villajoyosa was suffering from serious drought, so much so that the area was becoming depopulated. Crops were failing through lack of water for irrigation and there wasn’t enough food to support the population. So the townsfolk petitioned the king to allow the construction of a dam at Relleu, to solve the water shortage.
One day (8 May, 1653 to be precise), the image of the Virgen de Santa Marta in Villajoyosa church was seen to shed tears. Only a few days later did people realise that this was the precise date that King Felipe IV signed the order to construct the dam – so Santa Marta was crying tears of happiness. There’s a Fiesta de las Lagrimas (tears) de Santa Marta every May in Villajoyosa to celebrate.
The landowners around Relleu weren’t quite so happy – they didn’t appreciate their land being flooded to suit folk down on the coast. But construction went ahead anyway. No-one’s quite sure when it opened, but it was certainly doing its job by the early 1700s.
Enough history – back to the walk. There are two ways to do this: first, the quick and flat route, which takes about 10-15 minutes from the information board at the road. You’re essentially walking along the dried-up lake bed behind the dam, which is great when there is no water there (most of the time, to be fair, though spring 2022 was an exception!) Or there’s a higher level path which avoids getting your feet wet when the lake has filled up, but takes just under half an hour – full directions, plus map, at the end of this post.
The dam wall is only 2-3 metres above the lake bed behind it because over three centuries, the lake has silted up with debris washed down from the surrounding mountains. As the lake bed got ever higher, so the engineers kept raising the level of the dam wall to compensate, so it now stands 44 metres (145 ft) above the gorge below.
It’s easy to forget that this must have been a pretty amazing engineering achievement back in the 18th century. Yes, plenty of dams had been built before, but not in such a difficult location and with such basic construction techniques; the Relleu dam was one of the first modern dams in Spain.
The silting up of the lake meant the dam went out of use in the last century, when the big concrete Amadorio pantano was built downstream in 1957, much closer to Villajoyosa. Since then, the Relleu dam has been slowly decaying – but the walkway should give it a new lease of life. For a birds eye view into the gorge from the top of the dam, check out my video here.
The dam is also a cool spot for barranquismo – canyoning in English – which means donning a wetsuit and crash hat, abseiling into the gorge and finding your way out. Video here.
How to get there
Drive up to Relleu from La Vila Joiosa on the CV-770 and then CV-775. As you reach the village, don’t go through the centre, but bear left at the roundabout following the ‘circumval.lació’ sign, and then turn left where you see the sign ‘Vinyes, Margelets, Ripalmes’. Follow the road (Cam Amadorio) downhill for 3 kilometres and you’ll see a tourist information board marking the start of the walk.
There’s very limited parking here, and on busy days it gets full quickly – the alternative car parks are in Relleu village, an extra 30-45 mins walk away. Start walking from the info board – after a couple of hundred metres, the path divides. Head straight on down the stony footpath which opens up into the dried-up lakebed, which in turn leads you to the dam – as long as the lake bed is dry. Or take the right hand fork for the longer vehicle track which keeps your feet dry when the lake has water in it.
© Guy Pelham
Try walking to these dams around Alicante – the scenery is usually spectacular and the lakes are beautiful.
Or try these other great walks around Villajoyosa:
- Climbing el Peñon d’Ifach, the Rock of Gibraltar look-alike
- Torre de Les Caletes and Torre del Barranc d’Aigües
- Playa de Torres to Benidorm via Torre de L’Aguiló
- The Faro (lighthouse) of L’Albir