Duration: about 90 minutes if you go to both the top of the dam and the bottom (recommended). The road to the base of the dam is tarmac and easy walking, if a little steep on a hot day. To reach the top of the dam, the footpath is narrow and stony – take good trainers or walking shoes. Directions and a map at the end of this post.
The men who built the Tibi dam clearly meant their work to last. And it has, for almost 450 years and counting. El Pantano de Tibi, up in the mountains behind Alicante, is one of the oldest working dams in Spain – in fact one of the oldest in the whole of Europe – and everything about it is immense.
The gently-curving dam wall is wide enough to run a three-lane highway across the top if you had a mind to. And it’s a beautiful walk to get there through gorgeous mountain scenery, your path lined with fragrant rosemary bushes in flower in early summer.
You can get quite close with your car (see directions below). Park up off-road, dodge around the double gates that stop traffic going any further and head down the hill. After about ten minutes, you’ll reach a tarmac vehicle-turning area, which is where you decide whether to head for the top or the bottom of the dam.
Reach for the top!
I’d say go for the top first – so head off uphill to your left, past a half-ruined stone structure and follow a stony path which takes you over the ridge ahead.
There are no signs, but you’ll see white and yellow splashes of paint on the rocks from time to time to keep you on the right route.
After about 15 minutes you’ll see an abandoned building, which is where you’ll get your first good look at the dam and the huge lake behind it.
It is truly impressive, especially if the lake is full, as it was after heavy spring rains in spring 2022. The immense effort in manhandling those massive blocks of stone into the narrow gorge, using nothing more than basic construction machinery and human sweat, is something to marvel at. Those 16th century engineers clearly knew what they were about.
The first stone was laid in 1580 – to put that in perspective, Queen Elizabeth 1 was on the English throne, the USA didn’t exist for a further 200 years – and it took 14 years to construct. But why was it built in the first place, and who was all that water for? Certainly not for the handful of villages in the hills around the dam. Nobody was that thirsty back then!
The customers for Tibi’s water were actually down on the coast, around Alicante. Just inland lay a fertile zone known as ‘la huerta (the garden/orchard) de Alicante’, because it was so productive. But it needed a reliable source of water for irrigation, and the little river Montnegre wasn’t delivering enough. So King Philip ll authorised construction of the Tibi dam and by 1594, the waters were flowing, transforming the agriculture of the area.
These days, much of the old ‘huerta de Alicante’ is covered by modern high-rise blocks around Playa San Juan and Albufereta – let’s face it, real estate is a lot more profitable than agriculture – but the dam still provides water for irrigation after more than four centuries.
On the dam wall
Head down to the side of the dam, alongside the spillway which takes overflow water out of the lake in a spectacular waterfall. There’s a little chain across a rickety bridge that officially bars your way, but it doesn’t really stop anybody walking onto the top of the dam.
If you do decide to go past this point, be very careful – there’s a deep lake on one side and a 46 metre (150 ft) drop on the other, with a distinct absence of safety barriers. If there’s water on top of the dam wall, it can be slippery too. Not good for little kids or vertigo sufferers!
If you do walk across the top of the dam, there’s a little platform cut into the rock on the other side which gives you a view across the sparkling blue lake. There’s also a very steep set of steps that will take you down the side of the dam to the bottom. Personally, I’d give them a miss – they didn’t look too safe to me – and the long way round is a better walk anyway.
Take in the views of the gorge below and the mountains surrounding the embalse (lake) and when you’re done, head for the bottom of the dam for a very different perspective.
Below the dam
Retrace your steps until you find yourself back at the turning circle – then simply follow the tarmac road downhill and across the Carlos IV bridge at the bottom of the valley.
There’s a no entry (in Spanish) sign next to the abandoned Ermita (chapel) de Divina Pastora, but there’s no-one to stop you following the narrow path to the foot of the dam for a neck-craning view of the sheer stone face of the dam wall.
Alongside you, the water crashes down into the valley from the spillway high above. Maybe I have an over-active imagination, but you do get an eerie sense of the massive weight of water being held back by the man-made stone cliff towering over your head.
The water flows out into the Rio Montnegre/Monnegre (Black Mountain river), so called because the sediments in the valley below the dam turn the water a dark colour (it’s called Rio Verde – Green River – above the dam). The Montnegre meets the sea at El Campello, but by that point it’s a dry barranco for most of the year – all the water has been used up by farming on the way down.
How to get there
From Alicante: about 40 mins inland by car. Head north on the A-7 toll-free motorway towards Alcoy, take exit 482 and turn right into the Mesón Maigmó service area.
You’ll see a sign saying Pantano de Tibi – follow the road past Finca Ronesa (an upmarket hotel/events place) for about 15 minutes until you can’t drive any further, as a pair of double gates bar your way. There’s a limited amount of off-road parking nearby.
More dam walks!
Dams are great for mountain views and a hike round the lake – so try these other walks on the Costa Blanca
© Guy Pelham