Las Islas Canarias

Las Islas Canarias, the Canary Islands, are a group of volcanic islands in the subtropics, lying off the coast of Morocco. Politically they belong to Spain, geologically they are part of Macaronesia - a volcanic group of islands that includes the Azores, Madeira and the Cape Verde Islands, all have similar topography and indigenous flora and fauna.

The big plus of the Canaries, at least from the viewpoint of Northern Europeans, is that they are within a reasonable distance to escape from the rigours of winter. Of the 43 million tourists that visit Spain, a quarter go to the Canaries.

Due to their location, and an ocean current that helps to moderate the temperatures, the Canaries enjoy a year round summer and spring.

The Canaries consist of seven main islands - Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro; plus six small islands - Isla de Alegranza, Isla Montaña Clara, Isla Graciosa, Isla de los Lobos, Roque del Este, Roque del Oeste.

The first of the Canary Islands, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, were formed approximately 20 million years ago by volcanic eruptions. Next, at about 12 million years, came Gran Canaria, followed by Tenerife and La Gomera. Relatively youngsters, at about two to three million years ago, a similar age to man, were La Palma and El Hierro.

The islands as a group form an autonomous province of Spain. The seat of the Gobierno de Canaries was at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, but due to inter-island rivalry there now exists a complex arrangement. The presidency rotates every four years between Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the sixty member parliament sits in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The islands are subdivided into two provinces; Las Palmas Province consist of Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote; Santa Cruz de Tenerife Province consists of Tenerife, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro. Each province has a military and a civilian governor appointed by Madrid. Each island has its own local government - Cabildo Insular. The islands are further subdivided into municipios, each with their own Ayutamiento (town hall).

The islands have one university, situated in La Laguna - the original capital of Tenerife. La Universidad de La Laguna is one of the most prestigious universities in Spain. Its Astrophysics department is of world renown, with observatories on Tenerife and La Palma.

The principle industry, and mainstay of the islands, is tourism. In 1998, tourism injected 1.2 billion pesetas into the islands. Agriculture is also important, especially for those parts outside of the main tourist spots.

The standard of service in many of the hotels, especially in the major tourist locations, is often poor by international standards. Privately run, family businesses are usually the exception, where the family takes a pride in the hotel.

The official language is Castilian Spanish, and this is what is taught in the schools. That spoken on the streets is South American Spanish, though to be strictly correct, Latin American Spanish should be termed Canarian Spanish, as many of those who emigrated to Latin America originally came from the Canary Islands, and the Canaries still retain very strong links with South America. The language spoken on the streets also has a high proportion of Guanche words, though it is a mystery as to how the Guanches, a race who pre-date the Spanish conquest, had a word for bus - guagua.

English is widely spoken in all the major tourist resorts. Nevertheless, out of common courtesy if nothing else, visitors should make the effort to learn and speak at least a few words of Spanish.

The Canaries are on GMT in the winter, and BST in the summer. That is the same time as London, one hour behind Madrid.

Mentioned by Shakespeare, Malmsey, also known as Sack, was an important wine export in the 16th and 17th centuries. Originally produced in Tenerife, the main area of production is now Lanzarote.

Known locally as papas, the original Indian name, Canarian potatoes are direct descendants of the potatoes imported from the Andes in the 16th century. Small, wrinkled and knobbly, black, red and yellow they have their own distinctive flavour. The traditional way of cooking is with a large amount of sea salt (originally they were cooked in sea water), served in a small dish, with a white encrustation of salt. The cooked dish is known as papas arrugadas (wrinkled potatoes). The dish is usually served with spicy green or red mojo sauce or alioli (garlic mayonnaise). The dish is an accompaniment to almost any dish or it can be eaten on its own, washed down with Canarian wine.

Two sports are native to the Canaries, la lucha canaria and el juego del palo.

If the amount of TV time devoted to a sport is an indication of its popularity, then la lucha canaria, Canary Wrestling, is a highly popular sport. Lucha canaria is a team sport, each team consists of twelve wrestlers. The combatants fight individual bouts in a sand covered circular ring of 10 metres diameter. At the start of a bout, the contestants grip each other. The intention is to overthrow the opponent. The best of three bouts wins a point for the team. Women as well as men participate in the sport.

El juego del palo, or stick fighting, is fought with a stick or staff 1.8 m long and about 2.5 cm thick. Stick fighting is known as banot in Tenerife. The sport almost died out, but due to concerted efforts by cultural centres there has been a recent revival.

Both sports pre-date the Spanish conquest.

Street crimes, especially muggings and theft from parked cars, have become a major problem in many of the downmarket resorts, such as Playa de las Américas. Robberies in hotels are also a problem and on the increase. If you do suffer the misfortune of being robbed, it is important to report it to the local police, in order to pursue an insurance claim back home.

An encounter with time share touts and the many street hustlers is almost as bad as being mugged, and with time share touts considerably more expensive. A current scam is scratch cards where everyone is a winner. To collect the prize entails taking a trip with the tout. Say no, and walk away. If everyone said no, the problem would go away. If the problem persists, complain to the police. In some resorts, Playa de las Américas for example, the problem has become so bad that many tourists are fearful of walking the streets. Never, agree to go to a remote location as a guest of a time share tout. There are too many tales of people being held for several hours against their will, until they sign over substantial sums of money.

Although part of the same volcanic group, the islands differ greatly in character. Fuerteventura and Lanzarote in the East are very dry and arid and almost lacking in colour due to the lack of vegetation, were it not for the fact that it is an island, Lanzarote would be considered part of the Sahara; La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro in the West are lush and green, largely covered in deep ancient forests. There is generally a graduation from dry in the East to wetter in the West. On an island with a high central peak, that traps the moisture from the prevailing winds, there is a dry South and a wetter North.

Spain has nine national parks, four of these are in the Canaries.

Unlike the Greek islands there is no tradition of island hopping. This is probably because the islands' accommodation is dominated by package tour companies, to the disadvantage of the islands and travellers alike, and there is a severe scarcity of small hotels and pensions that would suit the independent minded traveller.

The islands have a couple of English language newspapers. The weekly Canarian Weekly and the fortnightly Island Connections.

The construction by Morocco of a nuclear power station on the outskirts of Agadir, only 200 km from the Canaries, using defunct equipment from China, France and the US poses a major environmental threat to the islands.


I am a little apprehensive about the avalanche of tourists approaching Lanzarote. -- César Manrique

Lanzarote has about 300 volcanoes.

In 1760, volcanoes erupted over a six year period, destroying about a quarter of the island. With what must have been despair, the islanders viewed the desolation of their countryside, only to discover that it was a blessing in disguise. The volcanic ash and lava proved to be extremely fertile, the ash was porous and held and absorbed water from the atmosphere. The islanders were quick to take advantage of this. To enhance the water collection they created a microclimate around their crops with semicircular walls. The walls intercept and trap the moisture carried by the prevailing winds. This technique has subsequently been copied by their arid neighbour, Fuerteventura.

The Parque Nacional de Timanfaya is a volcanic landscape, created by the 18th century eruptions. The Montañas del Fuego, mountains of fire, are within the park. It is forbidden to enter the park, other than with a guide. The park's restaurant, El Diablo, cooks with volcanic heat. Just below the surface the temperature can be several hundred degrees. The park logo is the Devil (El Diablo) wielding a pitchfork.

Several large volcanic caves are to be found on the island. Malapaís de la Corona, in the north, is the world's longest volcanic cave. Jameos del Agua contains a large underground lake. In 1976, César Manrique constructed an 800-seat auditorium within the cave, making use of its natural acoustics.

Doors on the island are painted green, adding a little local colour to what is otherwise a colourless landscape.

On the southwest coast of Lanzarote El Golfo forms a large lagoon, the remnants of an old volcano.

Offshore are six of the Canary islets - La Graciosa, Montaña Clara, Roque del Oeste (Hell's Rock), Roque del Este, Alegranza, Montaña Lobos (Mount of the Wolves). La Graciosa is inhabited, it is also popular with fisherman and sun worshippers. La Graciosa used to be the haunt of pirates, and there are tales of buried treasure.

César Manrique (1919-1992), the famed Canarian artist, was born on Lanzarote. Not just an artist and designer, Manrique was also an energetic environmental campaigner and willing to turn his ideas into action. It is thanks to his vigorous efforts that Lanzarote is relatively unspoilt. He was a great advocate of sustainable tourism and that tourism did not have to mean destruction of the local environment. Manrique believed that any development should use local materials and blend in with its environment. Apart from the many examples of his work to be found on Lanzarote, the most recent example of his philosophy is the Playa Jardín on Tenerife (north coast, La Orotava Valley, between Punta Brava and Puerto de la Cruz). Manrique tragically died in a fatal car crash near his home in 1992.

In recognition that the quality of the environment is their strong selling point Lanzarote has strictly enforced regulations on low-rise development, no unsightly hoardings (cf the unsightly advertising hoardings on the hillsides in Tenerife alongside the two motorways), no overhead cables et cetera. The exception is the capital, Arrecife, which César Manrique condemmed as an urban disaster.


Fuerteventura is the second largest of the Canary Islands, it is also the driest. Fuerteventura has miles and miles of sandy beaches. From the air, Fuerteventura looks like giant sand dunes emerging from the sea.

Fuerteventura is the oldest of the Canary Islands. The passage of time has worn down the volcanic peaks leaving little to trap passing moisture. The local inhabitants have partially solved this problem by creating microclimates within which crops grow. Semicircular walls are built around the growing crops. These intercept and trap moisture from the prevailing winds. Volcanic ash is spread on the ground. This is porous and helps to absorb and retain the trapped moisture.

Puerto del Rosario is the island capital. The small town of Betancuria is named after the Spanish conqueror Jean de Béthencourt. Betancuria was originally the island capital as its inland location was thought to make it less vulnerable to attack.

The island was once divided into two kingdoms, Jandía, the name of the southern kingdom, gives its name to the southern peninsular, the most southerly tip of which is Punta de Jandía. A wall, La Pared, once ran across the peninsular, separating the two kingdoms

The Dunes National Park is a mini-Sahara of extensive undulating dunes.

Offshore is a Marine National Park. Also offshore lies Isla de los Lobos, with fishing villages and secluded beaches.

Gran Canaria

Despite its grand sounding name Gran Canaria is not the largest of the Canary islands, only the third largest, but it does give an idea of its own self-importance. Gran Canaria often lays claim to be a continent within an island, due to the sheer diversity of its many climatic zones.

Gran Canaria is the most heavily and densely populated island. Las Palmas, the capital, is the most highly populated town in the islands. Las Palmas is due to gain a university.

Dunas de Maspalomas, in the south, is an extensive area of dune lands. How long this will remain unspoilt in what was once a remote part of the island is open to question. Behind the dunes is an extensive area of development also known as Maspalomas, this links up with Playa de la Inglés to form a continuous belt of urbanisation. The size of the development places it on the same scale as Benidorm or Torremolinos, hence its alternative derogatory name of Costa Canary.

Further around the coast it is less developed and until recently was relatively unspoilt. The small village of Puerto Rico was unspoilt, now the surrounding hillsides are disappearing under hideous apartment blocks, a classic example of development out of control. The smaller and more attractive resort of Puerto de Mógan is an example of small scale development in keeping with the village. To the north of Puerto de Mógan is the pretty village of Mógan. Beyond Puerto de Mógan, the west coast becomes wilder, the islanders scratching a living from the soil.

Inland, there are patches of ancient forest, and several mountain peaks, the highest at 1980 metres is Pico de las Nieves. Within this area, many of the islanders still live in caves, as did their Guanche predecessors.


Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands. El Teide, 3718 metres, is the highest mountain in Spain. El Teide divides the island into two distinct climatic zones, the North lush and green, often cloudy, the South hot, dry and arid, clear blue skies.

In the centre of the island is gigantic volcanic crater - Las Cañadas. Las Cañadas together with El Teide was declared a national park in 1954 - Parque Nacional del Teide.

A number of attractive old colonial towns can be found on Tenerife - La Orotava, Garachico, Puerto de la Cruz, La Laguna.

La Gomera

La Gomera is usually shrouded in mist. The centre is covered in dense forest and has been declared a national park - Parque de Nacional Garajonay. The forest has also been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The steep sides of the valleys are heavily terraced. Many of these terraces are falling into disuse due to the lack of labour.

La Gomera was the last port of call by Columbus in 1492 before he parted the known world and set off into the unknown.

The Conquistador Hernando Cortez also visited La Gomera.

The Torre del Conde was built in 1450 by Hernán Peraza the elder. The tower housed Beatriz de Bobadilla, thought by historians to be the main reason why Columbus made La Gomera his last port of call before embarking on his voyage of discovery.

Iglesia de la Asunción, is where Columbus knelt for his last prayers before setting off on his epic voyage. Nearby is the Casa de Colón where Columbus is supposed to have stayed, that is when he wasn't in the tower with Beatriz, possibly engaging in more earthly pleasures.

Punta de los Organos has an interesting natural feature. Los Organos consists of thousands of regularly shaped basalt columns rising from the sea giving the impression of a gigantic organ.

Communications between the different parts of the island are difficult due to its hilly nature. The local inhabitants developed their own means of hilltop communication by means of whistling, known as silbo.

The local inhabitants are the butt of many Canarian jokes. Why does a man from La Gomera not keep his milk cool? Because he can't fit his cow into the fridge. Why does a man from La Gomera keep empty bottles in his fridge? In case a friend who doesn't drink calls round.

Well off the package tourist trail, many people visit La Gomera for its peace and tranquillity and the beauty of its unspoilt natural surroundings.

The main piece of action on the island is when the ferry from Tenerife arrives. The ferry runs from San Sebastián to Los Cristianos, Tenerife.

La Palma

La Palma, not to be confused with Las Palmas (the Capital of Gran Canaria), is often called 'La Isla Bonita' (the pretty island) on account of its mountain scenery.

The island's capital and port, Santa Cruz de la Palma, is regarded as one of the prettiest towns in the Canaries. In the 16th century Santa Cruz was the third ranking port in the Spanish Empire, after Seville and Antwerp. In 1553 the town was looted and razed to the ground by the notorious pirate known as Peg Leg. With the aid of a royal grant the town was rebuilt.

At the heart of the island is the National Park of La Caldera de Taburiente. This is the largest caldera in the world. Formed by the internal collapse of a volcano about 400,000 years ago.

La Palma is home to one of the world's most important telescopes at the International Astrophysical Observatory. The location is unique due to its height above the clouds, and the distance from artificial light. The air is very clear, with little air movement. The clarity is such, that it is possible to pick out individual car headlights on Tenerife. Local legislation has been passed to restrict stray artificial light and thus retain La Palma's pre-eminent position.

La Palma is peaceful and relatively unspoilt.

El Hierro

El Hierro is both the smallest and least populated of the Canary Islands, very much off the package tourist trail.

Not until Columbus proved otherwise, El Hierro was the end of the Ancient World. El Hierro was the last land Columbus and his crew saw until they caught sight of the Bahamas.

Pliny called El Hierro, 'Lagartaria' (Land of the Lizards). This was a reference to giant lizards that were found on El Hierro during the Roman period. A small population can still be found on Roques de Salmor, off the northwest coast. Populations are also thought to exist in the inaccessible parts of the island.

El Golfo, is believed to be the crater of a long extinct volcano.

El Hierro lays claim to the world's smallest hotel, with just four rooms.


Las Islas Canarias have often been spoken of as the location of the legendary Atlantis - the islands being the peaks of the lost continent jutting out above the sea.

The [Atlantic] ocean there was at the time navigable; for in front of the mouth that you Greeks call, as you say, 'The Pillars Heracles' [Hercules], there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia [Asia Minor] together; and it was possible for the travellers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent over against them which encompasses that veritable ocean ... Yonder is a real ocean, and the land surrounding it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of Kings, a great and marvellous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent; and, moreover, of the lands here within the Straits they ruled over Libya as far as Egypt and over Europe as far as Tuscany. -- Plato, Timaeus

Both Pliny and Strabo dismissed this as the ramblings of an old man. More recent commentators have focused on the fact that Plato used Atlantis as a setting for his political Utopia, the implication being that Atlantis was a mere literary device. This ignores two facts.

Atlantis was described by Plato in an earlier treatise. He was simply recording what had been told to Solon a couple of generations before by an Egyptian Priest. The priest was explaining to Solon the world's early history, as the Greeks lacked records going back that far.

The events leading to the destruction of Atlantis were part of a world catastrophe, recorded in many ancient texts, including the Old Testament.

At a later time there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your [Greek] warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis was in like manner swallowed up and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled down. -- Plato, Timaeus

Unfortunately, whilst the location of the Canaries make them a prime candidate for the lost Atlantis, their geology does not.

San Borondón

San Borondón is a mythical island two hundred nautical miles or so "nor'-nor'-west" of La Palma. Legend has it that strong sea currents make landing difficult. Legend also has that it has an archbishop, seven cities and seven bishops. It does not show on satellite pictures, but is occasionally caught sight of from La Palma and Tenerife, its peaks poking above the clouds in a direction approximately two hundred miles "nor'-nor'-west" of La Palma.

Portuguese sailors passed it in 1525 and put its location at 220 nautical miles "nor'-nor'-west" of La Palma.

Two La Palma sea captains, Hernando Troya and Hernando Alvares could not find the island when they set off in search of it in 1525, nor could their fellow countryman de Villalobos when he searched 45 years later.

The island was well known in the 16th century to English, French and Portuguese Pirates who took advantage of the strong sea currents to hide up on the island to evade capture.

The Portuguese who claimed to have landed in 1525 said it was covered in tall trees. This was later confirmed by the Spanish pirate Ceballos, who said that the trees came down to the sea, and that the birds were so tame that they could be caught in the hand. He also claimed to have seen the footprints of a giant in the sand of a long sandy beach.

The giant's footprints were also confirmed by a Portuguese crew, who also claimed to have seen oxen, goats and sheep. They were forced to abandon three of their crew as a consequence of the strong currents.

A French crew claimed to have landed and left a wooden cross, some silver coins and a letter.

In 1566 Roque Nuñez, a Portuguese seafarer and Martín de Araña, a La Palma priest, reached San Borondón after a day and night's sailing from La Palma. Whilst arguing over who had the right to to set foot first, the strong current swept their boat back offshore.

Lanzarote ~ Fuerteventura ~ Gran Canaria ~ Tenerife ~ La Gomera ~ La Palma ~ El Hierro
(c) Keith Parkins 1999 -- May 1999 rev 4