With their sub-tropical forests, dramatic lava fields and idyllic sandy coves, the Canaries are an undiscovered world of their own. As our insider’s guide will reveal, these islands are perfect for a walking adventure.
History and culture
The mysterious Canaries have been capturing people’s imaginations for thousands of years. Since Plato first wrote of it, many have believed the archipelago to be the remains of the great sunken city of Atlantis. Homer identified it as Elysium, the blessed place where heroes and those favoured by the gods went after death. Perhaps this is why the islands are often referred to as ‘the fortunate isles’.
The Canary Islands have no indigenous people, but the first inhabitants are thought to be the ancient Guanches who settled there around 1000BC.
The Guanches arrived by boat, but lost the art of sailing, causing each island to develop its own variations in culture and language. When the Spanish arrived in the 15th century they found unique Stone Age-like communities. Sadly these were lost to the conquest, but you can see the remains of their villages for yourself on islands such as Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
Today the Canaries remain part of Spain, but as an autonomous region are free to make decisions with the islands’ best interests at heart. Much effort is put into balancing ecology and preservation with the valuable tourist trade.
The Mardi Gras carnival is an important part of Canarian culture, with each island hosting its own spectacular events in the run up to Lent. Expect dazzling costumes, vibrant mogollenes street parties, and bawdy murgas, where local troupes compete to sing the funniest song. You might also spot some unflattering Franco costumes, as the celebrations were banned during his regime.
Tenerife’s capital Santa Cruz has one of the largest carnivals in the world, welcoming nearly a quarter of a million partygoers each year.
Highlights include the breathtaking galas to elect the Junior, Adult and Senior Carnival Queens, and the ceremonial Burying of the Sardine – a hilarious burlesque funeral march bidding goodbye to carnival excess, culminating in spectacular fireworks and the burning of the sardine.
The festivities in Gran Canaria’s capital Las Palmas are also impressive, and include a gala to elect the Carnival Drag Queen – the only one of its kind in Spain.
The island of La Palma is home to the unique Carnival Los Indianos, which celebrates the return of wealthy Canarian migrants (Indianos) from the Americas. Revellers dress in white period clothing, including shirts and panama hats for the men and lace dresses and parasols for the women, and throw showers of white talcum powder.
Don’t worry if you can’t make it to the Canaries for Easter though; there’s a host of other excellent festivals throughout the year. Highlights include the classical music festival in January, the jazz festival in July, and numerous saints’ day celebrations.
Although the Canary Islands are part of Spain they’re actually much closer to Africa, which means excellent weather and a fascinating mix of European and African plant and wildlife. Ranging from sandy coastlines to lush forests and rugged volcanic peaks, the islands are famed for their uniquely diverse habitats, and are home to several protected UNESCO parks.
A protected biosphere, La Palma is a nature enthusiast’s heaven. Relative to its landmass it is the tallest island in the world, so as you explore the interior you’ll be treated to a rapidly changing array of habitats – it’s like an entire continent in miniature!
The stars of the show are the ancient sub-tropical laurel forests, which are now found almost nowhere else in the world. Shrouded in coastal mists, these forests create an environment close to that of the Tertiary period three million years ago, and many prehistoric plants still survive here.
Laurel forest can also be experienced in the Garajonay National Park on La Gomera. Undisturbed by volcanic activity, this jungle paradise is by far the greenest of the Canaries, and walkers can expect to see all kinds of rare plant life and forest creatures.
El Tiede on Tenerife provides a stark contrast. This majestic volcano soars to an impressive 3,718m, making it the tallest peak in Spain. And at 7,500m from the ocean floor, it is also the third tallest volcano in the world and an important geological research site.
In order to protect El Tiede from erosion, only a limited number of tourists are allowed to climb the summit each day. You can book a free permit with the national park, but in the summer months these can be difficult to come by.
Even without a permit, you can also immerse yourself in the incredible volcanic landscape by exploring the surrounding national park. Wandering across sparse plateaus and scrambling up rocky slopes you’ll feel like an explorer on another planet!
Gran Canaria is known as a tourist beach resort, but thankfully only a small section of the island has been developed. Look beyond the sun loungers and you’ll find volcanic peaks, palm-filled ravines and verdant valleys – perfect for an adventure on foot.
Thanks to their very special range of habitats, the Canary Islands are home to many rare species, some of which you won’t find anywhere else on the planet. Divers should look out for the endangered loggerhead turtles that cruise the seas, whilst on land you might spot a Canarian shrew, giant lizard (each island has its own unique sub-species) or the striped Canary Isles Gecko.
Birdwatchers are in for a treat too, with the chance to spot the Laurel Pigeon, Blue Chaffinch or Canary Island Egyptian Vulture. Don’t forget to raise your eyes to the sky at night as well though – thanks to the good weather and lack of development, the Canaries boast unparalleled views of the stars.
Influenced by Spain, Africa and its Guanche heritage, Canarian cuisine is simple but distinctive.
A classic dish you’ll find everywhere is papas arrugadas (wrinkly potatoes) drizzled with mojo picon sauce. Little potatoes are boiled with plenty of salt – traditionally this was done with sea water – and then dried in the hot pan until the skins wrinkle and a crisp layer of salt forms. They’re served piping hot with a generous helping of spicy red sauce made from chillies and vinegar.
Seafood is another staple. Look out for limpets cooked in a cumin, parsley and wine sauce, and also for Alfonsino, a local fish similar to red snapper, which is usually fried and served with plenty of lemon and garlic.
Meat is often grilled or slow cooked in stews. Try Ropa vieja – a hearty combination of shredded beef and chicken simmered with chickpeas and spices. A similar dish of the same name can be found in Cuba, introduced by Canarian immigrants longing for a taste of home.
You might also notice gofio on many traditional menus, possibly in the drinks, mains and desserts sections! This flour made of ground pulses or grains is added to milk, soups and stews, or mixed with water to form a dough or paste. The locals love it, but be warned – it’s an acquired taste!
There’s wonderful local produce to be found in the markets and shops of the Canaries. Excellent bananas grow here, which ripen very slowly to produce a sweet and juicy fruit. Rich avocados and delicious papayas are also common.
Canarian cheese is world class, and each island has its own DOP designation of origin to preserve high standards and traditional production methods. Look out for fresh, nutty goat’s cheeses like Majorero and Palmero, and Flor de Guia – a soft and delicately flavoured sheep’s cheese.
You’ll need some local wine to wash down all that cheese. Lesser-known grapes make for some interesting flavours, whilst the volcanic soil adds a distinctive vibrancy and tang. Unlike most of the wine-making world, the Canary Islands have never been blighted by the phylloxera aphid, so you could be drinking the produce of a 100-year-old vine.
The Malvasia grape produces rich, rounded whites that develop a nutty tone as they mature, whilst Listan Blanco is citrusy and mineral-driven. Listan Nero is the main red, producing fruity, peppery wines.
An island adventure like no other
With its fascinating history, unique ecology and delicious local foods, the Canary Islands are a destination like no other. Exploring on foot is the perfect way to really get to know these special islands, so check our walking holidays in Spain, or request a brochure today!