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The Canary Islands
A Place Where
The World Began
Story and Photographs By Frances Chamberlain
There is nothing like standing on the cusp of a volcano to make you feel like you’re on top of the world. And there’s probably nothing like the craggy peaks and valleys of volcanic rock to make you think you are actually on the moon. The bizarre thing about Mt. Teide, the highest point in Spain, located on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, is that the landscape definitely resembles the moon, yet it is part of Spain and, at the same time, only about 30 miles from the Sahara Desert.
So, while it is a fascinating geological site, all you have to do is go downhill (and these are impressive hills) to find yourself in quaint Spanish villages and seaside resorts.
I had been to Spain, and Portugal, but never before considered the Canary Islands. I wasn’t even totally sure where these islands were, what country they belonged to, and whether or not they were named after real canaries. Would I land at the airport to find the sky filled with little yellow birds? Boy, did I have a lot to learn.
The Conquest of the Canary Islands, by Spain, began in the 15th century. The original people were Berbers from North Africa – the Canaries are only 22 miles from Morocco. These people, with their unique physical characteristics, have virtually disappeared, and the islands are now populated with a mix of Spaniards from the mainland, plus other European nationalities who followed later. The Canaries, as I later learned, have nothing to do with birds, but with native dogs (also extinct) and the name comes from the Latin (canarius).
I spent my time on Tenerife, one of the largest of the seven islands, but in a week’s visit there was plenty to do and see and learn. It is an island filled with contradictions, geographically, historically and culturally. Tenerife has not been an easy trip for Americans, partly because until recently there was no direct flight. Now people can fly directly from Miami to Tenerife and this has helped to connect families who may have emigrated to North America via Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or other islands.
Because the Canary Islands have always been a popular destination for European travelers, there is an assortment of wonderful resorts and plenty of amenities. Visitors can lounge by saltwater pools, visit a range of exotic spas that offer things like volcanic mud baths, play golf, frolic in one of Europe’s biggest water parks, and hike in rainforests – all on one island. The alternative to large resorts are the historic yet exquisitely comfortable bed and breakfasts, many in historic buildings.
I loved the contrast of quaint Spanish villages versus the craggy heights of Mt. Teide. There are places where it never rains, and places where it rains every day. There are tropical rainforests and arid, desert like expanses. On the way up to Mt. Teide (elevation 3,718 meters), we drove through the clouds, and on parts of the shoreline swimmers basked on black volcanic rock. It was like you never knew what would be around the next corner – jungle, black rocks, desert, or a little spot of old Europe.
The villages of Tenerife combined old-world charm, historic architecture, cobblestone streets and great food – it was hard to go wrong. No matter where I stopped, from the simplest street café to the finest restaurant, the island’s signature dish was available.
“Wrinkled” potatoes, cooked in sea salt, were served with two sauce dishes, called “mojo” – the red one containing red pepper, hot pepper, paprika, garlic, salt, olive oil and vinegar, and the green one made of garlic, cilantro, olive oil and vinegar. Along with the tasty wrinkled potatoes, Tenerife has some of the best goat cheese anywhere, and the island is covered with vineyards and banana plantations. There are actually five different wine regions, and Tenerife is known for its Mumsey wine of Shakespearean fame.
Wherever you go, no matter the time of day, you can dine well on the local potatoes and wine! Gofia, another local delicacy, is roasted grains. You can toss goat cheese in gofia, then sautee it with cilantro or palm tree honey. The delicately flavored palm tree honey is also mixed with olive oil, sweet or sour vinegar and then tossed over green salads.
If you visit Tenerife between November and June you can participate in La Mantista, a time when private homes are opened to the public and guests are invited to sample home-brewed wine and special dishes. You need to know some local people to find out who is opening up for La Mantista, but other than community religious festivals, there is probably no better way to really learn what life is like for people on Tenerife. One of the things I learned, however, is that although most houses are built with courtyards, and people are frequently invited into the courtyards for drinks and meals, don’t ever expect to be invited to stay the night. The people on Tenerife don’t care for overnight guests.
Although much of the island is difficult to traverse, relatively new roads make it possible to go from one coast to another. Traveling up to Mt. Teide, however, is another story. If you want to make good time, go around. I made the precarious journey to the top in a small bus, but the road narrows to one lane about halfway up, and incessant twists and hairpin turns, combined with traffic coming down the mountain, makes for a lot of traffic jams. And these aren’t simple little gridlocks – it’s more like someone has to back down a very steep one lane road, in search of a place to pull off, or someone has to back straight up the mountain to let them pass. It is scary, but, oh wow, is it ever worth it when you get to the top. It’s moonscape, -- otherworldly, unbelievable terrain.
The lasting impression that I took away from Tenerife is that I had visited a place where the world began. The islands are the product of intense volcanic activity. Gargantuan boulders appear to have beenstrewn down the sides of Mt. Teide. Endless fields of volcanic rock slope towards the coast. I have never traveled anywhere else that gives the undeniable impression that the world beneath our feet is impetuous, tempestuous, and prone to sudden, violent shifts that can change the face of the earth. And, when Mt. Teide did heave and spurt plumes of molten lava, many,many years ago, the end result, the island of Tenerife, became a place of breathtaking beauty.