CANARY ISLANDS – SPAIN
Long before history was actually recorded, legends of the Canary Islands existed. Stories were told of these mythical lands to be found beyond the Pillars of Hercules in the Straits of Gibraltar, on the way to the Dark Sea. Many classical authors sited ‘Paradise’ here, ‘Los Campos Eliseos’ (Elysian Fields) or ‘Garden of Hesperides’. One of the first credible testimonies of the islands we owe to Pliny the Elder, who in the first century spoke about an expedition sent out by King Juba of Mauritius. The adventurers brought back an enormous dog as a gift. This native breed still exists today, called Verdinos or Bardinos, they are an impressive, fierce hunting dog, from which the Canaries derives its name – ‘can’ or ‘canine’. These early tales, not surprisingly, nearly always mentioned Tenerife. Known as Nivaria, due to its majestic snow-capped mountain emerging from the clouds and visible from many kilometres around, it was awe-inspiring to those ancient mariners.
The Canary Archipelago consists of the seven major island (Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma, El Hierro, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura) and six minor ones. Of these Alegranza, Graciosa, Montaña Clara, Roque de Este and Roque del Oeste, can be found to the north of Lanzarote. Grouped together they are known as the Chinijo Archipelago and are separated from the cliff of Famara by the Strait of El Rio. Encompassed within a protected natural park and marine reserve, the landscape is remarkable with volcanic cones, craters, dunes, beaches, cliffs and caves. They are rich in wildlife, especially migratory birds that nest there, including endangered species and marine life with great number of turtles, fish (particularly the tuna family) and whales.
I spent a day on La Graciosa, the larger of these isles, 27 kilometres in size and the smallest inhabited island of the Canaries. After a short trip over from Lanzarote, the boat docked at the quay in Caleta de Sebo, a whitewashed village with unpaved, sandy streets. The 500 or so villagers that live here year-round mainly make their living from fishing. We hired bikes and spent a leisurely few hours cycling around the unspoilt countryside and lazing on the beautiful, deserted, fine, white, sandy beaches.
La Isla de Lobos lies to the north-east of Fuerteventura and can be reached by boat from there or by daily excursions from Lanzarote. Sand dunes, brought by the Alisio winds, have covered the volcanic lava fields and unusual salt-water lagoons have formed. Also a protected nature reserve, with similar wildlife to the Chinijo Isles, Lobos is also visited by the almost extinct Monk Seal. The ocean is a paradise for divers with clear, warm waters. The seabed is fascinating with caves and tunnels alive with fish. The Canaries have 107 protected areas, more than any other Spanish region, and is fourth in the world for endemic flora – 600 species.
The ancient inhabitants of the Canary Islands were the Guanches. Dressed in animal skins they were apparently of enormous stature, hence tales of giants. Living isolated from the rest of the world they were not a seafaring people. This was once believed to be the remains of the sunken continent of Atlantis and the Guanches descendants of Atlantians.
Until the Spanish conquest in the 15th century little was known about these islands. In 1402 Juan Bethencourt and his men set sail from Cadiz, first landing on Alegranza as a base from which to launch an attack on Lanzarote. Much to their surprise they had a peaceful reception. The people of Lanzarote, who were tired of pirate raids, saw the Spaniards as a means of protection. Bethancourt had conquered Fuerteventura by 1408, after fierce fighting with the natives there but it was to take almost a century before resistance to the Spanish conquest was quelled on the rest of the islands. Tenerife was the last to be conquered after much bloodshed in 1496.
Exploring the Canary Islands it’s easy to become fascinated with volcanoes. Their existence is due to the movement of the continental and oceanic upper crust of the Earth and the very slow movement of the African plate – about one centimetre per year for the last 60 million years. Lanzarote for example is a shield volcano, 20 million years old, while La Palma is a stratovolcano and Pico del Teide on Tenerife is the third largest volcano on Earth. I’ve also discovered that the planet Venus has more volcanoes than any other planet in the Solar System, but that’s digressing.
Hiking over volcanoes, walking through cool Laurisilva forests, enjoying the warm winter sun on a stretch of deserted sandy beach or sitting on the ebony, rocky shoreline contemplating the sunset over the ocean, these are just a few things that make the Canary Islands so magical.