Gran Canaria: Introduction

  • © street star,

    © street star,


It’s the same picture every morning: men armed with machetes at work in the banana plantations, tomato harvesters pick their aromatic crop, fishermen set out to sea in their boats, and shepherds in their traditional woollen cloaks take their flocks up to higher pastures. Whether in La Aldea de San Nicolás in the west, or Agüimes in the east, life follows a relaxed pace in most towns and villages on the island. Houses are clustered around churches, and the shady plazas in front of them serve as playgrounds for children and meeting places for the elderly.

Of course there are ugly hotel buildings that were thrown up in a hurry without much imagination, and some of the shopping centres have becoming rundown over time, but efforts have been made over the past few years to brush up the island’s image. Quite a few hotels have been revamped and have now become spacious resorts with every comfort; others have been erected in the new resorts of Las Meloneras and Playa Amadores, modelled on castles or African citadels. Visitors will find everything that is in fashion today; from golf courses, Asian-inspired therapy centres and yoga workshops to Pilates and Nordic walking on the beach. Holidaymakers staying in a finca in the middle of the island can go for hikes along restored trails and get to know the people and the countryside. Gran Canaria tries to please all tastes - it caters to those who are looking for the all-inclusive packages found in the resorts, as well as people who want to spend their holiday in the mountains, in one of the villages on the coast, or in Las Palmas, far away from tourist centres.

For a long time, Gran Canaria was only Las Palmas

There are hardly any traces left of how Las Palmas once looked when the Spanish conquistador Juan Rejón landed on the island on 24 June, 1478 with his 600 followers, to claim the third largest Canary island – after Tenerife and Fuerteventura – for the Castilian crown. Wide beaches lined the northeast of the island, which covers 15322km (5922mi), and a fast-flowing river raced down to the coast. For five years, the Canarians of old struggled to fight off the conquerors, but the Europeans, with their modern weapons, were ultimately successful. Over the next few centuries, however, most changes on the island were restricted to Las Palmas and its immediate surroundings. The island experienced the boom – and then the decline – of the sugarcane industry. Shipping between Europe and South America made the city wealthy but also meant that pirates attacked the prosperous harbour. Gran Canaria was Las Palmas. The rest of the island was bitterly impoverished.

Magnificent flowers in an arid mountain landscape

The island only really started to flourish with the introduction of tourism. Its rapid development into one of the largest holiday resorts in Europe started in the south in the early 1960s. Hotel complexes and resorts for more than 100,000 guests sprang up between San Agustín and Puerto de Mogán, and there is no end in sight to this expansion. The beaches and dunes are simply too inviting, the good weather too stable, and the location between the mountains and sea too ideal. However, many tourists are shocked at how barren the south of the island is when they arrive at the airport in Gando. Only endemic flora brave this arid climate: cardón (column euphorbia), retama, tabaiba and tajinaste – thick-leaved, bushy cacti that can store water for long periods – have adapted to the conditions in this dry region. However, as soon as holidaymakers reach their accommodation they will be delighted by the profusion of flowers, made possible by lavish irrigation projects, and many tourists never leave the more luxuriant parts of the island during their entire stay.

From deforestation to environmental protection

That is a real pity because there are many other facets to Gran Canaria. The island is of volcanic origin, almost circular in shape and the 1949m (6394ft)-high Pico de las Nieves, the highest point in the cumbre – the central mountainous region – rises up almost exactly in the middle. From here, valleys formed by erosion branch out to the coast. Calderas – bowl-shaped craters – bring back memories of days when there was still volcanic activity. No other Canary island is as rugged and furrowed with barrancos – the name given to the deep gulches on the archipelago – as Gran Canaria. In the south, they are parched by the sun and, with their bare, ochre-coloured rocks, appear austere and almost hostile. They only take on colour in spring when broom bathes them in a dazzling yellow. By contrast, in the north, these gullies often look like subtropical Gardens of Eden with lush plants that attempt to outshine each other with their beautiful blooms. This is where oranges, lemons and bananas grow, and cress, pumpkins and cabbages flourish on terraced fields.

Long ago, the island was covered by Canarian pine trees. Laurel tree forests drew moisture out of the clouds of the passing trade-winds that was absorbed by the ground and made the island fertile. The vegetation was absolutely unique. This sensitive ecosystem was initially damaged by the Spaniards, who needed wood to build ships and then by the monoculture of modern farming.

The Canarios started establishing nature reserves in the 1990s. There were also plans for a large national park in the centre of the island, but the farmers and shepherds in the mountains were afraid that their already meagre earnings would be further diminished. Fortunately, a compromise was reached and the area has been protected as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 2005.

Those who take the time will be able to enjoy all that Gran Canaria has to offer. The island delights its visitors with magical beaches, breathtaking dunes and a wild mountainous region, with the Pico de las Nieves as its highest point - the best views are to be had near Los Pechos. The lower mountain slopes in the north are covered with forests. It almost looks as if you could reach out and touch Spain’s highest mountain, Teide, on the neighbouring island of Tenerife. There are not many native animals: lizards rustle through the underbrush, pigeons and a few birds of prey have the sky to themselves. The original canaries – small yellowish-green birds – wing their way through the woods. There is more variety under water. If you go snorkelling, you might even come across a manta ray and there are sharks, dolphins and grey whales in the 4000m (13,000ft)-deep trenches between the islands.

The sun shines all year long

Initially, the Canarios had a hard time with Europe – and even with Spain. There was a separatist movement until well into the 1970s. But, that is all history now. Funding from Brussels has considerably improved the infrastructure of the towns and villages. Las Palmas has the flair of a modern metropolis, but you can still experience the peace and quiet of rural life in the villages and small towns. Artenara is a well-preserved cave village, but the real eye-catcher is Teror. The ensemble of the old basilica, cobblestoned streets and the façades of the houses with their magnificent wooden balconies has been completely preserved, and is considered the most perfect example of Canarian architecture. Explore the museums and churches on the third-largest island in the Canaries, take part in a pilgrimage or the magnificent carnival, and savour the traditional cooking and heady wine. Dive, go hiking, wind surfing, have fun all night long or just relax. You will never be bored on Gran Canaria. And all of this with sunshine – all year long.

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