Lanzarote: Introduction

  • © michaelgzc,

    © michaelgzc,

Discover Lanzarote!

Look out of the window as your plane descends; it is as if you are arriving on the set for a science-fiction film. Suddenly, emerging from a steel-blue sea, is this picture of bare, beige-grey hills. The black fields of lava and craters onto which scudding clouds cast their shadows withstands the surging spray of the Atlantic Ocean showering over its shores.

At first sight, Lanzarote looks quite different to the other component parts of the Canary Islands, which, even in antiquity, were fêted as the ‘Blessed Islands’ because of their benign climate. In some ways, the fourth-largest of the seven Islas Canarias resembles a desert. It was in the Tertiary era, over 20 million years ago, when huge volumes of basalt magna broke through the fault lines in the earth’s crust to form the two oldest islands in the archipelago, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. Since then the Canaries have never been totally free of seismic activity.

None of the other islands have seen such volcanic turbulence as Lanzarote. Between 1730 and 1736, over 20 percent of the 307 square miles of the island’s surface was reconfigured by wave of lava and showers of ash. But it is actually this seemingly bleak, barren and forbidding wasteland that makes Lanzarote unique. Visitors to the volcanic heart of the island with its sparse, bright green vegetation will be confronted with an unparalleled spectacle of the natural world, together with the equally unmistakeable feature of traditional villages with white façades and green windows and doors.

The fact that so many settlements radiate in these striking classic colours is due to the work of Lanzarote’s most famous son, César Manrique. No other island in the archipelago can boast as many pieces of landscape art by the great painter, sculptor and architect as this land of volcanic fire, which extends for just 37 miles from its north-eastern tip to its southwestern corner, and only 12.5 miles from east to west. 

Lunar landscapes, golden beaches and wines with a difference

Despite its small size, the island exhibits a very varied range of landscapes. Endless fields of ash and clinker cover much of the western half of the island. The south is dry and thinly populated, but the golden beaches around El Papagayo are truly idyllic, and very popular. The wine-producing areas near La Geria, in the centre of the island, look odd and out-of-place, while the chalk-white tourist citadels of Puerto del Carmen and Costa Teguise on the east coast are much more in-keeping with a holiday island, and they surround the island’s capital, Arrecife. At the northern end of the island near the small town of Haría, the centre of the island’s agricultural region, the scenery is surprisingly colourful and lush. Not to be forgotten, however, are the islands of La Graciosa, Montaña Clara and Alegranza, which appear as splashes of colour dripped onto the north end of Lanzarote’s palette. 

The mild climate is attributable to the north-east trade winds, which deliver rain to the other islands in the archipelago. Lanzarote’s bad luck is that the highest peak, Peñas del Chache, in the northern Risco de Famara range, measures only 2200 ft in height, too low to trigger proper rainfall from the clouds. The trade winds help to moderate the heat, as does the Canary Current, a coolish reverse flow in the Gulf Stream system, but life is much harder for the local farmers and vine-growers here than on the other islands. But the inhabitants have always been inventive: enarenado is the name for the ingenious method of dry cultivation devised by the Lanzaroteños. Under this system, the volcanic rock absorbs moisture from the air at night, and then releases it into the ground during the day.

Little is known about the island’s original inhabitants, known as the Majos. They probably came to Lanzarote from North Africa in the 5th century BC or later, and it is believed they are genetically related to the light-skinned Berber peoples who still live there. More recent sources have suggested that the aboriginal Canarians migrated here from the Mediterranean region, near Sicily. They lived from fishing and growing cereals, which were ground in primitive mills into gofio, a type of flour, and the main staple in the diet of the early Canarians. Nowadays, however, it would be impossible for the Lanzaroteños to live off farming and fishing alone.

Most of the 142,000 inhabitants earn their living from the 1.5 million holidaymakers who come to the island every year. Many local people work as receptionists, cooks, porters, cleaners, gardeners or travel guides. The insecure nature of their livelihood stands in stark contrast to the everlasting beauty of the island. The work is mainly seasonal, and with unemployment at around 30 percent of the population, all who have a job consider themselves to be very lucky. Most of the people employed in tourism live in the capital, Arrecife, and in the suburbs of Playa Honda and Tías, which have grown dramatically in recent years. The uniform and rather bleak high-rise blocks in the new districts contrast with the pretty villages in the hinterland, where those who have profited from tourism have built luxurious properties. 

The whole of Lanzarote – a Biosphere Reserve

The wells ran dry a long time ago, so desalination plants now supply the island’s drinking water. This is expensive to produce and also to supply. Wind farms reach up to the sky, strips of asphalt snake through the fields of lava. The Lanzaroteños have successfully avoided the eyesores that tarnish the vistas in the tourist hotspots on Gran Canaria and Tenerife, thanks largely to the efforts of César Manrique. In 1993, as a result of his work, the island was awarded the coveted UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status.

UNESCO were particularly impressed by the fact that almost 70 percent of the island’s surface area – including a large national park – is a protected zone, and that the small offshore archipelago, (Archipiélago Chinijo, which includes La Graciosa, Alegranza and Montaña Clara), has been designated as Spain’s first marine reserve. Another positive feature is that a traditional style of architecture in keeping with the landscape predominates, and there are no imported standard structures. However, UNESCO is now considering whether to strip Lanzarote of its Biosphere Reserve status.

Within only a few years, for example, the small fishing village of Playa Blanca has become a mega holiday resort, and in Las Breñas and Puerto Calero urbanizaciónes, or holiday villages, for prosperous Europeans have sprung up like mushrooms. In the meantime Spain’s highest court has ruled that almost all the new hotels in Playa Blanca are illegal, as they were built without the appropriate construction licence and in contravention of environmental regulations. But none of the hotel proprietors need fear the imminent demolition of their hotels, which cost millions of euros and were partly funded by EU grants.

Pause to let the peace and tranquillity work its magic on you

Only in hidden corners, in villages well away from the main holiday centres on the south-east coast, does one get the sense that Lanzarote, unlike all the other Canary Islands, is still a place of privation, underemployment and tranquillity. This can often be seen in the faces of the older rural population: farmers with a mule-drawn plough stoically turning over the dusty soil, farmers’ wives harvesting fruit from endless rows of prickly pears, old men gathered in the village square idly passing the time of day. The Lanzarote of yesteryear still lives on, and only those who go in search of it with open eyes and receptive ears, pausing as they look and listen, will discover the island’s true magic.

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