Tenerife: Introduction

  • © mara13, marcopolo.de

    © mara13, marcopolo.de


No, it’s not lost any of its fascination. Planes circle it at a respectful distance before heading in to land. Visible from many miles, it shows the way. It’s become a symbol for the island. Often dense cloud cover separates it from the world below. The Pico del Teide is the king of all volcanoes, surveying from his great height the hostile lunar landscape below. For us it’s still an impressive sight, but for our forebears it was greatly feared. There was an eruption on its northern slopes as recently as 1909, but by then the island’s geology was well understood.

No one ‘discovered’ the island, as it is visible from the African coast, but perhaps that explains why so many legends from antiquity have survived. Passing mariners couldn’t fail to see the white tip and so for the Romans it was Nivaria, or the ‘snowy one’. The Guanches, Tenerife’s first settlers, feared that an angry god, Guayote, was orchestrating Teide’s eruptions. Columbus saw the sparks and smoke it spat out as a bad omen for his first voyage of discovery. In 1799, Alexander von Humboldt was struck by the fact that at daybreak the first rays of sunshine illuminated the summit, while on the coast darkness still reigned. The Canarian day begins and ends on Mount Teide, and at 3,718m (12,198ft) it is Spain’s highest mountain. Despite the southern location of the Canary Islands, it often wears a snow cap in winter.

The inverted triangle covers an area of 2,034 sq km (785 sq miles) and it is the largest of the seven Islands of Eternal Spring, as the Canaries were known in the era of Homer. It is certainly large enough to reveal many contrasts: a blue ocean, great beaches, rugged cliffs, deep gorges, dense forests, barren wastes and Mount Teide volcano rising out of a bizarre sea of lava – all-in-all an opulent display of nature’s diversity. Wander through colonial towns, explore museums and churches – culturally Tenerife has a lot to offer. Sit with the locals in down-to-earth bars, enjoy their traditional food, drink their strong wines and share in their lively festivals. Surf, dive, walk, cycle, turn night into day or simply lie back and relax − there is no place for boredom on Tenerife. And the sun will keep shining − throughout the whole year.

Water is a rare and precious commodity

But many people get a shock when they arrive, as the south is bleak and parched. It quickly becomes apparent that water is a rare and precious commodity here. Once, great forests extended across Tenerife, streams trickled down from the mountains. But at the end of the 15th century, the Spanish colonists set about exploiting both man and nature. First, they subjugated the Guanches, and then they felled the laurel and pine trees, on whose long needles the moisture from the clouds clung, before it dripped to the ground. Erosion followed, and Tenerife’s ecosystem had been badly damaged. Today, pine forests are only found in the interior, and the laurel survives in the Anaga Mountains in the northeast.

Other native plants have been more successful. The Canarian palm, for example, with its thick trunk and spreading crown, grows throughout the valleys, the cardón, the candelabra euphorbia, thrives in dry areas, as do the shrubby tabaiba, another euphorbia, and the tajinaste, a type of borage. In April at lower altitudes, the viper’s bugloss produces white umbels, higher up in the uplands from May to June the flowers take on a more reddish-violet hue. At higher altitudes you will see retama, a white-flowering variety of broom, and also codeso, the bright yellow cytisus. Cacti, almond trees, eucalyptus and all kinds of fruit trees arrived with the island’s conquerors and have since put down strong roots everywhere in their new habitat. However, bananas, vines and all the colourful decorative flowers in public spaces in the resorts survive only as a result of constant irrigation.

The Guanches, and later the Europeans, preferred to settle in the cool upland plateau of La Laguna and in the Valle de la Orotava, Tenerife’s green lung, as they get the benefit of the northeast trade winds. Moist winds blow constantly against the north coast of Tenerife at altitudes of between 700−1,700m, but the central highlands block their passage. The clouds that form deposit rainfall and provide shade, which in turn lowers the temperature and helps to supply the vegetation with water. It’s always cooler in these parts than in the south of the island. However, there is no need to fear the torrid heat of Africa − the dark continent is only some 300km (180 miles) away. The climate here is surprisingly benign. It is indeed like an eternal spring, which means mild temperatures − barely over 30°C in summer, rarely below 20° C. Warm trade winds and the cool Canarian current in the Atlantic help to maintain a steady balance. Several times a year, however, the island experiences the calima, a hot, dusty desert wind that blows directly across from the Sahara. It often hangs over the archipelago for several days. The air never seems to move and breathing can be difficult. When the wind moves away, a fine layer of desert sand remains on buildings and on plants.

The holiday areas have simply everything today's tourists could wish for

The holiday destinations of Los Cristianos and Playa de las Américas, an otherwise barren region, have in just 50 years been transformed by beach resorts with apartment complexes, hotels and amusement parks – some call it a tourist ghetto. A hundred years ago, however, Puerto de la Cruz in the north was a retreat for well-heeled English visitors escaping miserable winters back home, and many took lodgings in the former port of La Orotava. Locals and visitors found the arrangement to be of mutual benefit, as the tourists enjoyed a well-established urban setting, and the Canary islanders were perfectly happy to do business with them.

In the countryside there's a world that harks back to a different era

But if you really want to get to know the country and the people, then you need to explore the island in greater depth. Almost one third of the 800,000 Tinerfeños live in the zona metropolitana, as the old and the new capitals, La Laguna and Santa Cruz respectively, are known. A lot has happened here in recent years. The historic centre of La Laguna has been completely restored, and it now enjoys UNESCO World Heritage Site status. In Santa Cruz, internationally renowned architects were commissioned to design emblematic buildings, such as the Auditorium, the Congress Hall and the TEA Arts Centre. There were many ambitious plans for the future, e.g. a facelift for the sea front as far as the beach in San Andrés 10km (6 miles) away. But as a result of the global financial crisis, all these grandiose plans have had to be shelved. Once the flow of cheap money came to halt in 2009, the construction sector, the driving force behind the Spanish economy, began to stutter. Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs. Now no longer able to service their debts, many of them were forced to hand their homes back to the bank. But visitors will hardly notice the impact on everyday life. Despite the adverse circumstances, the Canary islanders stay cheerful. The general view is: ‘We can’t change anything, so what’s the point of complaining?’ And so the Canary islanders keep celebrating at carnival time, call in at the café or their favourite bar, take a late evening stroll and stop everything for a siesta between 1pm and 5pm.

If you explore the countryside, however, you will be surprised to find a world that harks back to a different era. You will see farmers loading up their donkeys, old men passing the time of day on the plaza and women dressed in black labouring in the fields. A rather spartan lifestyle continues very much as it did half a century ago all over Tenerife. At the beginning of the 20th century, thousands of Tinerfeños emigrated to South America and to Cuba to escape famine at home. Today, thankfully, the word emigration belongs to the past. Despite all the crises of the present day, the Canary islanders are as one with the entire Spanish nation − they will overcome.

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