Tenerife is dominated by the Parque Nacional del Teide, with a peak of 3,718 metres
The Canary archipelago is Spain’s winter sun destination par excellence, but there’s a lot more to the islands than beaches and palm trees. Certainly, each of the seven islands that make up the Canaries has its own beaches, for those whose idea of paradise is to stretch out under the sun on a nice beach. But there is far more to the Canaries including unique landscapes like the fire-breathing mountains of Lanzarote created by millennia of volcanic rumblings and isolated ecosystems, the ancient laurel forests of La Gomera and the mammoth peak of El Teide on Tenerife. Home to four of Spain’s 10 national parks and many other pristine corners, the Canaries provide plenty of opportunities to indulge in their natural beauty.
Parque Nacional del Teide, Tenerife:
More than 13,000 hectares of stark volcanic landscape fill the Canary Islands’ oldest and largest park, Parque Nacional del Teide. Jagged, cruel-looking badlands dominate the view here, creating such an otherworldly scene that you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d suddenly been transplanted to another planet. Apparently movie-makers have thought so too; parts of Star Wars and the original Planet of the Apes were filmed here.
Rising from the park’s centre is the mammoth peak of El Teide, at 3,718 metres it is Spain’s tallest mountain. It’s an impressive sight, especially considering that what we see is merely the tip of an impossibly large volcanic cone that starts thousands of metres below on the ocean floor. A five-hour hiking trail leads to the peak, though a cable car is the faster way up. On clear days the whole of Tenerife is laid out below, with the other islands mere specks in the hazy distance. Many other well-marked trails are laid out throughout the park. Popular hikes include the Roques de García circular walk and the 16-kilometre Siete Cañadas Trail.
Parque Nacional de Garajonay, La Gomera:
Millions of years ago, lush laurel forests like the one in La Gomera’s Parque Nacional de Garajonay dominated southern Europe. With the Ice Age those green paradises were wiped away forever. Today this kind of prehistoric forest exists in only a handful of places.
The forest itself is almost spooky in its cool, damp beauty. Moss drips from the thick laurel trees and streams meander alongside walking paths that criss-cross the park. The air here is constantly moist, a phenomenon caused by cool and warm air currents colliding. Locals call this ‘horizontal rain’.
The park gets its name from star-crossed lovers Gara and Jonay, the Canarian equivalent of Romeo and Juliet. When their families forbid the couple’s love, the two committed suicide by leaping off the Alto de Garajonay, the tallest point in the park. These days the hike up to the Alto is one of the most popular routes here.
Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente, La Palma:
Water, wind and a series of volcanic eruptions worked steadily over the millennia to create the caldron-shaped Caldera de Taburiente. A crater surrounded by sheer rock walls, the ‘caldera’ (‘stewpot’) looks like a mammoth pot dug into the ground. You can hike alongside the caldera’s rock walls and journey up to one of the many miradores (lookout points) that offer spectacular views of the island. You’re sure to see the ‘boiling pot effect’, when clouds that have gathered in the caldera spill over its sides, looking for all the world like a stewpot boiling over.
The best lookout point is El Roque de los Muchachos, on the far northern edge of the park. The area’s exceptionally clear skies made it a natural spot for an astronomical observatory, and scientists flock here to work with the Grantecan, a mammoth telescope that has the power to see up to 10 billion light years away.
Parque Nacional de Timanfaya & Montañas de Fuego, Lanzarote:
If you ever wondered what the core of the earth is really like, here’s your chance to find out. Just four kilometres below the surface of the Montañas de Fuego (Mountains of Fire), magma is bubbling away, heating the ground so that it’s too hot to touch. Near the surface, the temperature is around 100ºC, and just a few metres down it climbs to more than 500ºC. This kind of heat proves useful for all kinds of things, including cooking the meat at the Restaurant del Diablo (Restaurant of the Devil) in the park.
The rest of the park is spectacular too. Rolling hills covered with ruddy volcanic sand, volcanic pebbles and volcanic rocks stretch mile after mile with scarcely a single shrub to break up the view. The colours—rich browns, reds and oranges—are perhaps the most beautiful element here. No real roads cut through the park, so to see it, sign up for one of the limited walking tours or arrange to ride the park bus through the 14-kilometre ‘Ruta de los Volcanos.’
Fuerteventura’s pristine beaches:
The seemingly endless, silken white beaches of the eastern islands are responsible for the Canary Islands’ reputation as an idyllic sun and sand destination. Although there are beaches on all seven islands, some of the best are to be found along the shores of Fuerteventura. Not only are there great places to splash and sunbathe, but some of the world’s best windsurfing and kitesurfing beaches are here too.
There are beaches for every taste. For windsurfing, head south to the Península de Jandí, where Morro Jable and the Playa de Sotavento de Jandí compete for the title of best water sports centre. The name says it all at Costa Calma, where smoother waves are ideal for families. If you’re looking for a manicured resort, Caleta de Fusta fits the bill with shallow, tranquil waters and a wide beach. For a long, breezy stretch of sand, explore the rolling dunes of the Parque Natural de Corralejo.
If you go:
Parque Nacional del Teide: You don’t need permission to visit the park, but if you want to reach the peak of El Teide you will need to secure a special permit; contact email@example.com.
Parque Nacional de Garajonay: The park is free and open to the public, with no restrictions on entry. For more information, contact the visitors centre (Tel.922-800-993).
Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente: Day visits aren’t regulated, though you can get information on trails and campsites at the visitors centre (Tel.922-497-277).
Parque Nacional de Timanfaya y las Montañas de Fuego: Visits into the park are highly controlled in an effort to preserve the landscape here. You can’t hike on your own; sign up for the 3.5-kilometre guided walk in advance at the visitors’ centre (Tel.928-840-839).
Fuerteventura: For details, contact the Fuerteventura tourist office at www.fuerteventuraturismo.com