A Week in Tenerife – Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

A Week in Tenerife
Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

While living in Cambridge, UK as students, my wife and I chose to visit Tenerife, as it is her ancestral home. She is Cuban-American, by way of the Canary Islands, which are part of Spanish territory. It seemed a place that had a personal connection, beaches, hiking, and Spanish culture; what more could we be looking for?

The rocky pools of Garachico
The rocky pools of Garachico
Tenerife is the biggest island of the Canary Island archipelago, located about 60 miles from Morocco. We were told not to go here by a very well-traveled person, but we disobeyed. The knock was that it was just too touristy and overbuilt. We found that to be completely true, in one corner of the island dominated by concrete high-rises catering to hordes of pasty Europeans. Much of the remainder of the island is a reminder of the beautiful creation that God and man can make when they put their minds together.

January 2005: Day 1: Arrival in Tenerife

Rental cars are cheap in Tenerife and a must for exploring the island properly. After picking up our Citroen from the rental company, the first sights were not so pleasing; a McDonald’s, numerous gas stations, plenty of commercial warehouses selling the construction parts and furnishings that finish out abominable resort areas, which we soon came upon. The two major resort ‘towns’ on the island are Los Cristianos and Playa de las Americas – stay away! We quickly passed these communities invented by dubious developers, as sprawl soon gave way to banana plantations and small towns built along steep, sparsely vegetated mountainside

Our first stop to get a taste of the real Tenerife was the small but growing town of San Juan. Like many Canary Island towns, San Juan was once a small fishing port. It is still small and fishing boat marina, but pastel condos and a pizza shop indicate that tourism is the new breadwinner. The town has constructed a very nice boardwalk along the volcanic rock coastline upon which waves crashed. The new construction was clean and tasteful, mostly of stucco on top of cinderblock. The small beach in the town was un-swimmable due to the strong waves and rocks, but the water was clear, deep, and cold.

Los Gigantes

San Juan was scenic, but didn’t have the authenticity we were looking for, so it was back on the road to two adjacent towns on the western coast, Puerto de Santiago and Los Gigantes. Both of these towns provided stunning views of the ocean and dozens of attractive hotels and lodgings densely but attractively built into the hillside. These places were also geared for wealthier tourists, as they were not as tacky as the larger resort areas. Spotless whitewashed homes and red Spanish tile roofs with Mercedes in the driveways sums it up. Los Gigantes, the town, abuts the Los Gigantes cliffs, which drop vertically 2,500 feet into the pristine ocean below. They are truly dramatic and one of the major landmarks of Tenerife. A marina close to the Los Gigantes offers a number of scuba tours to the base of the Gigantes.

Heading away from Gigantes, the winding road north immediately led us into steep mountains, which provide exceptional panoramic views of the terrain below and the ocean. As our elevation steadily grew, so did the beauty and diversity of the plants. Flowers hung from rock walls, prickly pears could be seen, as well as stunted pines, other types of cacti, and of course Canary Island palms. As with many of the more mountainous areas of Tenerife, it was sparsely populated but showed signs of hundreds of years of habitation, through its rock walls, terraces, and occasional plantations for bananas or grapes. There were crumbling older houses, as well as handsome new stucco homes. Our little Citroen ascended up the windy terrain until we reached an expanse of pine forest and cool mountain air.

Arrival in Garachico

Finally, I decided that a little town known as Garachico was our destination. Before arriving we had to descend all the way down the 3,000 or so feet we had previously climbed to sea level. The entire descent was made in about 20 hair pin turns built along a nearly vertical mountain.

Garachico has been civilized for about 500 years old and consists of many white washed Spanish style buildings, either flat or with tile roofs. The little streets are narrow and shady, cobble-stoned. The large mountain behind the town provides shade during the evening. In front of the town is the sea, in which sits a massive volcanic rock, the Roque de Garachico. This behemoth, like many powerful images in Spain, is adorned with a giant cross. The Garachico waterfront is a thing of wonder. A series of lava rock outcroppings push well into the sea, where they are pounded relentlessly by the sea and sun. Ingeniously, the fathers of Garachico added several well placed little ‘dams’ to the volcanic formation which create a mesmerizing set of rushing, gushing, filling, emptying, pools for the aesthetic enjoyment of all. Since Garachico has no beach, this is the place for tourists to sunbathe.

In the cool evening we walked around Garachico to find there are only two hotels, so we picked a beauty – a renovated 15th century mansion called La Quinta Roja. We ate dinner late, at a deserted restaurant called El Rocamar, ordering seafood paella, flan, and café con leche. We then returned to the room and hit the hay with the windows open to enjoy the cool breeze.

Day 2: Garachico

Our first day in Garachico began with an outstanding hotel breakfast inside the outer courtyard, which looks onto the quiet plaza. We were served café con leche and fresh orange juice. The buffet featured a fine selection of dates, sugared figs, croissants, sliced chorizo, Serrano ham, and an assortment of cheeses. The people at the hotel were exceptionally friendly.

La Quinta Roja is an example of the island’s 16th century Baroque architecture, that miraculously survived the 1709 eruption of Mt. Teide (which wiped out much of the port). It was once the home of a wealthy family, and later served as a nunnery. The hotel has two floors surrounding an open courtyard. The interior rooms are warm, stylish and modern, despite the ancient wood and stone construction. The hotel sits adjacent to the main plaza which features an old church and large shade trees. The town is dotted with several historic castles, forts, and religious edifices which serve as scenery – and context – rather than as major visitor attractions.

Walking along the seawall sidewalk for a half mile or so to the outskirts of town we found the crumbling remains of a church. The seawall was laid with massive volcanic boulders that kept the sea from undermining the road. We climbed along these boulders until we found a perfect large rock in the sun with waves crashing below. We sat there for quite a long time letting the sun soak into our skin and peering out at the Roque de la Garachico, some 100 yards into the sea. Later that day at a café, a waiter showed us photos of the ‘maremotas’ (giant waves) that occasionally well up in the Atlantic and pulverize the coast of Garachico.

Day 3: Icod, Orotava, and Santa Cruz de Tenerife

Once in the town known as Icod de los Vinos, we got off the main road and explored the town, known as an important wine producing region, and the home of an ancient ‘dragon tree.’ A turn off the road led to some very steep, narrow roads which led to an area with small scale vineyards and old stone homes with an incredible view down to the ocean, and up to the snowcapped volcano Mt. Teide. We navigated our way through the winding wine country and through the colorful towns back to the wide freeway cutting north to our next stop, the town of Orotava.

The town of Orotava is one of the most scenic and distinct towns in Tenerife. It is famous as a University town, dating back to the 1500’s. We spent about two hours walking through the town center, spending most of our time in the compact (and free) La Hijuela del Botánico (Botanical Garden), that features 3,000 different tropical and sub-tropical vegetable species mainly of South and Central American, African and Australian origin. A beautiful cathedral, plaza, and tiny streets make Orotava one of the most intact and authentic of Tenerife’s old towns. A number of the very old buildings feature ornate wooden balconies, which are very rare on the island, as lumber is scarce. Orotava sits somewhat high in elevation, and slants along the mountain side, so that at times the angle of your repose can be a bit a disorienting, which perhaps explains why the locals always stand with their heads at 45 degree angles.

We were on our way with Antonita, a 75-year-old, and her 40-something son Pedro in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, relatives of my wife’s grandfather. Antonita was really endearing, taking us for a coffee and telling us all about Tenerife in her mile-a-minute Spanish. We then headed to their small flat, where Antonita lived with Pedro Sr., an 86-year-old, Yoda-like figure who had actually fought in the Spanish Civil War. My first impression of Santa Cruz was that it was exceptionally clean, bright, and colorful – for a city of its size (210,000+). There was a fine mix of Spanish colonial-era architecture, art deco, generic euro buildings, 60’s concrete and glass, and colorful post-modern. There are certainly a number of tourist sites in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, including a striking modern opera house, museums, and historic sites. However, given a limited time, vacations should be oriented towards the exceptional natural areas, rather than urban attractions.

Twenty minutes from Santa Cruz is the scenic town of Candelaria, home to the massive Basilica of de Nuestra Señàora de la Candelaria. The cathedral is famous for a statue of black baby Jesus, and his mother, the Black Madonna of Candelaria. The Plaza in which the Cathedral sits is right on the water, and guarded by a half dozen or so statues of Guanches. The Guanches were the original inhabitants of the island, and were conveniently made knowledgeable about Christ 100 years before the Spanish. The Guanches had light skin, so I guessed they were pre-historic Celts or Scandinavians who drifted off course and settled this island. They were known for being quite tall and beautiful, as evidenced by a naked Guanche cave lady mannequin I later saw at a gift shop.

Day 4: Las Teresitas and San Andres

After a mediocre breakfast at the Hotel Pelinor, a merdiocre hotel in the Santa Cruz downtown, we found our car and headed to Las Teresitas, a famous beach 20 minutes away. Las Teresitas, is an entirely man made beach. In 1974, 5 million sacks of Saharan sand were dumped at the base of large cliffs creating a wide, sand beach. A rock jetty surrounding the beach prevents waves from washing away all the sand. Tired and burnt out as we were, a long day in the sun was absolutely perfect. The beach was relatively un-crowded, the water a bit chilly, and the weather was sunny, and just warm enough.

A view of snow-capped Mt. Teide from Icod de Los Vinos
A view of snow-capped Mt. Teide from Icod de Los Vinos
After tanning for a few hours, we drove just past the beach to a small town called San Andres that overlooks Las Teresitas. This town was built vertically, with modest stucco houses. Palm trees lined a shaded boulevard, and there was a crumbling historic fort. At Café Pepin, we had some local fish soup under some large shade trees. I learned that a roly poly, shirtless man next door rented rooms. He took me down the road to a hillside apartment complex, and showed me a clean little apartment with a view of the mountains, and the sea, which also had a beautiful blue pool. He rented it to us for 2 nights at 40 Euros ($55) per night. I was proud to have secured this accommodation using my pigeon Spanish.

Day 5: The Beautiful Anaga Mountains.

The next day we wandered around San Andres truly relaxed after the hustle and bustle of San Andres, and the lively chatter of our hosts. In the late afternoon we drove north through the Anaga Mountains, a National Park. Almost the minute we turned up the road past our apartment we were winding our way up a steep valley through jagged mountains, upon which were an interesting variety of cacti and palms. The sun was slowly setting so the shadows produced were dramatic.

Along the mountainside, terraces for farming had been carved out, some green with activity, some long since abandoned. Most of this area is un-developable due to the sheer incline of the land, as well as due to preservation efforts. However, small cinderblock homes, some abandoned – some inhabited, could be found tucked behind a steep driveway or hanging precariously of the side of the mountains. Also, in the Anagas, as with many parts of the island, small caves could be found as well as tiny stone huts; who built them and when is unclear.

Towards the north side of the peninsula sat the town of Tanaga, perfect white stucco houses untouched by the crush of tourism due to its remote location. Back at the apartment that night we cooked our own dinner. We dragged our mattress out to the tile balcony and stared up at the stars above us, before falling asleep outdoors.

Day 6: Mt. Teide

We awoke to the sun, sea, mountains, and birds. After leaving of the keys with the owner, we set out for a day of climbing Mt. Teide, passing once more through Santa Cruz and our favorite street, Ramblas del General Franco. It’s a unique treat to drive along a street named for a fascist dictator.

As we headed toward the center of the island, Mt. Teide loomed in the cool, gray sky. The national park (Parque Nacional del Cañadas de Teide) is rimmed by a forested region known as Las Esperanza. This pine forest was among the prettiest and purest I have seen. Eventually, the forest gave way to a high, expansive area devoid of almost any plant life. The air was suddenly quite cool and thin. At the National Park visitor center, we turned off and took a brief tour of the exhibits about Teide, the highest peak in Spanish territory. It erupted in 1709, destroying much of the civilized island and creating a vast caldera (like a depression surrounded by mountainous walls) surrounding the mountain, that is 28 miles wide.

The landscape soon took on a lunar – almost Martian form. Massive, rough cut boulders were strewn about in every direction. Canyons and deep gullies radiated from Mt. Teide, and expanses of rocky, nonsensical land separated Teide from a jagged range of mountains looming to the south. We pulled off at the base trail, putting on two pairs of pants, and all the other clothes we could find. Our goal was to climb Teide, as my wife’s father had when he was 17. About 10 minutes into our hike up the barren monolith I realized this would be very difficult, if at all possible. The wind was very strong and cold. After about couple hours of trudging uphill, we found a rock and ate sandwiches we had packed. It was too cold and windy for two reasonably minded persons like us to go on. We were both disappointed we didn’t make it to the top of Spain, but we realized the wisdom of accepting our limits. The cable car to the top was shut down due to dangerous winds. I guess I’ll probably cancel that Mt. Everest climb I had scheduled for July.

Heading away from the mountain, we stopped here and there to get some shots of the mountain and the wild rock formations. As we descended to the South, the landscape was once again forest and rocks. The island of Gomera could be seen from the high vantage point. After hitting the town of Granadilla de Abona, it was more dry and agricultural. We stopped through a number of scenic towns looking for a place to stay, but none were up to our high expectations from Garachico and San Andres so we drove down to the arid desert in the south and settled on El Médano, a generic, yet unpretentious, and not-quite overdeveloped beach town. El Médano is located very close to the airport, but what redeems it is a beautiful peninsula curling out into the water, topped by two black sandstone hills, providing a beautiful backdrop.

There weren’t many choices for hotels, as most accommodations were condos, but we settled on touristy – but nice – Hotel Medano, for 80 euros a night (ouch!), with breakfast. Dinner was taken at Capriccio – an open air pizzeria.

Day 7: El Médano

Our last full day in Tenerife was cloudy and cool, to our disappointment. Looking out our balcony window we could see that it had snowed in the mountains overnight, making it the first time I had been at the beach and seen snow. After breakfast we took a long walk across the light black sand beach to the peninsula and climbed the smaller of the two hills. We came upon three separate bunkers that had once been used for defending the island, under the direction of Franco. It was very windy on the hill, and the waves crashed hard below us.

We then decided to make the best of our day and drive about the southern part of the island in search of some good shopping. That we failed to find, but in the town of Valle San Lorenzo, we found an outstanding restaurant, El Paraíso. It would be our last good Spanish meal; chiparones, champiñones al ajillo, and beef cordon bleu stuffed with avocado, ham, and cheese. It was outstanding. We then crossed the street and bought a few bottles of local wine (Lomo) to bring to England.

Semi-arid countryside on the way to Granadilla de Abono
Semi-arid countryside on the way to Granadilla de Abono
On the way back through the ugly south (looks like it was hit by bombs) we found a little place by El Medano called El Cava de Hermano Pedro. This was a historic site where Hermano Pedro, a Christian hermit, spent his years before moving to Guatemala as a missionary. It included a well landscaped little canyon and a cave in which he once lived, now decorated with Catholic iconography. Given the signage and the fencing, it seems that the airport was going to swallow it up, but someone intervened and preserved this little spot.

We spent the remainder of the day at the hotel, watching the “O.C.” in Spanish and kids playing by the beach. At night we went to a pastry shop and then went to a bar called which had only one beer, El Dorado – made in Tenerife, but it had chairs on a balcony which sat a couple feet above the water where the waves washed up. We and some German college students were the only ones there.

Day 8: Leaving Tenerife

Our very last day in Tenerife was sunny and hazy, but we were tired and ready to go home. Before heading to the airport we went back out and tried to do some shopping but found ourselves in British vacation home hell. With endless construction of crappy shops and condos it’s too bad that was our last impression of the island. But overall, it was a fantastic trip. I would love to see some of the other beautiful islands in the Canaries. I would also highly recommend going to Tenerife, and focusing and renting rooms in rural areas or small towns. In fact, there are several websites providing choices of dozens of owner-rented rural tourism homes. A car rental is definitely a must in order to move about beyond the urban areas. The weather is beautiful year round but the summer is very hot, and the winters can be on cool and grey on some days, as we found out.