Besides the picturesque villages and the banana plantations of the north coast of Tenerife, there’s much more to explore on this diverse island. On our recent trip, we took my parents to a few places beyond the ones I wrote about in my last post: to the capital city, Santa Cruz, down to the south where Jorge’s family owns a vineyard and into the centre of the island for a winding drive up to the top of the volcano, El Teide, the highest point in Spain.
In February or March, Santa Cruz plays host to the second largest carnival celebration in the world after Brazil’s. In contrast, on this visit we were there on Christmas Day and the streets were pretty quiet, only a few restaurants and cafes open. It’s a port city, and one of Spain’s busiest, but you do have to drive a bit to get to the beaches (the sand on which was imported from the Sahara!).
Though we didn’t take advantage of it on this trip, the city is big on culture with music, art and film festivals, fine art and history, museums, photography exhibitions and of course the famous expressionist auditorium designed by Santiago Calatrava Valls to look like the sales of a boat blowing in the wind from the coast. From the urban sculptures by Joan Miró, Henry Moore and other well-known artists to the long row of knitted tree coverings to the little Parque de Los Patos which is full of tiled benches displaying old advertisements, there are expressions of creativity everywhere.
Wine plays a big role in the social culture on the island and Jorge’s dad’s favourite hobby is tending to his vineyards. We stopped to visit both – one in the north of the island and one in the south. Normally, you can stand on the porch of the small house that’s at the edge of the vineyard on the north and look out across the rows of vines to see the majestic, snow-covered tip of the volcano in the distance. However, a few times a year, Tenerife experiences the unlucky phenomenon they refer to as la calima which has to do with a change in the wind that sweeps a dusty haze from the Sahara over the island obscuring the usually brilliant blue skies and everything in the distance. This was one of those times, so no view of El Teide for us.
The ground of the vineyard in the north is a blanket of spiky chestnuts and their distinctive leaves and it’s in a green leafy area that, Jorge points out – if you didn’t notice the palm trees and the Canarian architecture – could almost be England. The south is a much different climate and so the vegetation on the vineyard here is different. Besides the grapes and a few other crops grown on the land, there are plenty of prickly pear cacti and young dragon trees.
We took a little walk around, shedding the winter coats in the warmer sun, before heading even further south to have a home-cooked, outdoor paella lunch with some family friends. After lunch, we took a little drive through the most touristy part of the island – the area that is unlike any other I’ve seen here – Las Americas. There are some really high end hotels here but walking around it feels like a bit of a zoo with the tourist tat shops, fish and chips signs and people walking around in their stag do best. Drive a little bit further and you’ll find some much less crowded, more inviting beaches where you can cheaply rent a sun lounger for the day. We didn’t, because the sun was setting by that time, but we stopped for some tea and took a little walk.
On my birthday (also my parents’ anniversary), we took one of the most beautiful drives on Tenerife: up to the top of El Teide. I’ve mentioned before the diversity of the landscapes on the island. This drive takes in quite a few more that aren’t seen elsewhere. It starts with curving roads through a forest of eucalyptus where it’s essential to roll down the windows and let the scent into the car. And then the pine needle carpeted evergreen forests and above them with views overlooking both the volcano and a sea of clouds (again, obscured this time by la calima). Carrying on, we spotted people building snowmen as the temperatures dropped even more and there was a layer of snow on the ground. Later, more alien landscapes, dry and nearly void of vegetation altogether. Interestingly, a few of the plants here can be found nowhere else in the world.
At 12,000 feet, it’s the third highest volcano in the world. You can reach the top via cable car after parking a ways down. The native inhabitants of the island thought it was the home of the devil, Guayota. The volcano held what they thought was hell and legend has it that Guayota kidnapped the god of light and sun, Magec, and took him down there. He was, thankfully, eventually rescued and the volcano “plugged up” with a white cap.
There’s a restaurant here where we stopped for a massive traditional lunch. My dad and I had goat and my mom and Jorge ordered a huge plate called Puchero Canario. This came with a broth-y soup to start then a bowl of gofio (the flour dish I explained in my last post) to share and ginormous piles of food on their plates: chickpeas, blood sausage, chicken, beef, sweet potatoes, normal potatoes, green beans and a whole lot of other things. Then there was quesillo for dessert – similar to flan. In short, mountains of food.
And then, stuffed, we walked over to wander around the layered rock formations, some teetering precariously on thin bases, all of them impressive. It’s a surreal landscape. In fact, it has been used by research scientists to test various techniques to be used on expeditions to Mars. There’s also the largest solar observatory in the world here that you can tour where a team of astrophysicists has the advantage of working in one of the top three places in the world (alongside Hawaii and Chile) to observe the sky.
If you ever find yourself in Tenerife – even if it is for one of those stereotypical stag parties – carve out time to explore the rest of of the island: the stunning volcano, the history and architecture of the small towns along the north coast, the UNESCO heritage city of La Laguna, the rainforests in the northeast and the creative and colourful capital, Santa Cruz. You won’t regret it!