Wild waves of the Atlantic bash against the black volcanic coast, flooding the natural pools and tossing saltwater onto the shore in a chaotic spray. The water swirls back into the sea, a clear Aquarius blue. In the summer, people gather here to swim, but it is winter and the ocean is far from calm or warm.
We were in the northwest corner of Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, at the edge of a village called Garachico. The town is made of cobbled streets, architecture with typical Canarian character: colourful houses and fisherman’s cottages, a bit of peeling paint, old wooden balconies, restored churches, small artisan shops and palm-shaded squares.
There’s a small but beautiful park here, a tiny oasis of lush green leaves, birds of paradise, cacti and poinsettias that grow taller than me. Among them, a massive old wine press and a well with a decrepit ladder leading down into a pit full of plants. It had rained recently and drops of water rolled down stems, sprinkled petals and pooled into crevices in the pathways.
This used to be one of the most important harbour towns on the island, and a rich one built around the banana steamers that would come to export the Tenerife’s sugarcane and wine. That was, until the early 1700s when Montaña Negra erupted and sent rivers of lava through the town and destroyed the prosperous harbour.
Head east along the coast and you’ll come to one of my favourite views: the sprawling banana plantations that surround a few small buildings near the sea. Unfortunately we’re always in an awkward place to stop for a photo here, but one day I will capture it.
We stopped for lunch in another town called Icod to enjoy some typical Canarian food. We ate gofio (a type of cereal) with broth that tastes a little bit like lentil soup this way (though you can eat gofio in a million different ways, none of them remotely similar to the last), conejo en salmorejo which is rabbit marinated in a sauce of herbs, sweet paprika and wine among other ingredients, and papas arrgadas – literally “wrinkly potatoes” with mojo – a Canary Islands classic. These are small, local potatoes that are boiled in salty water until it evaporates and their skin takes on a wrinkled appearance. They’re served with a mojo sauce. There are a few types: green, made from green pepper or coriander or parsley, and red, made from red peppers and paprika.
Icod is known for its ancient dragon tree, which we stopped to see. Again, there are old churches, plazas and a nearby beach. It also has the EU’s largest lava tunnel, Cueva del Viento.
Driving on further east, we stopped in La Orotava where we were greeted by heavy gusts of wind whipping through the palm trees, knocking over decorations around the town hall and sweeping fallen branches and leaves through the streets. Needless to say we didn’t spend too much time walking around outside.
Instead, we headed for Casa Egon because dessert. This is a traditional cafe that was opened in 1916 – the oldest cake shop in the Canaries – and seems to have changed little since. There’s an old cash register when you walk in, antique weighing scales, original floor tiles and woodwork and the pastries, all containing some version of the boiled egg yolk and sugar that’s so popular here, are served on silver platters.
Walk around outside through this steep little town and you’ll see the wealth of the city in the Renaissance mansions that line the streets. Casa de los Balcones (house of the balconies) is worth a visit to see some of the traditional architecture and handicrafts. There are flower-filled plazas to stroll through on a nicer day, impressive churches, independent shops and more pastel-hued homes to Instagram.
Also north is La Laguna, the UNESCO World Heritage Site where Jorge is from, where his family still lives and where we spent Christmas with them along with my parents who were visiting from New York. Much of the centre of town is pedestrianised which makes for much more relaxed exploring. It also means there are plenty of cafes and bars with tables outside that make bumping into friends on every outing inevitable!
La Laguna is between the north and south coasts, inland on the narrow northeast slice of the island just before the rainforest so moisture hangs in the air and it’s cooler than the famed beaches of the south that attract the tourist year round. We lit the fireplace every night and wore our thick winter socks.
Some 30,000 students attend the University of La Laguna and their influence on the town comes through in its little independent shops, quirky bars and energetic nightlife.
Architecturally, it’s a stunning place with traditional mansions that have huge heavy doors, a wrap-around layout indoors in which the rooms line a private courtyard and the layout of the town was actually the blueprint model for a lot of the colonial towns in the Americas. I can tell you from my time spent living in Colombia that there is certainly an undeniable resemblance.
Time and again, trips to Tenerife re-define its reputation for me. As someone who had never visited, I thought of it as that place where stag dos hold boozy, cheap holidays and eat hungover full English breakfasts in grubby cafes on the coast. And yea, that does happen. But it’s definitely isolated to certain areas in the south.
The more I visit and the more I see the real island through the eyes of a local family, experience their traditions and meet more and more people who call it home, the more I understand that the majority of the island is entirely undeserving of that reputation.
Re-defined, the island is full of rich history and stories, incredibly diverse landscapes and plant life, a beautiful coastline, warm-hearted and welcoming locals, comforting food, colourful and impressive architecture, and a culture of community and creativity.
Some past posts I’ve written about Tenerife: