The Canary Islands are a chain of Spanish islands off of the Western coast of Africa. 2,000 km away from Madrid, and less than 500 km from Western Sahara, the climate is much more similar to Africa than Spain. You’d think that such an exotic place might be hard to get to, but it is an extremely doable weekend trip. Round trip flights from Madrid were around 60€ and the flight is only an hour. Ideally, you could spend weeks exploring all of the Canary Islands, hopping from one island to the next. But we spent our weekend in the largest, and probably, most popular island called Tenerife.
Some people regard Tenerife as a beach-resort island that has industrialized with modern tourism and attracts many older British tourists, which yes is true… Although you also have to recognize the distinct, fun-loving local culture and appreciate the amazing outdoor opportunities that the island has to offer. I think that many of the cities along the coast are tourist overkill with holiday homes, water parks and resort clubbing. But thankfully with a bit of planning, it is easy to escape the hustle and bustle to find the pure, striking beauty of Tenerife.
We strategically stayed in a resort town on the western side of the island called Los Gigantes (The Giants). It is a small, coastal town known for the Acantilados de Los Gigantes, these large cliffs that tower 2000 feet over the beach below. The town has an old district with a port and restaurants, and a more developed section with colorful apartments near a black sand beach called Playa de la Arena (Beach of the Sand…. wait what?). The main benefit to Los Gigantes is the proximity to other sites on the island.
We rented a car for two days so we could have unlimited access to all of the best, hard-to-reach spots of the island. Tenerife’s public transportation is known to be horribly unreliable, so I highly recommend renting a car. From Los Gigantes, you are close to two of the two most beautiful places on the island: El Pico del Teide and Masca.
The island has an incredibly dramatic range of landscape, from luscious jungles to soft, white sand beaches and mountains of black, volcanic rock. So we decided to begin with the latter, the most obvious decision. In the center of the island is a massive volcano, the Pico del Teide. This volcano is part of a giant national park, Parque Nacional del Teide, which is probably Spain’s most famous national park. So we couldn’t not go! We drove up the narrow, winding roads through green fields of flowers and suddenly we were hit by Mars-like deserts of volcanic rock and steep, jagged cliffs.
The whole park is considered a World UNESCO site and is the home to hundreds of incredible landmarks and hikes. However, the main sight is Mt. Teide, the highest peak in not only the islands, but in ALL of Spain. The volcano is not currently active, the last time that it erupted was 1909. Most people go directly to the snow-covered peak and take the funicular, or hike the tough 5 hr trek up to the top. We decided to do a smaller hike around the backside of the volcano where we climbed giant boulders, found black volcanic rocks and played in patches of snow.
We left the park from the northern access road. As we drove further away from the rocky, volcanic landscapes we once again entered into the lush, green terrain of rolling green hills with terraced gardens and tropical plants. We stopped at a tourist site, a park called the Parque del Drago, which contains a giant old tree called the Drago Milenario del Icod de Vinos, or the Millennial Dragon Tree. This giant, raggedy tree is guessed to be at least 1,000 years old, some studies even take it back to 3,000 years ago.
The beautiful park is also home to an old cave where they found human remains. Homo sapiens have been inhabiting the Canary Islands for thousands of years, the original inhabitants likely came from Tunisia and Morocco. The earliest identified tribe is called the Guanches; this colony’s mummies have been found scattered across the Teide national park and in this cave. Some carbon dating has push back the possible earliest settlement date to 200 BC!
The park also has happy, little families of parrots and swan and an incredible assortment of native flower and fruit species (did you know that Europe gets all their banana shipments from the Canary Islands?)
After stopping at the park, we hopped back in the car and drove to a small town on the Northern coast called Garachico. Garachico is not often considered a tourist destination, but there are natural volcanic rock pools that are open all day and free to the public. So we went to check it out, and it turned out to be such a great spot! We waded in the pools, found some huge blue crabs and watched the sunset while drinking beer on the rocks.
On the way back to the car we were lucky enough to stumble upon a festive Carnaval parade. The entire town was out parading around in crazy costumes with drums and trumpets. It was quite an impressive site!
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The next day we went to an area on the Northwest corner of the island called Masca. This spot is not so far from Teide (maybe an hour drive), but it is completely different in respect to landscape. While Teide is rocky and dry, Masca is a rich, green rain-forest.
We had a private car take drive us 45 minutes to the small village of Masca, where we were quickly amazed at the increasingly dramatic views. Every winding turn was a new, spectacular view of jagged cliffs and mountains with the deep blue ocean backdrop. The driver was a young guy, born and raised in Tenerife. He had never even left the island and he said he has no desire to. We pulled over multiple times during the ride to enjoy the views as our driver pointed into the distance naming the other islands.
The hike that we did is called the Masca Barranco. Before heading down to the hike, you can soak in the breathtaking view from above the village of Masca. The village is so isolated that it was one of the Guanche’s settlements that was last-conquered by the Spaniards, who often stopped in the Canary Islands on the way to the Americas. You can walk through the village to the trailhead of the hike, stop at the small cafe/gift shop and buy ripe bananas on the street from a local vendor.
The hike is a straightforward 2.5 – 3 hr walk between two striking, high, black cliffs that leads into a grassy clearing and eventually a small, secret beach alcove. During the trek you’ll come across sugar cane, banana trees, rock arches, small waterfalls and hidden pools. A small stray dog followed us through part of the hike, and we met many friendly travelers along the way. I can honestly say that this is one of the most beautiful and entertaining hikes that I have ever done … which is really says something!
The rough terrain proved to be quite a scramble at times, but overall it wasn’t a especially difficult hike. Once you arrive at the rocky beach you can buy a coke and enjoy the sun and waves while waiting for the boat to take you back to Los Gigantes.
You can pay a few euro for a short boat ride from the dock at the end of the hike to Los Gigantes, the town nearby where we were staying. The water sprayed onto the sides of the boat as we zoomed by the steep, dark cliffs back towards Los Gigantes. It was a lovely way to end the day.
All in all, Tenerife is a wonderful place to visit. After seeing basically the entire western half of the island, I can confidently say that I would never want to actually live there. It is simply too isolated, and many southern cities that we passed through (Costa Adeje, Los Cristianos and Las Galletas) have really succumbed to the tourist market. In my opinion they have unfortunately lost some of the wild, captivating flavor that the locals still seem to hold near and dear to their hearts. However, while tourism is inevitable, fortunately there is no limit to the amount of dramatic landscapes, mysterious rock caves and hidden black sand beaches that you’ll come across while exploring this beautiful island.