Canary Islands: Tenerife

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.

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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.

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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.

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You can tell I was happy to be driving again.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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You can see the top of Teide in the background!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Granada

Tucked in the low peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Andalucía is the small, rugged, historic city of Granada. A quick train or a five hour drive from Madrid, Granada is an ideal city for a weekend getaway. Surrounded by mountains, and only one hour from the southern coast, Granada is becoming more and more of a prime travel destination.

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Fortunately, I had already been to Granada before; however, it was under some not so fortunate circumstances. When I studied abroad in Seville we went as a group with the directors as API. But with awful weather and bad timing, none of us really enjoyed the city. So this time I did not have high expectations to fall in love with Granada.

On Friday, I arrived and it was once again cold and rainy. I thought to myself… boy, Granada really better prove me wrong this weekend. And lo and behold, it did! Once the sun came out, the city came alive and it totally changed my opinion. I’d now say that Granada is one of my favorite places in Spain, which says a lot!

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Just like all other cities in Spain, Granada has a distinct personality. It is quite a spicy city! There are a mix of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tapas bars and Arabic markets tucked into the downtown. Many of the local people are very earthy, a lot of Philadelphia Folk Festival-kind of tattooed hippies with no shoes and dreadlocks. We ran into an old man singing John Legend on the street and a group of pierced hipsters in rags with eye patches singing Jamaican rap near the main plaza. This is only a taste of the lively culture.

Not only does Granada have a crunchy-granola type of vibe, it also has an extensive history that has added another layer to the complex character of the city. As a matter of fact, the tough attitude of the granadinos may actually stem from the fact they the city has been through so many transitions of culture, religion and power.

Back in the 7th Century, Spain was called Al-Andalus the Visigoths had the majority of control in Andalucía. In 711, the Muslims conquered the city  with the aid of a large Jewish community in the Albayzín (old district) and remained there for hundreds of years. After the fall of Seville and Córdoba in the 13th Century, Granada became the richest and most powerful city not only in Spain, but in all of medieval Europe. Thus explains the massive, Arabic fortress that overlooks the city, called La Alhambra.

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If you look closely you can see the snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains behind the Alhambra.

In 1492 the Catholic monarchy, Ferdinand and Isabel, took over the city and expelled the Jews, Muslims and Arabs from Spain (Or at this time it was called Hispania). The city of Granada slumped for the next couple hundred of years. It wasn’t until the 19th century period of Spanish Romanticism when the city reclaimed its identity and embraced its original Islamic heritage.

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Modern day Granada is known for being a lively university city with an earthy and genuine attitude. It is also especially popular for being the city that gives FREE tapas when you order a drink. My friends and I completely took advantage of this; we never actually got a full dinner, but tried a variety of different drinks and small plates. Friday night when I arrived we went to our first tapas bar, La Bella y La Bestia. There are two, the oldest bar is next to the riverbank at the foot of the mountain, the other is near El Albayzín, the historic Moorish quarter of the city with building foundations that date back to the 13th century. Upon ordering three glasses of wine at our first bar, we we served three sandwiches of jamón serrano and french fries.

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We also went to a traditional Spanish tapas bar/restaurant that was recommended to us by our Airbnb hosts, called La Chantarela. Hidden within the less-charming, shopping district of the city, this place was packed with locals enjoying the Friday night with friends and family. We got a round of beer (one spiked with tequila called Desperados) and these delicious cheesy, pork rolls. The next day we went to a popular seafood bar called Los Diamantes, right across from Plaza Nueva, the main square in the center of the city. This place came to us highly recommended by both Lonely Planet and Anthony Bourdain, and it was amazing. As it was super crowded, we were able to grab a small corner of the bar and order drinks, the tapa that followed shortly after was a plate of perfectly-salted, fried fish.

Other places that I would recommend for food: Café Lisboa next to Plaza Nueva, Minotaur for tapas by the river, Om Kalsoum where we got 8 tapas and a bottle of wine for 15€, and Café Bohemio, a library/jazz bar near Plaza de los Lobos.

Now, the food isn’t the ONLY reason why Granada is such an awesome city. In my opinion, the other main attraction is the giant fortress on top of the hill that overlooks the city. This is a view of La Alhambra from the balcony of our Airbnb, a small one bedroom apartment in El Albayzín. Along with the terrace, the balcony also had old wooden ceilings and archways, and tiny, little lizards scampering across the walls.

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So construction of The Alhambra began back in the 1238 by the Nasrites, specifically the emir Muhammed Al-Ahmar. During the 18th and 19th century the castle became neglected and overrun with trash, bats and beggars. In 1870 the palace was declared a national monument and in 1984 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are multiple parts that complete The Alhambra experience:  Los Palacios Nazaríes, La Alcazaba, La Medina, el cementario, y los jardines y Palacio de Generalife.

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Over the years the palace has changed drastically, but still has the original Moorish character with old tiles, archways and dramatic sparkling ceilings. With elaborate Arabesque styled details and Islamic calligraphy lining the walls, the fortress exudes a feeling of ancient history, mystery and wonder. The Muslims believed that geometry was the connection between reality and the spiritual world, so the architecture is brimming of shapes, lines, repeated patterns and symmetry.

Because the palace is so incredibly unique, historical and beautiful, it has become quite the tourist attraction over the past couple of decades. I was stunned while at one point during our visit, I looked around to see a tour group of thirty Chinese tourists all taking selfies instead of actually appreciating the architecture for what it really is. Because of the fact that The Alhambra gets about 6,000 daily tickets, it is recommended to get ticket ahead of time online or from another source the morning of your intended visit.

But even if you don’t have a ticket, The Alhambra grounds are still worth checking out. You can walk through the gardens and enjoy the smell of the orange trees and the trickling water of the ancient irrigation system that lines the paths. You can get into the beautiful central courtyard of the Museum of Fine Arts inside the Palacio de Carlos V or the 17th century Iglesia de Santa María.

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Of course, a visit to Granada would be incomplete if you didn’t wander back down past Gran Vía and around the city center. The main cathedral is gorgeous, hidden in between colorful apartment buildings, the front facade of the church is along side of a main plaza where children play fútbol and the parents drink their cervezas.

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If you look past the obvious monuments of the city you may come across the beautiful artistic details that often are under your feet or high on walls. Most paths and streets of Granada are created with small stones and pebbles that are perfectly aligned together in patterns and puzzles. (Which at time, yes, makes it very difficult and distracting to walk). Sometimes on the sides of buildings you can find random plaques with dates and facts, and plates or plants that hang gracefully and provide the city with such charm.

These details create Granada’s artistic flair that permeates the city and manifests itself in the daily lives of the people. Up at the Mirador de San Nicholas, an overlook of The Alhambra in El Albayzín, you can find artisan jewelers, leather makers or jugglers. Plaza Nueva is also a popular spot for artisan crafters, musicians and performers.

Overall this past weekend I was so happy that Granada finally proved to me its worth as a beautiful, creative city and strong contribution to Spanish culture. It is amazing how much weather can effect a traveling experience, and I almost felt guilty for not giving the city a chance the first time around. Now I find myself thinking that rain or shine, Granada is a unique part of Spain that is 100% worth the visit.

For those who haven’t been to Spain, think of this comparison – I like to think that if Madrid is the NYC of Spain, Seville would be like Key West and Granada would be… Seattle or Portland. Not that I have ever actually been there (haha) but I can tell, and have heard from others that the down-to-earth, hip vibes in Granada are especially reminiscent of the Northwestern American attitude. So if you find yourself intrigued, come join me in Spain and go to Granada to see for yourself!

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