The Canary Islands volcanic charm, by Tristan Rutherford
Wizz Magazine, January 2018
Sixty million years ago, a plume of lightning-hot magma oozed into the Atlantic depths. Through epochs of dinosaurs and ice ages these mid-ocean rumblings grew louder. Until mile-high volcanoes spat raw earth into the sky, forming an isolated archipelago of seven main islands orbited by a dozen untamed rocky specks. When the Spanish arrived during the 14th century, a Stone Age culture worshipped the Canaries’ Vulcan gods. Across a land of fire – now the setting for movies from the latest Star Wars instalment to One Million Years B.C – they colonised lava tunnels, dormant craters and black sand beaches, some as wild as when time began.
Mount Teide National Park looks like a lunar landscape for good reason. At 3,718m, it’s the highest point in Spain – and the nation’s nearest spot to the moon. Below the peak a plateau sits inside a 17km-wide caldera. When you step from the hire car onto the park’s dozens of walking trails, you are walking atop the red dust of a dormant volcano. Little wonder Mount Teide celebrated a decade as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017.
The geological similarities between the National Park and Mars have made it a study point for the red planet. It’s a pyroclastic nightmare of extinct cones and vast craters from a Martian movie set. The scene rings true thanks to the modern celestial observatories dotted around, each with the look of an alien spaceship. Indeed, this plateau in the sky has formed the backdrop for a dozen Hollywood blockbusters including Clash of the Titans and Fast & Furious 6.
Those who gaze with wonder at Mount Teide’s peak will see it maintains its own weather system. Despite sharing a latitude with Orlando and Delhi, the top is frequently snow-capped. This allows those who ride the rickety cable car to hike above the cloud, two miles high in the atmosphere, staring down at Planet Earth’s destructive beauty. A gentler experience can be found in the El Portillo Visitors Centre, which highlights Teide's 33 endemic species and geomorphological history. Serious softies can partake in the Sum of Stars Volcano Teide package, which includes a volcanically-inspired menu created by Michelin two-star chef Erlantz Gorostiza at the Ritz Carlton Abama restaurant.
Drop a thousand metres, through cloud and Canary Island pine, for a viticultural shock. Several Rutos Del Vino, or wine routes, crisscross the D.O. Orotava and D.O. Abona regions, the latter the highest categorised vines in Europe. “Tenerife’s volcanoes contribute very particular characteristics to our wine’s aroma and flavour,” says Felipe Monje, the fifth-generation owner-vintner of vineyard Bodegas Monje. “There are different types of volcanic soil that exist depending on the time of each eruption. And each type of soil has a different composition, and therefore taste, due to its evolution.” Monje’s latest vintages, including an all-natural Negromoll Rosé more commonly found on Madeira, smack of mineral earth and Atlantic breeze.
No roads ran to the Masca Valley until 30 years ago. Indeed, six decades back the only way through its fierce topography was by donkey. Volcanic activity has left it a Jurassic Park of mist-covered headlands and lava sculptures. All riven by a modern road so twisty it would churn Jeremy Clarkson’s stomach with fear. For a slightly easier hike through, start at the oh-so-pretty village of Masca at 600m. Magma canyons and prickly cactus pears line a five-hour walk to the volcanic black sands of Playa de Masca. Here the €10 Masca Express taxiboat carries tired legs back to the resort of Los Gigantes, past the giant basalt cliffs of the same name that chasm 500m into the Atlantic.
Tenerife’s most isolated beaches sit within the Anaga National Park due east. Three million years ago a Mount Teide eruption raised the ragged-jagged Anaga Range in northern Tenerife. Balmily moist currents created a high altitude rainforest, where 468 species can reside within a single square kilometre – the greatest biodiversity in Europe. Beyond this, on the island’s northern tip, these jungle mountains crash seaward into plumes of volcanic black sand. Beaches like Playa de Benijo remain as empty as in Columbus’s day – with the occasional surfer riding the Atlantic breakers past pillars of volcanic rock.
On a starry night in 1730, Lanzarote priest Don Andrés Lorenzo Curbelo noted the first trembling of a seismic cataclysm that would change local history forever. "On the first day of September the earth suddenly opened near Timanfaya. An enormous mountain emerged from the ground with flames coming from its summit. It continued burning for 19 days. The lava extended over to the northern areas to begin with, running as fast as water.” Over the next six years, 32 new volcanoes pumped magma high into the atmosphere. Lava covered a full third of the island, forcing a majority to relocate to Cuba and the Americas.
Timanfaya National Park now encompasses that entire lava flow. The moonscape – topped by cones singed orange, red and blue – is so bizarre that it’s protected as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. To protect its harsh beauty, only two footpaths and a camel track meander through. However, the geomorphological metamorphosis is not complete. Pioneer plants, including green figs, sprout from the jet black lava like fireworks on a night sky. Just 10m below the surface the temperature hovers at 600°C, giving legend to Lanzarote’s moniker of “Island of Eternal Spring”. Indeed the earth is so fiery that Restaurant El Diablo, that sits within the park boundary, uses geothermal heat to grill steaks and sea bass in the world’s hottest barbeque.
One only has to drive, hike, bike – or run – to witness the volcanic legacy
further east. Year upon year from 1730, fertile ash fell upon the Lanzarote highlands. Rich in nutrients, the spongy earth black retained water and sheltered grapevines in a land devoid of summer rain. The tasting room at 240-year-old vineyard El Grifo offers samples of Malvasia, a flinty white with a flavour intensified by fiery sun. Next June, the vintner area hosts its new Wine Marathon. The race weaves through 10 wineries, and the winner receives his or her weight in booze.
In Lanzarote you can’t fight against nature – you can only embrace it. That’s why the legacy of the island’s most famous artist César Manrique is found in museums, villas, wind sculptures and installations across the land. “Lanzarote’s volcanic landscape fed the roots of his creativity,” says Fernando Gómez Aguilera, Director of the César Manrique Foundation. “He said that: ‘All my painting is volcanology and geology.’ His oeuvre is inexplicable without expressionistic power of the island’s volcanic landscape.”
Aguilera’s favourite Manrique sight is the César Manrique House Museum at Haría. It’s an ice-white villa melded into a black lava coulee, part playboy mansion, part Bond villain’s lair. César Manrique also conceived another far-out property. At LagOmar, rock swimming pools, green cacti and white apartments (some now for rent for €600 per week) spill down a red rock volcanic quarry. In the early 1970s actor Omar Sharif purchased the property on the spot – only to lose it shortly after in a game of bridge, never returning to Lanzarote again. A shame, as the venue’s evening restaurant and late night cocktail concerts are excellent.
One final Manrique blend of modernism-meets-nature can be found at the Cueva de los Verdes. The submerged part this 6km-long lava tube, known as the Tunnel of Atlantis, is the world’s largest underwater volcanic tunnel, and was once used to secrete pirate loot. One section of the unearthly cave system was decked out in the 1960s with trippy lights. It houses a 500-seat concert hall part designed by Manrique. The acoustics, which ring around the volcanic stone, are astounding.
“No. I am your father!” A galaxy of new Star Wars quotes were uttered across Fuerteventura through 2017. The second-largest Canary Island stood in for the desert planet of Tatooine in the latest lasers and lightspeeds movie named Solo, starring Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke. “Our island really appealed to the Star Wars filming crew,” says Moisés Jorge Naranjo, Managing Director of the Fuerteventura Tourism Board. “Our unique volcanic landscapes are offered with security, reliability and great air communications with Europe.”
As Naranjo explains: “In the south, the most attractive sections for filmmakers are Zona Cofete and the Natural Park of Jandia.” Cofete Beach formed prime Star Wars filming territory as blue surf crashes on 12km of banana yellow sand, backdropped by mountains of fiery red. The entire
panorama can be surveyed by hiking the precipitous 7km trail up Pico de la Zarza, at 807m the island’s highest peak. Fuerteventura’s film set beauty is clear from up here. As the oldest Canary island (it broke through from the waves 20m years ago), it boasts a gargantuan 152 beaches. Two-thirds of them are soft yellow sand; the other third volcanic black.
The best of these beaches is the midnight swoosh of Ajuy. It sits within the Parque Natural de Betancuria, a prehistoric wilderness that lends legend to other blockbusters filmed in Fuerteventura: One Million Years B.C and The Land That Time Forgot. This central area features the spell-binding Caldera de Gairía. A walk through lava rivers and aloe vera plantations, plus packs of semi-wild goats and camels, is rewarded by more island panoramas from its 461m summit.
Fuerteventura’s latest volcanic activity took place in the north around Montaña Arena some 4,000 years ago. The grassy craters and vent fissures can be hiked through on a memorable stroll from the whitewashed town of La Oliva. Hike high over the malpaís (the rocky badlands of uneroded lava flows) and one can see the volcanic cone of Montaña Roja and the soft-sand dunes of Corralejo. Plus the tiny Canary island of Isla de Lobos – a volcanic rock just 8,000 years old and frequented by geology students – bobbing before Lanzarote.
Kathryn Tomasetti and Tristan Rutherford write travel stories about the Canary Islands for the British and American press.