Things to Do in Canary Islands
With its still-steaming mounds of volcanic tuff and eerily barren lava fields, the volcanic terrain of Timanfaya National Park is a world away from the lively beach towns that Lanzarote is best known for. The focal point of the protected area is the dramatic red and black-rock mountain range, aptly named the Fire Mountains (Montañas de Fuego) after a series of eruptions in the 18th century that covered the entire island with volcanic ash and lava, completely reshaping the its topography.
Today, the volcanoes lie dormant, but the area remains a potent source of geothermal energy thanks to a residual magma chamber – a fact enthusiastically demonstrated by tour guides who toss bundles of branches into the steaming pits, where the wood rapidly burst into flames. Access to Timanfaya National Park is restricted to guided tours, and most visitors to the park opt to take the guided coach tours included in the admission price.
The largest and oldest National Park in the Canary Islands and home to Spain’s highest peak, Mount Teide, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Teide National Park is one of the top attractions on the island of Tenerife. At 3,718m, the landmark peak of Teide - the world’s third highest volcano from its base - is omnipresent and taking the cable car to the top is one of the most popular pastimes for visitors, with views spanning the surrounding islands.
Even from ground level, the park’s rugged landscape is magnificent, a geological wonder featuring an expanse of rugged lava fields, ancient calderas and volcanic peaks. Spread over 18,900 hectares, additional highlights of the park include the 3,135m Pico Viejo volcano, the distinctive Roques de García rock formations, and a unique array of native flora and fauna, including rare insects like the Tenerife lizard and an impressive collection of birds, including Egyptian vultures, sparrowhawks and red kite.
Fuerteventura might seem like enough of an island paradise, but it isn’t the only one that you’ll want to be conquering in this part of the Canaries: just 2 kilometers off shore sits a tiny islet that is a worthy destination unto itself. Called Lobos Island, the volcanic land mass spans 1.8 square miles and gets its name from the large population of monk seals (also called sea wolves) that used to live here.
Although the island’s formation dates back to thousands of years ago, 1405 marks the first recorded presence of man, when Jean de Béthencourt used it as a resupply station during his conquest of Fuerteventura. Since those times, it has remained virtually uninhabited, with a lighthouse keeper having lived there until 1968, after which the illuminated beacon became automated. Today, and since 1982, Lobos Island has been classified as a nature reserve, noted for its abundance of vegetation species (over 130 different kinds), and its bird population.
With its steep rocky cliffs, forested trails and trickling waterfalls, the wild landscape of the Masca Valley is among Tenerife’s most beautiful, and the remote gorge offers a thrilling backdrop for a hiking expedition.
At the top of the valley, the aptly nicknamed ‘lost village’ of Masca is perched precariously on the 600-meter-high edge of the gorge, reachable by a hair-raisingly steep serpentine road and offering spectacular views over the valley. From the village, it’s possible to hike all the way to the coast, a dramatic 4.5km trail that scrambles over the valley floor, past hidden caves, lagoons and black sand beaches.
Towering 3,718 m over the island of Tenerife, scaling the high-altitude peak of Spain’s highest mountain can be, quite literally, breathtaking. Thankfully, you don’t have to climb the summit to take in the views from Mount Teide – the Teide Cable Car whisks visitors to an observation deck at 3,550m, where you can enjoy dramatic views that span as far as the neighboring Canary Islands on clear days. It’s also possible to hike to the lookout point, a taxing climb that takes around 5 hours, but to scale the final 200m to the highest point, climbers need to secure a free permit from the National Park office.
Set in an ancient caldera at the center of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Teide National Park, the Mount Teide volcano dates back around 1 million years and ranks as the 3rd highest volcano in the world, rising 7,500 m above the ocean floor. Although the volcano hasn’t erupted since 1909, it remains active and seismic activity was recorded as recently as 2003.
An extraordinary collage of rocks, caves and lava tubes looming over Lanzarote’s west coast, the coastal cliffs of Los Hervideros rank among the island’s most unusual geological attractions. Formed during the 18th-century eruptions of the Timanfaya volcanoes, the dramatic coastline is now adorned with sharp rock columns, oddly shaped archways and natural rock sculptures, created as the hot lava met with the icy waves.
While the unique landscape makes for some remarkable photo opportunities, the real highlight of visiting Los Hervideros is watching the waves crash against the coast. Looking out from the cliff top, visitors can witness the all-natural spectacle as the waves explode against the rocks and the water funnels through the spillways, sending spurts of sea water roaring into the air – a fitting example of how the cliffs got their name - Los Hervideros is Spanish for "boiling waters."
Part natural wonder, part lavish beach resort, Jameos del Agua is one of the Canary Islands’ most distinctive attractions, built within a series of lava caves on Lanzarote’s northeastern coast. The masterwork of local artist and architect César Manrique, the underground complex makes innovative use of the natural volcanic landscape, formed by the eruption of the La Corona volcano some 4,000 years ago, and boasts a bar, restaurant, nightclub and swimming pool.
Built in 1968, Manrique’s creative vision centers around a series of collapsed lava tubes, or ‘Jameos’, where pressure build-up had caused the roofs to fall in, making an atmospheric location for an open-top swimming pool. Additional highlights include a series of underground galleries devoted to the island’s volcanic history, a concert hall that makes use of the natural cave acoustics, and an underground lake, famous for its endemic population of blind Albino Crab (a species found only on Lanzarote).
Stretching out from the shadows of the Teide Volcano and framed by the rolling peaks of the eponymous mountains, La Orotava Valley is home to some of Tenerife’s most scenic landscapes. With its lush banana plantations and vineyards, steep cliffs and pine-clad mountains, this is prime hiking terrain and a number of well-known trails run through the valley.
Highlights include the Mirador del Humboldt viewpoint, which offers an expansive panoramic view over the valley below; the historic town of La Orotava, famed for its unique architecture and botanical gardens; and the volcanic sand beaches of El Bollullo, Martín Alonso and El Rincón.
More Things to Do in Canary Islands
The Canary Islands sit just 70 miles off the coast of western Africa, but the setting of Fuerteventura’s Corralejo Dunes National Park might have you thinking you’re a lot closer. Indeed, this beachside nature reserve covers almost 3,000 hectares of sandy dune-filled landscape, and will give you the sensation that you’re visiting the Canaries’ continental neighbor as opposed to a beachy archipelago.
Though the undulating white sands are surely reminiscent of the desert, the granules in Corralejo Dunes Natural Park are in fact actually made up of tiny little pieces of shells and mollusks as opposed to anything rocky. And it’s not all just about the dunes in these parts, either, as these mountains of sand give way to the bright blue ocean, and plenty of opportunities for enjoying the sun and sea. Even better? Don’t expect to see the built-up shorelines that you might find at other popular Fuerteventura beach destinations.
One of a string of sandy beaches and bays lining Lanzarote’s southern coast, Papagayo Beach (Playa de Papagayo) lies within the Monumento Natural de Los Ajaches Natural Park and is largely regarded as one of the island’s most beautiful beaches. A horseshoe-shaped bay cocooned between sea cliffs and blessed with swaths of pale gold sand, Papagayo is a top choice for swimming, snorkeling and water sports.
A visit to Papagayo Beach is easily combined with exploring the five neighboring beaches - Playa de Afe, Playa de Mujeres, Playa Pozo, Playa de Afe,] and Playa de la Cera – often collectively referred to as the ‘Papagayo beaches’. The beaches are linked by a coastal walk, which runs all the way from Punta Papagayo to Playa Blanca, and are famous for their fine sands, warm, clear waters and abundance of exotic fish.
Far removed from the golden sands and azure waters of Lanzarote’s principal beach resorts, the coastal landscape of El Golfo harbors one of the island’s most unique geological areas. A rare example of an ancient hydro-volcano, a combination of volcanic eruptions and sea erosions have imprinted the shore with a half-moon shaped crater lake, Lago Verde (Green Lake), separated from the sea by a stretch of black sand.
Looking down over the beach from the surrounding cliff tops is the best way to view the site, an otherworldly landscape famous for its startling contrasts of colors and shapes. The lime-green waters of the crater lake (the result of the Ruppia Maritima algae that lives in the waters) appear almost luminous against the black sand beach, itself a peculiar blend of black volcanic sand and green Olivine stones, and the small bay is framed by a rugged chain of eroded volcanic rocks.
You can smell the salty air as the edges of white waves crash into the black sands of Playa del Janubio. Beside the beautiful beach, historic salt ponds sit that have been used to collect and extract salt from the seawater for centuries. Water evaporates in the shallow lagoons, leaving the salt behind. In the days before refrigeration, salt was even more prized for its food preservation qualities. Remnants of the old salt production and trade here, including a small windmill, remind of the area’s past.
Today the beach, formed by the breakdown of black volcanic rock, is still a lovely place to stroll by the sea. Depending on the season you may see a variety of local birds as well. Currents are often quite strong on the beach, and the powerful waves are beautiful to watch from the shore.
A cluster of uniquely shaped rocks lying in the shadows of the notoriously volatile Teide volcano, Los Roques de García are among the top attractions of Tenerife’s UNESCO-listed Teide National Park. Formed by years of ancient volcanic activity, the pyroclastic rocks are best known for their impressive stature and peculiar shapes, some appearing to defy gravity and others taking on an otherworldly presence.
The most famous rocks include the ‘Roque Cinchado’, known as ‘God’s Finger’, now one of Tenerife’s most iconic landmarks, and the imposing La Catedral, the tallest at 200-meters high and a popular challenge for climbers. Each rock has its own unique moniker, including ‘El Queso’, ‘Roques Blancos’ and ‘Torrotito’, and the best way to enjoy the views is hiking the circular trail around the valley, which takes around 2 hours.
Get a taste of Lanzarote in more ways than one at LagOmar, where its museum, restaurant, bar and cottages are all wrapped into one magical lava-rock landscape. Once a private home, the structure was built into a volcanic quarry, lending to an oasis-like setting filled with caves, spectacular island views and unique gardens and architecture.
The private property was conceived by local artist and architect César Manrique, designed by José Soto and later completed by other architects. Perhaps more famous than LagOmar’s creators is the story of its once owner, actor Omar Sharif, who came to the island to film a movie, fell in love with the property and purchased it. But alas, rumor has it that he owned it for only one day before losing it in a bet over a bridge game. Whatever the history, today’s property can be visited and enjoyed in a variety of ways. Go there to check out its museum, where you can learn more about LagOmar and also view revolving art exhibitions.
A 1.8-mile-long stretch of golden sand fringed by soaring sea cliffs, the picturesque setting of Famara Beach (Playa de Famara) has earned it a legion of fans, among them renowned local artist César Manrique and Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. The dramatic surroundings make the beach extremely popular among locals, and there are ample opportunities for exploring, like walking in the sand dunes, hiking across the cliff tops of El Risco (Lanzarote’s highest peak) or tucking into fresh seafood in the traditional fishing village of Caleta de Famara.
Benefiting from consistent winds and world-class reef breaks, the beach is also a hot spot for water sports, with popular activities including surfing, windsurfing and kiteboarding, as well as hang-gliding from the coastal cliffs.
Cactus gets its due respect at this wildly prickly Lanzarote garden, which was inaugurated in 1990. The Jardín de Cactus is the final brainchild of beloved island native César Manrique, the painter, sculptor and architect whose work famously balanced both art and nature. The cactarium, which occupies a former quarry, is home to 7,200 cactus plants and 1,100 different species, all originating from far-off places such as the Americas and Africa.
While there, you can wander the various levels of the amphitheater-shaped garden by traversing its many paths, all lined by peculiar rock formations, various water features and of course, the thorny plants themselves. Spy the giant Don Quijote-style windmill that tops the garden, then take a garden-break by visiting the artisanal goods-filled shop, or by grabbing a bite to eat at the restaurant and terrace.
Art and architecture meet nature at the César Manrique Foundation. Situated in Manrique’s former home, the foundation melds into a landscape of lava rock and provides a visually stunning glimpse into the Lanzarote native’s craft.
Manrique, an artist and architect, left an indelible mark on the island, and not just through his creations—he even impacted the Lanzarote skyline. Indeed, thanks to his efforts, he helped to ensure that growing tourism didn’t result in growing skyscrapers. It’s a mission that continues to this day via the foundation, which aims to not only preserve Manrique’s work, but to also advance the environmental and artistic causes he valued.
The house itself sits on the aftermath of an 18th-century volcanic eruption that vastly changed the Lanzarote terrain. But it isn’t just built on the frozen-in-time lava, but among it, with the bottom living space occupying five volcanic bubbles.
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