Apart from forty percent of the population of Tenerife being gay, I didn’t know anything else about this Canary Island, or any other Canary Island for that matter. And to be honest, I’m not even sure about that statistic. My former driving instructor Carlos swore it once. I had a hunch that he was overshooting his estimation a bit, most likely to make small talk after I came out to him during one of our driving lessons. I was having a terrible time learning how to park and wasn’t above abusing a little curdled cliché.
The forty percent may very well be true, though. Even without having stepped foot on the island’s main LGBT attraction of Playa de las Américas during our two-week twirl, we could see that Tenerife was tolerant, welcoming, and flamboyant—in more ways than one. Beyond the playful pull of the glimmering resorts that line the turquoise Costa Adeje, towns teeming with history are interspersed by untamed nature bordering on the fringes of imagination. The question is: where to start?
Days 1—2: Sun and fun in Los Gigantes
Spain’s two archipelagos, the Balearic and Canary Islands, are primarily associated with non-stop partying and packaged promises of sun and splash. Truth be told, I wasn’t holding my breath for Los Gigantes, a so-called “typical” resort town on Tenerife’s west coast, built for the seemingly singular purpose of catering to British retirees. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do; and so we drove towards our very first resort stay with a grain of salt in our eyes. Gleaming white buildings pleated one over the other like layered rows of a shark’s jaw. Then suddenly, upon rounding out of a curve, The Giants loomed into sight: majestic cliffs shooting thousands of feet up into the air, ribboned by cumulous tufts of wedding white. Typical sure was breathtaking.
It was a spacious and wonderful sojourn. After years of hotel rooms, bed-and-breakfasts, hostels, and Couchsurfing, I understood the appeal of the all-inclusive resort. We bathed in the bliss of idleness from the privacy of our balcony, with no excursions to complete and (almost) no checkboxes to tick. Each morning was a lazy ritual of soaking up the sun that culminated in an invigorating plunge into the sea. Everything was at our leisure.
We dipped into Spanish and Canarian cuisine, too. From the supermarket, we took home the biggest papaya we could find. By the docks at Tas-k (pronounced tasca, the Spanish word for tavern), we tucked into eggplant rolls, tuna meatballs, grilled cheese with honey, and papas arrugadas—small, salt-crusted potatoes served with the famous Canarian mojo rojo—red chili and paprika sauce.
Day 3: La Orotava and Garachico
The town of La Orotava, perched on a steep slope above Tenerife’s northern coast, is known for its florescent beauty. Each year, approximately 66 days after Easter Sunday, the roads in the old town are closed off to vehicles and the streets are dressed in extravagant alfombras, long tapestries made of flower petals and colored sand, all of which are laid painstakingly by hand.
Its famous annual Corpus Christi celebration aside, Orotava is in blossom year-round. A stroll through the elegant stepped terraces of the Victoria Gardens promises the best view in town. Nearby, another garden, the botanical Jardín Juan Acosta Rodríguez, offers a unique glimpse of native flora from Tenerife’s diverse climatic zones. Orotava is also one of several towns on the island where the drago—the Canary Islands dragon tree—can be spotted. With unmistakable claw-like branches and dark green plumes, they are a symbol of the archipelago.
We spent the next few nights in Garachico, a small and tranquil seaside gem. Founded by a Genovese merchant—Cristóbal de Ponte, first Marquis of Quinta Roja—Garachico was once Tenerife’s main port, linking Europe and the Americas with shipments of sugar and wine.
Standing nobly in Garachico’s main square is the adobe manor of La Quinta Roja, constructed in the 16th century. Within its walls is a bubbling oasis of golden cane and fountain palms, where the canaries sweeten the air with birdsong. Before its current incarnation as a boutique hotel, the manor was where the Marquis and his successors resided to conduct business. Trade in Garachico grew until 1706, when a particularly destructive volcanic eruption smothered the entire harbor in lava. Although port activities never recovered, the eruption bestowed upon the town one of Tenerife’s most beautiful rock pools, El Caletón.
Day 4: Masca, the mountain village
The Macizo de Teno, or Teno Massif, is one of the original geological formations that helped raise Tenerife from the sea. It spans the entire northwestern tip of the island, plunging back into the ocean at Los Gigantes. Within the mountains’ lofty folds and surrounded by dense groves of cactus bush and sweet loquat, a handful of villages still cling on to the Canaries’ agricultural traditions.
Among them, Masca is said to be the most beautiful. Nestled securely under a sentinel-like summit at the head of a deeply furrowed gorge, this village is home to fewer than a hundred people and predates Spanish settlement.
Days 5—6: Tenerife’s natural seawater pools
If the rock pools at Los Gigantes and Garachico were early indications of was still in store, the rest certainly lived up to the expectation. Owing its volcanic nature, Tenerife is blessed with many swimming spots created through the interplay of cooled lava and incessant waves. These charcos—literally puddles—are scattered across the island, with some only accessible during low tide.
We chased the charcos all along the northern coastline: Charco de Araña and Charco los Chocos; shimmering Charco de la Laja by San Juan de la Rambla; the windswept Charco del Viento with arms of lava in the shape of an embrace. Each one was less tame, less touched by man, until finally, at Charco de la Laja by Bajamar, there were no more steps and no more railings, only nature’s pure design.
Day 7—8: Anaga Rural Park
In stark contrast to the mass development projects of Tenerife’s southwest is the lush, unspoiled northeast. In the Anaga Rural Park, we traded the blues of the charcos for the green of the laurel forest. Along with the Teno Massif, the Anaga is the oldest part of the island, formed by volcanic eruptions between seven and nine million years ago.
The Anaga Rural Park has Europe’s largest number of endemic plant and animal species and is also home to a network of hiking trails. Some, like the Sendero de los Sentidos—Path of the Senses—can be completed in half an hour and are popular family excursions. We followed the suggestion of a friendly and knowledgable park ranger from the visitor’s center: a moderate circuit hike starting by the surfing settlement of Benijo that slowly climbs up the mountain massif to the signpost of Cruz del Draguillo before rounding out into a gradual, stunning descent. After three hours under the beating sun, a dive into the towering waves of Benijo’s beach was a rejuvenating reward for our tired feet and sweat-drenched backs.
Day 9: La Laguna, the Canaries’ ancient capital
In the days when Garachico used to be Tenerife’s main port, San Cristóbal de La Laguna was still a lagoon. To get from one side to the other required a trip by canoe. Later, the water was drained to grow crops, and the lake shrunk and disappeared. Meanwhile, the surrounding settlement expanded, eventually becoming the capital of the Canary Islands. La Laguna’s urban design is an important part of hispanic heritage: its grid model and architectural styles were a template for Spain’s early colonial cities in the Americas: Havana in Cuba, Cartagena in Colombia, and Lima in Peru.
Much like the fate of Garachico, a volcanic eruption forced much of the population to flee, setting off a movement which led to the transferral of the capital officially to Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1723. Today, La Laguna is regarded as the Canaries’ cultural capital and most beautiful city. The old town and neighboring villages form a springing board into regional cuisine, where unostentatious eateries called guachinches serve up traditional fare such as escaldón, fish stock thickened with roasted wheat flour; conejo al salmorejo, marinated rabbit; lapas con mojo verde, grilled limpets with green cilantro sauce; ropa vieja, pulled beef stew; champiñones rellenos de almogrote, mushrooms stuffed with cheese and pepper paste; and mus de gofio, mousse made from roasted wheat flour—a staple ingredient of the Islands.
Days 10—11: Bajamar and Punta del Hidalgo
The small resort town of Bajamar is not as popular as its southern counterparts on the Costa Adeje. Its main highlight is not its sandy beach, but its piscinas naturales—two large saltwater swimming pools constantly replenished by the ocean. High tide is particularly impressionable, when the sea smashes into the waterfront with such great force that its spray can be felt from across the street. During low tide, from which Bajamar gets its name, the ocean reveals its secret treasure: a small and effervescent charco that’s sure to delight.
The area around Bajamar is also worth exploring. The twin town of Punta del Hidalgo is just a few minutes’ drive away, and is home of one of Tenerife’s most striking avant-garde architectural pieces—an alabaster-colored lighthouse constructed from tremendous concrete columns. The beach separating the two towns is beloved for its swells and a popular place to pick up a surfboard. For a more laid-back afternoon, we returned for another soak at Charco de la Laja, a completely natural rock pool popular with couples and naturists.
Day 12: Candelaria, the Canaries’ pilgrimage city
Geologically, the Canary Islands are part of a larger chain of volcanic archipelagos that stretch from Europe down to Africa. Along with the Azores, Madeira, and Cabo Verde, together they form Macaronesia. But unlike these three archipelagoes which were all uninhabited before being claimed by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, the Canary Islands had an indigenous population: the Guanches. Described as tall with flaxen hair and a reddish-brown complexion, recent genome tests confirmed their genetic resemblance to the early Berber peoples of North Africa. At the time of the Castilian conquest of Tenerife in 1494, the island was divided into nine kingdoms, each governed by its own Guanche ruler called mencey. Their legacy is most visible in the town of Candelaria on the southern coast, where monuments dedicated to each of Tenerife’s last nine menceys stand next to the basilica.
For islanders today, Candelaria is important for a different reason. The town is the center of worship of the Virgin of Candelaria and a symbol of the island’s religious devotion. According to legend, two Guanche shepherds came across a wooden statue of a woman, bearing a child in one arm and a candle in the other. The statue frightened the sheep, so one of the shepherds decided to throw a rock at it. However, his arm suddenly became paralyzed. The other man, growing angry, pulled out his knife and tried to stab the statue; but in doing so, he only managed to cut himself. At that point, they fled. Much later, a Christianized Guanche recognized the statue as the Virgin Mary, leading to the veneration of the Black Madonna in the Canary Islands, from where its cult of worship spread to the Caribbean, South America, and the Philippines.
Day 13: The southern coastline
South of Candelaria, soft sandstone replace the dark and jagged volcanic rocks. Home to a handful of sleepy fishing villages such as Tajao and La Jaca, Tenerife’s southern coast is known for its strong winds, fine sand, and otherworldly atmosphere.
Day 14: Mount Teide
Of course, no road trip across Tenerife could feel complete without a visit to the island’s main volcanic attraction: Mount Teide, the highest point in Spain and all of the Atlantic. We ascended the mountain on our third attempt and final day on Tenerife. (The cable car was closed on tries number one and two, as even the most diligent planning couldn’t overcome belligerent winds.) Located in the center of the island, the volcano can be reached from the Costa Adeje region in the south, La Orotava in the north, La Laguna via the forest of Las Lagunetas in the northeast, and Los Gigantes in the west. No matter the starting point, the drive inevitably passes through the Corona Forestal, a natural reserve surrounding Teide’s cone in a crown of dense green forest. Early mornings are the most magical. When the roads are at their quietest, the ascent through the sea of clouds is equally as spectacular as the final destination.
Two thousand kilometers above sea level, the Corona Forestal cedes to the rim of Las Cañadas, the caldera of an even older, extinct volcano. The road straightens out, and the terrain turns into charred hues of ochre and rust.
Those who come to Tenerife with no plans other than to hang loose and relax will surely find contentment. But so will the hikers, the gourmands, the windsurfers, the divers, the naturalists, the vulcanologists, and all those seeking their next adventure.
Getting around on Tenerife
We took to the wheel immediately from the airport. Carlos would be proud to know I went driving on his home island. Probably less proud to know that I scraped the front bumper of our rental in an underground parking lot. Fortunately, renting (and scratching) a car on the Canary Islands is about as pain-free as it gets: the insurance is comprehensive, and the roads for the most part are paved like butter.