As the only one out of eight Canary Islands to have “grand” in its name, Gran Canaria is surprisingly neither the largest nor the most populous of the bunch. Both of those honors go to its sister island, Tenerife. The epithet Gran was bestowed upon Canaria for the valiant way its native inhabitants, the Guanches, fought against Castilian (Spanish) conquest. The indigenous people called their own island Tamarán, meaning “land of the brave.”
Today, they are no more. In place of the brave—an army of pensioners and sun-starved Europeans. In Gran Canaria’s two large urban areas, Las Palmas to the north and Maspalomas to the south, a mishmash of Irish taverns, Danish bakeries, Swedish churches, and Norwegian clinics provide a smorgasbord of home comforts. Along the coast, hardly a wild beach is left uncombed by the teeth of chalk-white resorts. Five centuries of Spanish rule have seen this scallop-shaped island off the coast of West Africa turn into an open-air amusement park, as docile as it is beaming.
Gran Canaria emerged as an eidolon from the mass tourism boom which took hold of Spain’s shores in the 1960s. Since then, it’s lost a bit of luster, but few places on the continental mainland can boast more than 320 days of sunshine per year. Ever the perennial favorite holiday destination, this balmy island guarantees if not a good time then at least a radiant, bronze tan.
The Age of Discovery passed through the Canaries early and left no corners unexplored. But if you frame your gaze just right over the Maspalomas Dunes, you may find yourself facing the mirage of a desolate desert. Don’t be fooled: on the other side of these fine sands is a buzzing nudist beach. And nearby, the patchy swaths of low-lying bushes are a notorious setting for libertine encounters.
Far from the watchful eyes of Madrid, life on the Canaries have always been a bit more free. In the past, the archipelago was used to stow away intellectuals deemed too revolutionary by the government. This constant stream of freethinkers no doubt had an influence on the islands’ reputation as a place of tolerance and acceptance. Nowhere is this more clear than nighttime at the Yumbo Centrum. What looks to be a run-of-the-mill shopping center by day transforms into the pulsing heart of Gran Canaria’s LGBT scene after dark. Within the Yumbo’s open-air courtyards is every hue of the rainbow: densely packed British drag cabarets, blaring disco bars, and neon clubs with cruising areas and private cabins.
The vivid colors of Gran Canaria are not just confined to the bawdy camp of the Yumbo. In the southwest, where the valley opens its mouth to the sea, lies the fishing village of Puerto de Mogán. Crowned by many as the prettiest village on Gran Canaria, its marina and the primly painted residences around it are a sight to behold. In light-drenched alleys, drops of shade roll back and forth over sunbaked tiles. They mimic the soft sway of the bougainvillea fringes above them, dripping with the intensity of delicious guava and Alphonso mangoes…