The Canary Islands form an archipelago lying off the west coast of Morocco, near the Tropic of Cancer. They consist of seven islands and six small isles which, between them, have four national parks and hundreds of volcanoes, nearly all of which are inactive.
The islands were annexed to Spain between the 14th and 15th centuries when the original inhabitants, the Guanches, still lived there. They were transformed into a flourishing trading centre on the shipping routes to the American and African continents. They are currently divided into two separate Spanish provinces – the Western Isles (Tenerife, La Palma, El Hierro and La Gomera) and the Eastern Isles (Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura). Tourism has been developed on the easternmost islands, leaving La Palma, El Hierro and La Gomera virtually free from large resorts.
Tenerife, whose name derives from the Guanches dialect for ‘snow clad mountain’, is the most popular with tourists. The mountain referred to is the imposing Pico del Tiede, at 3,718 metres it is the highest in Spain. It is an inactive volcano that dominates the whole island. Tenerife’s capital, Santa Cruz, has white beaches and interesting churches and museums. The Parque Nacional del Teide stretches into barren, scenery skirting the two volcanic cones of the mountain with interruptions of rare and beautiful plants.
Gran Canaria attracts two million tourists each year and has a microcosm of scenery and climate. It has sandy beaches, cliffs, green countryside and rugged peaks and valleys at the foot of the great volcanic cone in the centre of the island. Its capital, Las Palmas, has a busy, modern port flanking the ancient architecture of the old district. Sightseeing here would include the 16th century cathedral, the Casa de Colon where Christopher Columbus stayed and which is now a museum dedicated to his adventures, the picturesque Pueblo Canario full of little whitewashed houses and shops selling local crafts, the Museo Canario with exhibits of history before the arrival of the Spanish and the Parque Santa Catalina which is a shady park facing the port.
Gran Canaria’s other famous city is Maspalomas, with a host of hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, a popular casino, sandy beaches, reefs and golf courses. Not far from here is the Dunas de Maspalomas, a spectacular nature reserve with vast sandy dunes continuously remodelled by winds.
In Lanzarote regulations have restricted the height, size and colour of buildings and the development of mass tourism, to protect the natural wild environment. Of volcanic origin, the dark lavic soil is mainly barren due to lack of water. This island has white beaches, fishing villages, windmills and wind turbines.
The main holiday areas in Lanzarote are Playa Blanca, Puerto del Carmen, Arrecife and Costa Teguise. The Parque Nacional de Timanfaya lies in the volcanic heart of the island where eruptions of the Montanas de Fuego have covered the land with lava and ashes. Here can be seen hot springs and flames spurting through cracks in the rocks as the volcano sleeps. The most devastating eruptions occurred between 1730 and 1736 when many villages were destroyer.
Fuerteventura is the largest of the eastern islands and the least populated with around 30,000 inhabitants outnumbered by goats. Several centuries ago this island was covered in forest, but the Spanish colonisers felled the trees for timber causing the climate to become arid and dry. Water is so scarce that it is shipped in by tanker for everyday use. The main attractions of Fuerteventura are the beauty of the isolated beaches, the volcanic peaks inland, the fascinating little villages of Betancuria and Pajara, and the relaxed atmosphere.