Discovering Tenerife: A One Day Journey Through a Miniature Continent
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
The ancient Greeks and Romans described the Canary Islands as ‘the Fortunate Isles’ and at other times as ‘Isles of the Blest’. Shrouded by an aura of myth and romance, their history became wrapped in fiction and legends. Homer and Herodotus talked about their gardens of great beauty and others like Strabo and Pliny alluded to their captivating charms.
The ancients presumed them to be vestiges of the lost world of Atlantis. It was believed that when this legendary civilization sank into the Atlantic Ocean it left behind the Canaries, an archipelago of seven large and a number of smaller islands. The peak of the highest mountain on Tenerife, the largest of the islands, was believed to be the Mount Atlas of mythology.
This mountain and Tenerife’s other natural attributes enhanced by mystical historic aura have made it the much sought after tourist destination in the Canaries. The most populous of the islands, its 2,053 sq km (792 sq miles) offers enormous contrasts and a great variety of scenery. Through its centre, like a backbone, runs a mountain range atop of which is located Las Cañadas, a gigantic natural amphitheater 20 km (12 mi) in diameter. From the centre springs today, the imposing 3,718 m (12,18 ft) mountain of ancient mythical lore. The Guanches, the original inhabitants of the island who were virtually wiped out by the Spaniards, believed that their god of hell, Guayota, made his home inside this snow covered highest mountain in Spain.
From its top, where the view of the foothills is incomparable, to its very foot, it has shaped the entire topography of the island. Below its peak, it is surrounded by thick pine forests which to the south give way to an arid landscape and to the north a land covered with rich subtropical vegetation – the most outstanding part being the lovely Orotava Valley. The variety of climatic zones, each one defining its own landscape, creates from the island a miniature continent.
The northern valleys with their banana plantations and flowering shrubs complemented by the south coast’s perpetual sunshine and the alpine landscape topped by volcanic mountains combine to make Tenerife a tourist mecca. There is only one problem, the beaches are rock-strewn with only patches of black lava sand.
Puerto de la Cruz, once the largest holiday destination on Tenerife, was for years the number one resort – it was where the island’s tourist success story began. The towns modern eye-catching structures and setting, ringed by the lush Orotava Valley and overshadowed by the majestic Teide, give it an unparalleled bewitchment unequaled by most other resorts. A very attractive pleasure spot with a network of luxury hotels, discotheques, and bazaars, it has been a tourist base for Europeans since the turn of the century. Yet, the town has always had a major drawback. It has virtually no beaches. However, to eliminate this great seaside stumbling block, a huge artificial man-made lake on the waterfront with swimming pools and beaches edged by restaurants has been constructed. In a marvelous fashion, it has given the resort what nature had neglected.
In the last two decades, Puerto de la Cruz has gradually been overtaken by other resorts, the top of these being the twin holiday spots of Playa de Las Americas and Los Cristianos in the south. Once a barren stretch of rocky coastline, this part of Tenerife has become Europe’s fastest growing pleasure centre. The once inhospitable oceanfront has been transformed by the hands of man into a touristic relaxing shoreline. A lava desert landscape where only scattered fields were cultivated now supports hotel and apartment complexes complete with tropical gardens and palm-studded promenades.
Entertainment and food establishments, hotels, and sports facilities galore crowd these resorts and their outskirts. In the last few years, Playa de Las Americas and Los Cristianos have become Tenerife’s thriving holiday paradises drawing the majority of the 5,700,000 tourists who yearly visit the island but due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, in-bound tourism dropped to just less than 2 million tourists. The year-round eternal spring, cool and virtually insect free nights, good communication with the outside world, top class tourist amenities, reasonable prices and, above all, 360 days of sunshine – a slightly exaggerated figure given out by tourist officials – draw the visitors, mostly from Europe – the majority from the British Isles.
Complementing its resorts, Tenerife has a good number of historic sites. In its capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, are the 16th century Church of the Conception containing the most valuable historic mementoes in the Canaries and the 18th century Baroque Church of San Francisco situated by a beautiful plaza; the Archaeological Museum housing an outstanding collection of Guanche relics; and the 17th century Carta Palace which has been declared a monument of National Artistic Interest. 10 km (6 mi) away is the island’s first capital, La Laguna. Founded in 1496, it offers a stately architectonic complex, including the Cathedral, the 16th century Church of the Conception, the Convent of San Francisco, and the elegant Nava Palace.
With excellent roads, well organized transportation, and short distances one can explore from Puerto de la Cruz or any of the southern resorts the monuments of the past or the fantastic countryside, then return the same day to bask in the sunshine of Tenerife’s eternal spring or perhaps play a game of golf in one of the island’s three excellent courses. At night after feasting on a number of the Canaries traditional fish dishes with vegetable mojo sauces, attending a folkloric spectacle is a must. The songs and dances of the Guanches enhanced by those of their Spanish conquerors capture the essence of the Canary spirit.
Tourists are never at a loss for something to do. Excursions to every important spot on the island natural or man-made and to the other Canary Islands or Morocco can be purchased at the hotels or from tour companies. During one of these trips, visitors should not miss seeing the legendary Drago, the millennial dragon tree. Due to its long life – in Icod de los Vinos there is one which is one thousand years old – and great beauty it was revered by the Guanches. They employed its red sap which they called Drago’s blood in their esoteric rituals. Only found in the Canaries, this true prodigy of nature is a unique addition to the lore of Tenerife – the most visited of ‘the Fortunate Isles’.