The Canary Islands rise from the Atlantic Ocean some 100 kilometers (62 miles) at their closest point off the coast of North Africa. As the southernmost province of Spain, the archipelago has become over the past few decades a popular subtropical escape for beachgoers from Western Europe. And it has acquired a mass-tourism reputation that has kept it off my list of compelling destinations – until now.
With winter about to close in on the Northern Hemisphere, I am yearning for just one more week of sunshine and snorkeling before the onslaught of the year end holidays. The easy accessibility of the Canaries earns them a second look, and preconceived perceptions dwindle. As with most places, the archipelago has its share of less developped areas, places like Lanzarote. Much less familiar than its overbuilt Gran Canaria and Tenerife siblings, the island owes its unique personality to two major influences: the longest volcanic eruption in recorded history and the island’s favorite son, César Manrique.
An Alien Planet
The eruption began in September 1730. Over the next six years, it buried a third of the island under torrents of lava, wiping out a dozen villages and several hundred homes, and dusted most of the remaining agricultural land under a thick layer of ash.To this day, the scarred badlands it left behind, now the Timanfaya National Park, are as starkly surreal as an alien planet.
The park is the island’s leading tourist attraction, drawing close to two million visitors per year. Fortunately, strict controls are in place to protect its unique landscape from human depredation (as well as protecting visitors from the unforgiving terrain). At the Visitor Center, sightseers must board a comfortable air-conditioned bus that take them on a winding tour of the aptly named Montañas del Fuego (Fire Mountains). The narrow 14 kilometer (9 mile) “Ruta de los Volcanes”, is a one-way circuit closed to normal traffic. The bus stops at the most spectacular vantage points, with enough time for passengers to capture the moment. Throughout the trip, a soundtrack in Spanish, English and German dispenses information about the eruption.
Although there hasn’t been an actual volcanic upsurge on the island since 1824, the fire still smolders beneath Timanfaya. Back at the Visitor Center, staff demonstrate the heat of a residual geothermic anomaly (or magma chamber) close to the surface, instantly causing dry brush to burst into flame and vaporizing water into a jet of steam.
César Manrique, Local Hero
Born in Lanzarote’s capital of Arrecife in 1919, César Manrique went on to build a reputation as an abstract artist in Madrid and New York before returning to his homeland in 1968. An passionate environmentalist, he then dedicated the remaining 25 years of his life to the preservation of what he called the “singularity” of his beloved island. He relentlessly lobbied the local government to introduce regulations that would ensure the responsible development of tourism. His influence proved as far-reaching a force in shaping present-day Lanzarote as the overwhelming volcanic eruptions that blasted the island three centuries ago.
Manrique was instrumental in drawing up strict guidelines for the construction of the beautifully simple, whitewashed low-rise buildings reminiscent of the ancient White Villages of Andalusia. They have since influenced all development projects on the island, from the restoration of humble village houses to sprawling luxury resorts. But Manrique didn’t stop at the preservation of Lanzarote’s distinctive identity and natural resources. He also left his imprint on the land with a series of landscape art creations. In Timanfaya National Park, high above the Visitor Center, the dining room of his circular Restaurante del Diablo showcases the surrealist landscape of craters and crusted magma formations streaked with startling orange, reddish-pink and purple overtones.
Further north up the coast, his Mirador del Rio is an other testimonial to his inexhaustible architectural creativity. Here, a lookout point is wedged into the Famara cliff face, framing with a curved spaceship-like window the overwhelming views of the Atlantic Ocean some 475 meters (1,500 feet) below, and across the narrow El Rio straight, the nearby island of La Graciosa.
Manrique’s Own Home
Of all of Manrique’s creations, the one that best reflect his passion for the island’s extraordinary landscapes is his own home at Taro de Tahiche. At ground level, the façade appears that of a simple, whitewashed, lanzarotoño country house. But step inside and it’s all open spaces, with light flooding in from skylights and a glass wall looking down at an open-air aquamarine swimming pool surrounded by giant cacti. Around the pool, curvy nooks and rooms created from five natural volcanic bubbles are interconnected by tunnels excavated in the lava. Today the property houses the César Manrique Foundation and attracts visitors in droves.
Another Manrique favorite is the majestic adjoining Jameos del Agua, a vast volcanic cave system that includes a shimmering underground lagoon filled with silvery blind albino crabs and a natural auditorium that slopes down into the earth.
While I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected abundance of unique attractions on the island, I didn’t lose sight of what had originally drawn me there: Lanzarote’s reputation for some of the best snorkeling spots in the Canaries. The southern tip of the island, with over six kilometers (four miles) of pale sandy beaches sheltered from the gusting Atlantic winds by the nearby Femes mountains seemed an obvious place to settle. At the center of it, Playa Blanca, until recently an isolated fishing village, has predictably grown into one of the island’s most popular resorts. Although it now shows all the signs of a mass tourism destination: large resort hotels, a boardwalk lined with café terraces and souvenir shops, it was pleasantly uncrowded during my late fall visit. But mainly, it boasts clear, calm waters and seawalls teaming with life accessible right from the beach. Just swim in and float along with a variety of small species: schools of sardines to be sure, but also rainbow fish, zebra fish, parrot fish, cuttlefish and sea cucumbers.
For more seclusion and marine life, a few miles to the east the pristine shallow cove of Playa de Papagayo is tucked within the sheer cliffs of the Los Ajaches Nature Reserve. Although it is accessible only via a rocky dirt road to the parking lot, then a steep flight of stairs to the beach, it is well worth a visit. Still a bit farther up the eastern shore, and of much easier access, Puerto del Carmen’s Playa Chica is a favorite with divers as well as snorkelers. And with good reason – it is loaded with underwater critters. Here again you can swim right off the beach, or jump in from the small harbor wall. And the variety is even more interesting. In addition to the above, I spotted starfish, squid, various bream, small Sama eels and even a distant barracuda.
Good to Know
- Getting there –The island’s only airport is located just west of Arrecife, with regularly scheduled flights from the Spanish mainland and most major West European cities, as well as between the main islands of the archipelago.
- Getting around – Although there is a good network of busses on the island and reasonably priced taxis are readily available, I found a pre-booked car rental with pick-up and return at the airport to be the best value transportation option to thoroughly explore the island. There are excellent, well marked roads linking the various points of interest. It’s about one hour of driving time to cross the island from North to South, and about thirty minutes across.
- Visiting –Timanfaya National Park– Fire Mountains Visitor Center is open daily from September 16 to July 14, 9:00 am to 5:45 pm, and from July 15 to September 15, 9:00 am to 6:45 pm, with the last bus tour departing 45 minutes before closing time. Contact: tel. +34 928 840 057. Cesar Manrique Foundation, and Cesar Manrique House Museum, Taro de Tahíche – C/ Jorge Luis Borges, 16, 35507 Tahíche. Lanzarote, are open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact: tel. + 34 928 843 138, mail. firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The entire island of Lanzarote was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in October 1993.