Inside Gran Canaria

Swap coast for caves to explore the island’s rugged heart


I’m standing at the entrance of a cave looking across to the other side of the canyon, honeycombed with yet more caves. Not the first image you might think of when it comes to the Canary Islands; far away from the beaches, this is the unknown centre of Gran Canaria.

In the distance, I can see planes shimmering in the sun at the airport and the sea off the east coast where most visitors start their stay on the island. Inside the cave there’s evidence of human habitation too, spaces to store cereals and grooves for a huge door to seal the outside.

My guide explains that this was probably used as a lookout by the Guanches, the indigenous people before the arrival of the Spanish.

The big surprise of Gran Canaria is how unspoilt it actually is, although you’ll need to hire a car to explore it properly and discover this for yourself. Most tourist development is concentrated in the south and the interior is almost empty, populated by extinct volcanoes, rugged peaks rising almost 2,000m, deep ravines and indigenous pine and laurel forests.

It has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve because of the unusually rich ecosystems containing more than 100 unique species of plants, and this varied topography means you find a variety of micro-climates, almost like a continent in miniature.

I start in the capital, Las Palmas, the Canary Islands’ biggest city, with its well-preserved historic quarter, a legacy of those made rich from the sea traffic started by Christopher Columbus on his way to the new world. It’s home to the Casa de Colón, the former governor’s mansion where Columbus once stayed, now containing a museum on his ships and life.

My own accommodation is on the other side of the island, an easy 30-minute drive on the motorway, in the sleepy fishing village of Puerto de Las Nieves. There’s no sandy beach here, just pebbles, but with natural rock pools that are perfect for bathing.

And nearby is the Maipés Archaeological Park, set on a great lava flow at the foot of the Pinar de Tamadaba, the pine forest of Tamadaba Natural Park.

This is where the Guanches chose to honour their dead with 700 tombs of various types and sizes, including huge burial mounds constructed with volcanic stones. Some are over 1,300 years old and there’s a stark beauty to be found here, the dark lava contrasting dramatically with the green backdrop of the pine forest escarpment.

To discover more about the Guanches, I set out for the town of Santa Lucia de Tirajana, in the south east of the island. Just outside is Fortaleza Grande, a huge craggy outcrop, the site of their last battle as they struggled to resist the Spanish army in 1493.

It’s said they threw themselves off the top rather than be captured and the excellent visitor centre tells the unfortunate story.

DNA evidence suggests the Guanches were Berbers from North Africa, who came to the island in around 100CE and lived peacefully until the arrival of the Spanish in 1483.

There’s no evidence of boats or navigation skills so some theories suggest they were brought here by the Romans, deported as a troublesome community. The Spaniards found a race of blonde, blue-eyed people and, although many were killed, present-day Canarians still have a large percentage of their DNA in their blood.

Interestingly, they’re also still using some of the caves as homes. In Artenara, the highest village on Gran Canaria at 1,270m, I find houses with rooms built into the rock and a little cave chapel, La Virgen de la Cuevita, dating from the 18th century.

One of these troglodyte dwellings has been turned into a museum, containing a living room, bedrooms, and kitchen fitted out with 19th century furnishings. It’s surprisingly comfortable, warm in winter and cool in summer, although you have to be careful not to bang your head.

Of course, caves had no toilets, which led to the Canarian expression “Váyanse pa´las tuneras” — which roughly translates as “Go and pee in the cactus”.

The island’s mountainous interior was crafted by millions of years of volcanic eruptions and erosions, with the 18km wide crater of Caldera de Tejeda created by one particularly violent explosion, when the centre of the volcano collapsed.

The entire area is now a paradise for cyclists and walkers, with the two freestanding volcanic pillars of Roque Nublo and Roque Bentayga dominating the horizon.

The best way of exploring this rugged landscape is on foot and all the paths are well signed. I meet my guide outside his cave, where he lives at an altitude of 1,580m, in the heart of the mountains near La Cruz de Tejeda. The views across the Caldera de Tejeda are stunning and, rising out of the sea in the distance, Mount Teide on Tenerife is clearly visible.

The path leads due north to the town of Teror, the site where a group of shepherds announced they saw the Virgin Mary in a pine tree in 1481. The spot became a place of pilgrimage and the 18th century Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pino now stands imposingly in the square.

I arrive when the town’s Sunday market is in full swing and enjoy tastings of local cheese, tangy olives and freshly baked breads, before taking a look at some marvellous examples of traditional houses with colourful wooden balconies.

All I need now is something to drink. I can’t leave without visiting the Arehucas distillery in the north of the island, which makes Gran Canaria’s rum.

The town of Arucas grew rich from sugar cane, the cultivation of which was unfortunately responsible for much of the destruction of the forest across the entire island. The present factory opened in 1884 and produces around 3.5 million litres of rum every year.

At the end of my guided visit, there’s a tasting and I come away with a bottle. On cold winter nights, back in the UK, I’ll raise a toast to the brave spirit of the original Canarians — the absent Guanches.


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