“My husband is a cave man,” says my guide, Maria Lezcano, who is leading me through the deeply cut 1,500-metre Guayadeque Ravine. She points to a cave house dotting the hillside and explains that her husband was born in one just like it. The ravine's natural cavities are connected by pathways lined with potted plants and views overlooking the lush green chasm leading to the sea. These are bona-fide cave neighbourhoods – there's even a cave church where locals go to pray. Maria points out beehives stashed in the canyon's nooks. The salvia, succulents and wild lavender make for great honey, she tells me.
I've just arrived on Gran Canaria, home of the notorious tourist trap Las Palmas, known for packaged tours, beaches crammed with faded blue lounge chairs, tourists flocking for suntans and cheesy hotel bars. But I've come to see something different. My mission is to explore the Canary Islands, the Spanish-ruled specks off the coast of north Africa, hopping from island to island, searching for something special, far from the crowds.
It turns out I don't need to channel my inner Christopher Columbus after all. All I have to do is rent a car and catch a few ferries.
“We're a mini-continent,” Maria says about her island, and I later learn the same goes for the other islands I visit. You can be in Gran Canaria's arid south in the morning amid the dunes of Maspalomas, and later that day on the island's interior, walking through Los Pinos de Galdar – a Canarian pine forest growing on the west slope of a volcano 1,000 metres up in the mountains, where the trees have adapted to survive 400-degree fires. Maria and I walk among the pines. “This reminds me of my childhood home on Vancouver Island,” I remark. Not something I'd expect to find off the coast of Morocco.
On the one-hour ferry crossing to Tenerife, the largest of the island group, I look onto its biggest city, Santa Cruz, framed with craggy, sand-coloured mountains. Tenerife receives about five million tourists a year, but I'm still set on experiencing something exceptional.
“Today, we visit Machu Picchu,” my friend Carlos Miles says as we load into the rental. Carlos is a local who's explored every square inch of the island; I like where this is going.
We drive high into the mountains, cranking the wheel, hugging the vivid green switchbacks. The landscape is so raw and ancient it's easy to imagine how volcanic eruptions formed this island 12 million years ago, magma stacking against itself to create these wild peaks and ridges. Atop one of the folds is Masca, a village settled more than 500 years ago, but only connected by road to the rest of Tenerife in the mid-seventies. It really does resemble a living Machu Picchu. Before the road, the village was easily forgotten, virtually unknown since it was so difficult to reach.
It's late afternoon and all the coaches are gone, so I can stroll along the zigzag paths in peace. The very edge of one pathway ends in a drop plunging down the mountainside, backed by the blue ocean. People with more time than I make the four-hour hike from here to the sea, where they are picked up by boat. I make a promise for next time.
Another cloudless day and that magic 24-degree heat the Canaries enjoy year-round persuade me to park the car and spend the morning on the beach, just like the hordes of other tourists who flock here every year. Instead of braving the crowds that frequent the tourist beaches, such as Playa de las Americas and Playa de los Cristianos, I'm directed to Punta de la Gaviota. This is where the locals relax. It's not as scenic as Garachico, another local hangout that is starting to attract tourists, drawn to the smooth lava-formed indentations that create natural swimming pools filled with aqua blue ocean water. At Punta de la Gaviota, locals know they're free to jump from rock faces and swim from the tiny beach in relative privacy. I set down my towel, say “hola” to my fellow swimmers, and dive into the warm sea. Bobbing out here and turning back to the coast, I spot Teide, the island's pride, an impressive 3,718-metre snow-capped volcano towering in the centre of the island.
When I've had my fill of sun and surf, I head up to Teide National Park, where the greenery swirling around the volcano makes the whole scene look like a van Gogh painting. Lava flow has created a virtual moonscape of the surrounding area – actual moon robots are tested here.
Cave men, Machu Picchu and moon robots. Okay, La Gomera, my next island stop, whaddya got?
La Gomera is a 40-minute hop from Tenerife by ferry, but it might as well be another world. I meet up with Diane, a local guide originally from Germany but who has lived in the tiny island of 22,000 residents for 20 years. Diane rarely leaves. “People are very friendly, there's no crime, nobody locks their doors.” Plus none of the 6,000 types of insects are poisonous and there are more date palms here than on all other Canary Islands put together. “That is reason alone to stay,” she jokes.
The reason I'm here, though, is to hear Silbo Gomera, the whistle language used by early farmers to communicate across the deep ravines that radiate through the island. During lunch at La Cochita, the café owner treats me to a demo. It's more of a nose whistle, making a nasally, low-pitched sound that carries across valleys, and by far the strangest language I've come across.
The air here, especially in the cloud forest of the Garajonay National Park, smells especially clean, with just a hint of ocean air. Widespread laurel forest is covered in lichen, a good indication of crisp, pure air. I breathe in deeply and feel revitalized. It's chilly up here in the clouds, and I am once again surprised at how diverse these islands are. La Gomera is the only one of the seven Canary Islands that has been spared an eruption in recent times, so the landscape and scope of plant life is completely different than that of its neighbours.
With four more islands in the archipelago, that's four more worlds left for me to explore on my next trip. When I do come back, I'll leave my preconceived notions of mass tourism and spoil at home. And I'll save time for that mountain-to-ocean trek.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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