Balmy year-round temperatures have made the Canary Islands a go-to for winter sun, but this Spanish archipelago throws up a staggering array of experiences away from its lauded beaches. Take Gran Canaria — this windswept isle is a veritable traveller’s playground with buzzy waterfront bars in its capital, Las Palmas; soaring, gold-sand dunes; and dramatic trekking trails winding into the volcanic mountains. Deeper inland, you’ll find farms tucked away in the lush scenery, a cottage wine industry and even a coffee plantation which, if you regard this island off the coast of Africa as part of Europe, makes it the only one on the continent.
When the Spanish invaded in the 15th century, they came up against a defiant indigenous population — while the resistance didn’t last, these Canarios, or Guanches, weren’t wiped out entirely; approximately half the population of Gran Canaria still claims that bloodline today.
Part of the reason the locals managed to fend off the Spanish, if only briefly, lies in the island’s tricky topography. Getting around the majority of Gran Canaria can be a challenge, especially towards its volcanic interior. The mountains are so steep that navigating them requires patient driving up serpentine roads. But ascents like these are worth the effort; it’s not uncommon to stand on summits like the 6,500ft-tall Pico de las Nieves — the island’s highest — and take in views of the Atlantic, veiled in clouds snagged by the mountaintops.
The coast down below will always draw crowds, but life in the heart of the island feels rural and remote. Gran Canaria is officially the most densely populated part of Spain, but visit its sleepy interior and that fact will feel like a distant impossibility.
In the centre of Gran Canaria is the little village of Tejeda, with its white houses and almond trees. It’s picture perfect, but the views of the giant caldera surrounding it are no less spectacular. If you’ve made it to the volcanic Pico de las Nieves nearby, be sure to stop off at Dulcería Nublo in the village for some traditional almond cakes smothered in rich chocolate.
Plenty of sun seekers touch down on Gran Canaria and never spend any time in the charming capital, Las Palmas. Take a stroll around Vegueta, its oldest quarter, which is packed with restaurants dishing up Canarian eats, before stopping off at the sweep of Playa de las Canteras for a dip in the sea. A capital city it may be, but the vibes here are much more laid-back than you’d expect.
It doesn’t rain much in Gran Canaria, but the locals in lofty Firgas have come up with a cunning irrigation system — a cascade that literally runs down a street in the heart of town. Admire the colourful tiles that adorn the surrounding houses, but be sure to take in the views across the Atlantic from this attractive 500-year-old village.
Bird isn’t the word
The islands weren’t named after birds; the Latin Insula Canaria means ‘island of dogs’ since early settlers found Gran Canaria full of canines.
Three hiking trails to try
Barranco De Azuaje
There are more than 240 officially recognised hiking routes around Gran Canaria. This trek crosses rivers, requires some abseiling and passes through bamboo forests as it leads out of the mountains.
One of the most visually rewarding treks is along the rim of the Caldera Grande, though at around 5,250ft above sea level, it can be rather cold. However, with pine trees running up the sides of the volcano, it has a satisfying alpine feel.
Montaña del Viso
If you want to see Gran Canaria’s volcanic innards, this is the hike for you. It’s only six miles long, but a number of steep sections mean it can take more than four hours. Along the way, you’ll see some dramatic lava fields that resemble petrified lakes.
Eyewitness: Blazing a trail
I’m standing on top of a volcano, a lake of mist below me, the clear blue sky above. There are pine trees all around and part of my brain is convinced I’m in Northern California. My guide, Guillermo Bernal, is explaining the long history of this island, and yet my eyes aren’t totally convinced we’re on Gran Canaria, just 52 miles off the west coast of Africa.
Even the idea that there’s a guide such as Guillermo in a place this remote is a surprise to me. He’s an expert in ornithology and archaeology, as it turns out Gran Canaria has both birds and ancient history in abundance. “Of course, the majority of people are down on the coast,” says Guillermo. “Either in Las Palmas or one of the little fishing villages, but up here, it’s something different, no?”
It certainly is. The heart of Gran Canaria was once a fiery volcano, but today its long-exploded caldera makes for an enormous, beautiful amphitheatre. Looking out across the landscape, it strikes me as odd that few people visit the island’s extraordinary interior, instead flocking in their droves to the coast and its sandy beaches.
But I’m here to discover a different side to the island. I’m spending two days hiking with Guillermo, the temperature hovering around a pleasant 22C in September. On this first trek, we’re following the ancient Caldera Grande rim, with views of the scenic village of Tejeda. It lies close to the centre of Gran Canaria and is only 23 miles from Las Palmas, but is more than an hour away by car due to the winding roads.
“You know, the Guanches, they knew some things here,” says Guillermo as we detour from the main path towards a precariously placed cave entrance. “Everything for them revolved around the sun, so here and in other caves, the light would catch at special times of the year, like the solstice, and they’d build these sacred little places.”
The cave has long since been sealed off to protect it from the few hikers who make this trek, but looking inside I can just about discern some engravings. Guillermo apologises that we can’t visit another part of the island to see some clearer examples of these Iron Age artworks — UNESCO inspectors are making their final decision on whether or not to grant ‘Risco Caído and the sacred mountains of Gran Canaria’ full World Heritage Site status.
As we make our way back to the main trail, it dawns on me that other than a pensioner walking his dog, we haven’t seen another person anywhere along the route. I wonder for a moment whether UNESCO status will make a difference to a place like this, but then something tells me that if these hills have been quiet for the last couple of millennia, even a World Heritage endorsement might not change much.
Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)