Sunday, 29 January 2017

A taste of the new world: the colonial heritage of Tenerife

Tenerife, the biggest of  the Canary islands, is famous for all-inclusive resorts where tourists get drunk and enjoy the year-round sunshine, experiencing nothing of the island. Locals insist that the real Tenerife is elsewhere, and especially in the north of the island, where the charming towns and the incredible landscapes will leave you agape.

Tenerife is rich in culture and unique in its diversity. A volcanic island off the coast of southern Morocco, it is home to a biodiversity that is comparable to that of Galápagos. To the tourist it offers a variety of sceneries, from the volcanic lunar landscapes of Parque del Teide to the lush forests of the Anaga mountains, or the golden beaches with sand imported from the Sahara. Because of the microclimates of the island, Tenerife is green in the north and arid in the south.
The Anaga Mountains, on the north-eastern tip of Tenerife

Although the Romans knew about it and called it Nivaria because of the snow-capped Teide volcano, Tenerife was first colonized by the Spanish at the end of the 15th century. On the island the colonizers found a population, the Guanche, that were still living as if in the stone age. Just to give you an idea, they didn't know the wheel and they still  lived in caves. Exactly as it happened in the new world, this population was decimated by illnesses and very little is known about them (only bits and pieces of the language, for example).

San Cristóbal de La Laguna
In the Canary islands the Spanish established the first colonial towns, which became a model for those in the Americas (think Cartagena de las Indias in Colombia or Antigua in Guatemala). Walking along the streets of San Cristóbal de La Laguna or La Orotava, with its beautiful colonial architecture, I felt that these islands have a connection with "the new world". Palm trees, the endemic and beautiful dragon trees, the soft shapes of the volcanic mountains remind you that you are not really in Europe anymore.

A balcony in La Laguna

The Spanish built beautiful timber mansions all over Tenerife, with a central courtyard and carved wooden balconies. They used a strong wood locally known as pino tea. These mansions can still be visited in San Cristobál de La Laguna and La Orotava. They now host museums, institutions or handicraft shops catering to the many tourists who visit the island every year.

La Casa de los Balcones, a colonial mansion in La Orotava
Being on the trade route between Spain and the colonies, American products and traditions came here to stay. For example, potatoes here are called papas as in South America and the buses guaguas as in Cuba. In the enchanting small town of Garachico there is a statue of Simón Bolívar, the political leader who played an important role for the independence of many South American countries. As a matter of fact, his maternal ancestors came from this small Canarian village.
A church in Garachico
The island is full of fascinating stories from its colonial and pre-colonial past. For example, in 1390, before the Spanish arrived on the island, two Guanche goatherds found on a beach a statue of the Virgin, maybe washed ashore from a ship. They started to venerate it as Chaxiraxi, the mother of the gods in the Guanche religion. Of course, when Christianity arrived with the colonizers, a basilica was built and the worship of the virgin of Candelaria was turned into a syncretic belief. 
Another good story can be found in Icod de los Vinos, where there is a gigantic dragon tree, called el Drago Milenario. It is said to be a 1,000 years old, but as these trees don't have annual rings it is hard to guess. Dragon trees are a remnant of the prehistoric age and this explains their strange aspect. Moreover, as this tree did not look peculiar enough, its resin is reddish and is known as dragon's blood.
The Drago Milenario in Icod de los Vinos
Tenerife is an year-round destination. Even in the winter it is possible to enjoy some sunshine and go to the beach. The crazy microclimates of the island mean that while it may be cold and wet in La Laguna, one the prettiest towns of the island and a UNESCO world heritage site, along the sandy beaches it could be sunny and warm enough to take a bath. You don't need to go to the crowded south for this. Playa de las Teresitas, not far from Santa Cruz de Tenerife, is an excellent alternative. Clean, frequented by locals and with a beautiful backdrop of palm trees and forests.
Playa de las Teresitas

Have you ever been to the Canary Islands? Would you consider visiting Tenerife?


  1. Thank you for the beautiful photos and the history you have included. I did research Tenerife for an upcoming trip to Spain, but was scared off by reports of scams and thefts targeting tourists, and bad dangerous roads. If I knew any Spanish, I might have considered it anyway. Thank you for taking me there vicariously.

    1. Too bad you didn't make it to Tenerife. I didn't experience any scams at all nor have I felt unsafe: it's a very quiet island.

  2. Ohmygoodness, these photos are divine! I've been to Tenerife three times now and fall in love every time I go back, it's so beautiful dude.

    Little Moon Elephant

    1. Thank you for the compliments. I hope I can go back soon!


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