After scheduling a job interview for Monday October 19th, I realized I was not going have any classes for two days and was looking for somewhere to go. I found a $30 (25 Euro) roundtrip RyanAir flight to Gran Canaria with perfect departure times. The flight is 3 hours each way, making the fare absolutely absurdly cheap for what it is. The only way to reach the Canaries are from Europe or occasionally Morocco, so I figured that this would be my best opportunity to visit this otherwise difficult-to-reach archipelago.
I had long wanted to visit the Canary Islands since high school when my internship boss went to a conference there and talked about how lovely it was. The stars all seemed to align.
I booked car and hostel for 1 night in the historic center of the capital city, Las Palmas with the intention of winging the last night depending on how the day went. Last minute, 3 friends – Dan, Julieta, and Anna- decided to join. All my bookings were already paid so I decided to spend just the 2nd night with them in an AirBNB they booked.
Monday, October 19, 2020: Backpacker Labor
After an uneventful flight, I picked up my rental car and drove into Las Palmas, the co-capital of the Canary Islands and Spain’s 9th largest city.
It was an eerie vibe since the landscape was completely barren and there were creepy lights out in the water.
After 25 minutes of driving, I reached the Columbus Rooftop Hostel. It had a surprisingly great backpacker vibe I normally associate with Southeast Asia or Latin America. Turns out, most of the people staying were Europeans who have been traveling Spain and the Canary Islands for over a year. When the pandemic struck Spain in March, they decided to stay. I suppose the Canary Islands are among the world’s best places to have to lock down.
You may be asking yourself how do these people afford to stay traveling for so long. The answer is they are volunteers. In exchange for free lodging, the volunteers work the hostel and help clean and build the owners’ seven AirBNBs around town. The backpackers get free lodging and a chill day-job and the hostel owners get to exploit cheap backpacker labor. A win-win!
I walked into town and met up with my friends for dinner. Among the various tapas we had, the most notable was papas parrugadas: a local specialty made of boiled potatoes topped with a chili garlic sauce called mojo rojo.
The town looked beautiful and I looked forward to exploring it in full the next day.
October 20, 2020: Las Palmas and the South
I started my day exploring the city of Las Palmas. Las Palmas is Spain’s 9th largest city with a population of 650,000 – far larger than I would have expected for this far-flung part of Spain. Las Palmas was founded in 1478, amidst the century-long conquest of the Canary Islands from the indigenous Berbers. That struggle, which doesn’t get talked about much took almost the entire 15th century. The final battle occurred in 1496.
Therefore, the historic towns of the Canary Islands were founded in a similar manner and timeline to early colonial towns in the Americas. The historic section of Las Palmas looks more similar to places like Santo Domingo or Cartagena, Colombia than cities in mainland Spain.
The legacy of the indigenous culture is present even though they have no descendants around. Much of the Canarian cuisine comes from indigenous recipes and many of their archeological sites dot the islands. Their culture is highlighted to the public in the 100-year-old Museo Canario. The most notable feature of the museum is the room of indigenous skulls and mummies.
The Canary Islands played a crucial role in Spain’s endeavors in the Americas. Galleons would sail from mainland Spain, stop in the Canary Islands to restock food and repair the ships before catching the favorable trade winds across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. The most famous instance of this launch point being used is by Christopher Columbus himself. On his first voyage where he unintentionally discovered the New World, he spent nearly a month in Las Palmas repairing the rudder of the Pinta.
During that time, he stayed in the governor’s palace which is now a museum called Casa de Colon (Colon is the Spanish name for Columbus).
Las Palmas stayed relevant throughout the centuries as the waypoint between Latin America and Spain. An outsized number of Latin American cities were founded by Canary Islanders including Montevideo, Uruguay, Sao Paulo, Brazil and San Antonio, United States. The Canary Islands is also the birthplace of Tex Mex food and the famed Cuban dish ropa vieja.
Today, the historic center of Las Palmas is still bustling. The cathedral, again, on par with Latin American cathedrals, is there.
Just like in every medium to large city in Spain, there is a public market. This one is special due to all the tropical fruits that can be found! Bananas, mangoes, pitaya (dragonfruit), avocados, pineapples can all be grown in the Canary Islands.
At one stall, the vendor told me how happy his life was, posed for pictures, and proceeded to dramatically cut a pitaya for another tourist. His positivity inspired me, so I bought a bunch of bananas.
After completing all my old-city sightseeing, I drove into the modern city center of Las Palmas. The architecture and colors of the buildings again reminded me of Latin America. I met up with my friends for some juice on the city’s beach boardwalk. By the way, Las Palmas has an incredible urban beach that is completely protected from the waves due to lucky rock placement.
I met up with the rest of the group and we drove to the south side of the island, which took 45 minutes on the highway.
The south side of Gran Canaria is best known for the beaches and mass tourism. The most popular beach is called Playa Ingles (English Beach) and has all the trappings of a super-touristy beach town: a beautiful beach, tacky touristy gift shops and bars blasting reggae music. We got lunch at one of these beach bars and ordered the fanciest, sugar/ice-laden passionfruit mojito this side of the Havana.
We then continued 10 minutes further to the town of Maspalomas, the southernmost point of the island. The town itself is uninteresting and full of hotels and holiday rentals, but it hides a secret just south of the Ibis hotel: a massive field of sand dunes.
The dunes look straight out of the Sahara, which is actually not that far away. We had a great time running up and down the dunes for about an hour. Maspalomas was an undisputed highlight of the island.
Continuing another 20 minutes up the southwest side of the island, we reached the beach resort town of Anfi. The town was dominated by a mega-resort snugly wedged into a cliff.
We spent a lovely hour relaxed on a near-empty beach. 50 meters away was a topless “influencer” doing endless takes of a video for her Instagram. I really felt bad for her boyfriend/photographer.
I took a video of her posing and sent it to Influencers in the Wild, an Instagram account with 3 million followers that makes fun of influencers. My submission made it to their story and all of a sudden I was getting an extra 1,000 views of my own story. Very funny!
We cleaned up in our hilariously decorated AirBNB and headed back to Las Palmas to get a meal at the island’s top restaurant: Deliciosa Marta.
Day 3: October 21, 2020: The Center and North
I woke up with the sun and set off alone in my car since my friends were still asleep. After a wild hour-long ride of straight uphill, I reached the top of the island. The weather was cold and full of pine trees! My first stop was the caldera of the volcano.
Another 12 minutes took me to the very top of the island: Pico de las Nieves (Peak of the Snows). At 1,949 meters (6,394 feet), it was about 3 degrees Centigrade in late October. The view was incredible, I could see the entire island and even across the sea to the snow-covered Teide on the island of Tenerife.
To the west of the peak is the Rocque Nublo. This giant rock, one of the world’s largest, is precariously perched on top of a huge cliff in a way that seems to defy the laws of physics and geology. The 2 km hike to the rock is the island’s most popular hike. Personally, I found the scenery just okay and the rock no more interesting up close than from afar. So, skip this one and take a less-popular hike in the forest instead.
Continuing downhill, I meandered northwest through stunning canyon scenery not dissimilar to the Colorado Plateau in the United States or the deserts of eastern Kazakhstan. I found the drive from Cruz de Tejada to Artenara to be the prettiest scenery on the entire island.
Eventually I reached Artenara, one of the most unusual towns I’ve ever visited. This is because the people live in cave homes dug into the cliff. The first caves were dug by the indigenous people. Those caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The cave-home tradition has continued up until the modern day. The town has a wonderful museum which has a model home with exhibit panels in English and the most-snuggly cat.
If I had the time, I would have loved to tour some of the indigenous caves.
To meet up with my friends, I drove 45 minutes northeast to the town of Teror. Teror was located in a large deciduous forest and the leaves were starting to turn yellow. Teror’s most well-known attraction is the ornate Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pino (Basilica of Our Lady of the Pine). Apparently the Virgin Mary appeared in a pine forest here in 1492.
We then drove to the north coast of the island, which has a barren volcanic coastline (if you get anything from this post, remember that Gran Canaria has seemingly every single landscape you could imagine). Here we reached the island’s second-largest town, Galdar. In the center of Galdar is an unassuming building that…hides a secret.
Underneath the house are the ruins of an ancient city and a cave with paintings. This is reportedly the only cave on the island with intact cave paintings. To access the cave in COVID times, you have to take a 90-minute guided tour. We did not have the attention-span to last 90 minutes, so we were able to cut 30 minutes off the tour by tacking onto a French group.
This was a mistake. If you go on a tour of a cultural site, the sights themselves are only half of the experience. You need to have the context and facts that come with a guide/brochure/audioguide/prior knowledge. Without it, you are just looking at something you can’t understand- and in our case listening to someone speak in a language we couldn’t understand. Yes, we saw the painted cave, but we don’t know anything about why it is there or how it was made.
Continuing on to the northwest we reached the Agaete Piscina Natural (Agaete Natural Pool). The pools are a protected from the surf by black volcanic rocks. The rocks were only semi-effective, as the strong waves were spilling into the pools. On a calm day, this spot looks perfect for swimming.
To the southwest of Agaete was an extremely steep and dramatic set of sea cliffs that reminded me of the Na Pali cliffs on the US island of Kauai (which I have never been to but have seen countless pictures).
Agaete was the end of the road literally and figuratively since we needed to head back to the airport.
In just two full days, we saw every sector of the island: North, South, East, West, and Center. We saw deserts, forests, beaches, canyons, caves, and chilly mountain peaks. Ideally, I would have had one more day to truly see everything, but I feel good about what I saw.
In my mind, Gran Canaria’s strength is its diversity. Nowhere else can you find so many different biomes in one place. Pair that with a unique culture and you have a special destination.