When flying back to Spain from the US for my last semester of business school, I landed with a few days before the semester started and had a PCR test valid for another day. I didn’t want to put the PCR test to waste so I picked a destination where one was needed. My options were Morocco and Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands (Canarias in Spanish). The airfare to Morocco was double the price and Morocco was apparently fairly restricted in-country due to COVID. On the other hand, Tenerife had among the laxest COVID restrictions in all of Europe and cheap airfare. I booked the flight while transiting in Paris.
January 21, 2021: San Cristobal de La Laguna
The next day, I caught the flight from Barcelona to Tenerife’s North Airport. This airport, formerly known as Los Rodeos, is known worldwide in aviation circles for being the site of the worst commercial air disaster in history. In 1978, a KLM 747 from Amsterdam and PanAm 747 from Los Angeles were diverted from the larger Gran Canaria airport due to a bombing incident by Canary Island separatists. The fog was thick and the Tenerife runway small. These two factors resulted in the KLM plane taking off at full speed into the PanAm plane. 583 people died.
Luckily, my flight was far less eventful. On arrival, I showed my PCR test results to a police officer and was let out. I then picked up a rental car and drove to the city of La Laguna, about 10 minutes away. I chose to stay there because I was leaving very early in the morning and wanted to be close to the airport. My hostel check-in wasn’t open until 6pm so I had some time.
Sort of by luck, I happened to pick the most beautiful and historic city on the entire island! La Laguna (officially San Cristobal de La Laguna) is a historic town founded by the Spanish in 1496 The layout looks awfully like Latin America. This is not a coincidence; La Laguna is considered the archetype city used to build numerous cities in the New World such as Havana, Lima, Cartagena (Colombia), and San Juan (Puerto Rico). Because of this history and its pristine buildings, La Laguna is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city has a few okay churches, but the real magic of La Laguna is the historic pedestrian-only city center. Every building is 500+ years old.
Eventually, I checked into my hostel located next to a large plaza in the city’s north. After a very warm welcome by the receptionist- a furloughed Backroads guide, I settled into my dorm. It turns out that I was bunking with another guy named Bryce! He was from France and planned to stay in Tenerife for the year.
Normally, I would have been shocked to hear about someone staying in a hostel for a year, but as I learned from my time in Gran Canaria, the islands are now a refuge for people fleeing pandemic lockdowns in the rest of Europe. The Canary Islands are the southernmost and warmest place in all of the Schengen Area. Therefore, Europeans can fly here and stay indefinitely. The Canarias also have the least restrictions of anywhere in Spain (and maybe in Europe outside of Sweden?). Why freeze and be locked up when you can be free in the warm weather?
The hostel was fully booked with these lockdown refugees. There were French, English (fleeing just before the UK banned leaving the country), Irish, Italians, and Germans. Everyone was in their 20’s and 30’s. Some had jobs but others were planning on traveling until they ran out of money.
Because everyone was here for so long, they all became very close friends. The term is wildly overused, but the residents at this hostel truly felt like family. Most people were cooking food together, but I wanted to eat out since eating dinner at a restaurant isn’t allowed in Barcelona and Los Angeles. I picked a Naples-style pizzeria and was joined by FOF, an Irish guy also staying at the hostel. We feasted on some of the best pizza I’ve ever had.
We returned to the hostel at 21:00 just in time for the nightly movie screening. The movie was Green Book.
January 22, 2021: Teide and the Puerto de La Cruz
I got a late start around 10:00. My goal today was to visit Teide, the enormous volcano in the center of the island. Teide also happens to be the highest peak in all of Spain at 3715 meters 12,155 ft).
The easiest way to reach the top of Teide is by cable car. It leaves from a station 2,700 meters up in the volcanic crater. However, the cable car takes you 100 meters short of the summit. To climb the final bit, you have to obtain a free hiking permit from the Spanish government that normally sells out months in advance. It just so happened that there were permits available for this day- my guess was due to the pandemic.
The drive to reach the cable car base involved driving up a narrow and windy road for 90 minutes. The drive started in a thick pine tree forest. As I hit the 2,000 meter elevation mark, I noticed snow on the road! How could there be snow – it was 20 degrees (68 F) outside?!?
Apparently, the rest of the island couldn’t believe it either. As I climbed the terrain became covered in snow…and people taking pictures in the snow. Every turnout was slammed with cars and there was some traffic. Teide itself, covered in snow, was still far in the distance.
As I got closer to the slopes of Teide, the landscape changed again. Now, I was in an ancient lava flow. All semblance of vegetation was gone. Here I officially entered Teide National Park, Europe’s most visited National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 10 minutes later, I pulled up to the tram station.
The tram was located on Teide’s south side which had no snow. I then got onto the cable car which lifted me up 1,000 meters in just 8 minutes. At the top, I was treated with a stunning view of the entire island and the massive volcanic crater.
Unfortunately, the path to the summit was closed due to “snow”. There really wasn’t much of it, but the authorities were adamant that people could only walk up with proper mountaineering equipment aka crampons and an ice axe. I have no idea why- perhaps the tram operator would be liable should something happen. I was disappointed because there wasn’t actually much snow on the trail and I knew that I could easily make it to the top of Spain. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Back down in the crater, I visited a nearby hiking spot called Roques de Garcia. These enormous rocks seem to appear out of nowhere! There is also randomly a parador (Spanish government-run chain of luxury hotels) here.
With limited time, I drove back down the volcano- this time on the steep north slope. The road switchbacked it way through a forest to the town of Puerto de la Cruz. This is the OG tourist town on Tenerife. In addition to having mediocre high rises, Puerto de la Cruz has a cute historic old city right on the coast.
The town’s handsome waterfront is highlighted by a fake tropical public lagoon! For just 5 euros you can swim in this beautiful seawater pool right next to the ocean- a seemingly silly concept that is less silly once you realize that there are no beaches around. The church is nice too!
Puerto de la Cruz also is currently housing a number of sub-Saharan African migrants who are staying in hotels what would have otherwise been empty due to the pandemic. The Canary Islands have recently been the top target of migrants trying to reach Europe. In 2020, 21,000 migrants landed in the Canary Islands- well more than any other European country. They are all men and are from various countries in West Africa. In general, the locals do not like the migrants and believe that the migrants are taking away government aid that should be spent on themselves. From what I have seen, the migrants seem to mind their own business and do not mingle much with Spaniards.
Above the town in the suburbs, I got lunch at a Bulgarian restaurant… of all places. True to form, I ordered a shopska salad- my favorite dish in Sofia- without even looking at the menu. The Spanish waitress was impressed that I knew the dish and asked if I was Bulgarian. She said that Spaniards do not believe that salads are a meal and so it rarely gets ordered. My boldness in selecting the shopska salad sent a strong signal to her that I know Bulgarian food. After the salad, she gave me two shots of apricot rakia (Bulgarian fruit brandy).
Across the street from the restaurant was the botanical gardens. This garden was founded by order of King Carlos III in 1788!!!! He wanted a collection of tropical plants from all over the Spanish Empire. Many of these plants could not grow in mainland Spain, hence the Tenerife location.
The garden is absolutely beautiful and has strong tropical vibes. I could not believe that this is just a 45-minute drive from the snowy volcanic crater. The highlight of the garden is a 200-year-old fig tree.
It was now time to head back to the hostel- about 30 minutes east. Once back, I decided once again to get dinner with my Irish friend FOF. This time we got Canarian food before coming back to the hostel to drink beers and hang out. Everyone was out in the patio socializing. This hostel has perhaps the best vibe of any I have ever stayed at.
January 23, 2021: The Extreme Northeast
This was my last day on the island. At this point, I realized that 2 days here is not enough to see everything.
Based on recommendations from the people in the hostel, I decided to visit the area near La Laguna – I was already here on the north side of the island after all!
My first stop was the city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, just 20 minutes east along the coast. I did not notice it, but La Laguna is at 600 meters in elevation.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife (known colloquially as Santa Cruz) is the largest city in Tenerife with a population of 500,000. It is also the co-capital of the Canairas (along with Las Palmas on Gran Canaria). The city is very hilly.
Even though it doesn’t look like it today, Santa Cruz has an incredible history. Spanish troops landed here in 1494 by Spanish troops establishing their first foothold on the island. The 100-year push to conquer the Canarias from the indigenous Guanches was in its later stages. After defeating the Guanches, they established both Santa Cruz and La Laguna in 1496. The city has an exceptional deep-water harbor and is conveniently located on the sea routes between Europe and both Sub-Saharan Africa/India/Asia and the Americas. The settlers of Jamestown, the first English settlement in the Americas, stopped in Santa Cruz to restock on supplies.
It should come as no surprise, that other European powers tried to take Tenerife. The English sent 3 armadas to take Santa Cruz (1657, 1706, and 1797) but all of them failed. The 1797 one is noteworthy because the famed British Admiral Horatio Nelson lost his arm. The cannon that took his arm “El Tigre” is on display in the museum.
The city grew from a small fortress town into a large city and the castle and old walls were lost to time…that is until 2006 when the authorities were redesigning a plaza and unexpectedly stumbled upon the lava rock walls. The castle is now a museum.
The town has a few more attractions. The main market has a Moroccan theme.
The modern art museum is neat too!
Santa Cruz is quite nice and seems like a great place to live. However, it offers little to the tourist for more than a couple hours at most.
I got in my car and kept driving to the northeast into Anaga Natural Park. The waters here are littered with empty cruise ships waiting to sail again.
Eventually the road turned inland and climbed up the steep mountainside. The landscape was barren with shrubs and green grasses. It reminded me a lot of the Cape Town area
Near the top of the hill, I took a turn and drove through a tunnel. The other side was even prettier!
The road then steeply dropped towards the ocean. The cliffs here were steep very much like in the north coast of Galicia. This is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in Spain.
I ate lunch in one of the small villages on this remote and rugged coastline. The fish was delicious.
I returned up to the top of the mountains and drove along the ridgeline. The road had views of both sides of the mountains. It was stunning. Eventually, I reached the junction of Cruz de Carmen. Here, I took a short hike through the forest known as Sendero de los Sentidos, the most popular destination in Anaga Natural Park.
For the last stop of the day, I visited the beach town of Bajamar. The people in the hostel recommended it as a place to see huge waves crash onto a seawall. It was very impressive.
With that epic finale, I headed back to the hostel for an early night and an early flight the next morning.
Tenerife is the superlative Canary Island.
The natural scenery here is the best on the archipelago. The volcano Teide is spectacular and unique in Europe. The only places that seemed similar were Hawaii and Kilimanjaro, both of which are far away. The rest of the island is gorgeous- especially the sea cliffs on the north side of Anaga Park.
The cities are all fine. La Laguna was as good a city as you can find in the Canaries. Santa Cruz was also fine. In my mind was cleaner and more orderly than Las Palmas.
I do not think that 2.5 days was enough for Tenerife. 5 days would be the bare minimum to see it all.
My ideal itinerary would be 6 full days:
START IN NORTH
- Teide/Puerto de la Cruz
- La Laguna/Anaga Natural Park
- Ancient Dragon Tree/Masca cliffs
RELOCATE TO SOUTH
- Beach day in Costa Adege
- Siam Park waterpark
- Ferry to La Gomera island
There is a reason Tenerife gets so many tourists- it truly is an incredible place. I cannot recommend it enough