The Canary Islands are hardly an alternative destination. Even though you haven’t been there, you feel like you know exactly what they’re all about: overcrowded beaches, resort hotels, and tourist traps. Yet, as with most places, there are unseen and lesser-explored parts – places only locals know of. Until now!
In collaboration with seasoned travel writer and destination expert Andrea Montgomery, we’ve prepared a five-part series uncovering the hidden treasures of these paradise islands. Based in the Canary Islands, Andrea specialises in hiking and dining, on and off the beaten track, and writes all about it on her Buzztrips website.
Gran Canaria‘s beaches are amongst the best in the Canary Islands and are the main reason so many people escape their winter and head to its year-round, sun-soaked shores. But the real drama and beauty of this island lie beyond its beaches – in its mountainous interior where ancient paths weave through sacred stone sites, in its vibrant, cosmopolitan capital and in the fertile north-west, far beneath the radar of its mass tourism.
Take to the mountains
The Canarii, Gran Canaria’s original inhabitants, considered the mountains to be sacred, the place where their God, Alcoán, lived. Although the extraordinary, sacred rock of Roque Nublo and its often cloud-covered guardian, the mountain top of Pico de las Nieves, are top of most visitors’ must-see list, much of the rest of the surroundings are just a blur from the tour coach window. Best explored on foot or on two wheels, you’ll find some of the prettiest villages in the Canary Islands nestled within these volcanic peaks.
Set at the foot of Los Morros del Pinar, the little town of Tunte lies less than 18miles from the busy resorts of Maspalomas and Playa del Inglés, yet feels another world away. Its wooden balconies and inner patios are fine examples of traditional Canarian architecture and its pretty plaza stages regular craft and food markets. Visit the small Casa Los Yanez museum, housed in a perfectly preserved 19th-century house, and don’t miss the enormous rock with a house built into its side on Calle Capitán Cortés.
Just begging to be photographed, the pastel houses and wooden balconies of the mountain village and heritage sight of Teror are some of the best examples of traditional architecture on the island. Pop into the Basilica, home to the Gothic statue of the Madonna of the Pines, the island’s Patron Saint. The village is also famous for its garlicky sausage, which you can find on every menu. Pick some up at the Sunday morning market or head to Los Nueces in Plaza Fuente de la Higuera where they’ve been making Chorizo de Teror for 80 years.
Right up until the Spanish conquest of the island in 1483, Gran Canaria’s inhabitants lived in caves, and there are still cave-dwelling communities across the island. A spectacular mountain ridge walk takes you from the island’s geographical center point, Cruz de Tejeda, skirting the abyssal Caldera de Tejeda and jaw-dropping drama of the Roque Nublo Rural Park, to arrive at the solitary village of Artenara.
Check out its viewpoint, Mirador La Cilla, and the little Sanctuario de la Cuevita, a chapel built entirely into the rock; altar, pulpit, confessional – everything. Best of all is the Casa Cuevas Museum where you can explore seven caves, each illustrating a different aspect of cave-living, from basket weaving to bread making.
Another lovely walk from Cruz de Tejeda takes you to what is probably the most picturesque of all Gran Canaria’s mountain villages, Tejeda. Sitting alongside the valley from which it takes its name, Tejeda holds an annual almond festival in February, but you can buy its famous almond cakes all year round from the village bakery. While you’re there, don’t miss its Medicinal Plants Centre where you can try all sorts of herbal teas as well as learn about their healing properties.
Don’t miss the beat of the city
Pick up the tempo with a visit to Gran Canaria’s lively heart – its cosmopolitan capital city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Blessed with both an urban attitude and a beach scene, Las Palmas moves to a distinctly South American beat and exudes a contagious joie de vivre.
First on the itinerary should be La Vegueta, the old quarter where the city was founded five centuries ago. Wander its characterful, cobbled streets, stopping at one of its many cafés to enjoy a coffee or some tapas, and take in its amazing architectural treasures at leisure. Don’t miss the cathedral in Plaza Santa Ana, whose twin bell towers are not just a city icon, they’re also its best landmarks. Enjoy the priceless art and sculptures within and take the lift up one of the towers for lofty views of the city.
Other places not to miss are the Casa Colón, dedicated to Columbus and his voyages of exploration, and the Museo Canario, which has hundreds of skulls and a few mummies, macabre relics of the Canarii. When hunger sets in, head to restaurant Qué Leche behind Pérez Galdós Theatre and check out their legendary tapas.
In the afternoon, pop across the Guiniguada ravine to the shopping district of Triana. In and around Calle Mayor de Triana, you’ll find all the usual fashion names side by side with independent boutiques and charismatic tapas bars. Give your feet a rest at Allende Triana, a buzzing, trendy restaurant serving super salads and brilliant burgers.
Adding to the city’s Latino vibe is the 1.5-mile golden sand strip of Las Canteras beach, which is lined with shops, bars and restaurants. If you’re there on a Saturday, don’t miss the Ruta Playa Viva sessions. From jazz to funk and indie rock, live bands perform at a number of venues along the beach from late afternoon to late night. End the day with dinner at the fabulous Kitchen Lovers overlooking the beach where you’ll find creative Italian cuisine every bit as tasty as the view.
A tasty tour of the north
The characterful and authentic face of northern Gran Canaria is often ignored, yet it’s where you’ll find some of the island’s tastiest surprises.
Begin your gastronomic journey with a fresh fish dinner at the seaside village of Puerto de Las Nieves, a favorite weekend getaway for city dwellers known for its seafood restaurants and its sunsets. Grab a table on the terrace of Las Nasas and settle in for the twilight show.
What better way to end dinner than a cup of gourmet coffee, produced in the world’s most northerly coffee plantation? For five generations, the Jorge family have been growing fruits, vines, and Arabica beans on their Finca La Laja, set in the fertile and humid Agaete Valley at the foot of the Tamadaba mountains.
You can taste and buy directly from the plantation, or visit the little town of Agaete, Gran Canaria’s version of a pueblo blanco, where the café in the lovely botanical gardens of El Huerto de las Flores serves the coffee along with mouth-watering cakes and other sweet treats. And don’t leave Agaete without seeing the fascinating necropolis of Maipés which has some 700 ancient tombs set amongst lava fields.
Last, but definitely not least, schedule a visit to the northern hill town of Arucas, home to one of the few remaining rum factories in the Canary Islands. Make sure to take in the splendid blue stone church of San Juan Bautista with its amazing stained glass windows before heading to the rum factory for a tour, which culminates in a tasting of as many of their products as you like. A fitting end to a tasty tour.
Extend your trip to the Canary Islands and go explore Tenerife, or head to mainland Spain and find out what to do in Madrid for free