The Canary Islands unveiled: explore Tenerife’s wild side, food, and culture

The Canary Islands are hardly an alternative destination. Even though you haven’t been there, you may feel 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 specializes in hiking and dining, on and off the beaten track, and writes all about it on her Buzztrips website.

Part one of the series is Tenerife, the largest and most populated of the seven islands. With a whopping five million people visiting the island every year, you will need a bit of guidance on where to go to avoid the crowds.

A hiking paradise

Tenerife is rich in hiking trails boasting beautiful landscapes

As well as the lure of its year-round, sun-soaked beaches, Tenerife is rapidly becoming known for its hiking, and with very good reason.

Teide National Park lies at the heart of the island, its surreal moonscape of lava crisscrossed by walking trails at the foot of Spain’s highest mountain. In the north-east, you will find many hiking paths going through the dense laurisilva rain forests of the Anaga Mountains.

To get a feel for what the pace of life used to be on the island, walk in the footsteps of Tenerife’s first inhabitants, the Guanches. Around 500 years ago, they carved a matrix of trails while moving their livestock between summer and winter grazing grounds. These trails are called ‘caminos reales’ – or royal roads – and they provide excellent walking routes and a palpable link to Tenerife’s past.

The famous hill resembling a sliced pie in the El Palmar Valley

Walk the ‘camino real’ from El Palmar to Teno Alto. Climbing above the El Palmar Valley where former quarry works have left the landscape looking like a giant pie with slices cut out of it, the path reaches the ridge with splendid views of Mount Teide before arriving into the hamlet of Teno Alto. Pop into the little shop in the village for some of their homemade goat’s cheese which ranges from mild (‘fresca’) to tongue-burning (‘curado’).

Away from resort towns

The Paisaje Lunar rock formations in Vilaflor

To discover Tenerife’s real culture, you have to move as far away from the well-trodden path as you can. Some of Tenerife’s best-hidden secrets lie in small towns and villages around the island.

Though the lovely mountain village Vilaflor is located en route to Teide National Park, few tourists’ feet tread its streets. Spend a couple of hours sipping coffee in the leafy Plaza San Pedro, climbing to the tiny chapel of Ermita de San Roque for panoramic views over the south coast, or striding out along its ‘camino real’ to visit the extraordinary rock erosions of Paisaje Lunar.

A 40-minute drive from Santa Cruz, Arico Nuevo, a former 18th-century walled community, boasts charming white houses with green window frames and doors. Scarlet bougainvillaea tumbles down brilliant white walls lining cobbled streets. Cats stretch in the sun atop crooked roofs. The pacing is slow and feels like a movie set waiting for the cast to arrive.

The charming bandstand in Los Silos

Los Silos, located in the Isla Baja region on the verdant northwest of the island, is a charming little town with streets too narrow for tour buses to negotiate, a white church that looks like it’s coated in icing sugar, and an art nouveau bandstand serving delicious home-made cakes. If you’re around in December, make sure to stop by for the annual storytelling festival.

Though most head for the scenic views from Masca, neighboring village Santiago del Teide is often overlooked. Some of the experiences they’re missing out on include pony and trap rides from the Casona del Patio, the lovely church of San Fernando Rey, and a taste of ‘arepa’ (filled Venezuelan corn bread) from the kiosk in the picnic zone.

The taste of Tenerife

'Papas arrugadas con mojo', one of Tenerife's must-taste dishes

Away from its purpose-built resorts, Tenerife’s traditional eateries have some savory surprises in store.

Tenerife’s potatoes, known as ‘papas bonitas’, were first brought to the Canary Islands from Peru over 400 years ago and now have their own certificate of origin. Boiled in salt water until a salty crust forms on them and served with mildly spicy sauces, they’re known as ‘papas arrugadas con mojo’ (meaning wrinkled potatoes with sauce) and are as prized by top chefs as they are loved by locals.

When it comes to seafood, here’s what you need to know. Vieja, or parrotfish, is never going to win any prizes in the looks department, but for taste, it’s hard to beat. Another favorite is a meaty white fish called ‘cherne'(wreckfish) which regularly appears on menus. Seafood lovers should try the tender ‘pulpo’ (octopus), served in salads or even whole.

Tenerife’s Malmsey wine was once so prized that Shakespeare received a barrel as part of his annual salary. Today, the island’s wines are once again causing ripples of excitement in sommelier circles. You can buy and try some of the best at Bodegas Monje in El Sauzal and at the nearby Wine Museum.

Where to eat for every budget

Enjoy a Michelin-starred dinner at El Rincón de Juan Carlos

From cheap and quirky to top notch, Tenerife’s gastronomic scene is as varied as its landscapes.

The ‘guachinches’, no-frills and frequently no tablecloth restaurants, have flourished in the northern hills since the 17th century. Tucked away in remote locations, expect a limited menu and wine from the owner’s own vineyard, all at ridiculously low prices. Head to the hills above La Matanza, El Sauzal, or La Orotava and look for a cardboard sign pinned to a tree directing you to a ‘guachinche’.

Away from the resort hotels of the south, you’ll find a proliferation of so-called ‘tinerfeño’ restaurants. These are traditional eateries serving unsophisticated food and ‘vino del pais’ (local wine). For unbeatable value, the ‘menu del día’ (day’s menu) provides three courses plus a glass of wine for under €10.

Seafood lovers will adore ‘cofradías’, restaurants run by the fishermen’s union, where you can be certain the catch is fresh from the nets. There’s a good ‘cofradia’ at the harbor in Los Cristianos and a very posh one – by ‘cofradías’ standards – in Puerto de la Cruz where a panoramic terrace overlooks the harbor.

If you want a go for a night of top-notch dining, Tenerife is the only one of the Canary Islands to boast a Michelin star and one of them is at family-run El Rincón de Juan Carlos in Los Gigantes. You’ll have to book a long way ahead, but it will be worth it when you will enjoy the exquisite food without the pomp or the Michelin price tag.

Go local at Tenerife’s fiestas

Cheerful, colourful and lots of fun – Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife

Tenerife’s fiestas are loud, colorful, and great fun, and the best way to enjoy them is like a local.

Carnaval, held each February in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, is the biggest celebration in the Canary Islands. Nightly street parties with live music, food stalls, drinks kiosks, and general mayhem are the real heart of Carnaval, so don’t just stand on the sidelines watching a parade roll past. Get into a fancy dress, head to the streets around Plaza España after midnight and join thousands of costume-clad revelers partying until dawn.

If you happen to see a procession of locals in traditional dress throwing food to the crowd from the back of decorated carts, you’ve probably stumbled into a ‘romería’. ‘Romerías’ are a type of harvest festivals rooted in pagan and Christian beliefs and usually involve a procession of carts filled with food and wine, locals wearing traditional costumes, and lots of animals running freely.

Happening in towns and villages across Tenerife throughout the summer, freshly barbequed meats and wine are freely dispensed to onlookers. Buy yourself a ‘vaso’ (a small glass in a leather holder that hangs around your neck) from one of the vendors and thrust it at the nearest wine vat while catching a flying boiled egg or a pork chop.

Flower carpet at Corpus Christi in La Orotava

At the yearly Corpus Christi, intricate carpets of flower petals are laid, transforming the streets of La Orotava into transient works of art. Outside the Town Hall, you can have a look at a complex tapestry constructed entirely of sand from Teide National Park. In the evening, the Corpus Christi procession walks over it all. To see the master ‘alfombristas’ (carpet makers) at work, head to La Orotava a day or so before the festival, go to a balcony on the first floor of the Town Hall and gaze down on the masterpiece in progress.

Where to stay

Rural boutique hotels are becoming de rigeur, providing a rustic chic base from which to stride out. Tucked in the Alpine-esque village of Vilaflor, Hotel Villalba (rates start at €78 [$92] per room, per night) has bags of character. If you want to live among banana trees, try Hotel Rural El Patio (rates start at €66 [$74] per room, per night) in Garachico. Finally, if you’re feeling most at home in small and charming villages, La Casona del Patio (rates start at €81 [$92] per room, per night) in Santiago del Teide is the spot for you.

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