Canarian Arts & Culture
Although the Canary Islands are Spanish, their architecture, art and overall culture are subtly distinctive from those of the mainland, with more than a glimmer of Latin American influence. Overall, the Canarians are a warm and friendly people, deeply devoted to tradition, the family and having fun. Fiestas here are wonderfully exuberant affairs: try to attend one if you can.
The majority of pre-Hispanic architecture you see on the islands is either a reconstruction or heavily restored. The Guanches lived mainly in caves, and very little of the rudimentary houses they built remains today; however, there are a couple of fascinating sites of archaeological value in Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura, though what you will find there are ruins or the foundations of buildings. Nonetheless, they can give you a good idea of the kind of habitations constructed in pre-Hispanic times. One example can be found on the way to Pozo Negro in Fuerteventura, the Poblado de La Atalayita, the remains of a settlement positioned in a suitably lunar landscape.
People may refer to ‘typical Canarian architecture’, but there have been so many different influences over the centuries, it is problematical to specify exactly what this is. It is also not uncommon for a building to reflect more than one architectural style.
Painting & Sculpture
For such a relatively small landmass, the Canary Islands have an impressive number of art museums, open-air sculptures and galleries, suggesting a vibrant appreciation of art. This enjoyment of quality art also appears to have spilt over into the general populace, with restaurants and hotels often preferring to hang original artwork by local painters rather than predictable Picasso prints.
A deep-rooted tradition of craftwork exists, with different islands specialising in particular crafts. Fine lacework and embroidered tablecloths, napkins and table linen can be found all over the archipelago, with Ingenio (Gran Canaria), Mazo (La Palma) and La Orotava (Tenerife) particularly famous for their embroidered works of art. Be particularly wary of Chinese imports being passed off as local products, particularly at the street markets. One way to identify the real item (aside from the obvious quality) is cost: original embroidery does not come cheap, reflecting the skill and time taken in its creation. Prices are dropping, however, as there is less demand for these items today.
Simple woven carpets and rugs – usually striped and brightly coloured – have a more timeless quality and are still made painstakingly with a handloom. Other popular items to weigh down your luggage with are woven baskets, Guanche-style pottery, ceramic pots and straw hats of all sizes and shapes.
The symbol of Canarian musical heritage is the timple, a ukulele-style instrument of obscure origin, possibly introduced to the islands by Berber slaves in the 15th century. It’s a small five- or four-stringed instrument with a rounded back (it is said the original Berber version was made of a turtle shell) and a sharp tone.
Whenever you see local traditional fiestas, the timple will be there accompanying such dances as the isa and folía or, if you’re lucky, the tajaraste – the only dance said to have been passed down from the ancient Guanches, and still popular in La Gomera.
It’s tricky to sum up the peoples and traditions spread across an archipelago of seven islands. Mannerisms, expressions, food, architecture and music vary significantly from island to island, and rivalries (especially between heavyweights Tenerife and Gran Canaria) are pronounced. Yet all inhabitants share a fierce pride in being Canarian, and a belief that their unique history and culture set them apart from the rest of Spain. While most of the Canary Island locals have the classic Mediterranean looks of the Spaniards – dark hair and eyes and an olive complexion – you might find that they don’t consider themselves very Spanish.
Soon after the socialists' 1982 electoral victory at the national level, the Canary Islands were declared a comunidad autónoma, one of 17 autonomous regions across Spain. A few vocal canarios would like to see their islands become completely autonomous, and indeed you may see graffiti declaring 'Canarias no es España' (the Canaries are not Spain), 'Viva Canarias Libre' (Long Live the Free Canaries) or ‘Godos fuera' (Spaniards go home).
The archipelago’s division into two provinces, Santa Cruz and Las Palmas, remains intact, as does the rivalry between the two provinces – so much so that the regional government has offices in both provincial capitals, which alternate as lead city of the region every four years.
The greatest lifestyle change that has come to the Canary Islands has been as a result of the tourism industry. From the 1960s, the primarily agricultural society evolved into a society largely dependent on the service industry within just a few decades. Traditional lifestyles on small fincas (farms) or in fishing villages have been supplanted by employment in the tourism sector.
As the islands close the gap between their traditional, rural lifestyles and the fast-paced, modern lifestyle of the rest of Spain, some problems are inevitable. The cost of living has skyrocketed, forcing those who have kept traditional agriculture jobs to supplement their income with positions in the tourism industry. Education is another issue; since the small islands have no universities, young people have to study in Tenerife or Gran Canaria, and this can deplete a family’s already over-stretched budget. After school, many college-educated islanders end up leaving the island of their birth to look for better jobs on Tenerife, Gran Canaria or the mainland. By necessity, many Canarian families are separated.
Nevertheless, family remains at the heart of Canary culture. Big island festivities are often celebrated with family, and islanders come from as far away as the Americas to reunite with family and friends. Most religious and cultural celebrations are also family-focused. Although families are now smaller than they used to be – one or two children is the norm – they’re still an important social unit. As elsewhere in Europe, couples are waiting longer to get married and have children, proving that Canarian society is not as traditional as it once was.
The Canary Islands are a sport-friendly destination, as they have a balmy, sunny climate, plenty of coastline and a laid-back, outdoor lifestyle that rewards activity. As part of Spain, the top sport here is, of course, football (soccer). Although there is a regional football team for the Canary Islands, they are not affiliated with FIFA, UEFA or CAF, because the islands are represented internationally by the Spanish national football team. The team only plays friendly matches.
Far more unusual is lucha canaria (Canarian wrestling), which is said to date back to the Guanches, a particularly robust and warlike crowd who loved a trial of strength: jumping over ravines, diving into oceans from dizzying heights…and this distinctive style of wrestling. One member of each team faces off against an adversary in the ring and, after a formal greeting and other signs of goodwill, they set about trying to dump each other into the dust. No part of the body except the soles of the feet may touch the ground, and whoever fails first in this department loses. Size and weight are not the determining factors (although these boys tend to be as beefy as rugby front-row forwards), but rather the skill with which the combatants grapple and manoeuvre their opponents into a position from which they can be toppled.
If you want to find out if any matches are due to be held locally, ask at the nearest tourist office or check out www.fedluchacanaria.com/federacioncanaria.
The Canary Islands today, for so long a region of net emigration, admit more people than they export. Workers in the hotel, restaurant and construction industries, and migrants from Northern Europe seeking a place in the near-perpetual sun, all bolster the islands’ population figures. With more than half a million tourist beds in hotels, apartments and houses across the islands, there is a steady influx of visitors from across the world, mainly Europe, some of whom decide to stay and make a life here.
A newer phenomenon are the immigrants from the Americas, many of them family members of Canarians who emigrated to Venezuela or other South American countries and are now returning to the islands of their ancestors.
In the past, the Canary Islands have faced serious problems with illegal migrants arriving from African shores in droves. In recent years, the number of boats carrying illegal migrants has significantly dropped, though locals are still wary of the situation. Prejudice is hard to gauge, but some tourists of African origin have reported discrimination, mainly in shops and restaurants, and particularly in the southern resorts of Tenerife.
The Catholic church plays an important role in people’s lives. Most canarios are baptised and confirmed, have church weddings and funerals, and many attend church for important feast days – although fewer than half regularly turn up for Sunday Mass. Many of the colourful and often wild fiestas that take place throughout the year have some religious context or origin.
Feature: Martín Chirino
Martín Chirino is widely considered to be one of the most significant Spanish sculptors of the 20th century. Born in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in 1925, he spent time in Africa as a young man, including Morocco and Senegal, and this influence can be seen especially in some of his earlier pieces. Chirino’s giant, mainly bronze sculptures are on view throughout the islands. They include Espiral (1999) in Santa Cruz de Tenerife; El pensador (2002), gracing the grounds of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria; and perhaps most easily viewed of all, Lady harimaguada (1999), on Avenida Maritima in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. For more information and images of his artwork, see www.martinchirino.com.
Feature: Los Sabandeños
The Canaries’ best-loved folk group, Los Sabandeños, has been singing and strumming since 1966, when these tinerfeños banded together in an effort to recover and popularise Canary culture across the islands. It’s impossible to quantify the effect this group of nearly 25 men (including a few new recruits) has had on the islands. Suffice to say, they have a statue in their honour in Punta de Hidalgo, Tenerife, and (at last count) seven streets named after them. Their collections of light, melodic music are widely available; look for their greatest hits compilation 60 Canciones de Oro (2012).
Feature: Street Parties, Canarian-Style
Pretty much every town hosts its own party at some point and it's a rare summer weekend when there isn't a romería happening somewhere on the archipelago. The literal translation of romería is 'pilgrimage', but while the day-long fiestas usually have their roots in religion, these days the emphasis is more on party than piety. Most people don traditional Canarian costume for the day, which tends to begin with a procession followed by displays of traditional music and dance. Later on, the more modern-day tradition of sipping island-made rum with cola is the main activity, as town streets and squares become the site of a late-night bash.
Feature: Local Heroes
Famous people from the Canary Islands include:
- César Manrique – artist, sculptor and architect, born in Lanzarote.
- David Silva – international footballer who has won major honours with Manchester City and Spain.
- Carmen Laforet – 20th-century writer and author of Nada (1945). Laforet was actually born in Barcelona, but moved to the Canary Islands at two and grew up there.
- Javier Bardem – film actor, with parts in No Country for Old Men, Skyfall and Jamón, Jamón, among other films; born in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
- Juan Carlos Fresnadillo – film director, producer and writer; director of apocalyptic zombie horror 28 Weeks Later and Intacto.
Life on a Volcano
Many people think of the Canary Islands as consisting of little but flat, featureless semidesert, and while there are areas like this, anyone who knows the islands well will speak with great excitement and passion about the sheer variety of landscapes, the huge range of microclimates and flora and fauna contained within this unique archipelago. Yes, large swathes of Fuerteventura may resemble Mars, but other islands such as Gran Canaria and La Palma have deeply lush and verdant regions that are not dissimilar from cooler parts of continental Europe. Expect to be surprised.
Formation of the Islands
The seven islands and six islets that make up the Canary Islands archipelago are little more than the tallest tips of a vast volcanic mountain range that lies below the Atlantic Ocean. Just babies in geological terms, the islands were thrown up 30 million years ago when tectonic plates collided, crumpling the land into mammoth mountains both on land, as in the case of Morocco’s Atlas range, and on the ocean floor, as in the case of the Cape Verde islands, the Azores and the Canaries (Atlantic islands that are collectively referred to as Macronesia). After the initial creation, a series of volcanic eruptions put the final touches on the islands’ forms. Volcanic eruptions continue to shape the islands to this day, though more rarely and less dramatically.
The Islands Today
The seven main islands have a total area of 7447 sq km. Their collective size may not be great, but packed into this area is just about every imaginable kind of landscape, from the long, sandy beaches of Fuerteventura and dunes of Gran Canaria to the majestic Atlantic cliffs of Tenerife and mist-enveloped woods of La Gomera. The easternmost islands have an almost Saharan desertscape, while corners and pockets of La Palma and La Gomera are downright lush. At higher altitudes on La Palma and Gran Canaria, pine forests swathe the mountainsides and carpet the soil in needles. The highest mountain in Spain is Pico del Teide (3718m), which dominates the entire island of Tenerife.
El Teide & the Others
El Teide, that huge pyramid that stands at the very centre of life on Tenerife, is, at 3718m, both the highest mountain in Spain and – if measured from its true base on the ocean floor – the third-largest volcano in the world. Teide is what’s known as a shield volcano: it’s huge and rises in a broad, gently angled cone to a summit that holds a steep-walled, flat-based crater. Although seemingly quiet, Teide is by no means finished.
Wisps of hot air can sometimes be seen around Teide’s peak, and seismic activity is quite common. Where the lava is fairly fluid, steam pressure can build up to the point of ejecting lava and ash or both in an eruption through the narrow vent. The vent can simply be blown off if there is sufficient pressure.
Other volcanoes on the islands have been known to sometimes literally blow their top. Massive explosions can cause an entire summit to cave in, blasting away an enormous crater. The result is known as a caldera, within which it is not unusual for new cones to emerge, creating volcanoes within volcanoes. There are several impressive calderas on Gran Canaria, most notably Caldera de Bandama. Oddly enough, massive Caldera de Taburiente on La Palma does not belong to this group of geological phenomena, although it was long thought to.
These days in the Canary Islands, you can best get a feel for the rumblings below the surface on Lanzarote, where the Montañas del Fuego still bubble with vigour, although the last eruptions took place way back in 1824. Of the remaining islands, not an eruptive burp has been heard from Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, La Gomera or El Hierro for centuries; Tenerife’s most recent display was a fairly innocuous affair in 1909; and it was La Palma that hosted the most recent spectacle – a fiery outburst by Volcán Teneguía in 1971, with rivers of lava flowing into the sea, which added to the size of the island.
Canaries, Whales & Other Animals
There is wildlife out there, but it tends to be small, shy and largely undetectable to the untrained eye. Lizards and birds are the biggest things you’ll see – and in some cases they can be quite big, like the endemic giant lizard (Gallotia simonyi) of El Hierro, which measures around 60cm in length. There are around 200 species of birds on the islands, though many are imports from Africa and Europe. Five endemics are found in the Canaries: Bolle’s Pigeon, Laurel Pigeon, Blue Chaffinch, Canary Islands Chiff-Chaff and Canary Islands Chat. And yes, before you ask, this is where canaries come from, but the wild cousins are of a much duller colour than the popular cage birds.
If it’s big animals you want, you need to get off land and turn to the ocean. The stretch of water between Tenerife and La Gomera is a traditional feeding ground for as many as 26 species of whales, and others pass through during migration. The most common are pilot whales, sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins.
Whale-watching is big business around here, and 800,000 people a year head out on boats to get a look. A law regulates observation of sea mammals, prohibiting boats from getting closer than 60m to an animal and limiting the number of boats following pods at any one time. The law also tries to curb practices such as using sonar and other devices to attract whales’ attention. Four small patrol boats attempt to keep a watchful eye on these activities. If you decide to take a whale-watching tour, join up with a reputable company.
Aside from the majestic marine mammals, the ocean waters teem with other life forms, including over 500 species of fish. The best way to see fish in their habitat is on a dive.
The islands’ rich volcanic soil, varied rainfall and dramatic changes in altitude support a great diversity of plant life, both indigenous and introduced.
The Canary Islands are home to about 2000 species of plants, around 700 of which are endemic to the islands. The only brake on an even more abundant range of flora in this largely subtropical environment is a shortage of water. Even so, botanists will be amply rewarded, and numerous botanical gardens are scattered around the islands for the observation of a whole range of local plant-life.
Possibly the most important floral ecosystem in the Canaries is La Gomera’s Parque Nacional de Garajonay, host to one of the world’s last remaining Tertiary-era forests and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Known as laurisilva, the beautiful forest here is made up of laurels, holly, linden and giant heather, clad in lichen and moss and often swathed in swirling mist.
Up in the great volcanic basin of the Parque Nacional del Teide on Tenerife, the star botanical attraction is the flamboyant tajinaste rojo, or Teide viper’s bugloss (Echium wildpretii), which can grow to more than 3m in height. Every other spring it sprouts an extraordinary conical spike of striking red blooms like a great red poker. After its brief, spectacular moment of glory, all that remains is a thin, desiccated, spear-shaped skeleton, like a well-picked-over fish. Leave well alone; each fishbone has thousands of tiny strands that are as itchy as horsehair.
As in mainland Spain, the 1960s saw the first waves of mass sea-and-sun tourism crash over the tranquil shores of the Canary Islands. The government of the day anticipated filling up the state coffers with easy tourist dollars, and local entrepreneurs enthusiastically leapt aboard the gravy train. Few, however, gave a thought to what impact the tourists and mushrooming coastal resorts might have on the environment.
The near-unregulated building and expansion of resorts well into the 1980s created some shocking eyesores, particularly on the southern side of Tenerife and Gran Canaria. Great scabs of holiday villas, hotels and condominiums spread across much of these two islands’ southern coasts. And the problem is not restricted to the resorts – hasty cement extensions to towns and villages mean that parts of the islands’ interiors are being increasingly spoiled by property developers and speculators.
The massive influx of visitors to the islands over recent decades has brought or exacerbated other problems. Littering of beaches, dunes and other areas of natural beauty, both by outsiders and locals, remains a burning issue. Occasionally, ecological societies organise massive rubbish cleanups along beaches and the like – worthy gestures but also damning evidence of the extent to which the problem persists.
One of the islands’ greatest and most persistent problems is water, or rather the lack thereof. Limited rainfall and the lack of natural springs have always restricted agriculture, and water is a commodity still in short supply. Desalination appears the only solution for the Canaries; pretty much all potable water on Lanzarote and Fuerteventura is desalinated sea water.
In summer, the corollary of perennial water shortages is the forest fire. With almost clockwork regularity, hundreds of hectares of forest are ravaged every summer on all the islands except the already-bare Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. The Canarian pine bears the brunt of much of the inferno, but is an astonishingly fire-resistant tree and regenerates speedily after the flames have swept through.
For the islands’ administrators, it’s a conundrum. Tourism has come to represent an essential pillar of the Canaries’ economy, which they quite simply cannot do without. They argue that profits from the tourist trade are ploughed back into the community. However, this is still fairly haphazard, and there have long been calls for more regional planning – and, every year more insistently, for a total moratorium on further tourism development. Short-term moratoriums are at times established on an island-by-island basis. Some of the damage done over the years, especially to the coastline, is irreversible.
The new Puerto Industrial de Granadilla in southeastern Tenerife has created concern about the adverse effects the huge commercial port will have on the environment. The contentious plan to drill for gas and oil off the coasts of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote was fortunately laid to rest after exploratory probes deemed the project unworthy.
One island that has taken giant steps towards conservation is El Hierro, where, after years of planning, the government was about to achieve its goal to become the world’s first island able to meet all its energy needs with renewable sources (wind, water and solar) alone. Next on the agenda: El Hierro is planning to run all its vehicles on electricity by 2020 as well as operating an island-wide policy of promoting organic farming.
Wind power has also been hugely developed in the Canary Islands, growing by a vast 137% over the three years to 2018. You will observe large wind farms on Tenerife, Gran Canaria and other islands, part of the archipelago's ambition to meet a staggering 45% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2025.
Feature: Environmental Organisations
The islands are swarming with environmental action groups, some more active than others. Most are members of Ben Magec – Ecologistas en Acción (www.ecologistasenaccion.org). A few of the myriad individual groups you’ll find on the islands include:
Asociación Tinerfeña de Amigos de la Naturaleza (Tenerife)
Fuerteventura se Mueve (www.facebook.com/fuerteventurasemueve.org; Fuerteventura)
Tagaragunche (La Gomera)
Feature: Cumbre Vieja & the Mega Tsunami
On the island of La Palma is the Cumbre Vieja (Old Ridge). In 1949 a series of volcanic eruptions here caused a fissure about 2.5km long to open up, which sent the western side of the Cumbre Vieja slipping downwards, and westwards, by around 2m.
Experts believe that it’s only a matter of time before Cumbre Vieja erupts again. When it does, some people fear that it could send up to 1.5 trillion metric tons of rock cascading down into the Atlantic. The resulting tsunami could measure up to 600m and, travelling at a speed of around 1000km an hour, would reach the east coast of the US within six hours (and the coastlines of Africa and Europe much sooner). By this time the tsunami waves would be around 30m to 60m high, though on reaching shallower water they could grow to a several hundred metres. Surprisingly, perhaps, Hollywood has yet to make a film about the threat, which could see the waves travelling around 25km inland, devastating the Caribbean and the eastern shores of the US.
With some experts playing down fears as others ramp up the doomsday scenarios, the jury remains out on the likely size and destructive power of such a tsunami, while the timescale before the next eruption is simply not known. Some research has suggested the western side of the Cumbre Vieja is unlikely to collapse into the sea within the next 10,000 years.
Feature: Land of Giants
The best-known native animals in the Canaries today are the giant lizards, which still survive in a number of spots. Impressive as some of these are, they’re smaller than a species of now-extinct lizard that once scampered and hissed among the hills. Hailing from Tenerife and other islands, fossils and bones of Gallotia goliath reveal that this colossal lizard measured a good metre in length and died out some time in the 15th century. Today skeletons and casts of the lizards can be seen in Tenerife’s Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre.
Living alongside these lizards was a nightmarish creature: the Tenerife Giant Rat (Canariomys bravoi). This outsize rodent was around a metre long (including the tail) and weighed possibly 1kg when fully grown. The rat still inhabited Tenerife when the Guanches first arrived, but people, and possibly domestic cats, quickly put an end to the monster. Gran Canaria had its own type of giant rat, but this was a comparative minnow at just 25cm in length.
It’s also thought that a type of giant tortoise (Geochelone burchardi) once lived on Tenerife, with other species of tortoise inhabiting the other islands.
Feature: Dragon Trees: A Long, Shady Past
Among the more curious trees you will see in the Canary Islands is the drago (dragon tree; Dracaena draco), which can reach a height of 18m and live for centuries.
Having survived the last ice age, the tree looks prehistoric and unique. Its shape resembles a giant posy of flowers, its trunk and branches being the stems, which break into bunches of long, narrow, silvery-green leaves higher up. As the plant (technically it is not a tree, though it’s always referred to as one) grows, it becomes more and more top-heavy. To stabilise itself, the drago ingeniously grows roots on the outside of its trunk, eventually creating a second, wider trunk. What makes the drago stranger still is its red sap or resin – known, of course, as ‘dragon’s blood’ – which was traditionally used in medicine.
The plant once played an important role in Canary Island life, for it was beneath the ancient branches of a drago that the Guanche Council of Nobles would gather to administer justice.
The drago is one of a family of up to 40 species (Dracaena) that survived the ice age in tropical and subtropical zones of the Old World, and is one of the last representatives of Tertiary-era flora.
If you would like to cultivate a drago, look out for small potted saplings of the plant to take back home; you can even find them at the airport (but will pay a premium there).