Being outdoors is what the Canary Islands are all about. With year-round balmy temperatures, limited rain threatening to ruin your adventures, clear waters, wild waves and an astonishing variety of landscapes, you'd be forgiven for not wanting to spend any time inside at all.
Hundreds of trails, many of them historic paths used before the days of cars and highways, criss-cross the islands. A good place to start is the national parks – the Parque Nacional del Teide on Tenerife, the Parque Nacional de Garajonay on La Gomera and the Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente on La Palma all have excellent hiking. Each of these parks offers a variety of walks and hikes, ranging from easy strolls ending at lookout points to multi-day treks across mountains and gorges.
When to Go
You can walk in the Canary Islands any time of year, but some trails become dangerous or impossible in rainy weather, and others (like the trek up to the peak of El Teide) are harder to do in winter, when parts of the trail are covered in snow. Be aware that while along the coast and in the lowlands it’s normally warm and sunny, as you head into higher altitudes, the wind, fog and air temperature can change drastically, so always carry warm and waterproof clothing. Don’t forget to take water along with you, as there are few water sources or vendors out along the trails.
- Tenerife The Parque Nacional del Teide is one of the finest walking areas in all of Spain. But there’s more to Tenerife hiking than El Teide. The forested Anaga mountains in the northeast offer hikes through a mist-drenched forest filled with birdsong, and in the far northwest, the hamlet of Masca is the gateway to some stunning, and very challenging, hikes.
- La Gomera Thanks to a near-permanent mist (called horizontal rain), the green forest of Parque Nacional de Garajonay is dripping with life and moss. From the park’s highest point, the Alto de Garajonay, you can see Tenerife and El Teide – if the clouds don’t interrupt the view. There’s excellent walking in and around this park for all hiking levels.
- La Palma Regarded by many as the finest island of all to walk on, La Palma’s Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente offers a landscape somewhere between the verdant Garajonay and the stark Teide. You can hike along the rock walls of the park’s interior or meander among the pine forests on the outer slopes of the park. Numerous other trails spin off across the island and walking these can see you slipping in and out of rainforests or clambering up parched volcanic slopes.
- El Hierro The newbie on the walking scene, tiny El Hierro offers a real bonanza of trails, from family-friendly coastal hikes such as the easy walk between Las Puntas and La Maceta to shady ambles around the pine forests of El Pinar or the much longer Camino de Jinama.
- Gran Canaria Much less hiked than the western islands, Gran Canaria nevertheless offers superlative walking opportunities. The best trails are to be found radiating away from the Cruz de Tejeda, which sits close to the highest point of Gran Canaria, or in the verdant ravines on the east of the island.
- Fuerteventura If you want to walk but don't fancy too much of a climb, Fuerteventura has some pretty, gentle hikes. Mount Tindaya, near La Oliva, has plenty of archaeological interest and there are some scenic trails along the north coast.
- Lanzarote Walks in the national park have to be well planned, but there are other options for hiking here. You could walk between wineries in La Geria or take a gentle wander across Isla Graciosa – as long as you don't mind getting sand in your boots.
- Pico Viejo to El Teide The most challenging – and easily the most stunning – trek in the Canary Islands is this mammoth hike that takes in not just Spain’s highest peak but its little climbed, little brother.
- Ruta de los Volcanes Skip along the summits of a whole ridge of volcanoes on this long and challenging trek.
- La Laguna Grande to Alto de Garajonay Saunter through the mist-drenched forests at the summit of La Gomera on this moderately easy walk.
- Camino de Jinama Hike through history, and through the best of delightful El Hierro.
- Isla de Lobos Loop the loop around this desert island.
There are loads of dedicated hiking guides to the Canary Islands (especially if you speak Spanish) that are easily available in all main bookshops across the islands. In English the best books for the general walker are those produced by Discovery Walking Guides, which publishes guidebooks and accompanying maps to Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and Tenerife, and Sunflower Books, which has hiking guidebooks to all the islands.
Hiking Off the Beaten Path
As well as the big-ticket walks mentioned here there are plenty of off-the-beaten-path hikes throughout the Canary Islands. Among our favourites are the walks around the Unesco-protected Los Tiles biosphere reserve on La Palma and the dunes of Maspalomas on Gran Canaria. For a truly spectacular walk, sign up for the Tremesana guided hike in the Parque Nacional de Timanfaya; you’ll have to plan in advance, but the effort will be well rewarded.
Do seek local advice if you're tackling an offbeat path – some routes aren't well maintained and overgrown vegetation or absent signage can seriously hinder your progress.
Some islands are better equipped than others when it comes to helping out hikers. La Palma and La Gomera in particular have well-signed paths and plentiful information. Elsewhere, if you're drawing a blank at the tourist information office you might have to head to the cabildo (island government). Hiking maps are generally available here, though having the patience and will to find the right person to help you can sometimes be as taxing as the trek itself.
Surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing are popular on most of the islands, and schools offering classes and equipment rental are easy to find on the windier coasts. There are a variety of spots to choose from, ranging from the beginner-friendly sandy beaches of Fuerteventura to the heavy reef breaks of Lanzarote and Gran Canaria. You'll find diving schools in all the tourist resorts, though it is little El Hierro that's considered the top spot for underwater adventures.
There’s a wide variety of waves in the islands, from heart-in-the-mouth barrels breaking over super-shallow reef ledges to gentle sandbanks ideal for learners. The best season for surfing in the Canaries is from October through to April. At this time of year you will need a full 3mm wetsuit.
For more on surfing in the Canaries get hold of a copy of the excellent Stormrider Guide: Atlantic Islands published by Low Pressure. And if going solo on a surf trip sounds a little daunting, Errant Surf Holidays (www.errantsurf.com) is a UK-based surf travel company that offers a number of surf holidays to the Canaries. Trips are suitable for learners.
Best Surf Breaks
El Quemao, Lanzarote
Very heavy and scary left barrel
San Juan, Lanzarote
Long, challenging left
Los Lobos, Fuerteventura
Long, hollow right-point break
El Fronton, Gran Canaria
One of the world’s heaviest waves – for bodyboarders only
Confital, Gran Canaria
Radical reef break offering huge tubes
Spanish Left, Tenerife
Long left with plenty of tube sections
Top Beginner Surf Spots
- La Caleta de Famara, Lanzarote With its endless stretch of sand and plenty of surf schools, it’s perfect for learners.
- El Cotillo, Fuerteventura Offers perfect learner conditions.
- Playa de las Américas, Tenerife Has a few mellow, learner-friendly waves and several surf schools.
Windsurfing & Kiteboarding
With constant winds, good waves and a perfect climate, the Canary Islands offer some of the best conditions in the world for windsurfing and kiteboarding.
International competitions are held here every year, and enthusiasts from all over the globe converge on the long, sandy beaches to test the waters. If you’re new to the game, beginners’ courses are easy to come by at all the main spots. Courses last between two days and a week and prices vary widely according to how much you’re aiming to learn.
The Kite & Windsurfing Guide Europe by Stoked Publications is a superb glossy guide to the continent’s best kite and windsurf spots. It includes chapters on the Canary Islands.
Best Windsurfing & Kiteboarding Spots
Playa de Sotavento de Jandía
Playa de Barlovento de Jandía
Year-round sun and warm water (18°C to 26°C) makes swimming an obvious activity in the Canary Islands. From the golden beaches of the eastern islands to the volcanic pools of the western islands, there are plenty of splashing opportunities.
Beaches come in every shape and size – long and golden, intimate and calm, family friendly and action-packed, rocky and picturesque, solitary and lonely, windy and wavy.
You do need to be cautious, especially when swimming in the ocean. The first rule is never, ever swim alone. There can be very strong currents and undertows in the Atlantic, and rip currents can be so strong that they can carry you far from shore before you have time to react. If you’re caught in a current, swim parallel to the shore (don’t try to get to the beach) until you’re released. Then make your way to shore.
The water quality around the Canary Islands is generally excellent. The only place you may find pollution is near ports (the occasional small oil spill is not unheard of) and on overcrowded tourist beaches. Smokers seem to think some beaches are a huge ashtray, so you may need to watch out for butts.
The Canary Islands have more than their fair share of beaches and trying to pick the best is likely to lead to heated arguments, but in the cause of good arguments everywhere here’s our list of the best of the best.
- Playa de las Canteras (Gran Canaria) This has to rate as one of the most enticing capital-city beaches in Europe; its 3km arc of golden sand fronted by a wide promenade is ideal for sunset strolls, while the reef ensures swimming pool-like waters at low tide.
- Parque Natural de Corralejo (Fuerteventura) Backed by Sahara-style sand dunes with powder-soft sand, these pristine natural beaches are among the island’s best.
- La Caleta de Famara (Lanzarote) A wonderful wild beach popular with kiteboarders and windsurfers, sporting a laid-back vibe and plenty of towel space on the sand.
- Puerto de la Cruz (Tenerife) The old dame of Tenerife tourism has the lot – stunning location, lots going on, safe swimming, all sorts of watersports and a wealth of places to stay and eat.
- Playa Santiago (La Gomera) OK, so it might be hard pebbles rather than soft sand, but with its shelter from the wind and cloud that can plague other beaches on the island, chilled-out hippy vibe, some good accommodation and great places to eat we think you’ll like this one.
- Puerto Naos (La Palma) It might be a purpose built resort but it’s low-key and easy on the eye. With soft black sand and generally safe bathing it’s perfect for all the family.
- Playa de las Arenas Blancas (El Hierro) On the wild island of El Hierro this white-washed gem of a beach is utterly pristine but often wind and wave lashed (so swimming can be dangerous). Some great coastal walks fan out from it as well.
Scuba Diving & Snorkelling
The variety of marine life and the warm, relatively calm waters of the Canary Islands make them a great place for scuba diving or snorkelling. You won’t experience the wild colours of Caribbean coral, but the volcanic coast is made up of beautiful rock formations and caves. As far as life underwater goes, you can spot around 350 species of fish and 600 different kinds of algae.
Scuba schools and outfitters are scattered across the islands, so you won’t have trouble finding someone willing to take you out. Try El Hierro Taxi Diver in La Restinga, Atlantik Diving in Puerto de Mogán or the Los Gigantes Diving Centre in Tenerife. A standard dive, with equipment rental included, costs around €35 to €40, but a ‘try dive’ (a first-timer diving with an instructor) can be double that price. Certification classes start at €280 and generally last between three days and a week. Many scuba outfitters also offer snorkelling excursions for nondivers; prices tend to be about half the cost of a regular dive.
Best Diving Spots
- La Restinga A wealth of marine life and plenty of diving operators to show you the underwater wonders.
- Puerto Calero Visibility up to 20m and especially warm waters. You’ll find marlin, barracuda and a host of other fish.
- Los Gigantes & Puerto de Santiago Wreck dives, cave dives and old-fashioned boat dives. Marine life ranges from eels to angel sharks and stingrays.
- Puerto de Mogán Dive in and around the caves and wrecks that lie not far offshore.
- Playa de las Canteras Not much of a scuba spot, but this is some of the most accessible snorkelling in the archipelago, just metres from the sand.
Whale-Watching & Boating
Around 30 species of whales and dolphins pass through Canarian seas; the most commonly seen are pilot whales and bottle-nosed dolphins.
The best area to see such creatures is in the waters between Tenerife and La Gomera, and a number of different operators run dolphin- and whale-spotting boat trips departing from the harbour at Los Cristianos.
Other whale-watching ports:
- Los Gigantes & Puerto de Santiago (Tenerife)
- Valle Gran Rey (La Gomera)
- Puerto Rico (Gran Canaria)
Whichever operator you choose it’s worth taking note of their environmental credentials (we have tried to include only responsible operators) as it’s not unknown for some boat operators to take their clients too close to the whales, which causes them undue distress and can eventually cause the whales and dolphins to completely change their behaviour or even leave an area altogether.
Away from whales and dolphins, virtually every tourist beach town in the archipelago offers some form of boat trip, but maybe the most impressive boat cruises on the islands are those running from Valle Gran Rey in La Gomera. The cruise boats float past kilometre after kilometre of impenetrable rock cliffs before arriving at one of the island’s most unique sites, Los Órganos (The Organs), a rock formation seen only from the water that does indeed look just like an enormous pipe organ carved into the rock.
In the past decade, southern Tenerife has become the Canary Islands’ golf hot spot. Golfers who love the balmy temperatures that let them play year-round have spawned the creation of a half-dozen courses in and around the Playa de las Américas alone. The courses are aimed at holiday golfers and are not known for being particularly challenging.
You’ll also find several courses around Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Maspalomas, one on La Gomera, and even a few on the arid islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura.
The lack of water on the islands makes golf rather environmentally unfriendly and a difficult sport to sustain. Golf-course owners say the water for those lush greens is used from runoff and local water-purification plants, but environmental groups say the golf courses take water from agriculture. The truth is in there somewhere, and local politicians, golfers, environmentalists and farmers are still arguing about where the water comes from.
In winter, green fees hover around €100, but in midsummer they could be half that cost.
If you’ve got strong legs, cycling may be the perfect way to see the Canary Islands. The price of renting a bike depends largely on what kind of bike you get – suspension and other extras will cost more. In general, a day’s rental starts at about €15, and a guided excursion will be around €45.
Best Cycling Areas
El Teide (Tenerife)
Alto de Garajonay (La Gomera)
Valle Gran Rey (La Gomera)
Los Llanos de Aridane (La Palma)
Fataga Ravine (Gran Canaria)