Canary Islands in detail

Activities

Being outdoors is what the Canary Islands are all about. With year-round balmy temperatures, limited rain threatening to stymie your adventures, clear waters, wild waves and a literally breathtaking variety of landscapes, you'd be forgiven for not wanting to spend any time inside at all.

Hiking

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 trails, ranging from easy strolls ending at lookout points to multiday treks across mountains and gorges.

To hike your way across the Canary Islands, the GR131 trail is a well-signposted trail that crosses all the islands apart from Gran Canaria. Some hikers say it misses some of the more interesting trails, but this is not surprising considering it does not and cannot include every trail; it's a fascinating and dependable way of criss-crossing most of the islands, whatever you think.

When to Go

You can walk in the Canary Islands any time of year, but some trails become dangerous or impossible in rainy weather (more likely between October and March), and others (like the trek up to the peak of El Teide) may be harder to do during these same months, if 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.

Hiking On…

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; in the far northwest, the hamlet of Masca is the gateway to some stunning, and very challenging, hikes; and Adeje in the south leads to the stunning Barranco del Infierno hike.

La Gomera

Thanks to a near-permanent mist (called horizontal rain), the green forest of the 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 follow the mountainous ridge of the park, hike up to mountain peaks or head down to the Puerto de Tazacorte. 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. The Ruta de los Volcanes runs down the southern volcanic spine of the island to Fuencaliente.

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. The dunes south of Corralejo offer extensive hiking opportunities; there are scenic trails along the north coast; the Isla de Lobos is a hike-worthy island; you can explore the verdant land around Betancuria; or discover the sandy extents of Playa de Cofete.

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.

Best Hikes

Among our favourite hiking areas are walks around the Unesco-protected Los Tiles biosphere reserve on La Palma and the dunes of Maspalomas on Gran Canaria. The most rewarding individual hikes:

Hiking Off the Beaten Path

As well as the big-ticket walks there are plenty of off-the-beaten-path hikes throughout the Canary Islands. Bear in mind there is a wealth of hikes heading off from most points; the Parque Nacional de Teide, for example, covers a huge area and is home to many trails. 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 or present dangers. Watch out for closures too (at the time of writing, the Barranco de Masca was off-limits to allow it to regenerate and to improve safety within the gorge, and the trail up Mount Tindaya on Fuerteventura was closed to hikers).

Hiking Books

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.

Discovery Walking Guides The best books in English for the general walker; publishes guidebooks and accompanying maps to Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and Tenerife.

Sunflower Books Hiking guidebooks to all the islands.

Cicerone These walking guides are also very popular and include each of the islands (Walking on Tenerife, Walking on Gran Canaria etc).

Rother Walking Guides Highly informative guides covering Tenerife, Gran Canaria, La Palma and La Gomera.

Local Maps

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, you may find trails that are less well marked. If you're drawing a blank at the tourist 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. Alternatively, it's a good idea to use the many available hiking books for each of the islands, some of which also contain maps (eg the Discovery Walking Guides).

Water Sports

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 beachbreaks 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.

Surfing

The Canary Islands offer a superb surfing environment. There's long hours of sunlight, a warm climate and 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. There's also a wide choice of schools with classes for children as well as adults; a number of surf schools also offer accommodation. 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, The Stormrider Surf Guide: Canary Islands, published by Low Pressure, is available as an e-book and is a handy resource. 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, suitable for learners.

Best Surf Breaks

Surf SpotWave Type
El Quemao, LanzaroteVery heavy and scary left barrel
San Juan, LanzaroteLong, challenging left
Los Lobos, FuerteventuraLong, hollow right-point break
El Fronton, Gran CanariaOne of the world’s heaviest waves – for bodyboarders only
Confital, Gran CanariaRadical reef break offering huge tubes
La Izquierda (Spanish Left), TenerifeLong left with plenty of tube sections

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, beginner 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.

Swimming

Year-round sun and warm water (18°C to 26°C) makes swimming one of the biggest attractions on the islands. From the long, 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, black and volcanic.

The natural pools of El Hierro in particular, La Palma (Charco Azul and the pools at La Fajana) and Lanzarote (Punta Mujeres) are also excellent for swimming and can be dramatic in rough weather.

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. If you try to swim against the current, you can rapidly tire and then you're in trouble.

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.

Best Beaches

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 Cofete, Fuerteventura Quite possibly the most adorable, unspoiled stretch of golden sand on the entire archipelago.
  • Playa del Risco, Lanzarote Remote and untamed, only accessible by boat or a long and steep 4km hike.
  • 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 surfers, 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 water sports and a wealth of places to stay and eat.
  • Isla Graciosa Beautiful, wild, pale-gold to-die-for beaches.
  • 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, relaxed seaside atmosphere, some good accommodation and great places to eat we think you’ll like this one.
  • Playa 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 beach is utterly pristine but often wind and wave lashed (so swimming can be dangerous).
  • La Maceta, El Hierro Quite possibly the best of the island's natural seawater pools.

Diving & Snorkelling

The variety of marine life and the warm, relatively calm waters of the Canary Islands make them a great place for 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.

Diving 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, Arrecifal, Green Shark and Centro de Buceo El Hierro in La Restinga; Canary Diving Adventures in Puerto de Mogán; or the Los Gigantes Diving Centre in Tenerife. Lanzarote is also well-supplied with dive schools, especially in the main resorts of Playa Blanca (Dive College Lanzarote, Rubicon Diving), Puerto del Carmen (Manta Diving, Safari Diving) and Costa Teguise (Aquatis Dive Center, Calipso Diving). On La Graciosa, Buceo La Graciosa is a good choice.

A standard single dive, with equipment rental included, costs from €30 to €55, but a ‘try dive’ (a first-timer diving with an instructor) can be double that price. Certification classes start from around €330 and generally last between three days and a week. Prices tend to be more competitive on El Hierro. Many diving outfitters also offer snorkelling excursions for nondivers; prices tend to be about half the cost of a regular dive.

Freediving

For those of you who want to explore the ocean depths on one, long breath, freediving has made inroads on several of the islands, including Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote and El Hierro. Schools that offer freediving include Apnea Canarias on Tenerife and Magma Kitesurf School on Fuerteventura.

Whale- and Dolphin-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 include Los Gigantes & Puerto de Santiago (Tenerife); Valle Gran Rey (La Gomera); Puerto Rico (Gran Canaria); and Playa Santiago (La Gomera).

Whichever operator you choose it’s worth taking note of their environmental credentials 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 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.

Golf

Southern Tenerife has become the Canary Islands’ golf hotspot. Golfers who love the warm temperatures that let them play year-round have spawned the creation of a half-dozen courses in and around Playa de las Américas alone. The courses are aimed more at holiday golfers and are not known for being particularly challenging. In balmy winter, green fees hover around €100, but in the sweltering midsummer they could be half that cost.

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 scarcity 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 argue 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.

Cycling

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 €50. All the islands, including La Graciosa, are well equipped with bike-hire outlets.

Best Cycling Areas

RouteLevel
El Teide (Tenerife)Advanced
Alto de Garajonay (La Gomera) Advanced
Valle Gran Rey (La Gomera)Moderate
Los Llanos de Aridane (La Palma)Moderate
Fataga Ravine (Gran Canaria)Advanced