A lot of people were a little surprised when we said we we were going on holiday to Tenerife. The Canary Islands are a haven for beach lovers and beer guzzlers though, so I suppose it did seem rather far removed from our usual adventures. But we had undertaken a smattering of research and we knew that the volcanic Spanish island could offer more than beaches, beer and fry ups.
We have a slightly strange love of local transport. There is something quite rewarding about successfully negotiating foreign lands by local bus, shared taxi or worse. But we also have wonderful memories of our time in New Zealand, where we hired a car. Having the car gave us the freedom to explore thoroughly, and it was this sort of licence to roam that we wanted for this short break. So we hired a car.
I was very proud of myself when I found a great car hire deal online 3 weeks before we left. The company I found offered a mid sized car for less than £20 per day. On reflection I think we will return to “making it up as we go” next time. We queued for 3 hours for our car at the Goldcar desk at Tenerife South airport, whilst the other more well known providers sat and twiddled their thumbs. If you take one thing from reading this blog, it should probably be that you never ever use Goldcar if you travel to The Canaries.
That said, the car itself was fine. I had never driven a left hand drive car on the other side of the road before, and despite assurances from many people who have, I was still a little apprehensive. I promptly hit the kerb as I drove out of the car park and Claire had to politely suggest I drive on the correct side of the road shortly afterwards. I also had an annoying habit of trying to change gear with the door handle at the most inappropriate moments.
After leaving the airport the quick run along the motorway went well, but then we had to climb up into the hills to our hotel in Vilaflor. Driving along the endless switchback roads to get there was a baptism of fire that would set me in good stead for the week.
Our hotel, Alta Montana, was an absolute gem. We had a wonderful room with a curving balcony looking out across the hillside and down towards the south coast. At 1,400m above sea level Vilaflor is the highest village in Tenerife, and after a couple of hours sleep we awoke to see the sun setting across a beautiful layer of cloud below us.
The staff at Alta Montana were great. Faultless in fact, and though they spoke only a few words of English my limited Spanish was enough to plug the gaps. Our conversations left things vague enough to make our evening meal at the hotel a bit of a surprise. We had Canarian Soup (meat, noodles, chick peas) and then a hunk of slow cooked beef with big lumps of vegetable placed around the plate. That may sound like a lazy description, but that really does sum it up. I forgot to take a photograph, but rest assured that it ticked all of the claireandmarkgotravelling boxes. Tasty. Ugly.
Whilst staying at Vilaflor we wanted to explore the western area of the island, including the Volcano of Teide, which looms over the island when it isn’t hiding in the clouds.
When we woke on our first full day we decided to explore the west coast first. As we descended the perilous roads I was a little more relaxed and able to take in the surroundings. The south coast is quite arid, and the locals use agricultural terracing for growing crops. Claire and I both agreed that it reminded us a little of Peru, without the hair raising bus journeys.
The road descended through small settlements before eventually reaching the resort town of Puerto de Santiago. This was a place that was recommended to us by friends, on the basis that the town was fairly low key. It apparently has a large British Ex-pat community, but they were presumably all in bed hungover when we were there. We had breakfast at a slightly dubious bar, received some alarmist advice from the English waiter – “don’t drink the tap water here mate” (he was selling us drinks at the time) – and then walked to the edge of town to see the real draw.
Los Gigantes are the highest cliffs in the Canaries. In places they reach the staggering height of 500 meters. One can take a boat trip to see them, but we were happy to see them from afar and then head off into the hills above the cliffs.
The roads were again challenging but my confidence was growing so we decided to press on to the isolated town of Masca. The western area of Tenerife is a fairly dry mountainous region with patches of strikingly green vegetation against the backdrop of the volcanic debris. This area is accessed by winding roads which patiently make their way up and over steep mountains. We first reached the town of Santiago del Teide, which looked sleepy and pleasant, before turning left for Masca.
Thereafter the road was more often than not balanced perilously on steep hillsides. Gradually it climbed, through endless switchbacks, up and over the highest point. From here we could see the tiny town of Masca far below, balanced on a steep ridge, and beyond, the Atlantic and the islands of La Gomera and La Palma.
We descended carefully into the village and parked up to explore. The village of Masca is said to be the most spectacular in Tenerife and it is very hard to disagree. The few buildings seem to be placed in positions which defy gravity, and the main street winds it’s way along the ridge line. We strolled, admiring the views and then bought some fruit from a local guy. His family had been residents of Masca for many generations and their garden was positioned right in the middle of town. He proudly pointed out some of the various fruit trees from where he had plucked the fruit that morning. He was selling mandarins, cactus fruit and persimmon fruit, all of which we tried. There is something very satisfying about eating fruit so fresh. We bought a bag of mandarins and some almonds for our onward journey.
We followed the road northwards and eventually reached Buenavista del Norte, and from here we had hoped to drive to the most westerly point on the island, the remote Faro de Teno. We had been warned that the road to Faro is often blocked in bad weather. As the road signs had all been removed and warnings put in place we decided it was probably best we not continue.
Instead we set off along the northern coast to Garachico, undoubtedly the unluckiest town on the island. It’s history is one of storms, floods, fires and epidemics, and then in 1706 an eruption buried a large part of the town in lava and destroyed the port which gave the town it’s livelihood.
Now, however, the town is a lovely example of what a small settlement in Tenerife would be like without the tourist resorts and bars. It sits below a high cliff, and has wonderful cobbled streets and a delightful plaza. The inhabitants speak very little aside from Spanish, which was pleasing as I was enjoying having the chance to practice my Spanish. We strolled and then had lunch in a restaurant which served nothing but Canarian food.
The most famous of Canarian foods is the Papas Arrugadas, which translates as Wrinkly Potatoes. These are quite salty and pretty non descript until you eat them with Mojo. The Mojo is a salsa, of which there are many types. Coriander, Chilli and Parsley appeared to be the most popular. All three are delicious and would bring life to any meal.
The other amazing gastronomic discovery of this meal was bread with fennel seeds. I love the aniseed flavour of the fennel seed and when baked within the excellent bread of Tenerife they seem to work some magic. I try not to eat much bread, but this bread was irresistible.
Garachico has no beach or large hotels, which is no doubt why it feels so authentic and genuine. It does have some natural swimming pools within the lava on the shore though. Not that swimming would have been sensible on the day we visited.
This was turning into an epic day. I was now enjoying the driving and the climb back up into the hills backs to Santiago del Teide weaved gradually up and over the cliff above Garachico. The view back down to the town was fantastic.
The next day we awoke early to make our to the top of Teide, the highest point in all of Spain. Due to some confusion as to the time difference (there was one it transpired) we actually got up an hour early.
To get to the Teide we had to climb a further 1,500m in the car. This road weaved it’s way into the forests above Vilaflor, where the harsh volcanic ground has a soft brown coating of pine needles. As a mountain biker (of sorts) it looked so appealing. But we pressed on, eventually clearing the tree line and passing through and then above the clouds before driving into the caldera of Canada Blanca. This was the original volcano, which collapsed inwards and from which Teide eventually grew.
The collapsed caldera stretched out in front of us. On a larger scale it is essentially flat, but the ground is strewn with jumbled lava flows and scattered rocks. Navigating across the caldera would be impossible without the road, which itself seemed unique in Tenerife for its straightness.
The day before we departed my Mum brought my nephew William to see me. William is 5, and when I explained that we were going on holiday he did that thing that kids do when they are not interested. He just completely ignored me. In an attempt to get a reaction from him I introduced a little drama. “We are going to climb a volcano” I said. He turned to look at me, suddenly interested. In his mind a volcano violently spews molten rock high into the air. Then I went and committed myself. “I’ll bring you back a rock” I said. He was happy.
So when I found out the night before our climb that stealing a rock from the volcano is a criminal offense I had a dilemma on my hands.
From around 2,350m there is a well established climbing route. There is also a cable car. We took the cable car, which deposits passengers 200m short of the summit.
This was the highest we had been since we left Peru in May of 2011. Back then Claire had absolutely no problems with the altitude whereas I struggled to adapt, suffering headaches and extreme lethargy. So I was a little concerned as to how my body would cope.
Once we exited the cable car and set off, Claire once again showed a seemingly incredible ability to perform at altitude. After 30 seconds of trying to keep up my lungs were crying out for oxygen and I had to stop. It is an unsettling feeling to be breathing as hard and fast as you can but to feel no better. Slowly though I started to catch my breath and I set off again, this time much slower. My legs were feeling weak and I was slightly dizzy. A couple of times I missed my footing.
Claire, no doubt out of sympathy, slowed and waited for me. She was struggling too though. In South America we made our way to altitude slowly, which allows the body to adapt and makes the whole process easier. Here we had gone from sea level to 12,000ft in less than 24 hours.
Another couple were also climbing at the same time as us. They too were struggling but in the end the four of us reached the peak. The view was breathtaking in every possible way. A 360 degree view is not an easy thing to attain and the feeling of not knowing where to look takes a few moments to pass.
The Spanish Government only allow 200 people to go the summit each day and it necessary to arrange a permit in advance. The permit is free, though the cable car costs 25 Euros. Our twenty minutes at the peak were nice and peaceful as a result though. We then picked our way down, chatting to a German couple as we descended. They had spent the previous five hours climbing without the aid of the cable car, which probably explained why they weren’t that interested in the view. I felt awful having climbed for only 20 minutes!
That morning before we set off, blessed with more time than I needed to get ready, I read about the Spanish Guardia Civil opening a UK diplomatic bag at the Gibraltar border. This was a rare breach of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. As we descended in the cable car I ran my thumb over the rough surface of the small rock in my pocket. My small act of defiance felt justified, and William would get his rock.