Monday, April 23, 2012

Las Canarias Part I: Paradise or tourist hell?

Rob, Pinus, and me in Vilaflor

The first night of our Canarian adventure was an emotional blow for me. Most people would be delighted to find themselves unexpectedly stranded in a resort-destination island paradise, but I had some doubts since my only previous notion of the islands was drawn from the rumors of pasty Brits and Germans who flock there in droves to escape their frigid wintery homelands--carefully avoiding any bother of having to part with the comfort of home. As an American I imagined something like Cancun part II--all the drink you can stomach with walls precisely calculated to a height that ensures you can enjoy the hot Mexican sun without accidentally glimpsing a little of Mexico. For some people it's paradise; for me it's called tourist hell. 

Unfortunately, our first impressions did very little to contrast this preconception. There are no walls, but they aren't necessary as the entire south shore of Tenerife comprises of a string of hotels and restaurants that exist solely to support the tourism industry. Nobody from the Canary Islands ever lived there because the environment is inhospitable to any activity other than boozing on the beach. Fortunately, just like there's more to Spain than matadors and flamenco dancing, there's more to the Canary Islands than La Playa de las Americas!

Apparently Mexican food comes with fries!

Rob and I spent the first night in a classy hotel (a tourist hell has its perks!), then rented a(n automatic!) car so that we could scour the rest of the island for adventures not to be found at home--and we weren't disappointed! Although it's true that the majority of the tourism in las Canarias is centered around beach resorts, there is also a lot of diversity to explore in both natural and cultural heritage. We made our way up to Los Gigantes, which could be described as a bit of a mini tourist hell, complete with beaches, resorts, and restaurants of every imaginable ethnicity (except, perhaps, Canarian), but the atmosphere is more mellow than in the towns farther south. And they have one advantage that no one can complain about: The view! The "giants" are aptly named after the huge volcanic cliffs that tower over the town.

Los Gigantes

Once you make it past the high-rise hotels, Tenerife's natural and cultural beauty really shines. You can imagine the island as the shape of a triangle, having three principal coastlines where, as would be expected, the majority of the population is centered. The south-west coast is what I described as tourist hell, and the south-east shore, with a similar climate, is more or less a (beautiful) desert, but the north shore is an altogether different picture. The climate is wetter and the towns there are vibrant with everyday activity--and breathtaking scenery! If you're ever in Tenerife I recommend that you stay on the north shore in Garachico. The town itself is charming with an unassuming atmosphere, and it is well situated to visit many of the notable places on the island, especially the northern approach to Los Gigantes. To the south of the cliffs is their namesake town and all of its tourist attractions, but the north side is even more scenic (especially the winding drive) and there are some trails, a lighthouse, and a beautiful beach! 

El Teide hovers over Icod de los Vinos

Rob in the colorful streets of Garachico

It doesn't get any quainter than this

"El drogo" The iconic Canarian dragon tree in Icod de los Vinos

The interior of Tenerife is the least populated area, but I instantly fell in love with the pueblos scattered throughout the mountains. Most of them can only be reached by incredibly windy roads--and by incredible I mean tedious and terrifying in some cases. As a flatlander, hairpin curves on a 45º incline with no guardrail--and not to mention five cars stacked up behind you--is an experience! It was definitely a smart move to part with the extra cash for an automatic transmission. Rob can tell you all about my white knuckles and  backseat driving, but all fears aside, the drives were enchanting, and the sleepy towns along the way appealed to my small-town side. The streets were quiet and cafés seemed to be the local spot to congregate. Some of my favorites were Tamaimo, which we passed through frequently going to and from Los Gigantes, and Vilaflor in the south. Vilafor is notable because it is the home of "El Gordo," a special Canarian pine tree that dominates the sky at 4,512 meters tall! 

Lovely Tamaimo

A view of the empty streets from the bustling café

My favorite Tamaimo hangout

In summary, there's more to the Canary Islands than beach resorts and pasty tourists! There are beautiful towns, breathtaking landscapes, and mouth-watering meals (more on the food later)! The beaches are lovely, but the islands have a lot more to offer! 

What do you think of resort vacations? Has a tourist attraction ever surprised you with its local charm?

A true Canarian!

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