I arrived in the Tenerife, largest of the Canary Islands, to the following message from my colleague in Barcelona:
“Mr. Jones! I think you made my eruption!”
I couldn’t think of any way to translate that into something I wanted to hear, so I declined to respond.
Sometime later I received the following correction:
“Sorry, I meant the eruption! You hear about volcano?”
This made me simultaneously relieved and nervous.
It turned out that just as Soo and I were arriving in the Canary Islands an underwater volcano erupted, near the Island of El Hierro, forcing the evacuation of more than 600 local resisdents. (El Hierro hasn’t had the easiest of summers, suffering an estimated 10,000 earthquakes since the middle of July.) My colleague, knowing my history of finding myself in countries just as they’re hit by hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes, assumed this must be my fault.
But the “my eruption” line is a typo I’ll not soon let him live down.
The Canary Islands were formed by volcanic activity, fairly recently in the grand scheme of things. It’s estimated that they sprouted from the sea a mere 30 million years ago, the blink of an eye as the earth measures time, and the evidence of this archipelago’s violent birth are still everywhere in evidence.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I was almost entirely ignorant of the Canary Island’s topography, and was more than a little surprised to find so little greenery. I had also expected miles of aqua blue waves lapping at white sandy beaches. I simply heard “Canary Islands,” read our hotel’s description as beach-front resort, and assumed that, being tropical, it would be lovely.
And it’s not, at least not in the way I had expected. It’s striking, formidable and utterly fascinating, but far from anything most would equate with an ocean-side playground. The sandy beaches are few and far between, and those few that exist are swathed in grey or black sand.
Most of what you find along the shore is rocks. Miles and miles of rocks, pebbles and stones, extending out into the surf, and so slippery that you risk life and limb trying to clamber over them. (Our friend Natalia announced as much after two failed attempts, grumping sullenly that she had nearly broken legs both times, and was giving up, sticking instead to the comfort and safety of the pool.)
And it was a gorgeous pool. The Sheraton La Caleta Resort is stunning, superb in nearly every respect. We just need to work on their definition of “beach-front resort.”
The most exciting thing you find along Tenerife’s beaches, aside from the fat men in Speedos and frolicking half-naked girls that should have talked their men into shorts, are the rock stacks.
Once again proving that size really does matter, the most impressive are those piled the highest, seemingly precariously, yet oddly strong enough to withstand the wind, rain and the occasional minor quake.
The phenomenon of stacking piles of rocks as high as they will go seems to have sprung into existence all over the world, from Iceland to Aruba to Southeast Asia. But it’s fascinating to behold, and wonderful that instead of being toppled rowdy teenagers vandalizing the creations, everyone seems instead of have reached some unspoken agreement to protect and enhance this natural art as they go by. Soo and I dutifully added our little stacks, hers more impressive than mine, but neither in the range of some of the magnificent stacks we encountered. And I can’t think of a better way to bring alive the beauty of a barren rocky shore.
Not being able to much enjoy the ocean from the shore, we instead headed out to sea, to enjoy the gorgeous blue waters and see if we could track down some of the whales for which this area is known.
We met Carlos, a local boat captain who takes tourists out on adventures at the wharf in the charming little town of Los Gigantes, about 30 minutes north of our hotel, and headed out into the Atlantic in his little boat to “find de fish.”
By fish he meant pilot whales, pods of which can often be found in the waters surrounding Tenerife.
Pilot whales are similar to dolphins in size and appearance, somewhat larger with curved dorsal fins and more pronounced blow holes atop their heads. We found a group of about 15 almost immediately, and sailed alongside them for 30 minutes, watching them gracefully surface for air and dive back down. I think we could have lazed in this magical experience all afternoon and been happy, but Carlos had more to show us, so we reluctantly moved on.
Much of Tenerife’s Northern coast is dominated by huge, imposing cliffs and mountains, rising majestically from the sea. The waters surrounding the cliffs are a shocking cobalt blue, a color almost hard to believe exists naturally. And the waterline is pocketed with caves, some so large we could easily navigate our little boat right in, which we did, for lunch and a swim.
The water inside the dark caves was a bit chilly, but the stunning array of colors of the rocks lining the bottom and clarity of the sea made you quickly forget. Carlos loaned me snorkeling gear, and I happily explored every corner of our little cave while Soo and Natalia munched on sandwiches and downed champagne.
It was a magical day, in an extraordinary place, and one I’ll never forget.
The Canary Islands may not offer your prototypical beach resort, but upon reflection I think that uniqueness makes them more attractive. So many of the beaches I’ve visited, though lovely, are so similar that I have a hard time keeping them separate in my memories. I’m not likely to visit these out-of-the way islands on Africa’s Northwest coast again, but the distinct rugged beauty of Tenerife will forever loom large in my memory.