World Travel Guides

Canary Islands - Off the beaten track

The beach of the Puerto del Carmen, Isla de Lanzarote


In 1405 Jean de Béthencourt thought this the best place to set up shop, on Isla de Fuerteventura, and he gave his name, corrupted over time to Betancuria, to a tiny settlement of his house and a chapel. The island's proximity to the North African coast meant that North African and European pirates overcame the town's natural defences several times and sacked it, and only 600 people live there now. You can see ruins of the island's first monastery, built by the Franciscans, and the 17th-century Iglesia de Santa María watches over the centre of the settlement. Pirates destroyed the original gothic building in 1593. A short walk from the church is the Museo de Arte Sacro, containing religious art, gold and silverware. The Casa Museo de Betancuria houses a mildly interesting collection of Guanche artefacts.

A couple of kilometres north of town is the Mirador de Morro Velosa, which offers mesmerising views across the island's weird, barren landscape. South of town is the Vega del Río de Palmas, a dry watercourse that is nevertheless wet enough below the surface to keep a stand of palms going.

You can fly to Fuerteventura from all of the other islands except La Gomera, or take the ferry from Las Palmas; however, once you reach the capital, Puerto del Rosario, you may have to hire your own transport, given the poor state of public transport on the island.

Isla de El Hierro

El Hierro is about as far as you can get from the tourist hordes, bars, international restaurants and oil-streaked, cavorting naked Swedes. It is a rural island largely untouched by tourism, and the green farmland divided by rough stone walls is more reminiscent of the Irish countryside than a subtropical beach resort. The capital is Valverde, the only Canaries capital not on the coast, and it's a lovely, red-roofed town of about 1600. The walking is good on the island, and you can pass through hamlets such as Echedo, in the heart of wine growing territory, or the cheese producing village of Isora. In the damp and misty centre, some of the towns have been deserted, but a few herdsmen still run small flocks of sheep, goats and some cattle.

You can fly to the island from Tenerife and Gran Canaria, and there are also frequent ferries. El Hierro is about 245km (152mi) west of Las Palmas.

Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente

This was the fourth national park declared in Spain, in 1954. Its massive wall of volcanic rock is about 10km (6mi) in diameter, and its only real opening, the aptly named Barranco de las Angustias (Gorge of Fear) lies to the south-west. The walls drop away in some places as much as 2000m (6560ft). The park covers 4690 hectares (11,584 acres) and at its lower levels is covered by dense thickets of Canary Island pine. Landslides are not infrequent as the forces of erosion are hard at work. Although calderas are volcanic craters, Caldera de Taburiente is not a crater but the result of slow excavation by erosion over millions of years.

The park is easily accessible by bus or car from Santa Cruz de la Palma, 8km (5mi) to the east.

Santa Cruz de la Palma

Santa Cruz is a small town, and most points of interest lie within a few blocks of the waterfront Avenida Marítima. The heart of the old town and the prettiest part of it lies around Plaza de España and Calle de O'Daly. On O'Daly you'll find the 17th century Palacio de Salazar, now home to the tourist office, and along both sides of the street is a mix of shops, bars and offices, most of them in centuries-old Canarian mansions. On the rise behind the Plaza de la Constitución is the modest 16th-century Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Luz, one of Santa Cruz' few small chapels. Some beautiful old houses lie on the waterfront, brightly painted and with a wonderful assortment of balconies. If you go north along Calle de O'Daly you come to the heart of old Santa Cruz, with the 16th-century Ayuntamiento (town hall). The hall's interior has magnificent tea tree ceilings, as does the nearby Iglesia de San Salvador, which dates from the same period. At the Casa del Tabaco you can see cigars being hand made.

There are frequent air connections to Tenerife, but fewer to Gran Canaria. Some flights link Santa Cruz direct to mainland cities in Spain, and ferries sail to Tenerife and La Gomera.

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