Landing in Tenerife is a bit like landing on an ornamental placemat. Wherever you look, there are swatches of green, indicating dense forests, the blue of the ocean, red-roofed homes, and, looming over it all, Pico del Teide, the volcanic peak rising like a phoenix from the land. My Tenerife adventure begins in its capital city, Santa Cruz, which is also the shared capital of Spain’s Canary Islands—there are seven main islands. Before taking off on a road trip to explore the highlights of the island, I linger in cosmopolitan Santa Cruz.
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Considerable effort has been put in to make this city a dynamic hub. Emblematic buildings like the Tenerife Espacio de las Artes, designed by the Pritzker prize laureates and Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, illustrate the city’s forward-thinking spirit. Cutting edge and contemporary in structure, design and thought, this arts space is defined by a large light-filled gallery, hosts temporary exhibitions and displays such stellar work as the art of local surrealist master Oscar Dominguez on permanent display. The library that’s part of this complex is as worthy of a visit, with its inviting open plan space and cubicles to read and relax.
If you have time for just one more museum, let it be the Museo de Naturaleza y Arqueologia. Located in a magnificently restored former civil hospital, one section of the museum offers an overview of the island’s flora, fauna and geology. Key to the viewing experience is the section that deals with the lifestyle and culture of the Guanche, the original inhabitants of the land. The Guanches, believed to be related to the light-skinned Berbers from North Africa, are thought to have arrived on the island sometime in the first millennium BCE. Prehistoric skulls sit along tools, jewellery and objects of daily life, offering insight into the little-known life of these original inhabitants.
From Santa Cruz, I drive 23km away to the Anaga Rural Park, spread over roughly 140 sq. km. The park, a biosphere reserve, has pine-clad mountain chains, deep valleys, ravines and unique fauna and bird life, like the Laurel pigeon. That the park has such a variable range in altitude means that depending on which part you are exploring, you are treated to unique endemic flora. For instance, the highlands are punctuated with laurel trees, while palm trees and dragon trees are found at lower altitudes.
I visit the Mirador Pico del Inglés Path in the north. Walking under a tunnel formed by moss-covered branches of dense cloud forest, upon a carpet of leaves, is nothing short of magical. Evergreen trees absorb moisture from the winds, the moisture drips down the lichen strands that hang from the trees, ensuring hearty growth of ferns and moss.
Exploring the park by car is a good way to negotiate it, for there are many lookout points and trails—all easier to get to if you have your own vehicle. The Pico del Inglés viewpoint, for instance, offers views of Mount Teide and of other Canary islands rising from the sea, like Gran Canaria and La Palma, which saw a volcanic eruption in 2021.
Next on the cards is the former spa town of Puerto de la Cruz. It takes me 45 minutes to drive there from the Pico del Inglés viewpoint. Long used as a retreat for European visitors escaping the winter back home, the place retains a gentle charm. The fishing dock remains as it used to be. On the seafront is Lago Martiánez, a large artificial saltwater pool complex, with grand ocean views, imagined by the legendary artist, sculptor and architect César Manrique. Around the complex are bars, gardens, terraces and sculptural installations. A 14-minute drive away is the picture-perfect dark volcanic sand beach of Playa el Bollullo.
From Puerto de la Cruz, I drive 31km to San Cristóbal de La Laguna. This former administrative capital, founded in the 15th century, is a fine example of a preserved historical site—it’s now a Unesco world heritage site. Remarkably, the town’s centre is laid out upon a grid structure. I begin my exploration at Plaza del Adelantado in the city centre. On streets around this central square, in a palette of warm colours, lie many fine examples of the city’s colonial heritage, a vast number of buildings built between the 16th and 18th centuries.
The lavish ornamentation on the woodwork—from fine ceilings to intricately carved balconies, are testament to the skill of the woodcarvers.Everything that was built appears backed by logical reasoning. For instance, latticed shutters allow the air to circulate while blocking out the sun. Plants and fountains by the patio and courtyard give a feeling of cool relief in the warm climate. Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, the oldest church in Laguna, built in 1496, has an elaborately painted wooden ceiling. The pedestrian streets around the monumental and historic buildings of the centre have lively gastronomic establishments and one-off stores selling traditional products, from pottery to textiles to basketry.
Another bucket-list tick for most, 32km away, is a second Unesco world heritage site, the Teide National Park, spread over 180 sq. km. The Teide volcano that lies within the park is, at 3,718m, the highest peak in Spain. Travellers can trek up or ascend Mount Teide by cable car. Options to navigate the park surrounding Teide include driving through or setting off on treks to explore surreal scapes, craggy peaks and craters—all features that contribute to the park’s reputation as one of the most diverse assemblages of volcanic landscape. Exceptionally clear skies indicate that it would also be worth spending time at the Teide Observatory for some star-gazing.
Just 62km away, the landscape transforms. We are driving now towards Costa Adeje, in the tourist area in south-western Tenerife. The area is defined by long sandy beaches, water sports, an abundance of malls, a 40-hectare golf course, and all combinations of luxury resorts.
For a few hours, I go dolphin- and whale-watching on a boat excursion with White Tenerife from the nearby Puerto Colón Marina, learning to distinguish between, and understand the behaviour of, creatures like the pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins that surround us. I spend the evening sipping signature cocktails to the accompaniment of grand views in the Zambra sky bar, atop the Hotel GF Victoria.
When the sun is finally about to set, I am lying on El Duque, a beach that bears a blue flag, certification given by the Foundation for Environmental Education, owing to the fine quality of its waters and services. Upon brilliant sands, by topaz waters, under a parasol, I finally unwind to the relaxed pace of local life in Tenerife.
Sonia Nazareth is a writer and an anthropologist based in Mumbai.
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