Tenerife: Spain’s Botanic Treasure
The best-known of Spain’s Canary Islands is Tenerife, its touristic fame established nearly a century ago by the British who still wait out winter at its beach resorts. Its beaches are not the best on the islands – Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura have those – but it has more variety than most other islands.
Spain’s highest point, the snow-capped cone of El Teide, stands above a caldeira whose jagged rim encloses a barren, but beautiful landscape of colorful stone, formed by eons of volcanic fury. A road leads across it and hiking trails strike out through its expanses and around the dramatic El Roque formations and up El Teide itself. An easier route is via a cable car that ends close to the summit.
Less known is the road from El Teide along the top of the Cumbre Dorsal, the mountains that form Tenerife’s spine. The road goes right along the ridge, providing views of El Teide and the sea on both sides. At La Tarta the road winds through fantastic layered sandstone formations carved by the winds that sweep these heights.
A huge Drago tree, Drago Milenario, brings visitors to Icod de los Vinos, on the north shore. The venerable tree is best seen from the terrace beside the church of San Marcos. Inside is an altar of silver and gold and in its museum, one of the finest silver filigree crosses in Spain. In the 1600s, Spanish ships stopped at Tenerife, laden with riches from the New World.
Streets of mountainside La Orotava are lined with colonial mansions from the same era, two of which are craft centers showing the island’s famous embroidery and lace. Delicate carved wooden balconies overlook the street and the interior patios. The 19th-century gardens of Marquesado de La Quinta Roja cascade into the central square, filling three acres of ravines and terraces with flowers. But they are only one of the islands outstanding gardens.
In nearby Puerto de la Cruz, Jardin Botanico began in the late 1800s as a place to acclimatize plants brought back to Spain by botanic explorers so the plants could survive in mainland gardens. Today its cool and shaded paths lined with dense, lush tropical foliage and flowers are a welcome respite from the busy town below. Overlooking the town from a steep hillside, Risco Bello Aquatic Gardens descends in terraces of pools and ponds surrounded by 600 varieties of plants.
At the edge of town, Loro Parque delights all ages with a zoo, marine park and gardens where 4000 species of animals, birds and aquatic creatures from tigers to whales live in natural environments. Europe’s largest dolphin pod performs at several shows each day.
While fewer travelers spend time in the island’s lively capital of Santa Cruz, there’s a lot to see and do there. Graceful churches are decorated in gold and the excellent Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre traces the archepelago’s volcanic and human history and its natural treasures. Most fascinating are exhibits on the Guanches, who lived here before the Spanish colonized the islands. Rare remaining examples of Guanche mummies are displayed here.
Learn more about Tenerife’s original inhabitants at Piramide, not far from the capital. The Norwegian anthopologist Thor Heyerdahl — of Kon Tiki fame – spent his last years studying this set of stone pyramids, tying them to his controversial theories of population migration. Whoever built these well-constructed pyramids, which align with the winter and summer solstices, it is clear the site was occupied by Guanches. A tour of the extensive site, the viewing of an excellent documentary film, and a visit to the small museum may not answer all the questions, but they do provide fascinating glimpses of island prehistory.
On the way out of Santa Cruz, stop to see architect Santiago Calatrava‘s magnificent Auditorio which highlights the city’s waterfront. Its white curves seem to continue the forms of the breaking surf below, while soaring above artist Caesar Manrique’s Parque Maritime, a playground of seawater pools and palm-decorated terraces.
Although not as high as the Cumbral Dorsal, the Anaga Mountains are well worth a days drive north of the capital through Parque Rural Anaga. Drop down from this narrow ridge to the beaches of Taganana. Or take a bus to the top or the shore and hike the network of trails along the steep north shore. The park office at Cruz de Carmen’s Visitor Centre has excellent trail maps, along with a little museum on flora, fauna, geology and the people who settled in these mountains. Mirador Pico del Inglés is a spectacular lookout point that can be reached by TITSA bus 073 (as can the park headquarters at Cruz de Carmen).
Photos by Stillman Rogers