Look on the Bright Side

Sunrise on Teide

When you plan a vacation to an island that gets 300 days of sun a year, you would expect your holiday to be filled with glowing rays right? Well, that is what my husband and I had planned for when we booked our trip to Tenerife, the biggest of the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain. We imagined relaxing on the beach, taking sunny mountain walks and coming home brown as berries. Well, that’s not exactly how it panned out, but in the end, the trip, albeit with a bit of crazy weather, was a great island vacation.

To get an idea of the island size, think of Tenerife as a bit smaller than Rhode Island. Sprinkled with interesting and lively little pueblos, we drove the island freeway loop a few times during our trip to discover these lovely little towns full of hospitable people, rich history, and delicious treats.

In the small town of El Puerto, we first stopped off in a little tasca – neighborhood bar/restaurant – for lunch. The friendly waitress with her permanent tan rushed through the Menu of the Day and although I speak Spanish, hers was almost impossible for me to understand. Try to imagine having a really fast conversation with a person from Alabama or Mississippi – all their words kind of mush together into one phrase. How are you doing? becomes Howy’alldoin? Well, same effect in Tenerife. My Spanish is quite crisp and I enunciate most everything as they do here in the north, but the island life has made these people’s tongues lazy and it took a bit more concentration on my part to comprehend the laundry list of food she ran through.

Somehow we settled on a tuna salad and calamari. The calamari was delicious but the tuna salad surprised us a bit. We had expected a green salad with tuna sprinkled on top, but what came out was cooked tuna with onions and peppers surrounded by sliced fried potatoes. Delicious nonetheless, our full bellies were happy to rest on the black sand of the beaches while we took a Spanish siesta. While many people think of a beautiful island covered with white sandy beaches, the beaches of this island are the exact opposite – made from leftover lava from Spain’s highest mountain – Mount Teide.

We set off in the car toward a small village called Taganaga, nestled in the Anaga Mountains on the northeastern tip of the island. Founded in 1501, its sugar cultivation boosted the population, and although it is said to be in one of the most beautiful parts of the island, it has somehow escaped tours traipsing through. The windy and steep hill to the bottom of the valley brought us to the town entrance and our small rental car felt like it might not be able to squeeze down the narrow cobblestone streets. Upon entering, we saw a bunch of chirigoteros, and parked the car to get out. A chirigota is a group of locals who just come together spontaneously and start playing music for the town. Being Sunday, the group had gathered in front of the main church, which was founded in 1515. Although it is a small village, it seemed like everyone was there! Not only singing or clapping along, but also drinking and dancing. A very typical way to drink in Spain is from a leather bag, which you fill with wine that you squirt into your mouth. We were the only tourists and smiled along with the locals, which I guess they appreciated, because one friendly one offered us a squirt!

A local street party

Another day we happened along a restaurant with all its windows open and the smells wafting from the run-down kitchen were delicious. All I had heard about and read about food-wise were these papas arrugadas – which is the Spanish (Canary Island Spanish at that) way of saying wrinkled potatoes, so that’s what we ordered. Now, I was thinking crinkle-cut fries, but these are actually small potatoes boiled until the water disappears so that the skin turns wrinkly and then heavily salted. Served with some sauces called mojo, they were tasty, but to me, it was kind of like eating a extremely overcooked baked potato. To accompany our typical dish, we ordered some cuttle fish, which is also quite common on the island and was delectable.

We also managed to visit a small little village nestled in the mountains named Masca. With only 150 residents, this village defies gravity, as it sits on hills at 70 to 75 degrees! Spilling over every wall it seemed there was a gorgeous bright-magenta flowering bush that complimented the red poppies and blooming prickly pears orange flowers.

Rich bioclimates.

On a somewhat sunny day we headed toward a trail and set off on a walk to the most northeastern part of the island. The day before we had seen dry arid land, with cacti spotting the red ground or rocky hills.

However, Tenerife has more than 15 different bioclimates, so the landscape that we saw as we started on the walk was completely different. Bright green cactus trees sprouted from the ground, while vivid yellow flowers dotted the rocky path. From time to time, a sole red flower would squeeze its way into the cacti covered hills. The strangest thing was that here these strong cacti were sprawling as far as we could see, but at the same time, we were walking along the coast! The oxymoron made for a delightful walk and also let us discover plants I never had even imagined – one cactus grew a long thick stem out from a tough bush and the stem jutted out at a 90-degree angle, with its flower hanging horizontally over our heads; or a small little flower that had what looked and felt like furry leaves; or the cactus that we saw in many stages of development that started green, then the backsides of its leaves changed to a magenta-ish red, then out popped a stunning pink flower.

Cactus hunting reveals a furry flower

After a few days on the island, we began the hike that had convinced us to pick this island out of all the Canary Islands – Mount Teide. Tenerife was so named by the inhabitants of the nearby island La Palma. In thier language, tiner meant mountain and ife was how they said white – so in the end, they called the island, White Mountain basically. Why would you name an island with the Sahara wind blowing over it a White Island? Because of this mountain! Even as we were laying on the black sandy beaches we could make out little bits of snow atop the peak!

We woke up at 5 am and were out the door to start the hike in the dark. With the winding road up the steep mountain, I would have loved to have seen all the flora and fauna in the daylight, but as we strapped our hiking lights on our heads and hit the ground walking, the excitement made it worth it. Around 6:45 am the sun started to peek out from the eastern clouds. Our quick pace stalled quite a bit as we couldn’t let the stunning oranges and deep reds reflecting off the clouds pass.

On top of everything, we were completely alone. Not many people start the hike so early, so the silence was deafening and the view astounding – one of those magical moments where you inhale deeply to take in the whole scene, and if it’s really good, you close your eyes and capture that split second in your heart forever.

Island life means surprise tenants

We lathered on the sun screen and started hiking again. The landscape was quite barren, with only a few green plants managing to pop up here and there. Then strangely, huge boulders started to appear. Called ‘Huevos de Teide’, or Teide Eggs, they are massive rocks ejected from past volcanic eruptions and seem so out of place on the rolling hills.

As we trekked higher, the sandy-colored pebbles transformed into dark and jagged rocks. After about a 45-minute walk along the wide path, we started what seemed like a never-ending ascent which later changed into a patchwork of old lava rocks and snow. After more than hours of trekking, we made it to the park station, where the park ranger let us pass to the final climb to the peak. Being a national park, this reservation had to be made in advance but was free. The final 1,000-foot ascent was incredibly taxing – a massively steep staircase fashioned out of the mountain’s own rocks led us on a intense 20-minute last push to the top at 12,198 feet.

The Guanches, the original inhabitants, called this mountain Echeyde, and to them it had the same significance as Mount Olympus did to the Greeks. The legend goes that Guayota, their devil, kidnapped their god of sun and light, Magec, and locked him in the volcano, which covered the earth in darkness. The Guanches prayed to thier supreme god, Achamán, for help, and so Achamán fought Guayota and Magec was freed. Achamán plugged up the volcano Echeyde wtih Guayota, and he is locked inside. When the mountain would erupt, the Guanches would light fires to scare Guayota away, thinking the eruption was him trying to escape or fuming with anger.

With such a wealth of stunning flowers and strange cacti covering the island to the rocky paths of Teide to the black sandy (and hot) beaches of the south, to the singing locals in Taganaga and the hand-carved balconies in the Candelaria, this little island offered us a very memorable stay. So, while we didn’t hit the jackpot on the weather, I kind of look back on the clouds as a blessing – as it made us visit so many hidden places that we wouldn’t have thought to venture to.