As a traveller, I try to arrive in new places with an open mind and not form an impression based on things I’ve read or heard from others. That said, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what Gran Canaria was about before heading there earlier this year: mass tourism, good surfing and a buzzing digital nomad culture.
And Gran Canaria is each of these things. But it’s so much more besides.
It’s been described as an island of many faces, and with good reason. It has magnificent mountains, deep ravines and stunning craters, yet is fringed with beach resorts, ranging from secluded coves to huge tourist beaches with sunbeds crammed on every grain of sand. It has a desert, yet its interior has areas of rainforest. The tourist resorts lining the south are crammed with people, but drive a short way and you could be the only person around. It has a spiritual core and a reputation for brashness.
The diverse landscapes of Gran Canaria mean the island experiences extreme microclimates – you could be baking on a beach in the south, while sheltering from rain in the lush, mountainous north, and bemoaning the seemingly constant cloud in the city of Las Palmas (which I did a lot!).
With all this packed into a circular island only 1,560 sq. km. in size, it’s little wonder Gran Canaria has been called the world’s smallest continent.
As a fun way of showing off the diversity of the island, I thought I’d highlight some interesting places moving from south to north, inspired by a road trip with friends. During our journey I was fascinated to watch the landscapes of Gran Canaria vary dramatically as we drove from the desert at Maspalomas northwards into the heart of the island.
What better place to start than Gran Canaria’s little desert, the Maspalomas Sand Dunes (Dunas de Maspalomas), at the southern tip of the island.
Stand in the middle of the dunes and it’s like being in another world; it’s certainly a world away from the brash resorts of Maspalomas and Playa del Inglés, which bookend this natural wonder.
The dunes have a soft, natural beauty. As I looked around me, I could sense they were in a constant state of flux, moving and shifting in the famous trade winds that blow around the island. Small grains of crushed shell caught the sun, glinting in my eye and making the sand twinkle around my feet. The golden expanse was occasionally broken by areas of scrub that house desert creatures like the large Gran Canarian lizard. I could smell the salty tang of the nearby ocean, yet I only needed to wander a short way in to find my own private bit of desert.
Just watch out for naked bums – areas of the dunes are reserved for nudists, but, like the dunes themselves, they’re in constant motion so you never know what’s over the top of the next dune!
As we headed inland from the Maspalomas Dunes, we soon reached the Fataga Valley, a 15-kilometre canyon that winds into the heart of the island. The result of ancient lava flow, it’s the epitome of a dramatic landscape.
One of the best spots to gaze in wonder is the Mirador Degollada de la Yegua. This viewpoint offers a 360 view of the wide valley floor and the almost-vertical ridges of the craggy mountains that lead into the island’s interior. Yet as I looked behind me, I could still see the blue glint of the ocean and the golden undulating dunes.
But while the landscape contrasts with the softness of the dunes, the environment is similar. This is a harsh place, scorched by the sun. The only plants that survive here are semi-desertlike vegetation with the occasional flash of greenery on the valley floor where palm trees feed off natural water sources. This has led to the Fataga Valley being named the ‘Valley of the Thousand Palms’.
As we drove inland, following the Fataga Valley along a winding road with hairpin bends clinging to one side, I became aware that the landscape seemed less scorched. Small areas of scrub become fuller and greener and palm groves grew larger and more frequent, one of them housing the small village of Arteara and the island’s largest aboriginal burial site. The mountainside changed from inhospitable rocks to smaller stones, before patches of grass started carpeting the valley walls.
At the heart of the valley is the village of Fataga, perched on a rock at over 600 metres above sea level. The modern part has a pretty church and square, and there are souvenir shops and restaurants catering to tourists. But it’s the old part that stole my heart.
Narrow carless streets separate pretty white-and-stone houses topped with terracotta tiles. Vivid blooms spill over pots while abundant bougainvillea creeps along walls and climbs up houses, providing splashes of colour like an Expressionist painter’s palette. The mountains rearing up on either side have a covering of grass, while palm groves, pine trees and farms growing oranges, lemons, grapes and apricots surround the village. It’s considered Gran Canaria’s most beautiful village – with good reason.
The Mirador de la Sorrueda is roughly level with Fataga, but to reach it we had to double back at San Bartolomé de Tirajana, picking up the GC65. This is another beautiful, winding road through the Tirajana ravine (Barranco de Tirajana). Like Fataga, the vivid greenery and brightly coloured plants are characteristic of this part of the island – it feels vibrant and alive.
The viewpoint looks over the Presa de Tirajana reservoir (also known as the Presa de la Sorrueda), which sits in the basin of the ravine. The manmade reservoir looked bottle green to me, though this could have been a reflection from the landscape – large palm groves surround the reservoir, while cacti and various shrubs jostle for attention. The area is dotted with tiny white houses, while mountains stretch into the distance. It’s a picture-postcard view, and definitely worth the drive.
La Fortaleza is a series of volcanic rock formations in the heart of the island, close to la Sorrueda. Once home to ancient aboriginals, remains of their settlement can be seen in a number of caves they used as dwellings and burial sites.
Numerous archaeological artefacts have been discovered here, many of which are on display in the nearby interpretation centre and in the Museo Castillo de la Fortaleza in Santa Lucía.
I didn’t have time to visit the museum or interpretation centre, choosing instead to scramble around the impressive site trying to imagine life for the native islanders, who lived here over 800 years ago.
The most impressive part of the site is la Fortaleza Grande, the largest of the rock formations, which looks like a fortress. Halfway up is a cave that narrows to an opening on the opposite site, where the ground drops away dramatically over an almost-sheer cliff with a spectacular view over the Tirajana ravine.
Historians believe this to be the site of la Fortaleza de Ansite, where native islanders took their last stand against the invading Spaniards. The islanders took refuge in the cave before being starved out and surrendering, except, according to legend, Bentejui their leader who preferred to jump to his death rather than surrender his home.
Gran Canaria’s explosive origins are visible across the mountainous heart of the island, where a number of volcanic eruptions blew giant craters in the land. One of these, the Caldera de Tirajana, is the starting point for the Tirajana ravine and home to two of the region’s main towns, Santa Lucía de Tirajana and San Bartolomé de Tirajana.
The picturesque village of Santa Lucía is just north of la Fortaleza and it pushes Fataga for the coveted title of most picturesque village (though I think Fataga pips it!). Traditional Canarian houses line quiet cobbled streets, decorated with palm trees, cacti and other succulents, while balconies and window boxes spill over with flowers. My favourite part, however, was the beautiful Iglesia de Santa Lucía with its mosque-like dome and the riotous colour of the flowerbeds beneath the stairs that zigzag up from the square.
San Bartolomé de Tirajana, known locally as Tunte, is the capital of the municipality, which stretches to the coast at Maspalomas. Located at a crossroads between valleys, there are hiking routes in this area dating back to aboriginal times, suggesting this has always been an important crossing point in the island’s history. There isn’t much to draw visitors to the town, but the nearby Hotel Rural Las Tirajanas has a magnificent viewpoint with a bird’s eye view over the crater. When I visited, low clouds hung over the tips of the craggy mountains accentuating the dramatic vista, while the verdant vegetation showed this wasn’t a one-off – this part of the island definitely sees more rainfall than further down the valley.
As we wound our way further north, we reached the spiritual heart of the island: Roque Nublo and Roque Bentayga, both located in the Nublo Rural Park.
Roque Nublo, or Cloud Rock (named because of its tendency to disappear into the clouds), is an icon of Gran Canaria. Standing at 80 metres high and 1,813 metres above sea level, this volcanic crag is one of the biggest freestanding natural rocks in the world. For ancient islanders, this narrow rock jutting towards the heavens was also a significant place of worship.
Nearby Roque Bentayga, which stands at 1,412 metres above sea level, was also worshipped by aboriginals. Three rocks make up this magical spot where evidence of religious activity can be seen via archaeological finds, burial sites and cave paintings. There’s an interpretation centre at its base if you want to find out more.
Wherever you are in Nublo Rural Park you can usually see at least one of these rocks presiding over the landscape, a mixture of barren rocky ground, arid plains and forests of Canarian pines. It’s a special place in the heart of the island.
Artenara is the highest town on Gran Canaria, and it clings to the mountainside on the borders of the Nublo Rural Park. It’s visible for miles thanks to the Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (Sacred Heart of Jesus), a mini-me of Rio’s famous Christ the Redeemer. The sculpture looks over the town from its position on one of Artenara’s miradors, although poor ole Christ has his back to the best view over Roque Nublo and Roque Bentayga! He does, however, look over the metal sculpture at Mirador la Atalaya, an abstract steel representation of the landscape dedicated to the workers who established this area as a World Biosphere Reserve.
The town has a small square, village church and small pockets of houses, many of which are cave houses built into the rock with modern facades. Most of them are privately owned, which is a shame as I was dying to have a nose inside. They hark back to a traditional Canarian way of living. Aboriginals lived in cave houses in Gran Canaria and there are several archaeological sites here, although they’re not especially well signposted and not all open to the public, so check access details before visiting.
One cave you can visit is la Ermita de la Virgen de la Cuevita, a tiny chapel dug into the cliff face that was a place of worship for the native islanders. It was transformed into a chapel after the conquest, and today houses a carved stone altar and pulpit with the focus on la Virgen de la Cuevita, a statue revered in Canarian folklore. It’s also said to also be the patron saint of cyclists, which is fitting as this is popular cycling country though you need to be fit (or completely crazy) to cycle some of these roads!
I found it fascinating driving up the island, watching the landscapes of Gran Canaria slowly transform from desert to craggy mountains, then spring into life with verdant vegetation mirroring the rainfall in different parts of the island. North of Artenara, it becomes wilder, more tangled and reminiscent of the ancient rainforest that once covered the island. I’ve written about this in Teror and the Finca de Osario.
There’s one more Gran Canarian weather phenomenon to mention. As we drove north back to Las Palmas from Artenara, a low-lying heavy bank of cloud rolled in from the sea, obliterating everything in its path as it slowly ate its way across the land. It was an eerie experience to watch and feel – the air temperature dropped notably as the cloud swallowed the view before my eyes, causing a little shiver to slip down my spine.
As I watched the cloud slowly devouring the landscape, I reflected on Gran Canaria’s many faces. Whether you head here as a sun-seeking tourist, a wave-chasing surfer dude, or a digital nomad, make time for a trip into the heart of this spectacular island and a journey around her diverse landscapes. Just don’t expect a cloud-free sky!
Have you been to Gran Canaria? What’s your favourite part of the island – do you love the desert or are you drawn to the island’s green, spiritual heart?
I lived in Las Palmas for a few months in this gorgeous flat that’s now a hot Airbnb property (if you haven’t signed up to Airbnb yet, use my link for a discount of your first stay). Alternatively, there’s loads of accommodation around the island. Check the latest hotel prices on Agoda, and see TripAdvisor for the latest hotel and apartment reviews.
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