Visiting the Canary Islands
Map of the Canary Islands by Oona Raisanen. Larger Map
The sun-soaked, sub-tropical Canaries has an excellent year-round climate (thanks to their hot, dry, southerly location off the coast of Africa that is moderated by the Gulf Stream and Trade Winds). Also no-jet-lag four hour flights from the UK and other European countries, good beaches (albeit mostly grey sand) and extraordinary volcanic landscapes and parks.
In spite of the relatively small size of this island group four of Spain’s seven biggest nature reserves are found in the Canary Islands.
The Canaries have been tourist-oriented for many years and have a well-developed and reasonably priced vacation industry that caters easily to all sorts. Beach lovers, sun seekers (Norwegians ahoy!), wilderness hikers, and nightlife party people are all catered for.
The islands are a part of Spain but are not located in the Mediterranean like the Balearic islands of Majorca, Minorca and Ibiza. The Canaries pop out of the Atlantic Ocean near the southerly coast of North Africa’s Morocco and consist of seven islands. Two of them not-so-touristy volcanic blobs (Hierro and Gomera). Five of them full-on holiday destinations: Tenerife, Lanzarote, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and La Palma.
How to choose which of the Canary Islands to visit?
The big four – Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria and Tenerife – all enjoy good weather, magnificent volcanic landscapes, large beaches and all the usual tourist entertainments and facilities at a reasonable price.
The two busiest islands are Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
La Palma is the wettest island but confusingly Las Palmas, capital of Gran Canaria, is thought by US climate specialists to have the best climate in the world.
Columbus museum, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria.
Gran Canaria could be the intellectual’s choice due to the abundance of museums and long, interesting history of Las Palmas, the most cosmopolitan city in all the Canaries with its port and university, but the night life is exuberant but especially in the gay play-pen of Playa del Ingles and the dunes of Maspalomas.
Dunas de Maspalomas, Gran Canaria. Photo by Marc Ryckaert.
Tenerife’s Santa Cruz Plaza de España. Photo by Koppchen.
Tenerife is arguably the wildest, late-night party place of the Canaries with Playa de las Américas and Costa Adeje supplying plenty of action but the island also offers a great variety of daytime activity options including spectacular hiking, the highest mountain in Spain – Mount Teide, the most Spanish city in Santa Cruz, the best cuisine (it’s the only island with Michelin star restaurants), water parks, zoos and botanic gardens, wheely fun off-road vehicles, diverse and unusual marine activities and of course terrific beaches.
Cesar Manrique’s house in Lanzarote, Jameos del Agua. Photo by Norbert Nagel.
Lanzarote, Land of the Volcanoes, is rugged and spectacular and could be the arty traveller’s choice due to the island-wide vision and determination of brilliant artist and architect Cesar Manrique, coupled with a fine cluster of volcanoes and some wonderful sandy beaches.
A typical beachfront hotel in Fuerteventura.
Fuerteventura offers massive white beaches, great wind and kite surfing in a low-rain but strong-wind environment (the name is a bit of a giveaway) but little in the way of interior sights, walks, cultural or historical interest. And free-range willies. . .
One of the few La Palma seaside resorts. Photo by Tony Hisgett.
La Palma is much quieter, much greener and a fair bit wetter than the other Canary Islands, probably due to its location furthest from the African coast.
La Palma doesn’t depend on tourism but still has three main holiday centres, Los Cancajos, Puerto Naos and Tazacorte, the last two having statistically the most sunshine. All three have black sand beaches.
Caldera de Taburiente on La Palma. Photo by Tony Hisgett.
Tourism on La Palma is low profile and Spanish the main language so don’t go there for sunburned beach life, wild night moves or locals nattering in English. Walking is the main attraction on La Palma with hundreds of marked trails across the island, long and short, individual or guided tours.
A view of La Gomera in the mist. Photo by Tony Hisgett.
La Gomera is one of the least-developed islands with the pleasant beach and port town of San Sebastian, an OK beach resort called Playa de Santiago and agreeable but German-dominated resorts that do not welcome other nationalities at Valle Gran Rey.
Walking or biking the island’s forests and ravines is fine but note that roads run over the summits of Gomera’s hills so high-solitude is not easy. Golf, scuba diving, sailing and whale watching are favoured pursuits.
Playa del Verodal on El Hierro. Photo by Carlos Teixidor Cadenas.
El Hierro is the Canaries’ smallest island, a tiny space of green mountains, twisted lava, steep cliffs, rolling hills and forests with a sea drop-off that is great for scuba diving and a Marine Reserve of volcanic caves and tunnels that is rich in hammerhead sharks and manta rays.
In addition the island also offers the usual windsurfing, kite boarding, walking and mountain biking.
Valverde is the capital and the only town on the island to offer any night life.
Canary Islands Downsides
• A lot of the Canaries’ tourism is of the low-level package-holiday kind, with style-free hotels to suit.
• Beaches are frequently coated with black or grey volcanic sand though recently artificial golden sand beaches are being imported, such as Playa de las Teresitas, Tenerife, picture at top. Another development is the building of artificial lagoons in several locations, such as Lago Martianez in the photo below.
• The Canaries don’t offer any major tourist sights other than a few fine old buildings (mainly in Tenerife’s Santa Cruz), volcanoes and/or mountains, though there’s no shortage of dramatic landscapes or pleasant towns.
Playa Martianez and Lago Martianez in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife. Photo by El fosilmaniaco.
Canary Islands Weather
The best season should be the shoulder season from May – June and September – November with moderate temperatures, warmer seas, fewer tourists and lower costs, but higher altitudes may get foggy. However, just about any month is doable particularly if you go for the south coast on an easterly island in winter for more heat/less rain or a north-easterly coast anywhere in summertime for less extreme heat.
The Canaries High Season runs from December – April, and July – August
Statistically the sunniest region in Europe, the Canaries are described by excitable marketing flunkies as perpetual spring, which is an exaggeration but the Canary Islands do enjoy plentiful sunshine. They also get little rain or humidity and temperatures around 18C in winter and 25C in summer with occasional extremes above 30C in mid-summer.
However, this doesn’t mean that the skies are endlessly blue (note the amount of cloud in our photos) so keep expectations down to a reasonable level!
Wind is common throughout the islands but particularly blowy on Fuerteventura – brilliant for wind or kite surfing – so days idly sunbathing can end with visitors sandblasted rather than sunburned. Dust storms (see Calima below) also occasionally blow in from Africa.
La Palma island is the exception to the little rain rule, seeing a fair amount of grey skies and precipitation but as a result is greener than the other Canary Islands.
Confusingly Las Palmas (capital of Gran Canaria) enjoys the best climate in the Canaries and in the entire world (according to a US climatologist).
Note that there is also a significant difference in local weather patterns with those islands nearer to Africa being hotter and drier.
Also on each island the northwest coasts tend to be cooler and wetter than the southeast coasts so visitors might choose accommodation in the south in winter but in the north in summer.
Water temperatures are not very warm, ranging from 18C in winter to 22C in summer and the seas are frequently rough. The Canaries are embedded in the famously vast, cool and turbulent Atlantic Ocean so what do you expect?
The Calima: Every so often, particularly during the summer months, a climatic condition known as The Calima occurs.
Calima is basically a dust storm blasted across from the Sahara that causes an unpleasant, gritty fog. This not only discourages beach action and makes sightseeing and picture-taking less enjoyable but also may trigger allergic reactions or breathing difficulties in sensitive people.
The Calima can last from an hour to a week.
Accommodation is most costly in January and February and rain may fall, especially in the mountains.
July and August are the hottest months of the year and Spanish holidays so this is a hot, busy time.
Lanzarote’s best beach? Papagayo, Canary Islands, Spain
Things to do in the Canary Islands
Night life: there’re plenty of night moves on three of the islands.
Tenerife, arguably the most lively (in the capital Santa Cruz and Playa de las Americas).
Gran Canaria, the most gay-friendly (in the cultured capital Las Palmas and especially on Playa del Ingles beach).
Lanzarote (around Puerto del Carmen and Playa Blanca).
Beach life: generally excellent due to plentiful sun and good facilities even if fine light sand is generally lacking. After-sun activities range from wild exotic/Spanish culture and in some areas – notably Fuerteventura – nudists roam scaring the wildlife.
Windsurfing/Kite boarding: most of the Canary Islands are perfectly suited to these water sports with sunshine and winds as standard though Fuerteventura is often ranked at numero uno and is also the scene of annual windsurfing championships
Deep Sea Fishing: brilliant in the Canaries, positioned as they are way out in the Atlantic.
Walking/mountain biking: the islands offer interesting, well-marked hiking trails of varying lengths, with the exception of Fuerteventura which is too dusty inland (and gets overrun by motors) but has some good coastal paths.
Rental vehicles: Ranging from 4WD jeeps to 3 person trikes and ATVs, be cautious with your choice of vehicle hire and insurance. Off-road driving can be quite unsafe and damaging and the rental agents may try to weasel out of liabilities and hit you with a big bill. Fundamentally if you want to go off-road then get a dedicated 4×4 or ATV, preferably a beaten-up one and double-check insurance clauses!
Don’t drive too near other vehicles off-road as bouncing stones will chip the paint off your front end and don’t hurtle past walkers at high speed, this is extremely antisocial as dust and pebbles will blast them into a fury. . . imagine meeting them later in a bar! Rental insurance does not normally cover other islands than the one you are renting on.
Getting there: Most scheduled British flights land at Tenerife’s Reina Sofia airport. From there it’s a domestic flight to another island or a ferry job unless you’re staying in Tenerife.
Language: The Canaries is Spanish territory so their native tongue is obviously Spanish, though just about anyone involved in the tourist industry speaks English unless you’re in a German-dominated holiday resort area. An interesting language option for some visitors might be to learn Spanish and take a holiday too.
EU citizens do not need visas, nor do many other country residents – including USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, for visits up to 90 days.
Spanish sockets are mostly 230v and take 2 round pin plugs.
Spanish pharmacists usually speak good English and have wide powers to prescribe medicines. i. e. try them first for small medical problems. The sign is a fat illuminated green or red cross.