Lanzarote : First Impressions by a Visiting Tourist
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The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago of seven major islands and several smaller outcrops of rock to be found 100 kilometres (60 miles) off the coast of northwest Africa.
The history of these volcanic islands is long and varied, both geologically speaking and in terms of human habitation, but it is only in relatively recent times that the wider populace of Europe have been truly conscious of their existence, and the reason for that new awareness is very clear: The Canary Islands have become a favourite vacation destination for many European visitors, notably tourists from the UK, from Germany, and also of course from the Spanish mainland.
Why? The attraction for many of these holiday makers is simple - sunshine and warmth, sandy beaches and a stable, safe environment. Above all, guaranteed warmth. The Canary Islands provide the nearest location on Earth where warm weather can be assured throughout the year. In summer temperatures will be a hot but not intolerable 25-28°C (78-84°F), but even in winter daytime temperatures rarely drop below 19-20°C (66-70°F). As a result the tourists flock in their millions every year, and to all the larger islands, and in the major resorts they may greatly outnumber the local population at all times of the year. Tourism is the number one industry on the islands, and the lifeblood of many of the islands' economies.
The fourth largest of the islands is Lanzarote, and this page is a personal guide to this island, its resorts, its countryside, its beaches and attractions. It does not give a detailed account of all things Lanzarotean, but it offers the impressions of a first time tourist, and shows through the author's own photographs the experiences which one may expect to have in the island's tourist resorts, and the sights which one may see when travelling. It covers only in the most general terms the facilities, entertainments and tourist establishments in the resorts. Instead, the aim is to give a basic feel for the whole island to anyone who may be thinking of visiting.
The Island of Lanzerote - Interactive Map
This Google Map
This interactive map of Lanzarote shows the main towns and the resort of Playa Blanca, and also the Timanfaya National park. By choosing the map / satellite options and by zooming in or out using the + and - buttons, most of the sites of interest mentioned in this article should be visible.
Dragging the little man figure to the map will show photos of the area which can be rotated to different viewpoints.
The equable temperatures of these islands have already been referred to, and it is the main draw for visitors. Warm weather and predominantly blue skies can be expected in day time throughout the year. Lanzarote is dry, though some rain (2-3 cm) may occur in winter months. There are occasional strong winds, which may be a little chilly in winter. These winds mainly affect the eastern beaches - cooling the weather, but allowing for good windsurfing.
Lanzarote is the most easterly and northerly of the seven largest Canary Islands, and it has become one of the most popular tourist destinations of all. It can offer all of the attractions which are mentioned above - notably the development of large numbers of modern, beach fronted, tourist hotels in purpose-built coastal resorts. But it also has other appeals too, including an interesting and at times very dramatic landscape which awaits all who choose to venture away from the resorts and out into the countryside.
The island covers just 846 square kilometres (327 sq miles), and is home to about 140,000 people. But each year this number is swollen by the influx of more than 1.5 million visitors. It hasn't always been that way; back in 1970, a mere 25,000 tourists visited the island, of which nearly half were from the Spanish mainland. Just 2,500 came from Britain. But since the island's potential was recognised during the boom in package holidays and international holiday flights in the '60s and '70s, so the tourist infrastructure has grown dramatically. Today, nearly a million visit each year from the UK alone, as well as 300,000 from Germany and nearly 200,000 from Ireland. The great majority will come by air, arriving at the island's only international airport which is located on the eastern side near the capital Arrecife.
And from the airport, taxis, public buses, organised coach transfers or hire cars, will take the holiday makers to their destinations. An increasing number will be heading off to timeshare apartments or rented villas on the coast or in the countryside, but the majority will spend their days here in a tourist resort hotel.
Playa Blanca Resort
The images which accompany this feature were taken by the author in Playa Blanca in the extreme south of the island, but similar photographs could have been taken in any one of the other resorts on the island.
Tourist resorts of this kind are similar the world over, and for those who haven't yet experienced them, it is not difficult to explain what to expect. Acres of modern hotels, villas and apartments, and the hotels are usually equipped with swimming pools, bars and restaurants, and often with spas, gyms, and evening entertainments for adults and childrens' entertainments during the daytime. Other facilities and services may include currency changing, laundry, shops, car hire and excursion booking.
The resort beyond the hotel will feature many of the same facilities. Almost every other trading enterprise will be related to tourism - souvenir shops, night clubs, marinas, and of course more bars and restaurants and all necessary travel services. The atmosphere for the tourist is very much one of casual relaxation. And because of the nature of the resort, language barriers are rarely a problem - these places exist for tourists, and for no other reason.
On Lanzarote there are major resorts on the east coast, notably Puerto del Carmen and Costa Teguise. Puerto del Carmen is the oldest and most developed on the island with long stretches of sandy beaches and a vibrant nightlife which could make it the most attractive resort for younger visitors. It is also the closest to the capital Arrecife, and to the airport. Costa Teguise (not to be confused with the village of Teguise which is in the interior), was the second resort to be developed in the 1980s. Both of these resorts are also within easy reach of other facilities including golf courses and water parks.
The newest resort of significance is Playa Blanca, located in the extreme south of the island. This was the destination chosen by the author of this article. I selected Playa Blanca because of its close proximity to a volcanic national park, and also a series of excellent beaches, and because of the possibility of easy ferry excursions to Fuerteventura, another of the Canary Islands which lies just 12.5 kilometres (8 miles) to the south. And Playa Blanca also has a wonderful mountain backdrop as can be seen in the photo below. The nightlife isn't as lively as in Puerto del Carmen, but there is nonetheless plenty to do.
In truth, wherever you choose to stay in Lanzarote, nowhere is very far away, and getting around the island is easy, so any of these resorts will probably suit most visitors who are looking for this kind of holiday.
Two kinds of sand beaches and two kinds of beach location predominate in the Canary Islands.
The beaches can be most obviously characterised by colour - golden sand or black sand - and Lanzarote has plenty of both. Black sand beaches are very strongly associated with the Canaries and created, unsurprisingly, through volcanic activity. As lava from an eruption flows into water, rapid cooling and fragmentation, followed by weathering and abrasion of rock particles, creates the black sand. And many natural black beaches exist on Lanzarote, including one in Playa Blanca and one at El Golfo, shown here. Human beings have a tendency to prefer golden sand, and some resorts in the Canaries have actually shipped in sand from the Sahara to create their beaches, but there are also natural golden beaches, such as those at Papagayo on the south coast of Lanzarote.
As far as location is concerned, there are resort beaches and there are out of the way beaches. Resort beaches such as Playa Dorado and Playa Blanca will usually be safe for swimming, and have plenty of facilities on hand. But they can also be crowded and a bit soulless. Away from the resorts one can find real gems of beaches in picturesque settings such as the aforementioned Papagayo. But one must always be careful, as strong currents and variable water depths close to shore may make some of these beaches less safe. And of course facilities may be non-existent.
The Papagayo beaches are the subject of a special feature article.
Whatever one's choice it is easy to find a beach to suit one's dreams on Lanzarote.
The most unadventurous tourist may be content with the resort they are in, the hotel, the hotel pool and the local beach. But most (I hope) will want to get out and explore, at least to visit other towns and beaches, but also to see what else this island has to offer. And one good thing about an island such as Lanzarote, is that it is easy to find a means of transport.
One method is by bus. 'Arrecife Bus' is the operating company, and this is the cheapest way to get around. The routes take all the major resorts and larger inland towns. Discount Bus passes can be obtained to reduce the price if several journeys are planned.
Taxis can also be used, but may be an expensive if convenient option for anything more than local use.
Ferry boats are an enjoyable way of getting out to the neighbouring islands such as Fuerteventura to the south, and La Graciosa to the north of Lanzarote.
Cycling seems to be seriously popular among some who visit Lanzarote, though whether this constitutes a hobby more than a mode of transport is debatable. A lot of visitors use cycles to traverse the island and explore the remoter spots
Most of the hotels and resorts offer coach excursions to all the major attractions in Lanzarote, including full island tours, and a lot will take advantage of these.
However, I would strongly recommend a hire car. Islands like Lanzarote are great for driving around in your own car, and most hotels and resorts will have lots of options and packages available. On my trip I hired a car for two days - one spent visiting the Timanfaya National Park and neighbouring areas, and one spent exploring the whole island. And that is so easy to do. Indeed, this is the place to try your hand at driving if you're not confident of getting behind the wheel in a foreign country. All of the main roads and villages are well maintained and well signposted, and quite frankly - on an island which only measures a maximum of 60 km (37 miles) long by 20 km (12 miles) wide - you can't really get lost. And certainly away from the capital and the tourist centres, the roads are all pretty quiet. Driving on Lanzarote is a delight.
At least in terms of its native flora, Lanzarote is not perhaps the most obviously beautiful of all this Earth's islands. Indeed there appear to be more trees planted by people in the towns and villages than exist naturally in the surrounding countryside.
But nonetheless, the scenery has a dramatic quality expressed in barren landscapes, and created by a violent explosive history. Volcanic cones and craters, richly coloured laval rocks, impressive sea cliffs, and hillsides which are dotted with the occasional pretty little white-washed village - all make this a surprisingly picturesque and photogenic island to drive around.
And you can easily drive around it in a day, though I would suggest at least two to make the most of all the best sights and attractions. A few of these sights - both naturally scenic views and man-made attractions - are briefly reviewed below. However, I should emphasise that this is a personal photoessay, so only attractions which were visited by the author will be described with a few photos. Others will only be mentioned in passing.
Timanfaya National Park
Unquestionably the most important natural attraction on the island is the Timanfaya National Park. This is a region of about 51 sq km in the west of the island which was the site of a series of massive volcanic eruptions in the 18th century. Lava flows over a period of six years between1730 and 1736 covered a quarter of the surface area of the island. That in itself was a dramatic event, but the island's dry climate and lack of erosive forces has allowed these lava flows, as well as the volcanoes which created them, to remain more or less intact ever since, preserving the eruptions in craters, volcanic cones and great plains of solidified magma. A visit to the site is well worth while. It can be found along the LZ-67 between Yaiza and Tinajo. Entry to the park costs a few euros, but inside there is a tourist centre and restaurant and coach tours around the lava fields. And demonstrations of geothermal activity - still present just below the Earth's surface - are held. Just beyond the park boundary there is also the opportunity to take a camel ride across the volcanic rock.
Timanfaya National Park is such an important part of this island's appeal for any who wish to explore, that I have devoted a separate page to the subject:
On the south west coast there is a natural attraction linked to the volcanic activity of Timanfaya. This is a bright green pool of water near a village called El Golfo. It exists as part of the remains of an old volcanic crater, the sides of which form a backdrop to the pool. The colour of the pool - known in Spanish as the Green Lagoon 'Charco de Los Clicos' - is due to a green alga, and coupled with the natural black sand of this area and a cliff face of reddish and yellowish rocks (especially nice at sunset), El Golfo is a unique and attractive sight.
And the drive up to El Golfo along the coast road LZ-703 past Los Hervideros is an exceptionally scenic route. The hillside and the red cliffs depicted in earlier photos, and the sea cliffs below, are all to be found along this road.
Vineyards at La Geria
Of all the sights which can be seen in Lanzarote's countryside, perhaps the most unique and characteristic are the vineyards. The dry climate means that quite innovative techniques need to be employed to successfully grow a commercial vine crop. The technique used is a method of farming called 'enarendo', devised on Lanzarote after the volcanic eruptions 200 years ago devastated the island's agriculture. The vine crop is planted in fields of 'picons' - black volcanic ash granules, which have the property of absorbing and retaining whatever water there is. This can then be extracted by the crop. A layer of several centimetres of picons covering the soil is enough to keep the plant supplied with water for several years. The problem of the drying Lanzarotean wind is solved by building low walls of stones to shelter the crop from the prevailing winds. These walls are of various forms, but most typical are small semi-circular structures of the kind shown in the photos here. Within the semi-circle a pit is excavated to give further protection and to concentrate morning dew around the crop, and a single vine is planted in this pit.
The result of this curious but effective method of agriculture without irrigation is the production of fine wines famous the world over, including malvasia and moscatel. One location in particular is well worth a visit for here the vines grow in abundance. The region of La Geria in the centre south of the island along route LZ-30 between Uga and Teguise, has large numbers of small vineyards which cover many of the hillsides and valleys. They make for an intriguing sight.
Mirador Del Rio
Considered by many to be the very best scenic viewpoint on Lanzarote, Mirador del Rio is in the far north of the island. Ironically, however, the vista here is not Lanzarote at all, but rather it is the island of La Graciosa which lies 2 km (1 mile) off the coast. La Graciosa is the smallest inhabited Canary Island, just 8 km (5 miles) long. One can visit the island by ferry boat from Orzola on the north Lanzarotean coast, but alternatively you can just view it from Mirador del Rio, which is a 475m look-out point on a nearby escarpment. There are facilities including a restaurant and toilets, and a viewing telescope, but it does cost a few euros to enter the building here. If all you want to do is admire the view, you can see almost as much from the road outside. However, this is the most conventionally beautiful part of the island and certainly it's well worth taking a trip up to Mirador del Rio just to gaze out over the cliffs at La Graciosa and other, even smaller islands to the north.
Cueva De Los Verdes
One more natural attraction deserves a mention. On the northeast coast of Lanzarote is a very unusual natural cave - unusual because 'Cueva de los Verdes' (the Green Cave) was not created by water. It was created by a lava flow from the Corona Volcano, 3000 years ago. A tunnel or 'lava tube' extends for 6 km underground and a further 1.6 km under the sea. In places it is more than 15m wide and high. Today sections of the cave are illuminated and it is possible to take escorted tours which show how the lava carved through the rock before disappearing into the sea, leaving the empty tube behind. It's worth doing for the experience and for the rock structures on show. And the guide will take great delight in springing a surprise half-way through! (I won't reveal it here, because it'll spoil the surprise for any who intends to visit, but I will tell you in a private e-mail if you wish.) Cueva de los Verdes is on the LZ-204 - a turning off the main east coast road LZ-1 and the northern country road LZ-201.
The Varied Attractions of Cesar Manrique
One quickly gains the impression on a visit to Lanzarote that the nature of the developments which the island has undertaken in recent years is down to one man - César Manrique (1919-1992). Manrique is something of a hero on the island - an artist and architect who also had a passion for steering his beloved island home in an environmentally sound direction. His influence pervades almost everything, including the scarcity of ugly high rise hotels on Lanzarote. His influence is also felt in numerous sculptures and other architectural designs around the island, including the restaurants at Timanfaya and Mirador del Rio. All over the island, you see the legacy of this great Lanzarotean.
Fundacion César Manrique This was originally Manrique's home near Tahiche in Eastern Lanzarote, but it is now the centre of his life work and thinking. Inside are examples of his artwork and wind sculptures, but more intriguing may be the design of the building itself. Underground rooms have been dug out of volcanic lava caverns to create living spaces.
Los Jameos del Agua At Los Jamos del Agua, very close to the Green Cave, a large underground volcanic cavern has been transformed into an auditorium, restaurant and bar. A pool is home to some unique pigmentless crabs, and back in the daylight there is a fantasy style swimming pool!
Jardin de Cactus This is the Cactus Garden, another Manrique creation. A vast round bowl in the ground is now home to thousands of well maintained Cacti and other succulents. Visually, the garden is beautifully designed and to be found about 20 km from Costa Teguise on the east coast.
Casa Museo del Campesino This attractive little sculptural exhibition is to be found on LZ-30 in the centre of Lanzarote near the village of San Bartolome. The name translates as 'Monument to the Peasant Farmer' and it is a celebration of agriculture, fertility and culture, with examples of Lanzarotean handicraft on display. The large sculpture outside was - of course - designed by César Manrique.
This is just the briefest of guides to some of the attractions, museums and exhibitions associated with Cèsar Manrique. I would urge any would-be visitor to read up on just what there is to see in Lanzarote, and take the opportunity to see it when you come.
The Villages - Teguise
Much has been said about the holiday centres of Lanzarote, but only cursory mention has so far been made of the other side of life on the island - the villages of the local inhabitants. But the villages deserve at least a little more attention because from the perspective of a tourist, they do add considerably to the aesthetic appeal of the countryside.
In truth almost every settlement on Lanzarote could be described as a village - even the capital, Arrecife, only has a population of little over 50,000, and once one gets away from the coast where the tourists are, it is like travelling back to a simpler age.
Buildings throughout Lanzarote are decked in white paint, and usually shutters and doors are dark green. As a result the villages have a clean look, unsullied by the tourist boom. And again César Manrique must take a lot of credit for this.
Arguably the prettiest of all villages is Teguise, set on a hillside right in the centre of the island at the junction of LZ-10 and LZ-30. Teguise, one of the most ancient villages on Lanzarote and one-time capital of the island, is home to many historic buildings, just a few of which are pictured here. It is also home to a renowned market of Lanzarotean crafts which takes place in the village every Sunday.
One could spend a pleasant hour or two wandering around one of these villages just watching the locals go about their business to see how life was lived in the days before the tourist influx first began. And for the visitor it completes the picture of the real Lanzarote which I have been trying to paint, a Lanzarote so different from the world of the resort hotel.
On my visit, what should I have done differently? Mostly it's to do with the sights which I couldn't see in a six day visit. I wish I had visited the Fundacion César Manrique, but I didn't (hence no photos!) I wish I had visited La Graciosa, and I wish I had taken in the view from the Castillo Santa Barbara above the village of Teguise. indeed, I wish I could have spent much longer in Teguise itself. Above all, I wish I could have walked in Timanfaya National Park, rather than just taking a coach tour around the park. In short I wish I could have spent more than six days in Lanzarote to do all of these things.
This article is written by an ordinary tourist, equipped only with a camera and a car, and with no connection to Lanzarote other than the desire to get away for a nice vacation in the winter months of the year. That vacation was taken in the first week of February 2014, and it lasted six days. Four days were spent in the resort of Playa Blanca or in the region around the resort. Two days were spent travelling in the countryside. This article is simply my recorded impression of the island - the tourist centres and the areas away from the tourist hot spots.
And it is a favourable impression. Lanzarote is an island of winter warmth and summer heat, an island of purpose-built tourist resorts where visitors can spend time without the stress of being in a foreign country, because there is nothing alien about the culture. 90% of the inhabitants of the resorts are tourists, and all they have to do is enjoy themselves and be waited on. And with well maintained hotel pools and golden beaches close at hand, and nightlife laid on in the evening, many will be content to do just that, and have the time of their lives.
But Lanzarote is an island to explore; an island of quirky architectural attractions, an island of extraordinarily interesting geography and geology, an island of pleasant countryside, an island of pretty villages. Everyone who visits should make the most of their time and enjoy the whole of the island and not just the beach front hotel.
These are my impressions - there's much which could not be covered after such a brief visit, and many sights which I could not see, but I truly hope that for any who are thinking of visiting this island in the sun, my impressions will be of some value.
Please feel free to quote limited text and photos from this article, on condition that a viable link back to this page is included
All photos taken by the author between 31st January and 5th February 2014
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