TOAST Magazine

Seeing the World Anew | The Canarian Island of Tenerife

TRAVEL & PLACE

Mónica Goya re-explores the island of Tenerife, the homeland of her family.

It was an early spring day when I observed the colourful bougainvillea near the main square of my family’s hometown on Tenerife. The bright daylight filtered through, giving the pink vines an almost orange marmalade shine to it.

For years, I have been attracted to the inescapable magnetism of distant places, of that elusive emotion that comes with the thrill of the unknown… I used to only fully devote to explore when discovering new horizons.

That weekday I was running some errands. The fragrance of jasmine, always a harbinger of spring, was captivating. And slowing down, I wondered why was I keeping the same hectic London rhythm while away, why the fast pace, the need to arrive quickly, the shortest commute... That joyful bougainvillea - a plant that loves the sun and the heat and hence is not a common sight in London, the city where I have lived for the better part of the last decade - stopped me in my tracks.

When you visit a familiar place regularly, a place where you have spent significant periods of your life, you are neither a tourist nor a local. That bougainvillea had been there since my childhood, but I had never seen it. Then the classic Marcel Proust’s quote came to mind, “mystery is not about traveling to new places but about looking with new eyes.  

To be an explorer, to keep enquiring eyes and a sense of curiosity when in locations that you visit year after year, the city where you live or simply places where you have spent a considerable amount of time in, takes some effort. However, in this age of constantly hurrying, nothing can be more exhilarating than taking the time to unwind, wherever you are.

And in that mindset, I sat down in an ocean-facing modern concrete bench and I asked myself how many times had I appreciated, or even noticed, how exceptional it is to snack on local tropical fruits while contemplating the sometimes calm, and sometimes furious Atlantic Ocean sitting on lava rock, dark as coal? How many times have I hiked in the ancient rainforests of Canarian laurisilva, not realising the miracle that is to have them intact, for our own, free enjoyment?

The landscapes, the vegetation, the scents, the food… Tenerife, the Atlantic subtropical island located off the coast of Morocco, is a tourist magnet, but I feel its nature as a melting pot of cultures is inexplicably little-understood. The archipelago has its own idiosyncrasy and together the islands epitomise many worlds of their own. With four spectacular –and very different- National Parks, including the highest peak in Spain, a UNESCO World Heritage city, ancient rainforests, volcanos, dunes, stunning beaches, arid and lusciously green landscapes, exquisite fresh produce and a rich gastronomy and wine tradition, the Canaries seem to be a microcosm of the best the world has to offer.

Tenerife is the most populous and biggest of the Canary Islands. With dozens of different microclimates, the north and south of the island look like a different continent. The south is more arid, with copper-like landscapes. A favourite in the south is the cliffs of Los Gigantes, from where dolphins can often be spotted and depending on the season, whales too. The most exciting way to visit is by descending the Masca gorge. A taxi ride from Los Gigantes to Masca is advisable, since once you descend the gorge and reach the beach, you can then take a taxi-boat back to Los Gigantes, instead of having to climb back up the spectacular gorge.

My roots lie in the north and it is its greenery, tropical flora and black sand beaches what I recognise as more familiar.

Growing up, we would visit Garachico on a typical family day out. With the years, I came to understand that the beautiful Garachico, praised for its cobble streets, lava rock seawater swimming pools and traditional architecture, is also a sample of resilience. Once the most important port of the island, its fate changed completely after the volcanic eruption of 1706, when the town was engulfed by lava. Today, it is a charming, well preserved town.

Walking in the laurel forests of Anaga is a mystical experience. Unique species of plants, such as the Canarian bellflower (Canarina Canariensis), or chirping birds, like the Chaffinchs, are a treat for those who are patient and take the time to observe. Taking a deep breath under the mossy branches of the laurisilva makes my soul sing.

The weekend farmers’ market at Tegueste, traditionally a rural area, is a personal favourite. The quality of fresh produce is outstanding. The native Papas Antiguas (which include 29 native potato varieties protected by a European DOP) are a delicacy, as are the local tropical fruits, from the ubiquitous papaya –easy to spot in back gardens across the island-, to pineapples, guavas, avocados, oranges or fresh bananas… The local fruit and veg available gives hints on the colonial past of the islands, and its strategic location at the crossroads of Africa, America and Europe.

This is particularly visible in San Cristóbal de La Laguna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that will look familiar if you have been to South America. This vibrant city, a colourful pedestrian dream, is the first example of an unfortified town with a grid model. Furthermore, La Laguna, as it’s popularly known among locals, served as a role model for consequent settlements in the Americas during colonial times under Spanish rule.

It is falsely believed that you see the ocean from anywhere on the island. But certainly, the Atlantic has a presence, like a stream that you can hear far in the distance but you cannot see. It might be as soft as a light salty sea breeze, or as wild as the fury of the waves patiently carving the lava rock in an isolated beach, but the ocean is part of everyday life on Tenerife. And swimming in exotic black sand beaches, taking some time to enjoy the sun disappearing over the horizon, feels like the most wonderful of pleasures.

It took over a decade of living abroad, plus some previous visits of friends who were enthralled by the tropical idiosyncrasy of the Canaries, to make me realise and to appreciate how special and unique my beloved island is. Moreover, in the process I also gained a new appreciation to look into the small details and enjoy the simple things. And for that, I will always be grateful. 

Words and images by Mónica Goya

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