The islands that make up the Las Canarias archipelago are best known for their beach resorts and as a perfect destination when you’re looking for some winter sun. Interestingly, the islands’ ‘sunny year round’ climate is also a contributing factor to them being home to four of Spain’s 15 national parks.
The Canary Islands’ parks are of global importance because, not only are they exceptional examples of biodiversity and areas of outstanding beauty, they are also home to 600 unique species of plants.
The four parks are, in order of when they were founded: Caldera de Taburiente in La Palma (1954), Las Cañadas de Teide in Tenerife (1954), Timanfaya in Lanzarote (1974) and Garajonay in La Gomera (1981). Although the parks are within a small archipelago, they are diverse in terms of their scenery: Taburiente is wild and mountainous; Teide has almost alpine vistas; Timanfaya is lava rock and Garajonay is a living fossil of lush, green vegetation.
For walkers, hikers and those of us who love to marvel at the way the natural world can engage and inspire our senses, these parks offer a spectacular opportunity to explore and discover new vistas of nature. And, you can still enjoy the Canary Island beaches, restaurants and nightlife at the same time.
Las Cañadas de Teide
As well as being one of the oldest national parks in Spain, Teide is the largest. It is also the most visited park in Spain and in 2007 the park was awarded the accolade of UNESCO World Heritage Site. Teide is one of the 12 Treasures of Spain and it has become an icon, not just for Tenerife but, for all the Canary Islands.
The park is right in the centre of Tenerife. If you look at a map of the island, you’ll see that the green bits take up a good percentage of the island with the inhabited parts confined to the coastal areas. Right in the centre of the park, Spain’s highest peak—Mount Teide—overlooks the island. At a height of 3,718 meters, it is also the third highest volcano in the world, when measured from its base on the ocean floor. Its neighbouring peak—Pico Viejo—is the second highest on the island at 3,135 metres.
The pine forests that cover the mountain slopes create an alpine feel. It is home to some fragile tree and plant species that have adapted to the altitude, sun and sudden changes in temperature that are characteristic of Tenerife. The Teide violet actually flowers at the summit of the mountain. This wild violet is quite a delicate bloom to look at but is also tough enough to become the highest flowering plant in Spain.
Teide was also once a site of worship for the Guanches, who were the aboriginal Berber inhabitants of the Canary Islands, probably around 1000 BC. The Guanches may no longer exist as a distinct ethnic group, but some of their customs live on, such as Silbo a language composed of whistles that is still used on La Gomera island. Archaeological sites have revealed that the Guanches believed that the mountain, which they called Echeyde, was the gate to Hell.
If you’re visiting Lanzarote don’t miss the volcanic lava rock landscape of Timanfaya. Visitors can’t access all areas of the park; this is to protect the flora and fauna, but there are organised trips to the still active Timanfaya volcano where you can also see some geyser action. You’ll find plenty of information about the park at the La Mancha Blanca Visitors’ Centre.
Caldera de Taburiente
The island of La Palma is known for its spectacular scenery and the Caldera de Taburiente
is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful places on the island. Like Teide, this park occupies the centre of the island. The ‘caldera’ or ‘cauldron’, which looks like a crater, was created some two million years ago. However, it isn’t a volcanic crater; it’s an eroded mountain range. The ‘caldera” is filled with lush forests and fabulous waterfalls that appear to turn the water into a rainbow of colours.
The island of La Gomera is home to the Garonjay National Park. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is named after a rock formation that is also the island’s highest point. Garonjay is special because it is a rare remaining example of the humid subtropical forest that covered most of southern Europe during the Tertiary period—that’s 66 million to 2.58 million years ago. Dinosaurs probably walked there!
The parks are not the only natural beauty spots; there are so many places to discover that you’ll have to keep returning to the islands where it is spring all year round.