I’ve never been this close to a stingray before. We only met a few moments ago and already we’re lying on the seabed practically rubbing noses. Normally I wouldn’t let things progress so far, so quickly – but who am I to argue with a two-metre-wide fish that looks like a stealth bomber?
It was the smelly old mackerel head that did it. A sure way to woo a stingray confided my dive guide, Neville, before we took the plunge beneath the imposing cliffs of Los Gigantes in Tenerife. We had barely sunk the 20m to the sea floor before the rays got a whiff of our bucket of fish bits. I knelt on the black volcanic sand and watched them approach – stingrays, eagle rays, bull rays – wave after wave of them flapping towards us like giant vampire bats drawn to blood.
They were, of course, harmless. According to Neville you would only get stung if you really provoked one by poking it, pulling its tail or making derogatory remarks about ‘flatfish’. Other than that, the only danger I could discern was the possibility of having my wedding ring sucked off during an over-enthusiastic assault on the fish head I was holding. How would I ever explain that to the insurance company, let alone my wife?
Many obscure thoughts bubbled through my mind during the 40-minute dive with the rays. But one kept surfacing above all others. How would the majority of Tenerife’s tourists react if they knew about this extraordinary, almost alien, presence in their midst? Would they say, ‘How lovely. We came to the Canary Islands for year-round sunshine and found the stingrays really friendly,’ or would there be a frenzied exodus from the sea at Las Américas, a huge, sprawling resort in the south-east? Who knows?
One thing is certain, however: Tenerife has a split personality. At one extreme you could bake yourself on a beach for two weeks, eat English food and restrict your sightseeing to a few nightclubs, while at the other you could go truly wild, diving with stingrays, watching whales, climbing volcanoes and hiking through ancient forests. I must confess that Tenerife did not instantly strike me as an island jewel oozing great natural promise.
Peering out of the plane window as we touched down at Reina Sofia airport revealed a wasteland of rocky scree and ravaged hillsides – the untidy aftermath of volcanic bedlam. “Looks like a bloody quarry,” muttered a man next to me.
However, far from being a PR blunder depressing every newly arrived tourist, Tenerife’s southern airport is actually a stroke of planning genius. From the moment you step into your hire car you know that the island’s best scenery is yet to come and, what’s more, none of it will be blighted by the sound of a Boeing 737 revving up for take-off. Fired with optimism, I ignored the clouds slumped over the interior and drove eastwards along a fast coastal road, bypassing the capital, Santa Cruz, before looping round to the Valle de la Orotava.
It was dark by the time I arrived at El Patio de Tita, a 200-year-old farmhouse divided into a few self-catering apartments. Inside were stone floor tiles, exposed wooden beams and, best of all, a complimentary basket of traditional Canarian cakes. This was what I had come to Tenerife to sample – not so much the cakes (although they were delicious), but a subtle new brand of tourism called Tenerife Natural. Bundling up cosy rural retreats and outdoor activities, the Tenerife Natural portfolio invites you to get intimate with the island, shunning the popular beach resorts in favour of a greener, quieter pace of life.
Things don’t get much greener on Tenerife than its banana plantations. The following morning I emerged from my apartment to discover that it was completely surrounded by one. The large, droopy leaves of the banana trees sparkled with raindrops, the clouds had vanished and the air felt cleansed.
Eager to get a bearing on my surroundings I climbed the steps leading to El Patio de Tita’s flat rooftop. The house had an enviable position – snug in the Valle de la Orotava, but with arresting views of the northern coastline. The entire valley was flecked with settlements, from the large seaside town of Puerto de la Cruz to small hamlets clinging to the upper forested slopes. It struck me as more of a ‘scoop’ than a valley – an impressive swathe cut into the flank of Mount Teide, the great volcano that dominates central Tenerife.
Teide’s summit was hidden behind a ridge, but its vital statistics loomed large in my mind – mainly because I had somewhat rashly signed up to climb the mountain towards the end of my visit. At 3,718m, it is the highest point in the Canary Islands. According to the tourist literature it is also the tallest peak in Spain, which is no doubt true, but it still struck me as an odd claim, bearing in mind the archipelago is ten times closer to Morocco than to the southern tip of mainland Spain.
It’s rather like saying the Falkland Islands has the UK’s largest penguin colony. Interestingly, while we’re on the subject of penguins, it’s worth mentioning that Tenerife has the world’s biggest penguinarium – an incredible exhibit at Loro Parque which simulates the snow, temperatures and daylight of Antarctica so effectively that the penguins have started breeding.
Over a million tourists flock to Loro Parque each year to see a chunk of artifical Antarctica – considerably more than the annual number of walkers in Tenerife’s native, and extremely rare, laurel forest. Clinging to the concertina folds of the Anaga Massif in the east of the island, laurisilva (a scientific term for the forest) forms a tangled mesh of laurel and myrtle and is home to two endemic species of pigeon. But what makes this place so intriguing is its ancestry. Seven million years ago laurisilva fringed the coast of the entire Mediterranean basin; now it is only found in the Canaries.
Clutching number 22 from a series of walking leaflets published by the tourist board, I set off to explore this prehistoric relic. Almost immediately the path burrowed into a mossy tunnel of overhanging trees. It was shadowy and quiet, the air tinged with the loamy odour of decay. Occasionally sunlight penetrated the canopy, splashing colour across the forest floor, or a gap in the trees would be filled with a bright filigree of waves breaking on the coast far below.
But for the most part, this was an inward-looking walk, a chance to reflect on the cobblestones underfoot that had been worn smooth by centuries of use. Following the Spanish conquest in 1495, the Anaga region was probed with new routes and this, the Royal Road of the Bends, was one of them. For over an hour the trail switchbacked down a steep slope – a bend for each day of the year according to local tradition.
Then, quite abruptly, I emerged from the forest and walked squinting into the sunshine among terraced plots of autumn-gilded grapevines. The terracotta-tiled roofs of Taganana came into view and soon I was strolling through this quiet agricultural village. Four men were dozing on a shady bench beneath the church. They were the first people I’d seen all morning.
During that time, all unfounded preconceptions of Tenerife had fizzled from my mind. OK, so it has a developed, lively side that’s not to everyone’s taste. But consider this: nearly half of the island is protected, including not only El Teide National Park and Anaga Rural Park, but other unspoiled gems such as the Teno Massif in the north-west – the setting for a spectacular hike through the Barranco del Infierno (Ravine of Hell).
The following day, inspired by my walk through the laurel forest, I managed to get halfway through hell (and back) before retiring to the mountain village of Masca, where locals brew a wicked home-made lemon drink. The views from Masca were also irresistible – a huge axe-stroke through the Teno Massif, the distant sea clutched in the tight grip of the canyon.
I returned to El Patio de Tita that evening feeling invigorated and secretly pleased with myself. Not only had I experienced some beautiful parts of Tenerife, but I had also put in some exercise as a warm-up to climbing Mount Teide.
Two days later, I was struggling up a lava flow on Teide’s precipitous slopes, trying to keep pace with several frustratingly fit Bavarian ladies. How unfair to be grouped with people who think nothing of a weekend jaunt up an alp or two. I could accept that my guide would inevitably be superhuman – anyone whose job involved regular 15km hikes gaining 1,400 vertical metres was bound to be in good shape and, indeed, standing side by side in shorts, he did make my legs look about as robust as strips of calamari.
I rapidly developed the need to pause at regular intervals. While my heart and lungs tackled aching muscles and thin air, I tried to engage my brain in any possible diversion I could find. My progress was slow, but I got to know that mountain intimately. For example, you might imagine a volcano (even Spain’s tallest) to be rather drab and featureless. Not at all.
When to go: Generally speaking, Tenerife has enviable weather with ample sunshine, little rain and an average annual temperature of 23°C. However, the island’s geography does create local variations: the south of the island is sunnier than the north, where tradewinds bring more cloud and rain, and from late autumn to early spring you could experience frost in El Teide National Park during the morning yet be sunbathing on Playa de las Américas by the afternoon.
Deposits of ash and pumice formed abstract patterns in a striking range of colours from white to mustard-yellow. There were fascinating lava flows, grotesquely twisted or friable like burnt apple crumble. Littering the slopes were magma boulders, the so-called Teide Eggs, created by the same principles that make snowballs grow in size if rolled down a slope. There was even wildlife here, including the unique Teide violet, discovered in the 18th century by the eminent naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. But, of course, the most obvious excuses for a breather while climbing Teide were the views.
By 11am, three hours into the trek, we were well above the sea of cloud that came frothing over the rim of the vast, ancient caldera in which Teide’s perfect cone stands. Below us stretched a scene of magnificent desolation – a land scarred by a violent birth with just the merest softening of its features by a few precocious shrubs and grasses. Teide last blew her top in 1909. The next eruption is not scheduled for at least 1,000 years – which seems like ages until you start climbing the thing. Then you realise that it might well take you an eternity.
Six hours (and six lifetimes) after setting off, I staggered out of a particularly gruelling patch of lava to find myself confronted by a crowd of people. And if that wasn’t bizarre enough, all of them wore ridiculously unsuitable shoes, had tidy hair and weren’t dripping with sweat. It took a while longer to register on my oxygen-deprived mind that we had reached the level of the upper cable car station. I tried to swagger past the phoney mountain climbers, but my legs weren’t in the mood. Instead, it took every last ounce of persuasion to get them to carry me the last 30 minutes to the summit, where the business end of Mount Teide gently fumed in a pit of hot sulphur.
Still recovering a few days later, I took a boat trip along the west coast. Teide was in splendid full view and I regaled Arthur and Maureen from Yorkshire with a riveting account of my mountaineering exploits. When I finished they looked blankly at me for a moment and then asked if I’d been to Penguin Planet at Loro Parque. It really did sound like an amazing place. I had almost made up my mind to spend my last day there when half a dozen pilot whales surfaced alongside our boat. Their bodies gleamed like obsidian as they arched through the waves, effortlessly riding the Atlantic swell that butted the 600m cliffs of Los Gigantes.
The whales were resident in these waters, a local guide explained to me. “This sea is full of life,” he said. “We get turtles and dolphins – and sometimes sperm whales.” Then he pointed towards the base of the stark line of cliffs. “And rays. If you want do something really wild while you’re here, go dive with the stingrays.”
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