Lanzarote is the most northerly and fourth largest of the Canary Islands. Lying a thousand miles distant from mainland Spain, it enjoys a temperate climate which varies between 18 c and 24 c all year round, as does its neighbours, and is popular with tourists all over the world. Rain is infrequent and the vegetation is more adapted to sunny weather.
Unique in the world, Lanzarote is a fine example of recent (archaeologically-speaking) volcanic activity. Between the years 1730-36 the central western part the island was devastated when thirty two of the island’s hundred existing volcanoes erupted simultaneously, wreaking a havoc which was to become the world’s greatest known volcanic holocaust.
In these few short years nine villages were swallowed up never to be seen again. It was as if hell itself had escaped from the bowels of the earth in all its Danteeesque fury. The molten lava crept relentlessly down to the sea, sparing nothing in its path as it created eerie and interesting rock formations on the way.
Miraculously no-one was killed or seriously injured, islanders having ample warning to escape to the north where they settled in the shadows of yet another, this time thankfully, dormant volcano.
They named their new settlement appropriately: El Extremo Del Mundo… “The end of the world.” 200 kilometres of previously fertile landscape was thus changed forever, scorched and entombed beneath the petrified lava flows. This area now forms the island’s most visited attraction – Timanfaya National Park, so named after one of the lost villages. It is perhaps ironic that this cataclysm of over two centuries ago which brought great hardship to the islanders is now one of the island’s finest assets, bringing vast benefits to their enterprising descendants. There is a Spanish saying: “No hay mal que por bien no venga” – there is no evil out of which some good does not come, and this is certainly the case here.
Interestingly, one village was spared the wrath of the volcanoes and this was attributed to the intercession of the Virgen de los Dolores although it probably had more to do with the prevailing winds. Nevertheless there is still a festival to commemorate the miraculous event, held on September 15th each year.
Until fairly recently it was only possible to visit Timanfaya in a park land rover by pre-arranged visit. Nowadays tourists come every day by the coach load but no alighting from the vehicle is allowed. In this primitive domain, footprints take at least 20 years to disappear and if each tourist carried away a handful of natural artifacts, eventually nothing would remain. If you want a real piece of a volcano as a souvenir buy some Jewelry made from peridot. This rare gemstone, glowing green like the eyes of a cat has been created deep in the earth’s mantle and flung out in lava bombs during volcanic eruptions. Used as a good luck charm and a fertility symbol, it can be an attractive memento of your visit to Lanzarote.
At the main viewpoint in Timanfaya national Park you can eat at the “EI Diablo” restaurant. watching the chef cook your meal with heat from the ever present volcanic activity. An artificial caldera has been dug out where the temperature is a perpetual gas mark nine and if you stand around too long, peering into the crater, your shoes will begin to melt.
Outside, if you dig down a few inches, the pebbles you pick up will be too hot to handle. Anything inflammable put into the ground will rapidly burst into flames and water poured into a hole will shoot out again in an artificial geyser. On the park tour, several impressive professional demonstrations of the above clearly show how the volcanic activity is present in these regions, where temperatures of 400F are still found not far from the surface. No wonder this place is known as Montanas del fuego – mountains of fire.
The situation is carefully monitored but vulcanologist’s are aware that the whole Canary archipelago is overdue for another devastating eruption (One is expected every thirty years). Some predict that the volcano on La Palma will soon erupt, causing half of the island to slide into the Atlantic thus creating a mega tsunami – a giant tidal wave which could easily flood the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Evidence of past volcanic activity is present throughout Lanzarzote, a constant reminder of its fiery past, from the black sand of the beaches to the pitted igneous rock forged deep in the earth’s crust which is now frequently used as a building material forming a pleasant contrast to the picturesque whitewashed dwellings. Volcanic ash and pebbles are also used in cultivation, helping to retain moisture in the otherwise arid soil. Volcanic stone is invaluable for use in patios, again helping to trap humidity. The blackened terrain of the Wine bodegas can look harsh and unwelcoming at first until the eye adapts and it becomes apparent that they possess a beauty all of their own.
Apart from the volcanoes, the other main influencing factor on the island’s present day landscape came in the shape of an artist called Cesar Manrique. Aware of the haphazard and sometimes unsightly development on the neighbouring islands of Tenerife and Gran Canaria back in the sixties, he persuaded the government to adopt certain sympathetic rules. Even today, all private dwellings have to be whitewashed, with green shutters and doors as a contrast and no high-rise hotels are allowed. The overall effect is one of harmony with nature. Clearly a man ahead or his time, Manrique utilised the island’s potential as a tourist attraction while still doing his utmost to preserve its natural beauty. Now dead, he has left his mark on Lanzarote by creating cactus gardens designed in the shape of a Roman amphitheater and his legacy of surreal sculptures are found dotted at places of interest all over the island. His former home Tahiche, built out of a lava bubble is open to the public but perhaps his finest achievement is the carving out of the lava tunnels at Jameos Del Agua. Here you can see an auditorium, a cafe and a swimming pool hewn from the rock in the north of the island. This is part of a great tunnel, six kilometres in length, known as the “Cueva de las Verdes” (the green caves) which is the longest of its kind in the world. Here a river of lava burned its way through solid rock as lava surged seawards in some ancient eruption some 3,000 years ago. This amazingly beautiful place also contains a natural lagoon which is home to a species of blind albino crab, supposedly found nowhere else on the planet.
Other places of interest are the hot springs and an emerald-green lagoon at El Golfo. Set against a backdrop of multi-coloured rock strata beside a beach of black sand, the light changes practically by the minute and the photographic possibilities are endless.
For those who prefer beaches of the more familiar golden colour then the resorts of Costa Teguise and Mujeres beach are perfect for safe bathing and water sports. And for the less adventurous, Lanzarote offers a wealth of activities for all the family.
There are boat trips daily to the neighbouring isle of Fuerteventura from Playa Blanca and Puerto Del Carmen. Nightlife is lively in all the major resorts so there is no need to remain within the grounds of your own hotel. Camel treks along the rim of (hopefully) extinct volcanoes can be a highlight of your holiday. Or visit the extreme north where breathtaking views over to the island of La Graciosa (supposedly the inspiration for Treasure Island) can be combined with a lazy afternoon in a nearby cove.
Away from the barren lava fields, the interior of the island is surprisingly lush and green. Visit Haria and the “Valley of a Thousand Palms” where these graceful trees provide welcome shade from the fierce heat of the sun. There are still more palms here than anywhere else in the Canaries even though the area was decimated by the invading pirates of centuries past.
Farming and fishing were the island’s main source of revenue before the rise of the tourist industry, but both are no longer profitable apart from the wine estates and the prickly pear cactus. A few onions, melons, potatoes and pulses are also cultivated but not on any significant scale.
Lanzarote is a destination tourists return to year after year and it’s easy to understand how this island, with its unique history and diverse landscape attracts so much attention.