Oct 11th, 2017

Feet-First Into Gran Canaria

G Can

Walking Across A Canary Island

for The Independent

The drizzle was getting stronger. Visibility was almost non-existent. We had reached Gran Canaria’s misty, windy uplands, and the palm-tree sunshine of the last two days seemed part of another reality. “Right now, 20 kilometres away, people are drinking cocktails in hammocks,” grinned my hiking companion Juan Carlos, as an Atlantic squall slapped wet ferns against our legs. I jammed my sunhat damply onto my head and we kept walking. “Just wait,” he said. “Half an hour and the skies will be blue again”.

Implausibly, he was right. We were reaching for the Factor 30 within minutes. Crossing Gran Canaria by foot involves three days, 75 kilometres and, as I was learning, the odd surprise. I’d arrived here with manageable expectations. The volcanic island – on the map, a circular splotch sitting bang in the centre of the Canary archipelago – enjoys renown for its inland trekking and layered history, but a combination of winter sun and affordable flights means it remains chiefly celebrated for the kind of holidays more associated with outré bikinis than hiking socks. The sandy beaches, like the happy-hour promotions, go on at length. Some 40,000 Brits visited last year, and it’s fair to say that the majority weren’t here to traverse pre-Hispanic mule trails.

It made Gran Canaria’s new mini-me version of the Camino de Santiago, Spain’s long-distance pilgrimage route, an intriguing prospect. To call it new, in fact, isn’t strictly accurate. In a bid to highlight the culture and scenery of the interior, the tourist board has this year resurrected a centuries-old path between two of the island’s holiest churches – located at Tunte in the centre and Gáldar in the far north – prefixing it with a further day-hike to create a full coast-to-coast walk. Two pieces of advice: don’t expect a simple stroll, and brace yourself for some stereotype-crushing panoramas.

“The shade is gone now, so keep drinking water,” said Juan Carlos, two hours after the pair of us had set off on the first day. It hadn’t taken long for the surroundings to feel remote. Our three-day trek had begun in the centre of Playa del Inglés, the south coast resort which, partly true to its name, acts as the epicentre of the island’s package-tour industry. At 9am we’d been walking past pizzerias, showbars and mini-golf courses. At 11am, by contrast, we were surrounded by high-reaching bluffs and the sun thumped down on cactus groves. The heat was already thick. Two rabbit-hunters in the scrub provided the only other sign of humanity astir.

The thing with volcanic islands is how readily the scenic drama gets ratcheted up. Gran Canaria is the result of a thunderous discharge of rock and magma, a titanic prehistoric belch of fire and basalt. It was shaped between 12 and 14 million years ago (the youngest Canary Island, El Hierro, is a comparatively sprightly 500,000 years old), and despite its limited diameters, reaches heights of 1,950 metres. It means that once you head into the interior, the panoramas cleave and unfold in all directions at once. By early afternoon – and following a finger-purpling feed on wild prickly pears – we’d climbed a hard, steep path up to the lofty hill pass of Decolleda de la Yegua. Laid around us was a raw spread of gorges, ridges and lush oases. Kestrels flew in the gullies below. The notion of Gran Canaria as little more than a brochure’s worth of different pool loungers was already consigned to dust.

We yomped on under cloudless blue. For a heat-baked topsoil that essentially comprises ancient ash, the island is remarkably fertile. Even up here, the trail was flanked by sage, sorrel and thyme, and smallholding orchards hung heavy with almonds and oranges. The path wound down greenly into the cobbled, whitewashed village of Tunte (often marked on maps by its administrative name San Bartolomé de Tirajana). The restorative, and dangerously cheap, arms of cold beer and hot tapas closed around what had been a tiring nine-hour day – the hardest and longest, it would emerge.

Tourism is today the most important industry on Gran Canaria, but thirty years ago the picture was different. The complete collapse of the island’s once-lucrative banana and tomato export markets has resulted in unemployment levels topping 25%. Visitors have therefore become more prized than ever, making it all the more surprising that so few of them are enticed to visit the momentous peaks and quiet townships of the centre. Indeed, if Day One had impressed, then the next day’s walk from Tunte to the settlement of Tejeda was better still. The cliffs were steeper, the calderas deeper and the trails more alluring. So much so that a stray dog who padded alongside us after breakfast was still with us, bright-eyed, at day’s end. “We must call him Peregrino”, said Juan Carlos. “Pilgrim”.

The spiritual element to the cross-island walk will certainly be of interest to some – the attractive old-world churches at Tunte and Gáldar are both dedicated to Santiago (St James) – but the overall emphasis is very much on the hike itself. The second day culminated, in fact, with the wildly beautiful landscape that had enthralled native settlers long before Spain, and Christianity, claimed the land in the 15th century. The rutting, rolling Tejeda district is gathered around the craggy might of the 1,400-metre-high Roque Bentayga – for generations the site of pagan rituals – and makes for the kind of sight more synonymous with African foothills than fun-in-the-sun boltholes.

Tejeda itself, where we passed the night at the excellent Hotel Fonda de la Tea, is a warm, go-slow village, full of bougainvillea and unrushed old men in crisply ironed shirts. From its main square I was presented with a perfect profile of Tenerife on the ocean horizon. Locals are fond of saying that the best views of that island’s Mount Teide volcano, the highest point in Spain, are from Gran Canaria. The boast winds the Tenerifeans up, and says plenty about lusty local pride. “I am Spanish, but I never introduce myself without adding that I am Canarian,” one hotel owner stressed to me.

Peregrino, our by-now-unshakeable canine accomplice, stayed with us for the final day too. He must have known that the sudden wind and gloom of the northern highlands would lead back into sunny valleys. The island’s meteorological oddities are caused by the trade winds blowing in from the northeast, the same breezes that brought Columbus to the island and once turned capital city Las Palmas into a key transatlantic stopover. It means clouds gather in the north, trapped by the hills. To my mind, an hour of mist and mizzle felt like an acceptable price to pay for three days of nose-reddening rays.

The long, draining descent into the coastal town of Gáldar took us through lichen-hung pine forests. It felt a world away from the red rocks of the far south. The views were still broad and the hills still looming, but the countryside curves were softer now, and the sea more dominant. With Juan Carlos and the dog strolling on ahead, a boccadillo-powered Tintin and Snowy, we continued down until dirt trails became tarmac and vineyards gave way to houses. A last, sadistic slope led us into the town centre and journey’s end. Almost too perfectly, there was a wedding drawing to a close at the church. “So,” said Juan Carlos, as we collapsed in the park under the bell-tower and watched the rice and confetti fly. “Shall we walk back now?”