Travel in a tourist trap: Lanzarote, Canary Islands
Over 12 million tourists flock to the Canary Islands per year, but Spanish paradise still exists if you know how to avoid the crowds. Expatica shows you how.
The Canary Islands are said to be the “Hawaii of Europe”: year-round summer sun, breathtaking blue waters and stunning volcanic landscape. Low-cost airlines have made the blissful archipelago even more affordable and easy to get to for Europeans, despite the yearly number of tourists well past its noted 12 million (about 10 million more than the islands’ population combined).
Regardless, wintertime in Europe can be harsh for us expats, and fleeing to islands off the African coast can seem like the only escape.
The cliché is that, anytime of the year, the Canary Islands are packed with party animals from England. The cliché is that, anytime of the year, the islands are crammed with seniors from Germany. And the cliché is that, anytime of the year, the beaches are full of crying kids.
In reality, the possibility to stay submerged in the vibes of a laidback Spanish isle exists. I was on a quest to spend two fantastic weeks getting my fill of afternoons full of the three big “S” factors: sun, sand, and saltwater. In the end, sights and activities that can make a Canary Island visit worthwhile can happen without falling into a tourist trap. Here’s how I did it.
“Grand” is not always “grandeur”
Lanzarote is not the biggest island of the Spanish archipelago, but choosing one of the larger islands guarantees a tourist-heavy atmosphere. The bonus of picking an island less travelled like Lanzarote is a dip in all things annoying: less organised bus tours clogging the sights, less beach hotels blocking the sun, and less noisy streets at night.
Staying on a smaller island also makes driving on foreign roads more comfortable. Renting a car in the Canaries is a must. Not only are there good offers (one week for 10 euro a day, and tax-free gas prices), but also there’s just no easier way to get around. Be sure to select the airport as a pick-up and drop-off location (it’s cheaper).
Spanish style: Head for the surf and the sports
The good thing about Lanzarote is the island offers a variety of vacation choices, from luxury all-inclusive packages to the low cost do-it-yourself path.
Athletic training centres host top-notch sports clubs, while local families rent out their beach apartment.
I chose the latter and wound up in La Santa, a small fishing town on the northwest part of the island (about a 30-minute car ride from the airport). Famous for its world-class surf and bicycle training, the area is an oasis for outdoor sports.
Visitors can be seen hang gliding through the sky off nearby cliffs, or cycling along the streets. However, most
vacationers looking to try out a local activity are found at the many surf schools that thrive on the long, sandy beaches of Famara.
“Signing up for a surf school or a surf camp here is a good way to see the local culture. You see the island lifestyle and pass places you wouldn’t normally pass,” said Roberto Merli, co-owner and founder of Kalufa Surf School
“And from what I know, through marketing and researching, the surf schools and camps in Lanzarote are some of the lowest-priced in the world.”
Accommodation isn’t so bad, either. Most surf schools and camps on the island include accommodation and transportation, in addition to surf lessons. Clusters of students surf the forgiving beginner sandbars; the more experienced and local pros can be spotted on the outer breaks tearing into clean, smooth waves.
“The quality of life here is probably the best thing. It still has warm weather like the other islands, but you don’t have the traffic, and there aren’t as many people. Every day is a good day to surf on this island; that’s why I chose to live here,” said Merli, who like many expats on the island, turned his lifelong surf passion into a business two years ago with fellow Italian friend Massimo Nova.
Both Merli and Nova agree that the level of tourism in Lanzarote is manageable, the locals are friendly, and the business is growing.
“It’s pretty easy to do business here,” said Nova, who’s lived on the island for 15 years now. “The law is not strict, and you can open a business and fix the bureaucratic issues along the way.”
Sightseeing: from caves to cacti
Beyond the beach and wave breaks are the main attractions: the Jurassic-like landscape of Timanfaya National Park, the underground volcanic caves of Jameos del Agua and Cueva de los Verdes, and the Jardin de Cactus made by local architect legend Cesar Manrique.
“When I have friends here, the first thing I explain is the geography of the island and what they should go see,” says Merli. “I never say ‘Don’t go there, too many tourists’, because the island is just too nice.”
For the big sights, like Timanfaya and the caves, come early or wait until the “tourist wave” has subsided and buses are leaving. The best tip is to buy the all-inclusive pass, which includes entrance to all four sights for one price (which can be purchased at the window of any attraction).
At Timanfaya National Park, try to resist ordering lunch at the top, and instead watch food being grilled from a deep hole funnelling volcanic heat towards the sky. Splurge on the eight euro bus tour for a better view of the park, but don’t expect to leave the bus for any photo opportunities (though the buses do pause at several points).
Be sure to walk through the caves of Cueva de los Verdes (guided tours only) before hopping over to the nearby Jameos del Agua, and relax in the peaceful atmosphere (it is possible to walk from one cave to the other). A short ride to the northern point of Orzola can be a more pleasant afternoon than rushing south to Arrecife (the capital) or the very south (and congested) beaches of Puerto Del Carmen.
Ferries leave from Orzola to the small island of La Graciosa once an hour – a relaxing option on a long afternoon if there isn’t much wind. The Sunday market at Teguise is a blend of local products, fresh baked cookies and churros.
Lastly, the central bodega wine region is not only a beautiful drive through vineyards made of volcanic rock, but the wineries are open for tastings throughout the day and early evening.
Find your niche
The truth is, partygoers, elderly crowds and busy beaches do live on Lanzarote; but unlike other islands in the Canaries, avoiding these unpleasantries is easy and doable. Live like a local, and explore the passions of the sea. Indulge in sightseeing, but don’t make it a main priority. Try a new sport, but keep it fun. In the end, the main essence of the islands is all about quality, not quantity.
“You can either like the island or not like it, there’s no in between,” says Merli. “When you don’t like the island, it’s probably because you’re unlucky with the weather.”
And bad weather rarely happens in places like Hawaii.
Audrey Sykes / Editor / Expatica