Hiking the ‘Machu Picchu of Tenerife’

The island’s temperate winter climate makes it ideal for a walking holiday — taking in verdant and lunar-like volcanic landscapes, remote villages and high-altitude vineyards

Tim Moore on the walking track from El Palmar over Teno Alto to Masca © Phil Crean

Tim Moore | Financial Times

Regular overhead air traffic wouldn’t normally enhance a walk through a biosphere reserve, but whenever an incoming or outbound plane glints across the brilliant blue sky, it puts a spring in my step. Almost everybody on board exists in a parallel holiday universe that I last experienced on final approach, gazing uneasily down through an easyJet window at the golf courses and resort complexes that cram Tenerife’s south-western coast, and define the entire island’s stereotypical reputation. But up here in the rearing, dramatic and largely deserted far north, it’s a giddying delight to be reminded that our worlds won’t overlap again until I’m dropped off outside Tenerife Sur departures, come journey’s end.

My debut self-guided walk begins with a taxi ride to a viewpoint car park, 1,000 metres up in the vast Anaga Rural Park. After less than a minute’s walking, following the trail preloaded into a hiking app on my phone, I’m deep in an otherworldly cloud forest. Spindly laurel branches festooned with cobweb wisps of Spanish moss arch over the orange earth, occasionally parting to offer porthole views of the sparkly Atlantic far below, and — behind and far above — El Teide, loftiest point in Spain, whose bald, greyscale bulk crowns every inland vista.

The path breaks cover into steep, open land, on occasion passing through an impossibly remote clutch of trim farmhouses; villages that didn’t get piped water until 1998, and had to rely on donkey deliveries. Well-tended terraces wind around the plunging hillsides like contour lines, their beds already thick with greenery in mid-January. The temperate, moist air and rich volcanic soil make a fecund combo: everything grows up here, from bracken to bananas, brambles to birds of paradise.

Tenerife first prospered as a staging post for conquistadores and merchants en route to the Americas, offering supplies and useful acclimatisation: a halfway house with one foot in the new world and one in the old. There are prickly pears and lizards, but also roses and robins. Some of the gentler clifftops suggest Cornwall with cactuses. Gazing down at the billowing sea — and hearing it crash furiously ashore even from a lofty distance — you feel for the crews on those top-heavy carracks and galleons who must have longed to linger. It speaks to a long maritime heritage, and the trade winds that buffet this exposed stretch of coast, that they’re still building lighthouses. The modernist white spike that stands guard over my destination, Punta del Hidalgo, went up in the 1990s.

But it’s a long way down to it, through terrific ravines speckled with perilous clusters of tiles and whitewash. The trail is always very clear, and well maintained, but does present the odd physical and spiritual challenge, such as when it’s scooped into a sheer flank of crumbly pumice, or traverses a long vertical seam of fractured slate, piercing the path like the back of a stegosaurus. It’s suddenly easy to understand why regular walkers here have been telling me their boots need resoling every other year. My week’s itinerary from tour operator Pura Aventura promises a maximum daily tariff of 12 steep kilometres, a total pitched just right for the casual walker who may not have devoted the festive period to rigorous physical conditioning. Which is to say, I always feel as if I’ve earned my supper, but manage not to fall asleep with my face in it.

The logistics of my trip are beautifully managed, a series of small miracles. Bang on schedule, a taxi appears outside the appointed bar in lonely Punta del Hidalgo to drive me 90 minutes down the steadily more populous coast, through a blur of jockeying ring-road traffic and banana plantations. When I’m dropped off at my hotel in Garachico, the suitcase I’d left at a reception desk in San Cristóbal de La Laguna that morning magically awaits. Perhaps all this only feels so extraordinary because each of these days, with its spectacular sensory overloads and occasional hard yards, appears to go on forever. La Laguna seems a week, and half a world, away, yet through it all my bag and I have somehow been remembered. 

Every overnight stop helps dismantle remaining preconceptions of the island. La Laguna’s Unesco World Heritage-grade old town, as presented by my guide Felix de la Rosa, is full of mighty colonial mansions, their dour volcanic-basalt facades enlivened with pastel stucco and towering palms. Many are free to wander through, built around open courtyards planted with orange trees, looked down on by elaborate, many-windowed galleries designed in purposeful homage to the captain’s quarters of a galleon. With its undulating cobbles and ochre-hued, balconied town houses, little Garachico is more winsome still, hemmed between the lively sea and a steepling headland. Plaza de la Libertad, a magnet for multigenerational locals on gregarious parade, is graced with a bandstand café and a full suite of life-size nativity scenes, present and proudly illuminated with Christmas a fading memory.

Both towns, built from nothing in the conquistador boom years, served terms as Tenerife’s wealthiest settlements, and remain embalmed in their colonial pomp by historical accident. When the freshwater lake that gave La Laguna its name dried up, and the pirates who encouraged its founders to site the city deep inland stopped marauding, the commercial focus moved east to Santa Cruz, which remains the island’s capital. In 1706, lava flows from an otherwise benign eruption overwhelmed Garachico’s harbour, rendering Tenerife’s dominant port useless overnight. The beguiling mess this episode made of the foreshore is now an attraction, with hollows in the amorphous, alien rubble repurposed as bathing pools.

My hotels are gloriously removed from the multi-storied concrete of Canarian cliché. La Laguna Gran Hotel is an 18th-century mansion with a delightful covered garden; I sleep in one of the loftily vaulted old rooms at the front, and doze by the rooftop pool, before a panorama of old domes and towers, backed by lush mountains. At La Quinta Roja in Garachico, another merchant’s palace, the centrepiece is a cloistered courtyard dense with palms and beckoning rattan sofas. The galleried colonnade above looks up at a 16th-century Franciscan convent fronted with a trio of majestic palms, a mighty wall of green-faced rock rearing up beyond.

The winter sun that draws so many north Europeans to the Canaries ensures my walk around the southern hills plays out under another cloudless sky, with temperatures in the low 20s. Tenerife’s walking season is over by late spring. At this latitude — just 100km west of Morocco’s southern tip — you wouldn’t put your boots on in July. From El Palmar, it’s a steady haul up through ordered rows of prickly pear, now harvested for their fruit but introduced in the colonial era as cochineal plantations, after the conquistadores came back with both the lucrative red dye and the favoured food of the beetles that produced it.

Vagaries of soil and climate give every hillside a different character. Straddling one ridge, I look down at a riot of lavender, wild oranges, and jaunty red Canary bellflowers, then turn to meet a sloping desert: spiked candelabras of euphorbia succulent rising from orange rock, towering stalks of spent agave blooms and a single, splendid Canary dragon tree, with its perfect umbrella of neat green spikes, straight from a Henri Rousseau landscape. Beyond, moored in the offshore mist, loom the silhouettes of Gomera and La Palma, Tenerife’s nearest neighbours looking west.

Approaching Masca, the hills spike into ranks of jagged, verdant peaks, and the trail becomes progressively less lonely. The tourist authorities have pitched this tiny village as the “Machu Picchu of Tenerife”, and with the big resorts just a 45-minute hire-car drive away, I’m soon sharing the path with red-faced Brits and Germans, scrabbling about in trainers and beach shoes. Yet despite the crowds and that overblown billing, the money-shot prospect is a stone-cold stunner. A ribbon of roofs hunkered on a palm-studded ridge in the lee of a monolithic crag, tightly hemmed by muscular green escarpments, the vast ocean spread out between and beneath. My taxi awaits; ahead lies a memorable ascent of Masca’s vertiginous backdrop, on a flailing road shared by white-knuckled holiday drivers and overeager locals.

The base for my final days is the Villalba, a pleasingly old-school, slow-paced spa hotel in the Teide foothills, its cavernous wooden reception graced with framed cycling jerseys donated by pros who have come to train on these high-altitude slopes. I sit on my balcony and watch the sunset gild the surrounding pines. I visit Alma de Trevejos, a local bodega run by a garrulous Chilean — at 1,450 metres one of the highest wineries in Europe — sampling the bounty of ancient vines that escaped the scourge of phylloxera, and adding several new entries to my growing list of Unexpectedly Great Things About Tenerife. I work my way through the hotel menu, developing a deep fondness for almogrote, a cured-cheese pâté that is served with every meal from breakfast onwards. And of course I walk, this time through an extraterrestrial valley of death.

El Teide last erupted in 1909, but the messy black lava fields that yawn around it, unsoftened by vegetation, might have been tipped out of some celestial coal scuttle last week. This compelling environment has made its eponymous national park the most visited in Europe, and our morning drive up to the cable-car station involves much weaving through squadrons of tourist quad bikers and road cyclists. The fir-cones scattered over the hotel forecourt had spoken of a windy night, and it’s clearly still blowing up a storm at the summit: the cable car has been withdrawn from service, the café at its base full of thwarted adventurers, rustling wanly about in luminous padded Gore-Tex.

Deprived of my scheduled walk around Teide’s bleakest upper reaches, I set off on the secondary mission, a long trail across the Martian plateau that stretches away to every horizon. It doesn’t take long to establish that Teide’s visitor numbers are comfortably offset by this area’s sheer enormity, nor indeed to be reminded that even down here I’m still 2,300 metres up. In moments I am entirely alone in a huge, weird world of umber rock, the elevation making itself breathlessly apparent. Here and there the boulder-strewn plain rises into hefty, bald bluffs and spiky outcrops, like Utah crossed with the Icelandic interior. The sun is as fierce as ever, but in the shade of the orange cliffs it’s bitterly cold. Apart from me and the odd khaki clump of broom, there’s nothing alive out here. In three hours I don’t even see a single ant. The disconnect between this environment’s stony, dead-zone silence and the raging, thunderous forces that created it is too profound to make sense of. I gasp in awe, mild oxygen depletion and the first stirrings of bereft panic. Then the muted roar of a passenger jet draws my gaze upwards, and I walk on with light feet and a smile.

Tags: ×

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *