By Bina Joseph
Eternal spring-like temperatures, 3,000 hours of annual sunshine, pristine landscapes, purest air, protected skies, traditionalism, 21st century mod-cons, an easily accessible Macaronesian eco-world of sustainable bio-diversity. Utopia? Almost. Islas Canarias.
Enveloped in an aura of mystery and legend, the Canary Islands were known in ancient times as the Fortunate Islands and were associated with the remains of Atlantis. An autonomous community of Spain, at the outermost edge of the European Union, they are geographically more a part of the African continent.
The musical-sounding islands are (from largest to smallest): Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, and El Hierro. Off the northwest coast of Africa, the juxtapositions, contrasts, and curiosities are endlessly fascinating.
The Canaries emerged from the ocean depths due to magmatic activity from the Miocene Age. The oldest islands are La Gomera, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, and Lanzarote. One of the most important volcanic regions, they are comprised of different volcanic rock present in cones, lava fields, craters, cliffs, caves, and underground galleries.
The volcanic origins are also responsible for the greatest degree of biodiversity on Earth. Varieties of landscapes include awe-inspiring volcanic lava flows, primeval forests, long extents of untouched beaches, deep ravines, lush valleys, towering cliffs, azure waters with unique marine life, and a plethora of species of flora and fauna. The Canaries have pledged to sustainable development, which is respectful of the environment of the islands.
The Canarians live and breathe tradition, taking an intense enjoyment in their local fiestas and celebrations. A rare combination of tradition with modernity, the islands demonstrate the perfect match between the two concepts.
Religious festivals coexist alongside pagan celebrations, reflecting the legacies of Spanish Conquest and aboriginal rites. Processions, street celebrations honoring the Virgin and saints, open-air dances marking significant days in the Catholic calendar, and pagan rituals inherited from the ancient tribes are all lively and interactive. The Canaries are home to unique Carnival celebrations which rival those of Rio de Janeiro or Venice: the streets are full of partying, masked people in fancy dress costumes, and everything is bathed in music, light, and color.
Tradition lives in the handicrafts, some produced by age-old techniques: ceramics, elaborate embroidery, stone-carvings, basketry, hand-crafted knives, and fine carpentry.
A truly unique feature, traceable to aboriginal times, is the Whistling Language. A landscape covered with ravines and dense vegetation rendered communication a great challenge. An ingenious solution was found. Fingers in mouths, they whistled, creating and expressing unlimited messages, producing the sound characteristics of a viable language. This is a variation of the Spanish spoken in the Canary Islands. To preserve it from extinction it has been declared a part of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
Gastronomically, the Canaries are influenced by the various cultures that inhabited this Atlantic archipelago. The main Spanish tradition is accompanied by American, African, and others. Canarian cooking is more than food; it is also culture, identity, and tradition.
Fresh products from the land and sea constitute ingredients for simple, exquisite dishes: fresh fish, roast meat, and steaming bowls of vegetable potage, accompanied by excellent local cheeses and wines. A typical dish is the versatile gofio, ground and toasted corn or wheat — originally aboriginal food and still consumed today. Mixed with fish broth, vegetable soups, or even milk, it is the base for breakfast, main meal, and dessert dishes. The famous papas arrugadas (wrinkly potatoes), cooked in their skins, are eaten with the complementing mojo (spicy sauce).
Nature, abundant and exotic, is rife: the compact terrain harbors thousands of living species, many centuries old and exclusive. Plant species from millennia ago thrive here. The bio-geographical region called Macaronesia is an endless panorama of the diversity and survival of endemic botanical and zoological species that disappeared elsewhere in the Tertiary Period.
If you go:
Tenerife — two World Heritage Sites, one National Park, and 42 natural protected spaces.
Fuerteventura — a Biosphere Reserve of surprising landscapes and extensive plains produced by years of erosion and volcanic action.
Gran Canaria — a “miniature continent” with its incredible variety of landscapes and microclimates.
Lanzarote — the universal model of sustainable development by the World Tourism Organization.
La Palma — “La Isla Bonita” (the pretty island).
La Gomera — the National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site of La Garajonay, a dense forest of notable fauna and flora.
El Hierro — a paradise for underwater diving.
Seven islands, each unique, each magical, each a microcosm complete in itself, but together, one of the most desirable destinations in the world — the Canary Islands.
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