The 16 Things I Learned about the Canary Islands (Gran Canaria and Tenerife)

The Canary Islands are located in the Atlantic, just 75 miles off the coast of Southern Morocco, north of the Cape Verde islands. The Canaries consists of seven islands – Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro. Both Tenerife and Gran Canaria have major urban centers (Santa Cruz and Las Palmas) and almost feel like extensions of the Spanish mainland and NOT like beach resorts.

20 million people (mostly Brits, Germans and Spaniards from the mainland) visit the islands every year. Germans especially come as package tourists and rarely come by the urban centers in the north.

Trade winds

Similar to Hawaii, the Canary Islands are influenced by trade winds from the north-west. The northern and western coastlines get the most haze, fog, and precipitation, while the south usually stays sunny and warm year-round.

The winter temperatures are a little too cold for the beach (hovering in the mid-70s) but great for enjoying the islands.

Prices

The price level on the islands is slightly higher than on the Spanish mainland but if you stay in the urban centers you’ll see just a small premium (touristy areas are more expensive). The price level in Spain is (still) depressed so expect to pay 30%-50% less for quality comparable to the US.

Infrastructure

The Canary islands of Tenerife and Gran Canaria have a stunning set of freeways, roads, and urban transport that make it look more like Switzerland than Spain.

All roads and freeways are free to use – there are no toll roads (like in Southern Spain). Apparently, the European Union invested 15 billion Euros in roads here during just the last 10 years.

Get a rental car

While the urban centers are crowded and parking is scarce, the real beauty of the islands reveals itself when being on the (many excellent) roads, especially in the islands’ interiors. Rental cars are often cheap outside of the main hot season.

At the time of writing, Uber is not active anywhere in the Canaries. Taxis are rather expensive but they get the job done if you decide against a rental car.

Stay off work

Internet connections are generally much slower here than on the mainland. Yes, it is possible to get a fast connection but hotels and coffee shops tend to have unstable 1 Mbit connections (or less). Skyroam and my T-Mobile Simple Choice plan seemed slower than usual too.

Breathe the fresh air

The pollution here is generally minimal due to the fresh ocean breezes and the few old cars plus most beaches are good for swimming.

Get in on the swell

Depending on the season, there are plenty of good beaches to surf, bodysurf or simply enjoy a beach with no waves. If you have a car and a board you will be able to find a spot.

Food

I’m not in love with Spanish food; it’s too salty and uniform. The Canary Islands have a few notable ethnic food places in the urban centers but for best prices and quality that’s often local food.

I was lucky to find a few eateries that would serve bocadillos (sandwiches) with avocado, cheese, and vegetables, though it is not usually on the menu.

In Santa Cruz, I liked Pianeta Espresso, which I loved for its friendly service, great coffee, cheap and healthy food and fresh juices.

Canary Islands

Picture courtesy of Pianeta Espresso

I also liked Artesana for its quirky take on a burger joint.

Canary Islands

Picture courtesy of Artesana

Canary Islands

Picture courtesy of Artesana

I also liked El Libano in Santa Cruz.

Oh the vistas

The Canary Islands are of volcanic origin and volcanic eruptions are still to be expected (though not as likely as in Indonesia or Iceland). The mountainous interior makes for stunning vistas.

It’s stunningly beautiful

The interior and the western shore of Tenerife have some of the most beautiful sceneries I have ever seen. You can explore them usually without rushing and in peace.

There are wineries too

Not as many as you would expect with this weather but there are plenty of wineries dotted around the islands, and they usually offer free tastings.

El Teide is worth it

El Teide rises to 12,000 ft from just a few miles from the Tenerife shore. It’s a surprisingly short drive up on excellent roads. The views from the road are stunning as the vegetation changes and more and more lava rock is exposed.

I liked it more than Maui’s Haleakala and I did not even bother with the cable car up to the top (it’s $30 per person round-trip). If you have time, take some warm hiking clothing and roam around the base station – it’s thin, cold air but stunningly beautiful.

English is…

… well-understood and spoken but Spanish is still required in many situations. Very few people are fluent in English (or German) but generally understand simple keywords.

Getting there

While culturally in Europe, most award charts consider the Canary Islands as Africa geographically. American Airlines AAdvantage does not and you can get there for the same price as Europe (i.e. 50,000 miles in business class) using Iberia for the leg toward the Canary Islands.

In most cases, it is likely cheaper to go to Europe (Spain or Portugal) and then book a cheap Ryanair or Norwegian flight from there to the islands. In our daily deals, the Canary Islands often stands out as one of the cheapest routes in Europe.

Generally, there are no long-haul business class products flying to the Canaries, with a few notable exceptions like Air Europa (who fly a 787 to Gran Canaria).

Binter Canarias and Canaryfly are local operators of short-haul fleets that connect the islands. One-way fares are often low, around $30-$50 per leg, and you can even go to the Azores (Ponta Delgada) and Cape Verde (on Binter Canarias) or Morocco/Senegal.

There isn’t any drama

While geographically so close to Africa, the drama on the islands is minimal. Almost everything works as expected. Yes, the roads are narrower and you may have to pull out Google Translate but there are precious few scams being run on visitors. The biggest problem for me was the road signage and the hundreds of different shapes of roundabouts, which make you paranoid sooner or later.

What I’d do if I went back

I’d allow more time to find that perfect surf spot (or bodysurf spot), try more local food that isn’t listed anywhere and explore more of the gorgeous area around Puerto de la Cruz in Tenerife; I could get enough of the views there.