The Canary Islands belong to Spain, but they sit in the Atlantic Ocean closer to the African nations of Morocco and Cape Verde than to the Iberian Peninsula. Not quite as popular as Mallorca, Ibiza and the other Balearic Islands of the Spanish Mediterranean, the Canaries (which comprise El Hierro, La Palma, La Gomera, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote) have become major tourist destinations in their own right. The entire region was a backwater until the jet age began and sun-seekers started hopping flights to Tenerife and Gran Canaria to enjoy their warm weather and beaches.
Beach tourism plays a major role in the local economies of the islands, but, like other sun-and-sand destinations around the world, most visitors concentrate on a few seaside spots, leaving much of the land area in a natural state. In fact, the Canaries, mainly characterized by arid volcanic landscapes, are ideal places for trekking and other activities, which are exciting enough to seduce even hard-core eco-adventurers. Dive sites and ideal sailing and windsurfing conditions add to the menu of environmentally friendly options.
The landscapes and green attractions vary from island to island, as does the infrastructure. However, even the hub island of Gran Canaria boasts a natural side; over 40 percent of the natural land enjoys protected status. The islands' eco-tourism attractions are perhaps under-advertised, but it is surprisingly easy to find accommodations and organize activities because of an established eco-tourism industry.
Despite their spread-out geography and relatively small size, the Canary Islands boast a good public transportation network. Buses connect major sites on the main islands and regular ferry service makes it possible to travel among the islands without having to take to the skies.
Ferry company Naviera Armas regularly sails its large vessels between each of the islands of the archipelago. The ferries feature wi-fi, restaurants, shops and sightseeing terraces.
Bus service is available on each island. On the higher-traffic islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife, an impressive network of routes connects the towns and tourist sites. However, trips to rural areas can be infrequent even on these islands. Bus service on smaller islands is, likewise, infrequent, though it is possible to get around by bus on islands like El Hierro and Fuerteventura. Cycling is a good way to see the islands, although the roads on the Canaries don't make any special accommodations for bikers. Once riders get out of heavily populated areas, traffic is generally light, and there are plenty of opportunities for off-blacktop riding.
For those who aren't interested in the beach or the nightlife (or who want to spend part of their time away from the dance floor), hiking is the main reason to visit the Canary Islands. Even major islands like Tenerife and Gran Canaria have vast natural areas that are best explored on foot. Gran Canaria, as mentioned above, is a surprisingly attractive place for nature walks. Both short strolls and ambitious treks are possible on this island.
Tenerife has what is arguably one of the best sites for hiking in all of Spain. Mount Teide, a 12,000-foot volcanic peak, towers over Teide National Park and the rest of the island. In fact, it is the tallest peak in Spain. Though permission (relatively easy to get if you plan ahead) is required to trek to the summit of the mountain, high altitude can be reached via a cable car. Snow covers the top of Teide during wintertime, making for a scene unlike those usually associated with the pleasant weather of this part of the world.
A different type of environmental attraction on Tenerife is Loro Parque. Now basically a full-fledged zoo, it began as a place where endangered parrots were housed and bred. Today it is still focused on the colorful birds, but also has other animals including tigers, orcas and chimpanzees. Loro financially supports sustainable energy projects on Tenerife and also creates its own water with an on-site desalination system.
With a full slate of mainstream and eco-tourism options on the Canaries' hub islands, it can be easy to overlook the region's smaller landmasses. La Gomera, the second smallest of the islands in the chain, was formerly a destination for hippies. However, its lush landscapes and laid-back vibe have brought it to more travelers' attention. The main tourist spot on Gomera, Valle Gran Rey, features a full menu of hiking opportunities, from leisurely strolls through the lowlands to challenging, guide-led treks up to higher elevations (which boast spectacular views of the sea). The rain forests of Garajonay National Park offer another unique place to trek through an untouched natural environment.
Lanzarote, another smaller island, is the easternmost of the Canaries. It is home to Timanfaya National Park, which features a volcanic landscape that has remained largely untouched since it experienced eruptions in the 18th century. The low amount of rainfall on the island means that the topography of Timanfaya has not changed much in the past two centuries.
El Hierro, the smallest member of the archipelago, is one of the least developed. It is also one of the greenest. It was labeled a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2000 and aims to be completely off the grid thanks to a wind farm and other sustainable energy sources. Locals seem to be on board with Hierro's sustainability ambitions, with fisherman working with conservationists to develop sustainable fishing practices.
It is possible to forego the other attractions of the Canaries and simply focus on nature. Rural inns are widespread and can help green-minded travelers spend all their time in close proximity to one of the archipelago's 145 protected areas. These small-scale sleeping spots are the backbone of the eco-tourism industry on the Canaries and a great way to support local business while enjoying a low-impact, nature-oriented vacation.
Since the Canaries are an island destination, water-based activities are, of course, plentiful. Whale and dolphin watching tours are possible, with locals and large tourism companies both offering cruises. Scuba diving opportunities are available throughout the archipelago. Tenerife's Playa Paraiso is a marinescape inhabited by sea turtles, while places like the underwater spires of Baja Ribera are home to different forms of sea life and more challenging diving conditions.
If the Canary Islands are known for one thing, besides their beaches and bars, it is wind surfing. All the islands have decent conditions for sailboarding, but the epicenter of the surfing scene is Fuerteventura, which boasts ideal conditions for wind-powered adrenaline rushes. Surfers can take a break from the water with nature at Wolf Island, Isla des Lobos, a small offshore landmass that is home to a variety of local birds.
Accommodations on the Canaries range from luxury seaside hotel and spas to rural inns and rustic campsites.
VIK Hotels runs three properties in the Canaries: on the hub of Gran Canaria, the windsurfing paradise of Fuerteventura, and the volcanic-landscaped island of Lanzarote. The chain has some impressive green ambitions, including a property that features solar energy and a solar thermal installation that produces hot water, with the excess cooled and used in the air conditioning systems.
Campsites are difficult to find on the Canaries, but they are there, and best of all, they are free (though a permit is required).
One of the most attractive aspects of the hospitality industry on the Canary Islands is the prevalence of small inns and resorts that have a rural theme. Gran Canaria's Hotel Rural Las Calas is a great example of this type of accommodation. The location, in a hamlet in the rugged highlands near one of the island's many protected areas, is almost too good to be true for those intent on exploring the natural side of the Canaries.
Some of these rural-themed properties are more overtly environmentally conscious. Such is the case at Lanzarote's Finca de Arrieta. This valley-side inn boasts off-the-grid capabilities with solar panels, two large windmills and a solar water heater. Locally farmed eggs and produce from an on-site garden are on the menu each day.
Eating local is easy in the Canaries, as long as you know where to look. Agriculture is still an important part of life for people who aren't involved in the tourism trade. Farmers sell the fruits of their labor at local farmers markets that take place regularly throughout the islands. Many of these run on weekends (either Saturday or Sunday or both days). Visitors who are self-catering (able to cook in either a rental villa or over a campfire) might not have to set foot in a restaurant all week after a visit to the market.
For those without a penchant for procuring their own produce, there are a handful of vegetarian and organic options scattered around the island (easiest to find in major tourist spots on Tenerife and Gran Canaria). Meat eaters will find seafood is the best option, with freshly caught local seafood dishes plentiful throughout the islands. Other staples include potatoes (which are often boiled in seawater) and locally grown bananas, which can be served fresh or fried. Armed with a bit of Spanish, it is possible to get the best meals at local places that don't cater to tourists.
Yes, the beaches and the party scene are part of the personality of the Canaries. But it's not all house music and sunbathing. Most of the unique landscapes on this remote part of Europe are ideal for trekking and other eco-tourism activities. That is the magic of the Canaries: you can be in the center of the action, but still be only a short boat trip away from enjoying solitude amidst some of the world's most natural and unique landscapes.