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Canary Islands

Seven green and sand-colored shapes in a sea of blue, a volcanic archipelago off the Atlantic Coast of North Africa. This is probably how an observer from space would describe the Canary Islands, but that is just a small part of the story.

The Canary Islands are one of the seventeen autonomous communities of Spain. The archipelago has seven major islands: Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro.

The Canaries began to emerge from the seabed about 30 million years ago, completing their rise from the sea about 5 million years ago. The most conspicuous proof of the volcanic origin of these islands is Tenerife’s Pico del Teide, which at 3,700 m (12,139 ft.) is the highest peak in Spain.

The islands were settled by the Guanches, who most scientists believe were of North African Berber origin. Studies suggest that several migratory waves crossed from North Africa to the Canary Islands during the first millennium BC. They brought with them goats, sheep, pigs and dogs, as well as wheat and barley and had an economy based primarily on shepherding and secondarily on farming.

Ancient Greek and Roman accounts report on the Canary Islands. Roman amphorae discovered on the island of Lanzarote suggest a trade relationship in some of the islands between the Romans and the Guanches. Phoenician, Greek and Carthaginian navigators and merchants may have also visited the islands at different points in history. But these explorations and visits decreased with the fall of the Roman Empire in the Fifth century AD.

The conquest of the islands by Castile began in 1402 and ended in 1496, four years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean. In fact, Columbus stopped in La Gomera on his voyage to the Americas. Soon the Canaries became an important link between the New and Old Worlds and an extraordinary exchange of people, products, customs and languages began.

In 1799, the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited the island of Tenerife and ascended Pico del Teide. He wasn’t the first well-known foreigner to visit the island, but his descriptions of the place popularized the Canaries among northern and central Europeans. This is what Humboldt wrote about Tenerife: “Under the torrid zone I found sites where nature is more majestic, and richer in the display of organic forms; but having traversed the banks of the Orinoco, the Cordilleras of Peru, and the most beautiful valleys of Mexico, I own that I have never beheld a prospect more varied, more attractive, more harmonious in the distribution of the masses of verdure and rocks, than the western coast of Teneriffe.”

A mirador, or viewpoint, now stands above the Orotava Valley, on the spot where Humboldt supposedly stood admiring the view. The view of Pico del Teide has not changed, but the view of the valley below has. Instead of “masses of verdure,” the modern-day traveler encounters masses of houses. The Orotava Valley has grown exponentially and is dotted with housing developments, some inhabited by Humboldt’s fellow countrymen.

From an agrarian economy—barely self-sustaining at times—the Canary Islands have become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. More than 12 million tourists visit the islands each year.

Abiding Traditions

As in so much of Spain, much of life revolves around the bounty of the earth. As it is to be expected of a place with microclimates ranging from subtropical, verging on tropical, on the coast to temperate on higher elevations, Canarian farms produce a wide range of products. The main cash crop is bananas, but tomatoes, potatoes, avocadoes and tropical fruits (pineapples, papayas and mangoes) are also important crops. The fishing industry is also significant. Farmers markets abound, selling locally grown fruits and vegetables. There is also local production of honey, goat cheese, wine (both white and red), and meat.

All this food is closely linked to the celebrations that take place in each town. From verbenas (fairs with food, music, and dance) to romerías (another type of popular celebration in honor of the local patron saint), there is always something going on in one of the many towns that dot the islands. For those who prefer more formal entertainment, the most populous islands (Tenerife and Gran Canaria) have symphony orchestras and concert halls. There are also film festivals and numerous cultural events throughout the year.

Moving to the Canary Islands

Thousands of people from all over Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, North America and Australia have made the Canary Islands their home. The total population of the islands is 2 million, of which about 300,000 (15%) are foreign residents.

On most islands, there is a marked difference between the north and south sides. The north—where most of the local population lives and where the metropolitan areas are located—is cooler, rainy, greener and mountainous. The south—where most of the large tourist developments are located and where the best beaches are—is warmer, dry, arid and sparsely populated outside the main tourist areas. Foreigners tend to favor the south for the sun and beaches, whereas locals prefer the north for its mountains and cities.

The Guanche language has been forgotten, though hundreds of its words remain in names of places. A good working knowledge of Spanish is advised, but people who move here will notice the language is spoken with a strong Caribbean accent, proof of more than five centuries of close links between the Spanish-speaking Caribbean Basin and the Canary Islands.

The gentle climate and beautiful nature are the two most powerful attractions the Canaries have for visitors and foreign residents. The weather is mild and fairly stable all year round, which saves a lot of money in air conditioning and heating. There are many cloudy days on the north side of the islands and it can be cool at times, but heating is not needed.

Winters are mild and rainy and summers are warm and dry. The average annual temperatures range from 15º C. (59º F.) to 25º C. (77º F.). It gets a bit cooler in higher areas, and it snows above 2,000 m (6,560 ft.). In particularly cold winters, it may snow as low as 1,000 m. When that happens people take special trips to see the snow, take pictures and play in it.

Nature and weather can also work against man. Most of the islands are still volcanically active. The Canaries’ volcanoes are not usually very explosive, though, and damages are generally limited to the areas where the lava flows.

Storms are another possibility. The Canaries fall outside hurricane and tropical storm paths, but on rare occasions—as happened in 2005—a tropical storm may land on the islands. More frequent are low-pressure systems from the Atlantic Ocean during the winter months that bring rains, occasional flooding and strong winds.

Living in the Canary Islands

There was a time when living on the islands felt isolated. Getting to mainland Spain could take days, and there was a sense of abandonment among the islanders. But things have changed dramatically during the course of the past century. Today, there are eight airports—six of them international—and ten commercial harbors on the islands. A flight from any of the islands to mainland Spain takes from 2.5 to 3 hours and there are about 1,500 weekly flights linking the islands with different parts of Europe, Africa and America. There are hundreds of weekly flights between the islands, as well as ferries where taking one’s car is possible.

Those who relish natural beauty will like living here. The Canary Islands have four national parks, three marine reserves and five biosphere reserves. The landscape varies greatly from island to island, and even within each island. There are many different microclimates due to the steep terrain and the differences in altitude between the coast and the peaks. This creates ideal conditions for a large diversity of flora. There are also several endemic species of birds and reptiles.

Working in the Canary Islands

A few years ago there was plenty of work in the tourist and construction industries and people used to come to the Canary Islands to work. The global economic crisis has had a negative impact on the local economy and it is now more difficult, although not impossible, to find work. Healthcare professionals are in demand, as well as professionals in the fields of forestry and some engineering specialties. People who can communicate effectively in several languages are also in demand in the tourist industry.

The Canary Islands are located between three continents, and trade and communications are key businesses that can benefit from this strategic location. Lower corporate income taxes, repatriation of benefits and tax credits are some of the numerous fiscal and economic incentives that local authorities, together with the Spanish and European Union governments, have put in place to promote investment in the Canary Islands.

The islands are positioning themselves to be a logistics base from which companies can expand their operations into different parts of the world, especially western Africa. There are currently two-duty free zones, and construction of a large container port is under way in Tenerife. This island has also been linked with mainland Spain with a fiber optic submarine communications cable.

Life in the Canary Islands is, in many ways, similar to life in other parts of the world, but it is the small things—the sunset view, the ocean breeze, the snowcapped volcano, the slower pace, the tasty food—that make a place distinctive. And that is not noticeable from far away; a closer look is welcome.

Top 5 Sights

1) Teide National Park
2) Timanfaya National Park
3) Caldera de Taburiente National Park
4) The beaches of the island of Fuerteventura
5) The city of Las Palmas