Located off the coast of mainland Africa, west of the border between Morocco and the Western Sahara, is Spain’s most distant autonomy: “Las Islas Canarias”.
The islands got their name, not from the volcanoes that created them, or the singing yellow bird of the same name, but another animal: a dog. One theory suggests, they weren’t canines King Juba II found upon arrival on the volcanic shores, but monk seals, also known as canis marinus or “sea dog” in Latin. The name then was Canariae Insulae, “Island of the Dogs”. Unfortunately, these endangered seals no longer call “Las Canarias” home.
The main islands are:
- Tenerife, the most populous of the islands and known as “Las Isla de la Eterna Primavera” (Island of Eternal Spring). Every February it throws a world famous Carnival that sees the streets of its capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, fill with revelers. Its coastline is mostly treacherous and steep from landslides, although the island does offer sandy beaches. Inland most of the island is ripe with volcanic tubes beneath the diverse ecology that grows on the soil of the unstable Mount Teide (“El Pico del Teide”).
- Fuerteventura, the second largest island, gets its name from either Spanish “Strong Winds” or corrupted French, “Forte Aventure” (Great Adventure). Its coastline offers splendid beaches, the black sand a reflection of its volcanic history. The eldest of the islands, the last eruption was between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.
- Gran Canaria (“The Large Island of the Dogs”) has enough micro climates to be its own mini continent. The capital is Las Palmas and it is the joint capital of the autonomy along with Santa Cruz de Tenerife. There are 21 municipalities. In 1492, Christopher Columbus anchored in the Port of Las Palmas on his first trip to the Americas.
- Lanzarote was probably the first island settled and the name comes from the native language for “Red Mountains”. In its volcanic soil wild flowers flourish and in the vineyards of “La Gería”, grapes are grown and harvested in a way unique to the island.
- La Palma. The Cumbre Vieja, a volcanic ridge of volcanic cones built of lava and scoria, dominates the southern part of the island. Dormant, the last eruption occurring in 1971 at the Teneguia vent at the southern end. As with the other islands, La Palma is full of native flowers and fauna, as well as animals.
- La Gomera also offers a distinct local wine while its “honey” (miel in Spanish) is extracted from palm leaves. To communicate across the great ravines of the Garajonay National Park, the locals developed a whistling way to speak, “Silbo Gomero”.
- El Hierro is the smallest of the main islands with three municipalities and its volcano is still active. This seismic history makes beaches on rocky and cliffs steep, prone to landslides.
The people on the temperate islands are known as “Canario(s)”. They speak a dialect of Spanish similar to Andalusian, Canario, where the “-s” is a soft “-h” in the middle and end of words. There is also a Guanche influence (a Berber based language used until the 16th or 17th century). The Canarian syntax is the closest to South American and Caribbean Spanish, due the islands serving as a stopping point during Spain’s colonial time, and the centuries of migration that followed. And like many islanders, “Los Canarios” have a different perspective of time.
“Mojo” (pronounced mO-ho), and the spicy version, mojo picón, is a stable of the Canarian diet and often served on small roasted potatoes, becoming the dish, “papas arrugadas”. Orange, red or green can be the colors, depending on the ingredients in “la salsa”, one of which will be “ajo“. Wine made from “la malvasía” (malvasia grape) was exported internationally exported until the 17th century and is still drunk on the islands. For dessert there is the “bienmesabe“, which literally means: “Tastes good to me,” in Spanish. A paste of ground almonds, lemon rind and eggs, it is sometimes turned into an ice cream, then served on a plate with the local bananas.