10 things to do in Gran Canaria
With the typically grey miserable weather we have been having in the UK for the last few months Team Caley thought it was about time for some winter sun and a well earned break after the busy Christmas period. We wanted somewhere that was going to give us more than just a lay on the beach holiday but still allowing us some time to unwind with a bit of luxury. A few destinations came up on the short list including Morocco, Greece and Italy but for some reason these didn’t seem to tick all the boxes. So we needed to widen our net and look at some alternative places. When I first suggested Gran Canaria it was only half hearted as the first impression we had was of all inclusive resorts and soulless concrete hotels but what this trip taught us was you always need to experience somewhere for yourself before you pass judgement.
We deliberately avoided the major hotels and looked to stay with locals away from the major cities using our trusted friend AirBnB, we picked three locations Santa Lucia in the middle of the island, Tasarte on the west coast and just outside Maspalomas on the south coast. We have found that using AirBnB in the past has allowed us to stay in local communities with local hosts who have given us a wealth of inside knowledge all included in the price.
Touching down on a perfectly clear New Years Eve gave us a spectacular view of the Canary Islands and showed the rugged landscape we would be calling home for the next couple of weeks. The series of volcanic islands (Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro) are located just off the south west coastline of Morocco but form part of Spanish territory (something we latter found out to be a rather political subject). The vast mountain ranges create a natural barrier between the north and south of the island, with the clouds rolling in from the north not being able to rise over the high peaks. This barrier protects the south from most of the annual rainfall and hence why the large tourist towns can be found there. This unique climate also means Gran Canaria has countless microclimates in the deep valleys some of which have flowers only found on the island and also play host to Europe’s only coffee plantation.
During our time on the island we realised just how much more it has to offer than just the stereotypical all inclusive holiday resorts but rather it is a deeply historical place with passionate locals who take great pride in their little corner of the world. So here is our our top 10 things to do in Gran Canaria!
1. Learn about the local history. Gran Canaria has a rich native history with numerous museums and visitors’ centres show casing the archaeological sites. One of the most important historical sites on the island is La Fortaleza on the GC-65 road. This is where it is believed that in 1483 the native islanders made their last stand against the invading Castilian troops. The ancient fort sits on the raised peaks in the middle of the valley which can easily be seen from the viewpoint on the main GC-65 road and is a great spot to watch to sunrise over the valley. Just up the road from the viewpoint is the main vistor’s centre which showcases a range of archaeological finding and also details to history of the site.
2. Go live in a cave. Taking a drive down the Barranco de Guayadeque valley gives you another opportunity to glimpse into the islands early inhabitancy with locals still living in caves carved into the valley rock. The valley is one of the most beautiful on the island and due to its steep slopes gives an amazing contrast between the sun scorched north side and the lush alpine southern face which is almost always in shade. This is a great example of one of the islands microclimates with almost 100 endemic species that cover the valley slopes. Be aware though that some maps show the road through the valley (GC-103) as a tarmac road all the way to the adjoining GC-130 but this is not the case, with the tarmac running out when you reach the La Era and Vega restaurants. We met a rather distressed couple whose map didn’t show this and had to do a long loop back out the valley to reach their final destination.
3. Walk the volcano. As well as ancient history the island also had a complex and violent birth which it still bares the scares of today The Caldera de Bandama is a volcanic crater 1000m wide and over 200m deep. The main view point is easily reached by car which sign posts showing you the way up the twisting GC-802 off the GC-4 motorway. Parking is a bit limited so try to avoid the busiest time of the day. The viewpoint has a small visitors centre at the summit with knowledgeable staff who are willing to talk about the formation of the island and local geology. The crater offers a range of hikes including a path around the craters edges which took us about an hour and 15 minutes and also easy access down to the ruins at the bottom of the crater.
4. Scale new heights. The mountainous interior has numerous rock formations the most famous is Roque Nublo (Rock in the clouds) which is not to be confused with the highest point on the island which is Pico de las Nieves just to the east. This impressive rock formation is easily accessible with a small parking area along the GC-600 leaving just a moderate 30 minute walk up to the plateau where the main 80m tall rock sits, again parking gets very busy so get there early to avoid the crowds and the powerful midday sun. Walking to the summit is popular by night and you will see lines of head torches dotting the trial due to the panoramic views of the island and minimal light population giving you some amazing star gazing opportunities.
5. Relax in the hills. Up in the mountains there are countless small villages and one of the more vibrant is Cruz de Tejeda which can be access from numerous roads around the island. This easy access makes the small village one of the main motorcyclist meeting points on the island so it can get pretty busy but is great location for coffee after a long drive.
6. Be brave. The GC-200 west coast road which runs between the two picturesque harbours of Puerto de Morgan and Puerto de Las Nieves, is a 45 mile stretch of coast road which at times seems to be stuck onto the side of a sheer cliff. The rewards for your bravey in taking on this road are some of the best views on the island which show off its rugged landscape which has largely been untouched by tourism. The two towns at each end are both worth a visit; Puerto de Morgan is widely considered the most beautiful town on the whole island and for good reason, the selection of high end retail shops, sea view restaurant and labyrinth of flower laden archways, coupled with the sandy beach makes it a must see. Puerto de Las Nieves was the original main harbour before the new capital Las Palmas was built but still remains the main gate way to Tenerife by ferry. The characteristic blue and white buildings which houses some of the best local fish restaurants on the island makes it a great spot for lunch and a short stroll.
7. Hang 10. Being an island Gran Canaria is a water sports paradise with everything that can be done above, on or under the sea on offer. Surfing is particularly popular and with year round sun shine combined with a range of beaches Gran Canaria is a great place learn the basics. We took a day’s course for 49 euros with Surf Canaries where Dan and his team took great care of us and by the end of the day we were officially surfing! Easily the best thing we spent our money on the whole trip and another thing ticked of the bucket list!
8. Stay off the beaten track! One of our AirBnB accommodations (click here for the link) gave us a brief look into the range of ways people choose to lead their lives on the island. Susanne and Mike are a German couple who have set roots down near the remote village of Tasarte and have created a small self sufficiency oasis. Tucked just off the main GC-200 coast road their moderate property is nestled amongst palm, lemon and olive trees, with an infinity pool with a truly spectacular view. Be warned though it really is off the beaten track and down an unmade drive, needless to say our hire car had a few extra scraps on the underside after our three night stay! This is by no means the only accommodation of its type on the island but you will need to dig deep to find them, so get looking.
9. Be in awe. With numerous valleys and canyons Degollada de La Yegua viewpoint is one of the most impressive viewpoints on the island and just a short drive north from Maspolomas it is easily reachable by car, bus or bike. With views over the south west of the island it is a great place to watch the sun set after a long day on the beach.
10. Walk in the desert sand dunes. Even though we wanted to stay away from the tourist dominated south we couldn’t leave without walking on the vast sand dunes which spans over 17km. It is a great example of how varied the island landscape is as you stand on the top of a huge sand dune with the sea behind you looking up into the towering mountains to the north. Also it is great fun rolling down the dunes but a nightmare having the walk back up again!!