Beach, Wind & Fire on Canary Islands of Spain

Angela Dansby

With the 19 Sept. 2021 eruption of Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma island in Spain’s Canary archipelago, a prophecy came true: « About every 50 years, there is a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands and now is time for one, » said a guide on a tour through Lanzarote’s Timanfaya National Park on 19 Aug. My travel buddy, Tahki, and I peered into her crystal ball and escaped weeks before Cumbre Vieja exploded.

These eruptions are not one and done, rather affairs of days or weeks that forever change landscapes. They often also include earthquakes before, during and afterwards. For example, Lanzarote’s eruption from 1730 to 1736 had flames for 19 days and molten lava running for six years! It recreated part of the island, including Timanfaya and baby volcanoes. Lanzarote’s last eruption in 1824 was preceded by 10 years of earthquakes and 30-meter geysers. Subsequent volcanic eruptions in the Canary Islands were on Tenerife in 1909, La Palma in 1971 and La Hierra in 2012 — all of which blasted for days or weeks instead of years.

Already in 12 days, Cumbre Vieja’s lava flow has expanded La Palma by more than 17 hectares. As reported by El País, the lava has traveled 338 hectares, destroying 855 homes and covering 1,753 hectares in ash. The eruption is predicted to last from 24 to 84 days. Perhaps this disaster zone will one day host prime real estate or a tourism as it has in Lanzarote. Our guide predicts another eruption will occur in Lanzarote around 2070. (Real estate investors and vacation homeowners take note!)

No surprise, the Canary Islands were formed to begin with by volcanic activity; magma underneath the ocean exploded upwards millions of years ago. Made from fire, these islands all have a fiery temperament in spite of being surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Mother Nature creates and destroys in the archipelago like a symphony.

Tahki and I had several brushes with its fiery landscapes, mostly on Fuerteventura but also on neighboring Lanzarote to the north and the islet Lobos to the east. Uninhabited Lobos is basically a volcano with six kilometers of hiking trails, beautiful swimming beaches and abandoned salt mines. We did an alternative triathlon there: boating (by ferry), hiking and swimming. We placed our beach bags on volcanic rock, waded out on powdery sand and swam in crystalline, turquoise water. (Ironically, except Tenerife, the Canary Islands have more light-colored sand beaches than black.)

Lobos — meaning « wolves » in Spanish — was named for the large number of « sea wolves, » better known as monk seals, that once lived there. Sadly, hunting made the species extinct on the island and these seals are rarely seen in the surrounding waters. But there are plenty of dolphins!  

On Fuerteventura, there are also plenty of goats. We met some en route to southernmost El Cofete, a stunning, rust-colored beach with volcanic mountains as a backdrop. (It’s on the World Beach Guide’s top 100 list.) Getting there was half the fun as it required driving in a low-budget rental car on 20k of unpaved, rocky roads. Even the goats couldn’t hack them; one tried to hitch a ride with us!

Given the driving time to and from El Cofete, we spent the night in Morro Jable, a German tourist town with a beautiful lighthouse and kilometers of beige sand beaches. We watched a gorgeous sunset and stargazed in the hot air of the night on beach chairs in front of the lighthouse. Its bright, rotating beam competed for attention with the perfect starry sky and bright, full moon. (Non-competitors were high-rise, all-inclusive hotels.)

The next morning, we drove to Sotavento, one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen with a kilometer of wading water on sand bars from the coast. Kite surfers took advantage of the ocean lagoon created by high tide. I waded up to my waist in water with my camera to take photos from a sand bar island.  

“Why did I take kitesurfing lessons in the middle of the ocean when I could have taken them here!” I exclaimed, snapping photos of a kite surfer zipping across the lagoon. “I want to learn to do that.”

With limited time left on our trip, Tahki and I settled for horseback and e-bike riding. We did so on the UNESCO-protected west coast south of El Cotillo where jagged, volcanic cliffs line soft, beige beaches and turquoise water often slams onto the shore. Tahki and I looked down on some of these beaches from the top of cliffs at sunset on horseback — a daring ride, especially without saddles or bits. It was “au natural,” horse-friendly riding that fit perfectly in paradise. Thankfully my horse, a young stallion, avoided the edge because our guide walked as a buffer between them. A blanket with stirrups was the chaffing buffer between me and the horse.

“This horse is still being trained … he’s wild and unpredictable,” said our guide Fabrizio after we were well on our way and I couldn’t get off. Talk about a cliffhanger!

Tahki and I returned to the cliffside beaches by e-bike to swim in a sand bar lagoon and observe stunning streaks in volcanic rocks. Surprisingly, traveling by e-bike was worse than by horse. Unpaved, rocky roads made the 25K journey there painful. And the 25K back, though largely on paved roads, was worse because we were right next to cars with gale-force winds. Because of the latter, cars are required to go around bikers with a 1.5-meter berth. Even still, terror was added to pain. At one point, I stopped for a car at a roundabout and collapsed with my e-bike on the ground due to wind and pain.

“Are you okay? Do you need some water?” asked the couple driving the car.

“I’m fine, thanks,” I said brushing gravel off my bleeding hand and knee. “Just give me a ride back to Corralejo!” I thought.

Tahki missed the comical wipe-out as a professional biker was drafting in her wake on the e-bike. He was exhausted from battling the wind without electric power.

While Tahki and I tried to remain positive during our adventure, at the end of our 50K route, we were at the end of our ropes. We returned the e-bikes with pleasure.

“That was hell,” we both said at the same time.

“I love this island, but I will never bike here again,” I said.

“Hell no!” said Tahki emphatically. “Hell to the no!”

But we both said “yes” to returning to the Canary Islands. We will be happy to replay “beach, wind and fire” … in between volcanic eruptions.

Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).