Contrary to popular belief, the Canary Islands west of Western Sahara do not take their name from birds, rather dogs. While canary songbirds originated in the Macaronesian Islands (Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands) and were named after the Canary Islands, the reverse is not true. Instead, these islands were derived from the Latin term Insula Canaria, meaning “Island of the Dogs.” Where the dogs came from remains a mystery but there once was a large population of “sea dogs” (monk seals) during the Roman era. In addition, legend has it that the first inhabitants of the archipelago worshipped dogs. But nowadays, you rarely see the endangered sea dogs or even land dogs. Ironically, the Canary Islands transport you away from the “dog eat dog” world and make you sing like canary birds.
This Spanish archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa includes eight primary islands – Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, El Hierro and La Graciosa – plus a handful of smaller islands like Isla de Lobos, islets and rocks. Collectively, the Romans referred to them as “the Fortunate Isles.” I understand why based on my current visit to Fuerteventura. (Incidentally, the Canary Islands are the most populous and economically sound of the nine Outermost Regions of the European Union.)
As the second easternmost island in the Atlantic Ocean archipelago subject to northeasterly trade winds, Fuerteventura is number one in wind sports. Its Sotavento Beach is home to the annual Windsurfing & Kiteboarding World Cup and many beaches are dotted with the colorful canopies of kitesurfers and wing foilers. That’s not just because of its excellent wind conditions for these sports, but also due to its 150 kilometers of undeveloped, expansive, idyllic beaches. Think white, fine sand and turquoise, clear water. Fuerteventura is the very definition of paradise. No wonder its name in Spanish means “strong fortune.”
When I decided to set up a remote office in Corralejo (referring to corral) in northern Fuerteventura this August to escape my unairconditioned Brussels apartment and the COVID Delta variant, I didn’t know the beauty of this island. I only knew it has the best beaches of the archipelago, which is the southernmost European destination and more remote than Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. The Canary Islands lie in between the four continents of Africa, North America, South America and Europe. Fuerteventura is the second largest in land space but fourth in population; it has only 123,000 residents compared to nearly 1 million in neighboring Tenerife.
While trade winds blow sand from Western Sahara to Fuerteventura, the island is mainly composed of its own sand. It’s a desert with low mountains and volcanoes – very Stars Wars-esque. In fact, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” was filmed here along with “Wonder Woman,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and several other movies. Plus, the Canary Islands have the most hours of sunlight in Europe – 3,000 per year – and average 25 °C a day! No wonder Canary Island tourism boasts “the best climate in the world.”
Considering this windy, sunny place, I made a splash with kitesurfing lessons here. It’s the closest to the superhero Aquaman that you’ll ever get. But learning this sport, which is at the mercy of Mother Nature, in the windswept Atlantic Ocean with high waves is a challenge.
Lesson one began on the beach. We trained with a kite, which blew fiercely in 15-knot wind. Given that I’m lightweight, it carried me away in an instant, ending in a face plunge. The impact of my sunglasses on my face resulted in a “red badge of courage” (small bleed).
“Angela, you’re supposed to kiss the instructor, not the sand,” joked the owner of the kitesurfing school.
This funny suggestion was in contrast to my Serbian instructor’s direct and militant style.
“Relax! Relax!” he shouted, hitting my arm repeatedly to emphasize his point, making me anything but relaxed.
Lesson two was more of the same but in the deep, salty, wavy ocean. Thankfully, it allowed for a softer landing than sand when I body-dragged with the kite at high speed. The wind is a powerful force of nature. I understand first-hand how it creates (and takes away) energy.
Lesson three was even more challenging as a surfboard was added to the mix. Plus, the wind was slow that day, so the technique was the opposite of what I had previously learned. Thankfully, I had an attentive instructor – this time Estonian – to coach me through it.
“We are driving to the other side of the island today because the wind is low,” he said in a thick Russian accent.
“I heard sharks are there,” I replied nervously.
“Angela, do not worry,” he said. “Yes, there are sharks, but they haven’t attacked anyone in 100 years.”
Great, I was about to go into the middle of the ocean with nothing but a kite to escape from sharks. While the wind can make you soar across the water at a clip, kitesurfing pace is no match to the speed of a shark. Even a flying fish put me to shame.
Thankfully, I kept the safe shark history and myself intact. Now I can engage with goats here instead. These animals “founded” Fuerteventura as they were recorded in the island’s first human history in 1402. Today there are about 80,000 goats of a special breed called Majorera. Their milk is used to produce a unique, delicious, hard cheese of a similar name (Majorero). Think “maharajas” (Indian princes) of goats. Fuerteventura’s 100 square kilometers are primarily arid and volcanic – ironically, the perfect habitat for Majorera.
In fact, the west coast of Fuerteventura is an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve due to 100 kilometers without human intervention. The island is also rich in fossils with 50 paleontological sites of global importance.
While my visiting friend Florence and I did not see any fossils, we did see a giant, oceanside cave in Ajuy fishing village. The area was once frequented by pirates. Perhaps they hid some treasures in this cave … we only found rocks and a hot, black sand beach nearby.
More impressive are dolphins that live in the waters of Fuerteventura. Flo and I squealed with glee at the sight of about 100 of them playing in the currents of our tourist boat. Ironically, we outdid the teenagers on board for front-of-the-bow viewing, happily getting drenched by sea spray. We jumped up and down like children at the sight of dolphins zig-zagging in front of our boat, leaping and flipping in a series of magical moments. I’m not sure which of us were more joyful.
“Oh la la!” Flo exclaimed many times in her beautiful French accent (déjà vu).
“Wow, wow, wow!” I said repeatedly.
Observing teams of dolphins is nature with a force! On the other hand, kitesurfing is due to a force of nature. Sometimes, Fuertaventura requires a force against nature like our attempt to kayak and stand-up paddleboard in gale force wind off a catamaran near Lobos Island. Positioning ourselves on a beanbag on the bow proved to be a better course of action (er, inaction).
I’ve learned that in Fuerteventura, you go where the wind blows and it blows you away, sometimes literally.