‘Thelma and Louise’ on Volcanic Moonscape of Lanzarote

Angela Dansby

Lanzarote, the most volcanic island in Spain’s Canary archipelago, is comprised entirely of volcanoes ranging from 15 million to 300 years old. The newer landscape was created from 1730 to 1736 by a volcanic eruption that covered it with lava and ash, expanding it several square kilometers and destroying villages. In 1824, a smaller eruption added to the southwesterno area that now comprises Timanfaya National Park. Today, these eruptions are frozen in time with a black “moonscape” of craters and bizarre shapes with streaks of red, orange and yellow hues from iron and other minerals.

No wonder Lanzorate was the backdrop of films such as “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth,” “Moby Dick” and “Doctor Who!” Apollo astronauts even looked at photos of this “moonscape” to see what the real moon might look like.

An UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Timanfaya is one of Lanzarote’s most spectacular sites with volcanic activity and temperatures reaching 600° C just 10 meters below the surface! This heat is used to cook meat for tourists at an architecturally stunning visitor center (black to match the landscape), which also demonstrates burning leaves and spewing steam. This is a prelude of a volcanic cacophony to come; one of Lanzarote’s four calderas is expected to erupt again in 50 years. Until then, tourism will reign supreme. Here’s why:

Lanzarote is known as the “land of 1,000 volcanoes” for good reason. In addition to calderas, cones and lava fields, it has some of the world’s biggest lava tubes (up to 7.5 kilometers in length) and caverns formed by gas explosions. These natural wonders are showcased at Cueva de los Verdes, a labyrinth of caves once used by inhabitants to hide from pirates, and Jameos del Agua, an underground world with a salt lake, emerald pool and variety of plants.

In spite of little vegetation overall, Lanzarote is shockingly supportive of 800 species of life, including birds, reptiles, camels (introduced from North Africa), cacti, lichen, aloe, wine grapes and plants from seeds transported by trade winds.

Aloe plants are unique on Lanzarote and other Canary Islands because of their thick leaves. All kinds of products are made from it, including 100 percent aloe extract, which is consumed for health benefits and topically applied to heal wounds and nourish skin. (FYI, the extract smells like onions and aloe is in the asparagus, not cactus, family.)

Even more impressive are Lanzarote’s vineyards, which are the most unique in the world (Santorini’s coiled vines are a close second). The volcanic soil allows for concentrated fruit and delicious, mineral wines. Vines are planted in concave holes 2-3 meters deep, where soil is found underneath volcanic sediment (lapilli). They are protected from the island’s strong winds with crescent walls of lava rock. This way of growing does not allow for the use of machinery, so all work is done manually, making production small but big in quality. Malvasia white grape varietal is most common as it’s indigenous with designated origin, but other white and red grapes are also produced. The island has 21 wineries (bodegas), 17 of which have quality certification, including El Grifo, Vulcano de Lanzarote, Vega de Yuco and La Geria – all of which I can certify myself are very good.

The green grapevines are striking against the black earth. So too are white houses, which are a custom of Lanzarote, making up 99 percent of all buildings. That’s because white absorbs the least heat of any color. Blue or green window frames add color. (Traditionally, houses with colored windows designated wealth and those made from volcanic stones and earth were spartan.) El Golfo, an oceanside green lagoon, adds another splash of color on the island. It was formed by an underwater volcano blast that fostered algal growth.

In celebration of milestone birthdays this year, my University of Michigan friend, Tahki, came to visit me in neighboring Fuerteventura this August. We did practically everything under the sun, including taking a 30-minute ferry over to Lanzarote twice. First, we saw it by bus, which is the only way to see certain parts of Timanfaya. The second time we rented a Scorpion convertible sports car to do our own tour. Hello, “Thelma and Louise!”

« Freedom! » I yelled with my arms in the air as Tahki and I danced to Spanish pop music. She was in her element driving across the funky terrain with winding roads.

En route to Teguise, the old capital featuring an outdoor artisan market on Sunday, we passed windswept lava formations and volcanic cones streaked with red iron ore. A few cacti gave life to the barren landscape.

“Lanzarote forces you to live in the moment due to the fact that everything can disappear in a moment,” Tahki aptly said. “Mother Nature dominates people here. We are at her whim as there is so much power underneath the surface. She can destroy the island if she feels like it. Ironically, the volatile landscape looks peaceful.”

“Thelma and Louise” took it in driving about 150 kilometers from the southern port to the northernmost point of the island at Mirador del Río. This stunning lookout, created by the island’s most famous architect César Manrique, shows off Chinijo Archipelago National Park, including the inhabited islet La Graciosa.

Tahki peeled in and out of parking lots as we raced against time to catch the last ferry of the day at 7 pm. Volcanic ash flew off the wheels of our Scorpion convertible while visors with turquoise scarves from the Beguise market kept our hair in place.

Our last stop was for a 10-minute tasting at El Grifo winery, where I bought several bottles to take home. Tahki timed me as I quickly sipped and made purchasing decisions.

We arrived at the ferry in the nick of time. While Tahki parked the car on the ship, I opened a bottle of wine on its top terrace. When my kindred adventurer found me, she smiled as I poured two glasses of Lanzorote’s finest wine.

“Happy Birthday to Thelma and Louise and cheers to being young at heart forever,” I said.

“Cheers to the only person I know who flies by the seat of her pants as much as me,” Tahki joked.  

Given the high winds of Lanzarote, our pants were literally flying. Like Thelma and Louise, we lived on the edge but thankfully, we did not drive off a cliff.

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).