Travels in Geology: The Canary Islands: Touring the "Hawaii of Europe"

Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Roman Sigaev Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Roman Sigaev

By Terri Cook

I was standing on top of the world. No matter which direction I looked, steep cinder slopes dropped away sharply, merging with the thick white billows of sea fog below. A chilly wind swirled around me. In the distance, the dark peaks of other great mountains poked above the clouds, and I glimpsed shining patches of deep blue sea.

I was standing atop Pico del Teide in the Canary Islands, the highest point in Spain at 3,718 meters. Just that morning, my family and I had been strolling along lustrous dark sand beaches with the Atlantic’s gentle waves lapping at our feet. This perfect day in paradise made it abundantly clear why the islands are called the “Hawaii of Europe.”

Europe’s Volcanic Playground

Several years ago, my husband and I decided to take a trip to Europe with our two young kids. Because we had more time and sense of adventure than we had money, we diligently searched the Internet for bargains. We found Ryanair, an Irish budget carrier best known for incredibly cheap airfares and controversial cost-saving proposals. My husband spent hours piecing together an itinerary of interesting destinations with airfares of no more than $25. Thus, Tenerife, the largest and most populous of the seven main Canary Islands, became the second stop on our budget tour of Europe.

Lava flows and dikes dominate the landscape on the flanks of El Teide. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott Lava flows and dikes dominate the landscape on the flanks of El Teide. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Credit: Kat Cantner, AGI Credit: Kat Cantner, AGI

The gorgeous Canary archipelago lies about 100 kilometers off the coast of southern Morocco and boasts a mild, San Diego-like climate throughout the year. With diverse volcanic landscapes, copious sunshine, attractive beaches, a wealth of water sports and distinctive traditional foods, the islands are a popular destination for Europeans, but relatively unknown to Americans.

Like Hawaii, the Canaries are a group of volcanic isles formed by rising magma that has punched through the overlying oceanic crust. The source of the magma is thought to be a hot spot, a persistent upwelling originating from deep in Earth’s mantle. The African Plate is moving northeastward slowly over this hot spot so the eastern Canary Islands are generally older (about 20 million years old) than the western ones (about 2 million years old). Due to the African Plate’s slow motion, magma can and does rise up periodically throughout the archipelago.

The Canaries formed when magma, rising from a hot spot deep in Earth’s mantle, punched through the overlying oceanic crust. Credit: Kat Cantner, AGI The Canaries formed when magma, rising from a hot spot deep in Earth’s mantle, punched through the overlying oceanic crust. Credit: Kat Cantner, AGI

The island of Tenerife is an amalgamation of three large shield volcanoes that coalesced between 12 million and 4 million years ago. It appeared at the zenith of volcanic development compared to the older, eroding eastern islands and the younger, western isles, where the volcanoes are still actively building. This difference accounts for some of Tenerife’s distinctive geological features, including its steep, explosive stratovolcano — the Pico del Teide, the result of a later stage of volcanic construction by more viscous, silica-rich lava — perched atop its base of coalesced shield volcanoes.

Exploring Tenerife’s Diverse Coasts

With volcanic black sand beaches like Playa Jardín, the Canaries are often called the “Hawaii of Europe.” Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Neirfy With volcanic black sand beaches like Playa Jardín, the Canaries are often called the “Hawaii of Europe.” Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Neirfy

Visitors will enjoy exploring Tenerife’s fiery history and natural beauty from bottom to top. If, like us, you only have one week there, you should definitely spend a few leisurely days lounging on the beach and enjoying the warm Atlantic water. You can take your pick of dark, volcanic sand in locations like Playa Jardín, or golden white sand that enterprising resort builders imported from the Sahara in spots like the Playa de las Américas.

Popular activities include wind or kite surfing, snorkeling “safaris” — guided snorkeling tours showcasing the area’s highlights — and scuba diving. If you have young kids along or prefer to watch wildlife without getting wet, I recommend a whale-watching trip. The straits between La Gomera (another Canary island) and Tenerife are a great location for spotting these enormous mammals. Resident bottlenose dolphins and short-finned pilot whales can be seen almost every day, and migratory species, including blue and fin whales as well as orcas, frequently visit between the months of December and May and again at the end of the summer.

Pilot whales frequent the waters off the Canarian coast. Credit:  Terri Cook and Lon Abbott Pilot whales frequent the waters off the Canarian coast. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

In the mythology of the Guanche, a people of unknown origin who had settled the islands by 200 B.C., the devil lived inside El Teide. These pyramids are thought to have been built by the Guanche. Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Karol Kozlowski In the mythology of the Guanche, a people of unknown origin who had settled the islands by 200 B.C., the devil lived inside El Teide. These pyramids are thought to have been built by the Guanche. Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Karol Kozlowski

Tenerife may be the largest of the Canaries, but it’s still not huge: you can drive completely around it in half a day. But it’s best to take a little more time. In a day or two, you can explore the east coast’s arid landscape and colorful villages and the lush green terraced hillsides in the west. On the north coast, of particular interest is Garachico, a small, traditional Canarian town with cobblestone streets that lead to a wonderful central plaza, the hub of local activity. Don’t miss the opportunity to feast on fresh seafood and sip local wine in one of the local cafés draped in bougainvillea. Swim through volcanic coves lining Garachico’s rocky coastline, and hike trails just outside of town that follow the path of a 1706 lava flow that destroyed Garachico’s port and inundated half the town.

El Teide: Tenerife’s Volcanic Heart

You’ll also want to spend a day or two exploring the island’s volcanic heart, the Parque Nacional del Teide, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area was declared a national park in 1954 to protect the stunning landscape, fauna, flora and myriad archaeological sites left by the islands’ indigenous Guanche tribes, people of unknown origin who had settled the islands by 200 B.C.

According to the Guanche tradition, the devil lived inside El Teide. One day, jealous of the light from the sun, he stole the orb and hid it underground, causing darkness and destruction across the island. The Guanche appealed to their supreme god, who battled the devil inside the volcano, eventually triumphing and restoring the sun to its place in the sky. This myth may have helped natives to make sense of a prehistoric eruption during which an ash cloud obscured the sun and the volcano rumbled as if a battle were taking place within. El Teide’s most recent eruption occurred in 1909.

Pico del Teide was formed by a later stage of viscous, silica-rich lava deposited on a base of coalesced shield volcanoes. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott Pico del Teide was formed by a later stage of viscous, silica-rich lava deposited on a base of coalesced shield volcanoes. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Climbers on El Teide. Credit: Courtesy of Jeremy Pesicek Climbers on El Teide. Credit: Courtesy of Jeremy Pesicek

The most recent eruption at Pico del Tiede occured in 1909. Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Natalia Belotelova The most recent eruption at Pico del Tiede occured in 1909. Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Natalia Belotelova

Hikes in the park vary from a flat, sunny 16-kilometer-long trail between the two visitor centers to a 16-kilometer-long, 1,400-meter vertical slog up the steep slopes of El Teide. Visitors can also take the short but pricey cable car ride up and hike the final 200 meters to the summit to enjoy the outstanding view. Either way — whether you hike or ride — you need to get a permit from the visitor center at the bottom of the mountain before ascending to the summit.

The unusual tajinaste rojo, a tall, tapered plant that sprouts a host of small red blossoms every other spring, is a colorful symbol of the Canaries. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott The unusual tajinaste rojo, a tall, tapered plant that sprouts a host of small red blossoms every other spring, is a colorful symbol of the Canaries. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Many species of flora and fauna — including the birds named for the archipelago — are endemic to the Canaries. Darwin’s theory of evolution made the Galápagos famous for their endemism, but lesser known is that in 1832, at the start of his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, a seasick Darwin planned to make Tenerife his first port of call. Just as the crew was preparing to land, local officials told them they’d first have to spend 12 days in quarantine out of fear they carried cholera. After the captain decided to forgo the Canaries, Darwin wrote, “We have left perhaps one of the most interesting places in the world.” Another famous explorer who visited this archipelago was Christopher Columbus, who at the start of his first voyage in 1492 spent a month on La Gomera stocking up on local goat cheese and other supplies — and purportedly having an affair — before catching the brisk trade winds to the New World.

Above the clouds, the telescopes of the Teide Astronomical Observatory have a clearer view of space. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott Above the clouds, the telescopes of the Teide Astronomical Observatory have a clearer view of space. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Above the Clouds

A lighthouse on the island of El Hierro in the Canaries. Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Oliver Hoffmann A lighthouse on the island of El Hierro in the Canaries. Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Oliver Hoffmann

On his voyages, Christopher Columbus attempted to navigate by the stars. Today, thanks to the high elevation and dry air, Tenerife and neighboring La Palma are some of the best places in the world to gaze at the stars, and astronomers from all over the planet come to work in the islands’ world-class observatories. If you’d like to see one of these facilities for yourself, the Teide Astronomical Observatory offers group tours by appointment on Friday mornings from April through December.

Beyond Tenerife

In addition to Tenerife, you may wish to explore some of the other Canary Islands. One suggestion is El Hierro, which was the “end of the known world” until Columbus sailed past it in 1492. With its rural character, El Hierro can still feel that way today. Its unique landscape comprises a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and the island offers great hiking and a peaceful respite, as well as evidence of massive, geologically recent tsunami-generating landslides (see sidebar).

Whether you are on a luxury cruise or your own Ryanair tour of Europe, the Canary Islands, with their diverse mixture of volcanic terrains, outdoor attractions and fascinating history, are sure to be a highlight.

Mass wasting

Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Anibal Trejo Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/Anibal Trejo

Like all volcanic islands, Tenerife represents a balance between constructional and erosional forces. Over millions of years, repeated eruptions of magma pile up, slowly building the shield volcanoes. Occasionally, however, this long-term construction is punctuated by destruction in the form of massive, lightning-fast landslides.

Geologists increasingly recognize the importance of large-scale landslides in the evolution of volcanic islands. Mapping in the 1990s revealed evidence of a large debris avalanche on the northern side of El Hierro with blocks of displaced material up to 1.2 kilometers across and 200 meters high. The event mobilized at least 150 cubic kilometers of material about 15,000 years ago. Turbidites from this collapse reached the Madeira abyssal plain, 600 kilometers west of the islands. Collectively, the stack of sediments deposited on this plain indicates there have been seven such mega-landslides in the western Canaries in the last 750,000 years. At least four slides — each one removing about 3 percent of the edifice — have taken place just on El Hierro in the last few hundred thousand years, and the seafloor off northern and eastern Tenerife is littered with debris.

In addition to devastating local consequences, such enormous landslides have the potential to trigger mega-tsunamis across the Atlantic. One of the primary candidates for future collapse and tsunami generation is Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma. In 1949, part of the volcano’s western flank dropped 4 meters along a 3-kilometer-long set of faults that opened up along the volcano’s crest. Scientists are debating how large the seemingly impending collapse could be and how large a tsunami a worst-case collapse could generate. Such a tsunami’s destructive force would most likely be focused within the Canary archipelago and along the coasts of Morocco, Spain and Portugal, according to most geologists, though some research indicates tsunamis could reach the eastern coast of North America and the Caribbean. All that geologists can say conclusively is that such collapses are common in the geologic record, and they have the capacity to be enormously destructive locally. In fact, one astounding record of tsunami deposits was found 188 meters above current sea level on Gran Canaria, about 60 kilometers southeast of Tenerife.

Terri Cook

Terri Cook

Based in Boulder, Colo., and trained as a geologist, Cook is a freelance writer whose career has focused on exploring and explaining the history of our amazing planet, including as a roving correspondent for EARTH. Follow her travels at www.down2earthscience.com. Follow her @GeoTravelTerri.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 - 06:00

Getting There and Getting Around Spain

Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/ArenaPhotoUK Credit: ©Shutterstock.com/ArenaPhotoUK

Two airports serve Tenerife, which is a 2.5-hour plane ride away from Spain’s capital, Madrid. Most inter-island flights, plus those from mainland Spain, arrive at Tenerife Norte (Los Rodeos), 11 kilometers from Santa Cruz, the island’s largest city. Nearly all international flights (even those on Ryanair) arrive at the larger Tenerife Sur airport (Reina Sofía), located about 60 kilometers south of Santa Cruz.  Although there are established bus routes across the island, the most convenient way to explore it is by car. A number of local and international agencies have depots at both airports.

Flying is the fastest way to travel between the islands. Binter Canarias (binternet.com) and Islas Airways (islasairways.com) offer regular schedules. If time permits, I recommend taking the slow ferry (with observation decks) to fully appreciate the massive scale of the Canary volcanoes. Three main companies operate between the islands: Fred Olsen (fredolsen.es), Trasmediterránea (trasmediterranea.com), and Naviera Armas (navieraarmas.com). 

Accommodations on the islands span a wide range of quality and price. Most visitors arrive with accommodations already booked, a wise strategy during the bustling winter and summer seasons, as well as Carnival in February and Easter Week. Santa Cruz and the resorts on the southwest coast offer the most selection and services. Booking.com offers hundreds of reviewer-rated properties and is helpful for finding apartments, which are often better values than hotels. 

On Tenerife and several other islands, converted farmhouses, which offer rural charm and generally good value, can be booked at ecoturismocanarias.com/uk.html. If you prefer a laid-back beach hangout instead of a resort, try El Médano, which is known for its windsurfing. An unassuming place to stay there is Hotel Playa Sur Tenerife (hotelplayasurtenerife.ws).

Tenerife offers a huge range of water sports. Most shops and schools are concentrated around the southwestern resorts and Los Gigantes, known for its abundant marine life and whale-watching tours. These are also available from the ports in Playa de Los Cristianos and Costa Adeje.

In the Parque Nacional del Teide, the cable car operates daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Arrive early if you don’t want to spend hours standing in line. No matter how you ascend, if you wish to bag the summit, you’ll need to stop by the park’s Servicio de Uso Público office with a copy of the personal information pages in your passport to obtain a permit, which specifies the two-hour time frame in which you’re allowed to hike beyond the barriers. 

Terri Cook

Terri Cook

Based in Boulder, Colo., and trained as a geologist, Cook is a freelance writer whose career has focused on exploring and explaining the history of our amazing planet, including as a roving correspondent for EARTH. Follow her travels at www.down2earthscience.com. Follow her @GeoTravelTerri.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 - 06:00

Terri Cook

Terri Cook

Based in Boulder, Colo., and trained as a geologist, Cook is a freelance writer whose career has focused on exploring and explaining the history of our amazing planet, including as a roving correspondent for EARTH. Follow her travels at www.down2earthscience.com. Follow her @GeoTravelTerri.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 - 06:00