It rises 12,200 feet high and its caldera measures ten miles in diameter. The UNESCO World Heritage volcano of Teide which dominants the Canary Island of Tenerife is, after those on Hawaii, the Earth’s highest volcano as measured from the sea bed.
Yet, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Teide, unless perhaps you recognize it as the backdrop to "One Million Years B.C.," starring Raquel Welch’s fur bikini.
A mere 62 miles from the coast of Morocco, Spain’s seven Canary Islands—thought by the Greeks in Homer's time to be home to the Hesperides—are for the most part way off the beaten track for North Americans. And if they know Tenerife at all, it’s perhaps for its mega-resorts frequented by Northern Europeans, which are in fact located in just a small part of the island. Turns out there’s a lot more to Tenerife than sun and fun.
Certain small places in the world harbor big ambitions. Tenerife is one of them. Within its 735-square miles, visitors can move in one day from Atlantic and Mediterranean to continental and sub-Alpine climates. It's all thanks to the island's vastly different altitudes and the influence of the trade winds, traits that were appreciated by early natural scientists; the great German intellect Alexander von Humboldt, for one, developed ideas here before he went on to the Americas to deepen our understanding of the natural world.
Today, nearly half the territory of Tenerife has some sort of protected status, making it a prime bird and whale watching destination, as well as a stargazer's paradise. Adventurous visitors come for water sports galore and for more than 70 hiking and footpath circuits that have been carefully mapped out. Or, for those who prefer a leisurely drive around the island, there are 26 lookout points, many of them with prime views of the equally stunning sister islands of Gran Canaria, La Palma, El Hierro and La Gomera.
The stark Mars-like environment of Teide National Park has made the volcano an ideal site for scientists studying Red Planet conditions, yet the mountain is also packed with frolickers when the snows fall. Visitors come for sunset and stargazing tours, and to see one of the world’s most advanced observatories. A cable car whisks people up near the summit who can then walk the final stretch to the top.
Right outside the park's visitors center, a botanical garden showcases the island’s ninety endemic species, of which 16 alone are at home in the national park. The signature Tenerife bugloss (Echium wildpretii) is a gorgeous and funky plant with a ten-foot high stalk that dies right after it blooms with thousands of red flowers.
On the micro end of the Tenerife highlight spectrum lies a single tree that is perhaps 1,000 years old. The curious flock to the coastal town of Icod de los Vinos to see the sixty-foot-high dragon tree with its immense 65-foot girth at the base. The resin of the quirky dragon tree species (dracaena draco is actually a plant) with the broccoli-shaped crown was used as a dye by the Romans. The tree grows in a small botanical garden in which placards explain local flora and fauna as well as share some history on the original Guanche inhabitants whose cultural was eradicated by Spanish conquerers.
And between those two extremes of a volcano and a tree, an ancient laurel forest in the far north is another famous Tenerife attraction. After a stop in the Anaga Rural Park's visitors center, one enters a realm of twisted roots and trunks right out of a spooky fairy tale. A network of dirt trails, many of them worn over centuries into deep ravines, takes visitors through this biosphere reserve of primeval woods, whether they opt for a quick jaunt or hours and hours of secluded hiking.
Hard to believe that people live up here in the rugged Anaga mountain range, but intrepid travelers can explore some two dozen hamlets that are perched on slopes or reached by precipitous roads down into narrow valleys.
Today, Santa Cruz may be Tenerife’s major city, but San Cristóbal de La Laguna, whose historic center has a dragon tree of its own in the plaza, is the island's heart.
Founded miles inland to avoid pirates, La Laguna still has eleven tunnels that were built for safety. Admiral Nelson tried to conquer this northern town, after all.
La Laguna has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site of pedestrian streets since 1999, admired for buildings such as the Baroque bishops palace called Casa Salazar. Its well-preserved noble homes made with endemic Canary pinewood have lovely courtyards in which owners guarded their family secrets.
Speakers of North American Spanish will be at home in La Laguna, and over Tenerife, as many Canarians departed from here for the Americas, particularly to Venezuela and Cuba. La Laguna produced the missionary José de Anchieta who helped found São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, as well as the legendary corsair Amaro Pargo. The grid pattern of the city was the model for many major Latin America urban layouts, such as Havana's.
Along Tenerife's west coast, mighty cliffs tumble nearly 2,000 feet into the sea. Not for nothing is this mythical-looking stretch of coastal territory called Los Gigantes. The heights are best seen from a kayak or a boating excursion in which pilots know where to search for dolphins and whales as well.
The careful observer will witness water pipes and channels lacing some of the cliff fronts, a clue as to the elaborate and sophisticated water system that Canarians have developed over centuries.
For the opposite perspective of Los Gigantes, a crazy road winds from the cliff plateau through Teno Rural Park and down to the hamlet of Masca that seems to balance in the air. Sturdy folks take hours to hike from there down the narrow ravines to the sea. But with fine viewpoints and cafe patios, Masca was made for staying put. And most likely you'll be inspired to do so as long as you can.