The Canary Islands offer a mix of African, European, and South American cultures—and wonderfully welcoming people. Every day on the Canaries brings a new landscape—you might relax on a Caribbean-style beach, be startled by giant lizards in a tropical plantation, or climb a snowcapped volcano. Activities include sampling some of Spain’s finest wines on a bodega tour, snorkeling, and dancing your way through the night in one of Europe’s best clubs. From total relaxation in a luxury resort to strenuous hiking via mountain refuge huts, these small islands pack in an amazing amount.
Geographically, the Canaries are African, but culturally they’re European, and spiritually Latin American (many islanders have close blood ties to Cuba and Venezuela). The language spoken here is, in both diction and pronunciation, a South American version of Spanish. Salsa music, exotic to mainland Spain, is what you'll hear at the wild Carnaval fiestas here.
The best thing about the Canaries is their climate, warm in winter and tempered by cool Atlantic winds (particularly strong in Fuerteventura and Lanzarote), and swimming year-round. This is no secret to vacationing Europeans: the islands' first modern-day tourists arrived from England at the turn of the 20th century to spend the winter at Puerto de la Cruz, in Tenerife. Today, huge charter flights from Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Zürich, Manchester, and dozens of other northern European cities unload more than 11.5 million sun-starved visitors a year. Only a handful of tourists on these islands at any given time are from the United States, in contrast to mainland Spain.
The presence of northern travelers creates a duality of natural beauty and heavy tourism. On Gran Canaria and Tenerife in particular, you'll hear more German than Spanish, and the resort towns' endless international eateries, car-rental agencies, water parks, travel agents, and miniature-golf parks suggest a sort of foreign annexation. Nevertheless, most people congregate on a few unexceptional beaches, leaving the Canaries' purer aspects intact. An excellent system of natural parks and protected zones serves hikers, bikers, and beachcombers. Many Fodor’s travelers recommend avoiding the busy main resorts (except perhaps for a place to stay) and renting a car. That way you'll be able to get out and really explore the islands’ natural beauty.
Before the Spanish arrived, the Canaries were populated by cave-dwelling people called Guanches, who are related to the Berber tribes of northern Africa. In the late 15th century the islands fell one at a time to Spanish conquistadors, then lay on the edge of navigators' maps for centuries. Columbus resupplied his ships here in 1492 before heading west to the New World, then went on to help establish the archipelago as an important trading port. The Guanches were decimated by slave traders by the end of the 16th century. Their most significant remains are the Cenobio de Valerón ruins on Gran Canaria.
You may be surprised to learn that the Canary Islands were named not for the yellow songbirds but for a breed of dog (canum in Latin) found here by ancient explorers. The particularly large dogs gave Gran Canary its name; the birds were later named after the islands.
Each of the seven islands is a world unto itself, with unique charms. This guide covers the four largest and most-visited islands: Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, and Fuerteventura. The smaller western isles of El Hierro, La Gomera, and La Palma are no less attractive: if you have the time, they are all easily accessible from the main islands via plane or boat.