We left Ipswich nearly two months ago and it is now almost a month since we arrived at Arrecife, capital of Lanzarote in the Canaries. It is the most easterly of the seven principal islands of the Canaries archipelago. We used the marina as a convenient base to explore the island and to allow us to join in the activities of the Atlantic Odyssey rally (see below).
|The Canary Islands Archipelago|
Geographically the Canaries are 500 miles south of the European mainland but only 60 miles off the African coast. Geologically they are part of Macaronesia, a volcanic island group that also comprises the Azores, Madeira and the Cape Verde islands. They all have similar topography and indigenous flora.
|Macaronesia island chain which includes the Azores, Madeira, the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands)|
From the early fifteenth century the Canary Islands have “belonged” to Spain. Castilian Spanish is the Canaries’ official language although the local dialect is said to be more like that of Latin America, with which the Islands share many words and have a close cultural link.
Today the Islands form one of Spain’s seventeen autonomous regions, each responsible for their own self government. While Spain is a full member of the European community and the islands’ currency is the Euro, the Canaries are not actually, being a free trade area, a member of the EU (i.e. we’ll have to sign back into the EU when we return next year).
The weather here is everything that we hoped for. We’ve been in shorts and polo shirts since we arrived, although the evenings do cool down and sometimes we’ve found the need for a sweatshirt. The Canaries Tourist Board claims that the islands’ weather resembles springtime all year round. Certainly the “average” (whatever that means) daytime temperature is reputed to vary between 18° and 25°C. Having said that, the climate clearly varies significantly between and within islands in terms of sunshine, rain, temperature and wind. As a consequence each island has evolved distinctly and between them have a range of landscapes, from deserts to sub-tropical, that one would normally have to cross a number of continents to see.
Until the middle of the twentieth century the fragile economy of the Canaries was largely based on agriculture. Since the 1960s, with the proximity of the European mainland and the plethora of cheap charter flights now available, tourism has become by far the biggest employer and earner of foreign currency on the Islands and remains a major factor in shaping their identity.
We made our landfall in Arrecife, the capital of Lanzarote. There we pulled on to a pontoon in “Marina Lanzarote” situated in Puerto Naos, just on the edge of the city centre. It is in the process of being built and was, we were delighted to discover, therefore half the “normal” price, albeit that it still offered everything that we needed.
The city is named after the reefs dotted around the wide southeast-facing bay of the old harbour. It is the closest port of the Canary Islands to the coast of Sahara and its large fishing fleet in the modern main harbour benefits from Africa’s prolific fishing grounds.
Lava reefs in the old port of Arrecife which is now used as anchorage for local and visiting boats
Arrecife is a typical Spanish “working town” with a population of 60,000 – nearly half of the island’s resident inhabitants. It has few tourist attractions and only the more “adventurous” day visitors from the cruise liners or resorts. It does not have the blight of high-rise apartment blocks or tourist souvenir shops that have disfigured many Spanish towns and seafronts. Its back streets are a maze of sun-bleached buildings, small shops and businesses, rough bars and local restaurants.
Inner lagoon, Arrecife
It does, however, have an active modern city centre and market place – both of which sell goods and services at lower prices than in the beach resorts. The city also has a pleasant Mediterranean-style seafront promenade and two good golden sand beaches. We very much like its pleasant unspoiled atmosphere.
After arriving we attacked the “Simply Must Do” tasks on the boat before getting to know the island. Our principal task was to repair the mainsail, which had chafed badly when running downwind with three reefs, after we found that the local British sailmaker seemed reluctant to help out. Helen glued and sewed a patch over the damaged area.
Helen using her manual “Speedy Stitcher"
to repair the mainsail
We quickly realised that exploring seven small islands, spread out over an area of only 240 x 120 miles, will be a very different proposition to the longer-distance cruising with which we are more familiar. In particular, it has become increasingly clear that the Islands will probably be best explored with wheels rather than a keel beneath us – and also on foot.
Our boat can, however, double as a good caravan and give us greater flexibility, independence and the capacity to live economically within a budget. Shops in the towns and indeed resorts are good. The quality of food from them and the local markets is excellent, particularly the fruit and veg – and everything appears cheaper than in the UK. Since there is no tax, local drink is at least 50% lower than in the UK. (San Miguel beer is only £0.50 per can, Rioja £2.00 a bottle and spirits less than £8 a litre.) Unfortunately marinas, while excellent in other respects, are not cheap for short-stay cruisers although significant discounts are available for long stays (not what we want to do). We understand, however, that the Government ports, while more basic, are significantly cheaper. We have yet to determine this for ourselves.
We used the local buses to conduct an initial recce of the island, which is only 37 miles long by 13 miles wide at its broadest point. Buses are cheap, comfortable, air conditioned, relatively frequent and cover most of the island. The majority of the bus routes radiate from Arrecife, which is roughly halfway down the east coast. From our initial overview we ascertained that:
- The west coast, facing the Atlantic, did not appear to have anywhere safe for a yacht to stay.
- Much of the interior lava landscape is uninhabitable. The inland villages and hamlets primarily support the agricultural population, small businesses and commuters who work in the city or resorts.
- There are two (other) marinas (Calero and Rubicon), one safe harbour (Graciosa) and only four reasonably safe overnight anchorages on the east coast.
- Two of the principal holiday resorts are home to the two other marinas. In addition there are a number of other resorts and small villages located at intervals along the coasts.
Lanzarote’s unique features are its volcanic landscape, the sympathetic way in which its tourist industry and infrastructure has been developed and the consistently temperate climate.
Although all of the islands in the Canaries are of volcanic origin it is on Lanzarote that the volcanic features are most impressive and accessible. Volcanic activity has left two massifs at either end of the island. Three hundred volcanoes are scattered throughout. Their desolate pockmarked lunar landscape dominates the countryside.
However, within just a few kilometres of seemingly barren, bleak and forbidding wasteland, pretty, traditional villages can be found within agriculture land. The villages are often surrounded by palm trees, for shade, and have almost an African feel about them.
|Haría - typical Lanzarote village|
On average the island gets only 18 days or 5 inches of rainfall a year. All domestic water is supplied through desalination plants. Tap water is perfectly safe to drink but has a slightly tainted taste. Many people therefore purchase bottled water for drinking.
Surprisingly the land is fertile and prosperous due to soil cultivation and water conservation techniques. Farmers use hygroscopic ground-up lava for top soil and harvest the moisture-laden trade winds by growing plants in craters surrounded by lava rock walls, which at night trap moisture to feed vegetables, date palms, fruit and vines. The low walls also protect the plants from the wind.
Malvasía, a local form of Malmsey wine, and other locally produced wines are very good although, since cultivation of the vines is labour intensive, it is more expensive than what we normally buy, but…
Vines growing in “Zocos”
(protected craters with horseshoe-shaped walls)
César Manrique, a local artist, sculptor and environmentalist, exercised an enormous influence over Lanzarote’s governments and is credited with being largely responsible for preserving the island’s natural state during a period when uncontrolled property development was rampant elsewhere. He was conscious of the destructive consequences of unchecked tourism and was determined to keep Lanzarote from being spoiled. He ensured, for example, that planning regulations required that buildings should not be taller than a palm tree, that new build should be whitewashed and with green or blue paintwork and incorporate indigenous palm and cacti planting, that cables should be laid underground and that roadside hoardings and tipping were banned. The end result is that Lanzarote’s resorts and villages are attractive and blend well with the surrounding countryside. The seafronts are typical of all tourist resorts, being wall-to-wall souvenir and duty-free shops, boutiques, restaurants and bars.
Holiday accommodation in residential backstreet,
Puerta del Carmen
César Manrique’s roadside sculptures can be seen everywhere, including on almost every roundabout. Not all of them exactly to our taste…
|Manrique’s Monumento al Campesino, |
made from old boat water tanks!
An example of the way in which he very effectively developed a dozen or so locations into major tourist attractions is illustrated below:
Today the island’s holiday industry is trying to cater for the more “discerning” tourist. Yachting, boating, wind- and kite-surfing, diving, fishing, historic and cultural activities are all being promoted. Indeed, the government has recently undertaken an island-wide initiative to develop hiking trails, refuges and rural accommodation to encourage more “serious” walkers.
Walking guidebook of Lanzarote
Unlike the larger islands, such as Tenerife and Gran Canaria, there are no high mountains on Lanzarote. This results in moderate weather patterns on the island, helping to make it an all-year-round tourist destination. Occasionally, however, in the summer, the hot sirocco wind blows from the Sahara bringing desert dust and high temperatures.
Lanzarote does not provide an environment for a wide range of wild plant life such as that on the western islands of the archipelago. Trees, other than palms, are scarce. Most of the wild plants seen have adapted to thrive in dry conditions. Cacti, spurges and, on the coast, sea lavender and grapes, which are also salt tolerant, flourish. However, in public parks, gardens and hotel grounds colourful exotic flowers and shrubs, if properly irrigated, will grow in the hygroscopic fertile soil. These include in particular bougainvillea, hibiscus, strelitizia and geraniums as well as small trees such as mimosa and jacaranda.
We soon discovered, indeed could hardly miss the fact, that the new Atlantic Odyssey sailing rally to Martinique was leaving from and being hosted by the owners of “our” marina in Arrecife (who also own Puerta Calero further south). We were surrounded by yachts flying the rally flag with rally dodgers on their guardrails and by banners around the seafront. The marina buzzed with activity as the participants made their final preparation before setting off across the Atlantic.
The Rally has been inaugurated by Jimmy Cornell, journalist, author and ocean-cruising legend, who founded the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) in 1986. (It still leaves Gran Canaria for St Lucia each year. In 2000 he sold the business to Chay Blyth who has subsequently sold it on.) This inaugural Atlantic Odyssey is significantly smaller than the long-established ARC which annually comprises some 250 boats.
The new Rally’s unique selling point is that it aims to revert to the original ethos of the ARC whereby a group of like-minded cruisers simply got together to cross the Atlantic in company – it being suggested by implication that the ARC has become an expensive, commercial and institutionalised event. The Odyssey encourages families who sail with their children – of which there were many. We were amused by the antics of what were described fondly as the “feral children” during the rally preparations.
During the week before the Odyssey left Lanzarote, the organisers ran a series of seminars on cruising-related subjectsat the very smart Arrecife Royal Yacht Club. Non-participants in the Rally, based in the two local marinas, were invited to join in. We attended since it was a social as well as an educational event and we had already met many of the participants in the marina. The seminars included some interesting topics such as ocean weather and routing, provisioning ideas, medical and sailing emergencies, piracy, etc.
Without exception the presenters of each subject were of a high calibre. We found it most interesting and helpful talking to them and in particular to Jimmy Cornell who has spent his life cruising and writing. Clearly he’s been financially successful in that he is currently having his latest aluminium boat built to his own specifications before going through the North West Passage next year on his new Blue Planet Rally.
The Rally also organised a day’s coach trip to visit locations off the beaten track which public transport does not reach. We were kindly invited to join in (for free). The highlight of the tour was the visit to the Timanfaya National Park – Lanzarote’s most spectacular attraction.
Fire Devil emblem at entrance to Timanfaya National Park
At the centre of the park the awesome black and red volcano of the “Fire Mountains” dominates the other volcanoes and the sculptured moon-like lava and ash landscape. The surrounding Malpaís (“badlands”) have not a blade of grass on them although lichens, some small xerophilous bushes and plants together with insects appear to survive in this harsh environment.
Private vehicles are not allowed inside the park. Drivers have to leave their cars and take a 40-minute tour on an official coach – of which ours fortunately was one. The drive along the narrow park roads, often cut deep into the lava, with vertical drops at intervals on one side or the other, was an interesting experience in itself. The driver received a round of applause when he returned us safely to the car park!
The volcano is supposedly dormant. Only six metres below the surface the temperature is 400°C. This heat is demonstrated by park rangers who pass round handfuls of scorching lava granules dug from only a foot under the surface, throw bundles of brushwood – which instantly combust – into fissures in the ground, and pour water into other fissures which erupt into geysers of steam.
The El Diablo restaurant and visitors centre in the middle of the park, designed by César Manrique, comprises a circular glass building with a 360° view of the volcanic landscape all the way to the coasts. Food is cooked on grills over a volcanic fissure, using the natural heat from below. We each enjoyed half a grilled chicken and baked potato from the BBQ.
As part of the tour we also visited the César Manrique Foundation located in his former house which he donated to the nation in 1987. It is built in the middle of a lava flow created in the early eighteenth century when the volcanoes last erupted. The two-storey dwelling comprises an upper floor designed in the traditional Lanzarote style, but with large picture windows overlooking his garden and surrounding landscape. The ground floor is encompassed within five bubbles in the lava which are linked by corridors and staircases drilled through the rock. The house is decorated throughout in stark black and white and the garden is planted with xerophilous shrubs, cacti and flowers.
César Manrique’s mural on the inside of his garden wall
Two days before the Atlantic Odyssey rally left for Martinique on Sunday 17 November, the Calero family, who own both the marina in Arrecife and in Puerto Calero, very kindly invited all sailors in their marinas to their annual reception in Puerto Calero. José Calero is an old friend of Jimmy Cornell and a major sponsor of the rally.
Invitation to the annual Reception for
visiting yachtsmen at Puerto Calero
We’d got to know many of the participants in the Rally whom we waved off from the marina before going round to the seafront to watch the “formal” start. By coincidence, two of the Mini Transat yachts that have to pass round the Canaries on their way from France to the Caribbean sailed past the seafront just before the Rally formally commenced. The 6.5m boats (ours is 11.4m) are either single- or double-handed. They flew past us in a Force 6 with their gennakers hoisted. Very impressive! Three boats didn’t get past Lanzarote: one hit a rock and the skipper is now in hospital; one was dismasted and the third suffered rudder failure. The two still afloat came into the marina.
Mini Transat racing yacht “flying past” on its way
from France around the Canaries to the Caribbean
Not surprisingly, the marina felt empty and was much quieter after the Odyssey yachts, crews and entourage left. Many other (independent) boats on their way to the Caribbean, some of whom we’d got to know, left at the same time or soon afterwards – all with the aim of getting to the Caribbean before Christmas. We were particularly sorry to say goodbye to our neighbour Jon Lister on his 40ft Warrior, Hecla of Uist, who left to continue his single-handed circumnavigation.
Jon Lister leaving on Hecla for the next stage
of his single-handed circumnavigation
In order to continue our social life we therefore had supper out: raciones (half portions shared) and local wine. While based in Arrecife we made a point of checking out some of the typical Canarian dishes including gofio, a mixture of ground and toasted maize, corn and wheat, once part of the staple diet (used in porridge and bread) and now used to thicken soup and make a local nougat; papas arrugadas – small local potatoes cooked in their own skins in very salty water and served as a dish on their own with either hot or green mojo (sauce); and platinas fritas – fried Canarian (deliciously sweet) small bananas cooked in lemon juice and sugar; and rabbit and goat, two local but less common (to us) meats – plus a lot more.
Papas arrugadas with hot mojo (sauce) – see above
We now plan to sail along and explore the rest of the Lanzarote coastline before continuing south to Fuerteventura, the next island. We’re being joined by friends over Christmas and New Year and will sail back to Lanzarote to pick them up.