6. Gran Canaria (27 Jan – 7 Feb 2014)

Fuerteventura to Gran Canaria

While I was back in the UK for a long weekend, in order to attend the “Strictly Come Dancing Tour” in Leeds, Mike sailed Island Drifter across the 80 miles from Gran Tarajal in Fuerteventura to Las Palmas in Gran Canaria.

 Strictly Come Dancing Tour - Leeds Arena

I flew back from the UK directly to Gran Canaria’s international airport, 20 miles south of Las Palmas, before catching a bus into the city’s bus station and then a taxi for the last two miles to the marina. 

  Gran Canaria’s central massif from the air

Agricultural “poly-sheds” surrounding the airport

Mike had arrived in Island Drifter at midnight, two days before me. He initially pulled on to the reception pontoon for the night beside the very smart marina offices.  There he had the pontoon to himself since, given the weather, no one else had arrived that day.
 Reception pontoon at Las Palmas marina

He arrived in time to watch the Las Palmas marathon pass by next day. The 8,000 participants ran past the marina on one side of the motorway that runs alongside the marina.

Las Palmas marathon

After signing in he moved Island Drifter to our allocated berth that had two (!) Mediterranean-style lazy lines. The four large “Visitors’” pontoons at the northern end of the marina were 95% occupied. Most boats were manned and were either staying for six months over the winter, cruising the Archipelago as we are, or preparing to cross the Pond. Interesting boats and people.  At £7 a night, in the centre of a colourful and active major city with easy access by public transport to anywhere in the island, it is not surprising that this marina is so popular with cruisers.
 Marina Las Palmas looking down from motorway 

 Marina Las Palmas viewed from outer breakwater, 
looking towards the city

We, however, only came across one other manned British boat – Temptress of Down owned by Kevin and Susie Harris.  They were on their way to South Africa via Brazil. Unfortunately, en route to the Canaries they struck what they now believe was a submerged hardwood log (a known problem off the African coast).  Their rudder was ripped off.  They sailed rudderless for five days before getting a tow into Puerto Calero in Lanzarote – at a cost of £5K (fortunately the insurers are paying!).  They have just spent two months in Puerto Calero getting the yacht repaired – a major exercise and a compliment to Calero boatyard’s capabilities. On reflection they were very fortunate that given the nature of the incident they did not have water flood in through the cracked stern tube. 

Emergency action taken to prevent (more) water coming in through the cracked stern tube (note towel stuffing!)

Remains of rudder seen when Temptress of Down is lifted out at Puerto Calero 
(note the unusual angle of the rudder stock)

Muelle Deportivo de Las Palmas, to give the marina its proper name, is located in the city’s enormous port. The marina now has 1250 berths and has a good range of bars and restaurants together with, more importantly, a wide range of quality support services and chandleries.  Both the port and the marina are government owned and each is by far the largest of their kind in the Canaries.

 Outline chart of port showing marina

Adjacent to the marina is an excellent anchorage in front of the Playa Alcaravaneras (a small town beach) where a fairly nominal charge of less than 2 Euros a night would be made for a boat of our size.

 Las Palmas anchorage looking towards beach

We’ve been to Gran Canaria and the marina before (en route to the Caribbean) in December 1999, on Island Drifter, when Robin and Sue Scholes joined us for a week’s sailing in the Canaries. In 2001 Mike also joined the British Offshore Sailing School’s (BOSS) yacht Ocean Wanderer, a 42ft Westerly Oceanlord, as skipper when the School participated for the first time in the 250-boat Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC).

Circular in shape and dominated by a central mountain massif, Gran Canaria is the third largest island, after Tenerife and Fuerteventura, in the Canaries archipelago and yet it accounts for almost half the resident population of the Islands.  

 Relief map of Gran Canaria

Unlike Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, which are hot, dry, relatively low volcanic islands with sandy desert plains leading down to the sea, Gran Canaria is a continent in miniature with a dramatic variation in terrain and climate:  green and leafy in the north; mountainous in the interior; hot and desert like in the south, and sub-tropical in the gorges that radiate out from the central massif.

Our initial interest was to determine what sailing and “parking” opportunities there were on the island outside Las Palmas. This proved a relatively easy and enjoyable task since there are 150 miles of good coastal roads around the island – plus an excellent bus system and reasonably priced car hire (not to mention duty free petrol!).

Map showing coastal roads and ports

The north coast, facing the Atlantic, has a wild rocky shore with breaking surf along its length and absolutely no ports or anchorages. The coastline and foothills encompass half a dozen towns.
Northern coastline

The lush, albeit narrow, plains, foothills and ravines in the north of Gran Canaria used to be the centre of the island’s sugar cane cultivation. Today bananas and tomatoes, often grown in enormous plastic “sheds”, have superseded sugar cane. 
 Banana grove

Plastic sheds used to grow bananas or tomatoes (Aldea)

Because of the history of growing sugar cane, rum is a traditional drink in the island and several distilleries produce a quality product that is exported and highly regarded. We found it very palatable.

 Helen testing Gran Canarian rum

Guanches, the pre-Hispanic aboriginals from North Africa inhabited this fertile area. One of their cave systems and grain stores can clearly be seen in the foothills near Gáldar. 

 Guanche caves in cliffs near Gáldar

The west coast of Gran Canaria, down to Puerto de Mogan, is comprised of steep cliffs to which the excellent secondary road clings with grim determination. Metal nets are necessary to protect the road and traffic from the frequent rock falls that occur.
West coast looking from the north

 Metal nets designed to protect road from rock falls

Agaete, the port that services the fast ferries that ply from Gran Canaria to the adjacent islands to the west, has a small area for local fishing and leisure craft but clearly does not have room for or expect visitors. It must be said, however, that it is Canarian policy to provide ports of refuge to boats in bad weather – which they do.  

 Agaete fast ferry port with small area 
for fishing and leisure craft

Puerto de Aldea, near the agricultural town of La Aldea de San Nicolas, is the only other port on this stretch of coast. It is small and exposed.
Protective harbour wall (only) at Puerto de Aldea

By contrast, the GC1 motorway, which runs down the east coast, provides a fast link between the capital and the southern resorts.  The airport lies midway between the two.  The motorway is mostly lined with factories, out of town superstores, banana and tomato “sheds”, wind farms and desalination plants – all set in a bare scrubby landscape. 
East coast industrial area viewed from foothills

Wind farm seen from motorway

The coastline is rocky with a few black sandy or stony beaches around which small villages, now resorts, have evolved.  They are low key and appear to cater primarily for Spanish and German visitors.
Melanara’s black sand beach

Stony black beach, Bahía Feliz

Such ports as are said to exist (San Cristobal, Taliarte, Salinetas, Arinaga, Tirijana and Romerol) satisfy the needs of specific industries, fishing, the military and local recreational requirements. Space is at a premium and yachts are not encouraged to visit. 

Inland, off the motorway, the plains, foothills and enormous ravines coming down from the central mountains are cultivated by small communities and there is a wealth of historical and archaeological interest. Some examples below hopefully paint a picture of what can be seen:
Telde – second largest town in Gran Canaria
         Lunch-time concert from the Town Band          

Agüimes – colourful houses in cobbled 
                 streets of the old quarter                      

 Agüimes – tapas lunch in the sun

Barranco de Guayadeque – we resisted the temptation to buy an old cave that was for sale!

  Statue of Canarian wrestlers who follow the Japanese code of respect for one’s opponent as compared with the USA  
and UK approach  

Teror – traditional Canarian balconies
  Gran Canaria’s Patron Saint, The Virgin of the Pines – elaborate altarpiece in Teror’s church
The resorts in the south are synonymous with package holidays – San Agustín, Playa del Inglés and Maspalomas are mini-cities created from an empty desert beside the sea.  Part of that desert remains as a national park with protected status.

Playa del Inglés beach with Maspalomas dunes in distance

 Maspalomas dunes, now a protected nature reserve

Maspalomas dunes from the resort
These resorts have no history, no corners where remnants of an earlier way of life existed – and no ports. What they do have is year-round, reliably good weather, miles of golden sandy beaches, watersport facilities, hotels and apartments with lush tropical gardens, landscaped grounds and pools, plus restaurants, bars and shopping complexes by the score.  Theme parks and other attractions have been developed in the area including Sioux City’s Wild West Show (!), two aqua parks, a massive bowling alley, the giant funfair of Holiday World, golf courses, go-karting clubs, camel rides, etc.  We were particularly impressed, when visiting Maspalomas promenade to watch the Six Nations Rugby in a sports bar, by the two Moroccan pole-sitters in the photo below:

Moroccan pole sitters on Maspalomas promenade

To the west of Maspalomas lie four smaller attractive upmarket resorts that nestle in bays each with its own excellent marina and anchorage. Unfortunately, they are small and cater specifically for either the locals or resort guests and therefore there is little or no room for visiting yachts.  They are also very expensive!

Pasito Blanco marina

Anfi del Mar marina

 Puerto Rico marina

Puerto de Mogan marina

We particularly liked the mural of tuna in the fishing port of Arguineguin which does seem to be a little bit more yacht friendly. The port also has a very well-patronised Cofradia de Pescadores (Fishermen’s Restaurant).
 Tuna mural on wall of Cofradia de Pescadores, 
Arguineguin port

After considering our options, we decided to base ourselves in Las Palmas marina for the duration of our stay in Gran Canaria. We concluded that from there we could explore not only one of the principal attractions (the capital itself) but also, given the excellent public transport system and cost of car hire/fuel, the surrounding countryside and other sights on the island.

At a berthing fee of £7 a night, as compared with £35 in a private marina on the south coast, it was a no-brainer.  Apart from other considerations, a 50-mile downwind sail to a plastic marina, where a berth was not guaranteed, followed by a 24-hour return trip against strong prevailing northeasterly winds, held little attraction for us (must be getting soft!).

Las Palmas, the capital of Gran Canaria, has a mainland Spain feel to it – spiced up with the eclectic mix of other cultures, including, to quote from one guidebook, “the flotsam and jetsam that tend to drift around ports”.  (We didn’t realise they knew we were coming!)  It’s an interesting place with a sunny disposition and energy one would normally associate with the Mediterranean. The hooting of taxis, bustling shopping districts and thriving port all give off the vibes of an active city.

El Corte Inglés – Las Palmas’ Harrods

Typical one-way side street in Triana district

Another one-way side street in La Isleta

Las Palmas is also the capital and administrative centre of the eastern province of the Canaries, which includes Lanzarote and Fuerteventura (Santa Cruz de Tenerife being the capital of the western islands). While Las Palmas and Santa Cruz share the status of regional capital, the former is said to be more influential. 

Initially populated by the aboriginal Guanches and “visited” by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Moors, it was not until the Spanish arrived in 1478 that the foundations of Las Palmas (named after a clump of three palm trees where the city was first founded) were laid.  A stroll around the older quarters provides clear evidence of the stamp of Spanish colonisation – from the narrow, often cobbled streets to the ornate older buildings decorated with carved stonework, iron lamps, grilled windows and traditional wooden balconies. The oldest and most architecturally rich parts of the city are Veguata and Triana, districts south of the marina.

Outline chart of the city

Veguata, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is both atmospheric and fashionable. It is the site on which both the original city and first port were founded.  

Triana’s very smart pedestrianised shopping street
The attractive old shopping district of Triana with its cafés and art deco buildings is divided from Veguata by the motorway that runs along the coastline through the city.   The Plaza de San Telmo houses one of the city’s two bus stations. It is also where, from the military building on one side of the square, that General Franco announced, in July 1936, the coup that initiated the Spanish Civil War.

Military Gobierno where General Franco announced his coup that initiated the Spanish Civil War

Art Nouveau ice-cream kiosk in Parque San Telmo

The brooding grey cathedral of Santa Ana is the spiritual heart of the city. It was begun in the early fifteenth century, soon after the Spanish conquest, but then took 350 years to complete! The Neo-classical façade not surprisingly, therefore, contrasts with the interior which has been described as “Atlantic Gothic” with its lofty columns that mimic the palm trees outside in the square.

Sta Ana Cathedral dominates the landscape

 Statues of Canary dogs outside the cathedral

Nearby, the Casa de Colón (House of Columbus) is a superb example of Canarian architecture.  Christopher Columbus is said to have stayed there while refitting his fleet – although some cynics suggest that there is not a shred of evidence that this was the case! The museum is built around two balconied courtyards complete with fountains, palm trees and parrots. The outside of the building has traditional heavy wooden balconies. We were particularly interested by the interior displays of early navigational instruments and explanations of their use. 

Casa de Colón - House of Christopher Columbus

 Inner courtyard, Casa de Colón

The Museo de Canaria chronicles Gran Canaria’s pre-Hispanic history. It also boasts the largest collection of Cro-Magnon skulls in the world with several mummified bodies and a collection of pottery and other Guanche implements that have been excavated over the years.  Unfortunately, all explanations were in Spanish and to be honest we found the exhibits somewhat macabre. 

Largest collection of Cro-Magnon skulls in the world!

North of the city and the marina, level with the top end of the port, is a more modern and lively district. The Plaza de Santa Catalina is a focal point for local “pensioners” who meet beneath the canopy of ficus trees to play chess, chequers, dominoes and cards each day – and apparently for all day every day!

Plaza de Sta Catalina where locals assemble to play cards, 
chess and dominoes
The plaza is surrounded by a grid of streets that link the east and west coasts of the city and peninsula to the Playa de Las Canteras.  This 3-mile stretch of beach made Las Palmas a holiday resort long before those in the south developed. Today it principally caters for local Canarians and Spanish holidaymakers and feels very different to the southern hotspots.  The beach faces the Atlantic swell and is therefore also popular with local surfers.  A lava reef runs 200 metres off the beach, parallel to the shore. It ensures that  the water is relatively calm and safe for “normal” bathers.

 Canteras 3-mile long beach on west side 
of the Las Palmas peninsula

Between the Plaza Santa Catalina and Veguata, roughly on the same latitude as the marina, are the busy commercial streets, conclaves of smart upmarket homes with secluded walled gardens, and imposing Government buildings awash with flags. Immediately outside the marina is the Parque Doramas (named after an early Guanche leader) and a statue of Guanches polevaulting over gullies (a local tradition). Nearby there is an outdoor swimming club with two Olympic-sized pools and a smaller diving pool. It was very well attended by enthusiastic young swimmers and earnest-looking coaches.

Statue of Guanche polevaulters in 
Parque Doramas, near marina

Not one, but two Olympic-sized swimming pools 
in local club next to marina

The coastal plains (and steep cliffs on the west coast) lead to foothills and ravines, with historic villages and cultivated land, to the mountain peaks which dominate the centre of the island. These are often obscured by or have a skirt of cloud.

Overview of the central peak area

 Gran Canaria’s cloud mantle viewed from Island Drifter

Over millennia volcanic eruptions, fierce winds, driving rain and erosion have moulded the mountains and created deep barrancos (ravines) that radiate out from the central massif and descend to the coast.

Barranco (ravine) de Fataga 
running down to the south coast

Hairpin bends in the Barranco de Fataga

The highest peaks are Pico de las Nieves at 1,949 metres, Roque Nublo (1803 metres) and Roque Bentayga (1412 metres).

Roques Nublo and Bentayga viewed from 
Pico de las Nieves (1949m) – Gran Canaria’s highest peak

Below the peaks the mountain villages cling to the sides of the gorges amid terraces that have been cultivated over time. Almost all the central area of the island is designated a national park.

Typical village in Gran Canaria’s foothills

Terracing in the foothills

The area has huge appeal for serious climbers, hikers and cyclists – but the stunning scenery is available to all since the region can be accessed by excellent primary and secondary roads from all parts of the island, albeit that they twist and wend their way through the terrain.

 Secondary road wending its way up a ravine 
towards Pico de las Nieves

As the roads climb up from the coast through the foothills, the scenery and vegetation changes from the more heavily cultivated lower slopes. Rampaging nasturtiums, lavender bushes and orange groves give way to prickly pear cacti and eucalyptus trees, before the entire hillsides, in spring, turn yellow with broom or pink with drifts of almond blossom. Closer to the top, pine and holm oak begin to dominate.

Almond blossom was everywhere – we were lucky to see it because it does not last for long

Pine trees near summit of Pico de las Nieves

The theoretical centre of the island, near Tejeda, is at the top of a 1580m pass and is marked by a sombre crucifix, the Cruz de Tejeda. Behind the cross stands a four-star traditionally built parador.

Cruz de Tejada marking the 
theoretical centre of Gran Canaria

On a clear day it is possible from various points on Gran Canaria’s mountains to see the snow-capped top, usually skirted by cloud, of Tenerife’s Mount Teide, 3717m, some 60 miles distant.

Mount Teide, 3717m, in Tenerife, 60 miles away, 
is visible on a clear day

Artenara, at 1270m, is the highest village on Gran Canaria. It is also one of the oldest, predating the Spanish conquest. Artenara is in fact a guanche name. Many of the houses in the village are built into solid rock, although some of them with their painted facades look like modern houses and most have modern facilities.

Artenara – Gran Canaria’s highest village 
surrounded by agricultural  terracing

Cave houses with modern frontage 
are still inhabited in Artenara

San Bartolomé, the administrative centre of the south of the island, is built in a vast caldera in the shadow of the central massif. The walls of the surrounding hills are pockmarked with Guanche caves.

San Bartolomé located in a vast volcanic crater

The road running south from San San Bartolomé through the scenic Barranco de Fatago leads to the south coast playas (beaches). The burnished rock walls of the ravine are reminiscent of the canyons in the American West.

Fataga ravine running south

The steep, narrow twisting road from the agricultural plain of Aldea San Nicolas to Artenara passed two of the island’s larger reservoirs. Traditionally the mountain rains that flow down the barrancos met the agricultural needs of the farms in the foothills. With the explosion of the tourist trade in the mid-twentieth century the collection and distribution of water proved a major problem.  Hence the creation and management of rain water in reservoirs and catchment areas and the introduction of desalination plants powered by wind generators on the east coast.

Reservoir El Parralillo

Desalination plant on east coast

We are now back in Arrecife in Lanzarote, having sailed the 140 miles from Gran Canaria, to pick up Max and Sue Walker who are joining us for a week. I first met Max 15 years ago when I crewed for him. He introduced me to yacht delivering and subsequently supplied me with most of my deliveries – being those which were surplus to his requirements as an established delivery skipper.  

Chart plotter showing position halfway on passage
from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria to Arrecife, Lanzarote

Dawn as we approached Lanzarote

Chart showing round trip via Gran Canaria 
to Arrecife in Lanzarote

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