For the start of 2017, I wanted to visit somewhere warm and not too expensive. There are limited sunny destinations in February when you don’t want to fly long-haul from the UK. The Canary Islands off the coast of north-west Africa are popular for just that reason, and after some research I discovered that Tenerife’s Carnaval is the biggest in the world after Brazil.
I’ve never been a fan of resorts nor the idea of spending a week lying on a beach, so I found an apartment in a small village on the north of the island. I also hired a car for the very first time to get around and off the beaten track, mostly in the north away from the southern resorts.
Friday 24th February: Arrival
It was an easy 3 hour flight from Birmingham to Tenerife South with Thomas Cook. We were two millennials with backpacks on a plane full of, shall we say, the older generation reading their free copies of The Times or Daily Mail. I did have some initial concerns that Tenerife might not be the right place for me, but that faded soon enough once we left all our flight companions behind. After picking up the hire car – and almost crashing 5 minutes later while merging onto the motorway (turns out that in Tenerife, you have to wait on the sliproad for a gap in traffic) – it took about an hour with only a few wrong turns to reach the airbnb apartment in Mesa Del Mar, a village in the north of the island. There were no hotels or other tourists in sight, and it had views across to Mount Teide and along the rocky coastline.
Saturday 25th February: Staying local
The nearest city to Mesa del Mar is Tacoronte, although it feels more like a small town. I tested out my Spanish at a a local market with countless vendors selling all manner of fruits, vegetables, eggs, bread, meringues and cakes. What couldn’t be bought there was picked up from the local supermarket… aka Lidl. When abroad, do as the locals do, even it’s the same supermarket as at home xD
After a short wander round Tacoronte’s streets we drove 15 minutes to La Laguna, a 15th century colonial town, for churros, a museum on Tenerife history and several churches.
Sunday 26th February: Journey to Mount Teide
La Orotava is another old town known as the gateway to Teide. I was looking forward to it but unfortunately it is also very much a tourist trap – nothing demonstrates this better than the Casas de los Balcones, touted as a museum but which is in essence a large souvenir shop. The traditional Canarian lunch here also wasn’t great; on recommendation from the waiter I had fish stewed in tomato sauce, but the fish was so chewy I could barely swallow it.
After La Orotava was a windy 1 hour drive through mountain roads covered in cloud – nothing like testing out driving on the wrong side of the road like not being able to see more than a metre in front of you! After that things improved; the volcanic views at the top of the Mount Teide cable car are phenomenal – it’s so high up that nothing grows. I’ve never been in a place that made me feel so much like I could be on another planet. Most tourists just go up the cable car and down again, but for something different book a night at the Altavista Refuge on top of the mountain. It’s about an hour’s walk from the cable car upper station (or 6-8 hours for the more committed hikers if you want to skip the cable car altogether). It has very limited facilities – bunk beds and a shared kitchen, so bring your own dinner.
Mount Teide is one of the world’s few protected night skies. There’s a planetarium you can drive to near to the lower cable car station, but if you’re staying in the Altavista Refuge head outside (with several warm layers) to watch the sunset then stare up at the stars. You can see the light pollution glowing up from the other Canary Islands, but above your head it’s just space in all its vastness.
Monday 27th February: North-west road trip
The reason for staying overnight on top of Mount Teide comes the next morning: a 5am alarm followed by a 1.5 hour hike up to the top of the volcano, in time for spectacular sunrise views with the shadow of the volcano stretching out across the clouds and Atlantic.
Back at the bottom of the cable car, we passed by the first tourists arriving and picked up the car to drive fifty minutes west to Los Gigantes. This is the closest we got to the resorts of the south coast, but the enormous cliffs and a wide array of paella restaurants and ice cream stands make it worth a visit.
Then it was up into the Teno National Park, an altogether different landscape to everywhere else in Tenerife. You need to follow narrow, windy lanes through the mountains, occasionally navigating around coaches of daytrippers from the south. There was no parking left at Masca, a small village with cafes overlooking the green vistas, so apart from a few brief stops at the side of the road we continued on to Buenavista del Norte for tapas and cake. I suspect it might be better to visit earlier in the day; it was the middle of the afternoon by the time we drove through.
15 minutes further east was Garachico, one of my favourite places in Tenerife. It has a tiny castle (Castillo de San Miguel), some nice squares and amazing rockpools with walkways built between them.
Tuesday 28th February: Carnaval in Santa Cruz
As mentioned earlier, one of the best things about Tenerife at the end of February is Carnaval! They have the biggest festival in the world after Rio and there are events all over the island but especially in the two northern cities of Santa Cruz (the capital) and Puerto de la Cruz. This Tuesday was the main parade – and they weren’t joking about it being huge, it went on for HOURS! Hundreds of people were dressed up in lavish costumes, parading alongside floats down the route between the fairground and the city centre.
Wednesday 1st March: Carnaval in Puerto de la Cruz
One of the stranger Carnaval traditions takes places in Puerto de la Cruz – a giant, papier-mâché sardine is paraded through the streets during the day, then blown to pieces alongside fireworks at night.
There’s a few other things to see here too while waiting for the evening show – Castillo de San Felipe (it used to keep out pirates, now it holds art exhibitions), strangler fig trees in city squares and beaches. Note that Loro Parque is also near to Puerto de la Cruz, but I am explicitly not recommending it for the same reasons you shouldn’t give your money to SeaWorld – do the captive animals a favour and skip it.
Thursday 2nd March: Playa de las Teresitas
Despite many discussions with friends on the merits or lack of when it comes to beaches (and my inability to understand the word ‘relax’), I do occasionally like to sit down among the sand and sunshine with a book. Just north of Santa Cruz is Playa de las Teresitas, a nice stretch of yellow sand imported from the Sahara (all of Tenerife’s natural beaches are black sand due to its volcanic landscape). If, like me, you get bored of the beach after a while there is a small town San Andrés within walking distance. Don’t miss the collapsed castle / tower in the middle of a roundabout and take a walk along the seafront with ice cream to find famous faces painted on the rocks. It’s also worth driving up to Mirador Las Teresitas at the top of the cliffs, where there is a collection of abandoned, heavily graffitied buildings and views along the coastline.
Friday 3rd March: Los Abrigos & departure
Before flying back to the UK there was a final stop in the fishing village of Los Abrigos right next to the airport. The weather was gorgeous and although it doesn’t have a proper beach, there’s a nice rocky bay to explore and plenty of restaurants along the seafront.
Tips for escaping the tourist trail in Tenerife
I wasn’t sure if it would really be possible to escape the sunburnt Brits & big beach resorts in a place like Tenerife, but my pre-trip research paid off – although there were other tourists in quite a few of the places I visited, there were also plenty of locals and I heard Spanish being spoken more than I did English. It’s cloudier in the north (there’s a reason the vast majority of resorts are on the south coast), but we still had nice weather at around 20C most days.
Because Tenerife is so small it’s very easy to base yourself in one place and travel all over the island from that location – there is a bus route around most of the island but hiring a car will make your travels much more flexible. Staying on top of a volcano for a night was easily the highlight – if you do nothing else, make an effort to get up Mount Teide for those sunset and sunrise views over the ocean.