Tenerife Dreaming – Masca Gorge and Back.
What do you do when you get a 5-day weekend in early December? For those of us in Salamanca, the answer was obvious: plan a brilliant escape to the Canaries.
At first we picked the smaller island of La Palma, but the presence of hostels and cheap flights (and the fact that we were students) made it more sensible to go to Tenerife. In recent years the island has become a classic destination for drunken package holidays, but what most people don’t realise is that there is a whole other side to Tenerife – one that is relatively unspoilt and still 100% Canarian.
Our first full day on the island began with a 9am start from our hostel. The owner and manager, a gregarious Austrian by the name of Manfred, was running a hiking tour and we were game. Along with 2 other hostel mates we piled into a red van and began a scenic drive along the northern coast.
For those of us who had come in from the mainland, this experience was nothing short of a tropical dream. In the bright Canarian sun we could see endless rows of banana trees marching off towards the deep blue sea, their branches drooping with bunches of the lovely fruit. Above us pastel-coloured houses dotted the verdant slopes, and in the distance black cliffs of volcanic rock contrasted against the white sheen of the ocean surf.
We drove past the town of Icod, with its giant broccoli-shaped Dragon Tree, and then a small extinct volcano. Once we got to the next town we made a left and began going up a series of switchbacks and tight curves. In a way it was reminiscent of the French Côte d’Azur and the south side of Hong Kong Island.
When the switchbacks ended we found ourselves over a mountain pass on the other side of the island. Here the conditions were drier and there was a lot less vegetation to be found. Despite its relatively small size, Tenerife hosts a number of different climate zones. Depending on the altitude and your situation to the prevailing winds, you can find yourself in a tropical rainforest, a subtropical grove, a barren desert landscape or the snows of Spain’s highest mountain.
We park the van in Santiago del Teide, a small town stretched along one of the main north-south routes of the island. There is a certain air of remoteness, accentuated by a stone church and a bar filled with a handful of old men. We buy supplies for the hike and then catch the guagua (‘bus’ in Canarian Spanish) to the village of Masca. Everything is business as usual until we make an abrupt stop at the crest of a mountain. As it turns out, the steering is broken and the driver will not go any further – a little strange considering that the bus made it this far. Rather than wait an hour and a half for the mechanic to arrive, we decide to head off on foot down the zigzagging tarmac towards our final destination.
The unforeseen circumstances were going to add an extra 45 minutes to our hiking trip, but we were about to get a lucky break. An oversized tour bus that we had passed earlier lumbered our way and stopped to open its doors. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing – we were about to hitchhike on a coach full of German walkers. As luck would have it, Tenerife is a small island and Manfred knew the tour guide aboard this bus.
One conversation and a few tricky turns later, we were at the starting point of the trail. I did not know it at the time but this was going to be one of the most difficult hikes I had done in the past 5 years. Part of it was the fact that we were relatively ill-prepared: Caroline had donned a pair of stockings and a leather jacket, I was in jeans and sneakers, and Manfred had forgotten his hiking boots at the hostel (he wore loafers instead). To add to the hilarity of it all, none of us had any walking sticks, except for Lutz the silent German who picked up a bamboo stem by the side of the road.
As we descended into the gorge we came face-to-face with a landscape that was nothing short of spectacular. In an instant it became obvious as to why this trail was so popular with German hikers. With its towering cliffs and basalt veins, Masca Gorge looked like something out of the Wild West or a James Bond movie. All that was missing was a parachutist and a daring air chase in military jets.
“Either you look at the scenery or you walk; don’t do both at the same time.” Manfred’s caution at the beginning of the hike was sounding increasingly sensible the closer we got to the gorge bottom. I soon decided that it would be better to keep my camera in my rucksack rather than risk losing it or falling over the edge – that and the pictures just weren’t going to do it justice.
Once the hiking trail dipped into the valley floor it suddenly dawned on us that things were not quite what they seemed. What was usually a dry bed was now a swollen creek, thanks to a few days of heavy rain before our arrival. With the normal path covered by water, we had no choice but to seek out alternative routes along the valley sides.
And so began a 3½ hour saga through rough terrain, clambering over boulders and testing our balance on wobbly stones to keep our feet dry. On several occasions we had to take off our shoes to walk through the fast-flowing torrent, never mind the presence of sharp rocks. When we finally caught sight of our destination our shoes were soaking wet and we were fed up with having to cross the waters over and over again. But it was still a memorable moment. Beyond a large boulder we could spot the gorge opening up to the sea, now glinting with rays of the afternoon sun. We breathed a collective sigh of relief while Manfred egged us on. “You guys should be proud. I’ve done this more than 200 times, but this has been the most difficult one because of all the water.”
Barely 25 minutes later we were standing on the edge of the ocean, hurriedly stripping down to our swimming trunks for that elusive dip in the enticing waters of the Atlantic.
There are certain things a camera can’t fully capture, and on that day it was the ink blue colour of the sea. It was the kind of tone you’d find on oil or acrylic paintings, a total stunner that retained its luminosity even when the sun was not present.
If we had forgotten what month we were in, a plunge into the clear waters was enough to bring us back to reality. It was freezing. But in the same way that a cold shower refreshes after a long workout, this was a much-needed measure of bliss.
Eventually a boat appeared over the horizon, coming ever closer until it stopped at the jetty. It was ours. Walking in time with the gentle roll of the waves, we hopped on board and set sail for the nearby cliffs of Los Gigantes. If we were lucky, they told us, we would see dolphins.
I don’t know what it was about that day, but we ended up seeing 3. Once the skipper spotted the pod the boat edged closer until they were just a short distance away. The high point came when 2 of them jumped clear out of the water without any prior warning. There was no doubting our collective sense of wonder – in a fleeting moment the pair had executed a brilliant jump in the shape of an ‘X’.
With our minds still reeling from what we had seen, we disembarked at the resort town of Los Gigantes – a disconcerting glimpse of stereotypical Tenerife. Above the Disney-fied buildings we could make out half-finished hotels and places where the beautiful volcanic slope had been carved away to build yet more hotel rooms. It soon became clear that this place catered to British tourists: there were pubs, countless signs in English, an Indian takeaway and even a “country club” with tennis courts. Manfred shook his head. “From here onwards, the entire southern coast is like this.”
I’d be lying if I said it was all bad though. We had an hour until the next guagua so we sat down at a café for some cold drinks and a bite to eat. The terrace was attached to a Chinese restaurant and I was understandably curious about the waitress and her origin. It turned out that she too was from Hong Kong, although she had been living in the Canaries for 15-16 years.
The tour ended at a lookout over the town of Garachico (‘Gara’- rock, ‘chico’ – little), named after the rock formation just offshore. In 1706 it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption: for several weeks a lava flow surged down the slopes above the town, covering its harbour and eventually enlarging the rocky peninsula on which it stood.
If it hadn’t been for the half-buried ruin next to the coastal road (which Manfred pointed out on our way to Masca), you’d never know that anything disastrous ever happened here. Garachico today presides over one of the most unspoilt stretches of coastal Tenerife, thanks to its remote location nestled at the foot of two volcanic cliffs.
The sun was beginning to set and we could feel the freshness of the ocean breeze caressing our faces. For a Friday afternoon, this was a far cry from the frosty temperatures and the smoky bars of Salamanca. I looked down at Garachico and marvelled at what I saw. A jumble of whitewashed houses; a church steeple; a cluster of red roofs with the surf gently beating away in the background. It was a picture of this town that changed my preconceptions of Tenerife, and now that I was here, I was undeniably grateful that it did.