Budget Travel: Spain's Canary Islands

The Canary Islands are a Spanish volcanic archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa, and visitors are mainly drawn by the sun, sea, beaches, and the magnificent Teide National Park.

During the regime of the dictator Franciso Franco (he died in l975), cultural diversity was repressed, but now it is bubbling to the surface and there is great interest in the ancestral people who once inhabited the islands. 

Surprisingly, they were Berbers, who came from North Africa by ship more than 3,000 years ago.

According to a local guide on Gran Canaria, there were about 20,000 native people before the Spanish came as occupiers and rulers in the l5th century. The locals resisted, and a bloody five-year war wiped out all but a few thousand of them. Today they are generically called Guanches, although the more specific name Guanarteme is also used on Gran Canaria.

There are no purely indigenous people now, although the Canarian population has a significant percentage of Guanches DNA. Many locals state proudly that they identify with the Guanches, have Guanches blood, give their children Guanches names, and the islands are dotted with monuments, museums, sites and even restaurants dedicated to and dealing with the ancient ones. Occasionally there are wrestling matches that were part of the indigenous culture.

On Gran Canaria island, across from the famed Santa Catalina hotel in Las Palmas—where luminaries like Churchill, Maria Callas, Gregory Peck and Agatha Christie stayed—are striking statues in a lovely, small park. They depict the Guanches fighting the Spanish with sticks and stones, and jumping from cliffs to commit suicide rather than become slaves to the conquerors.

The town of Galdar, in the north of Gran Canaria, was where the Guanartemes, or aboriginal kings lived (both the people and their rulers are called Guanartemes). The Cueva Pintada Archeological Museum has been constructed around an ancient village. Inside are artifacts like pottery, carvings, fertility figures (an astounding 2,000,000 artifacts were found) and two films with information about the people who came by boat from North Africa with animals and grains, and inhabited the islands. The main part of the museum is a vast archeological site—58 houses and three communal kitchens made from volcanic stone. Some of the homes had three layers of walls to protect against the elements.

The center of the historic community was a troglodyte complex where people lived, stored their food, and performed their ceremonies. The highlight of the museum is the painted cave, which is adorned with colored geometric shapes and lines, and was probably executed in the l2th century. Was the cave used for ceremonies? To honor the dead? As of now, no one knows for sure.

Back in Las Palmas, El Museo Canario is a world-class prehistoric museum, which houses an impressive collection of mummies. Wrapped in three layers of animal skins, the ancient ones lie on their backs with their heads turned to the side, still exuding a strong presence across the centuries. There is also a large room of skulls and mummies, with analysis of which diseases they had, surgeries that were performed and evidence of bodily harm inflicted on each other during fights.

It’s a one-hour ferry ride from Gran Canaria to the island of Tenerife, where the Natural History Museum is in the city of Santa Cruz. The museum houses an extensive display of Guanches pottery, fish hooks made from animal horns, grinding stones, skulls, bones, mummies and stones engraved with writing; the mysterious markings—lines, geometric shapes, alphabetical characters—intrigue visitors and scholars alike.

Twenty kilometers from Santa Cruz, near the iconic church of Candelaria—the virgin is the patron saint of Tenerife and the church is high on most visitors lists of things to see—are huge bronze statues of the nine Mencey, who were the Guanches tribal leaders. Their size is a reflection of the Guanches’ stature—as they were probably tall—and their prominent placement indicates the large place the Guanches now have in the hearts and minds of present-day Canarians.

There is also surprising and controversial evidence of another ancient group of people on Tenerife. In Guimar, there are six stone pyramids, with steps and large platforms; the main pyramids are aligned to the solstices. Famed archeologist and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl was fascinated by them, and a museum on the site makes his strong case for a connection between all the pyramids found in the world—from Egypt to Mesoamerica.

The Guimar pyramids are hotly debated, and some local archeologists think they were made by farmers who were piling up stones from their fields over the last few centuries. For anyone who has visited pyramids in Mexico and Central America, it is easy to come down on the side of Heyerdahl. Why would farmers toss stones that were aligned to the solstice? What accounts for the platforms and stairs?

Apparently, the Canaries have been known since ancient times, and it’s fascinating to think of the people who passed through and stayed there. Today’s visitors to the Canaries can have a richer, deeper experience of Canarian culture by going on the trail of the ancestors.

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist and author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. She resides in Santa Fe.


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