My family and I recently went to the Canary Islands for the first time. Even though I tried to do my research before we went, there were still some things that happened after we got there and I learned as we went along. I’d like to pass along some of these things that I learned in hopes of making things a bit easier for other first-timers to the Canary Islands.
Learn Spanish before you go to the Canary Islands. Don’t expect everyone to speak English. While some people know some English in the Canary Islands, in my experience, I came to assume that most people would in fact not speak English and I would need to speak Spanish. Never once was this an issue, however, and while my Spanish is ok, I’m by no means fluent. All that being said, there are a fair amount of ex-pats from the UK that live and work in the Canary Islands.
Carnival in the Canary Islands is a lot of fun and I highly recommend going during this time if you can. We watched a Carnival parade in Gran Canaria and it was everything I had hoped it would be. This was actually one of the items on my bucket list and I was glad to be able to experience it. Just learn from my mistake and either choose your accommodations very far in advance (several months to a year) so you can find a place within walking distance from the parade route or if you have a rental car like we did, park your car in a place where you won’t be blocked off by the parade route when you want to leave.
Although the water is perfectly safe to drink in the Canary Islands, it does not taste that great so most people buy bottled water. One resort I stayed at even went so far as to say the water isn’t safe for brushing your teeth with, which is not true. You do get used to the taste over time, too, or at least I found it wasn’t quite as bad by the end of my two-week vacation.
Parking in Las Palmas on Gran Canaria can be difficult to find and free parking pretty much doesn’t exist but it’s not completely impossible. Although not free but pretty cheap, if you can find a turquoise-marked parking spot, take it. You will need to enter your car’s license plate number in the kiosk and put the receipt on your dashboard. There are also parking garages throughout Gran Canaria, especially the busier areas like Las Palmas. The same can be said for Tenerife, although we found parking to be a bit easier in general on this island than Gran Canaria.
Having a rental car is by far better than taking the bus to get around the islands. Driving in the Canary Islands is pretty easy for the most part. We found locals to be courteous drivers and not overly-aggressive. One of the worst parts about driving in the Canary Islands is how narrow some of the side roads are. I recommend getting a small rental car. Overall, the roads in Tenerife seem to be a bit wider than in Gran Canaria in general.
Playa del Ingles in Gran Canaria is an extremely touristy area. I personally don’t care for touristy areas, especially when it’s a natural setting like a beach, park, or other area like Niagara Falls but obviously some people like this kind of thing because touristy areas always seem to be over-run with people. I just don’t like all the mini-golf, kitschy shops, restaurants with mediocre at best food, and rows of hotels. If you can get past all that, this beach is a nice enough beach. However, it is clothing-optional so if that bothers you, it might be best to skip it. There are also touristy areas in the southern part of Tenerife as well but they didn’t seem so over-the-top as Playa del Ingles.
The sand dunes of Maspalomas that are behind Playa del Ingles are pretty cool, however, and are totally worth a trip to the area. We had so much fun playing on the dunes and even sliding down the hills of sand. Just be aware that you need to pay 50 cents to use the restrooms here and facilities are limited. In fact, we found several other beach areas on the islands where you had to pay 50 cents to use the restrooms.
In addition to all of the beautiful and varied beaches in the Canary Islands, the options for hiking are also numerous and varied. We hiked through more canyons than I can remember and had so many experiences where we hiked to the top of a mountain and were rewarded with a gorgeous view. In addition to hiking up steep trails of mountainsides, we also had some wonderful strolls around small, quaint towns where we were also rewarded with seaside or mountain views. Plus, there are several botanical gardens around the islands that you can walk around, most of which are free.
There is no central air conditioning and heat in the Canary Islands. In the cooler months people use small space heaters and blankets to keep warm at night. In the warmer months, people use fans and open windows. Because the islands are off the northwestern coast of Africa, the weather is pretty mild here year-round. It does help if you dress appropriately too and bring a jacket for the cooler months.
Gran Canaria and Tenerife are both extremely varied in topography and general vibe in different parts of the islands (i.e., North vs. South) so if you just stay at your resort in one little sliver of the island, you won’t get a real feel for the island as a whole. Likewise if you just go to one island you’ll miss out on what other islands have to offer. I feel like I missed out by only visiting two islands but that seemed reasonable for a two-week vacation. Next time I’d like to visit another island. I really liked Tenerife quite a bit better than Gran Canaria and would go back to Tenerife, but probably not Gran Canaria.
Choices for inter-island hopping include taking a ferry or flying. When I checked into prices and options for going from Gran Canaria to Tenerife, the prices weren’t hugely different to fly versus take a ferry. We enjoyed the ferry to the San Juan Islands in Washington in the US and from Gozo to Malta so much that we decided to take the ferry to Tenerife. This was a mistake. The water was so rough both my daughter and husband were sick the entire time so they didn’t even enjoy it. Honestly, there isn’t much to look at either other than the water. Next time I would fly for sure.
Having a mobile WiFi or MiFi is a valuable tool to have when traveling abroad, and the Canary Islands are no exception. I first used a MiFi when I went to Malta last year and had such a great experience with it, I decided to rent one for the Canary Islands. I did have a bit more trouble finding a company with coverage in the Canary Islands, but I eventually chose California-based Vision Global WiFi, and we never had any problems getting a signal with the one exception of once in Teide National Park. My husband anticipated this and downloaded the area from Google maps onto his phone so we could still drive around without getting lost. In addition to using Google Maps for everywhere we drove, we also used the MiFi several times to translate Spanish words or phrases or look up other information while we were away from our room.
If you do nothing else in Tenerife, go to Teide National Park . It was my favorite thing to do in Tenerife and it’s free too. If the weather had been better, we would have spent more than one day here and also taken the cable car up, but it was just too windy and rainy during the days we could have gone there. We did finally get to go hiking in the park, on our last full day in Tenerife, and loved every minute of it. Another piece of advice regarding Teide National Park is to stay until dusk. We had dinner at Mariposa, a restaurant close to the park that I thought was going to be touristy with mediocre food but it was actually really good. When we were driving out of the park, we got some cool shots of the sky and moon. Also, all of the cyclists we saw earlier when driving around the park were all gone, along with the majority of cars as well so driving out of the park was a breeze.
The Canary Islands are beautiful and remind me in many ways of Hawaii but they are unique in many other ways (it’s much cheaper here than Hawaii for starters). I would happily go back and explore another Canary Island, Lanzarote, which I hear is a hotspot for athletes. Who knows, maybe I’ll run a half marathon here one day Lanzarote Marathon and Half Marathon.
Have any of you been to the Canary Islands? What was your experience like? If you haven’t been, is is on your list now?