Although it’s renowned for sun and sand, Gran Canaria offers great walking opportunities. Follow well-signed trails in its UNESCO biosphere reserve and explore the pre-Hispanic sacred rocks of Bentayga and Roque Nublo.
And after a hard day’s hiking, there’s the reward of wonderful gastronomy and spectacular breath-taking views. If you want to know more about Gran Canaria, a first-timer’s guide to the Canary Islands is a good start.
The island’s mountainous interior was crafted by millions of years of volcanic eruptions and erosions. One particularly violent explosion created the Caldera de Tejeda, a crater 18 km wide, when the centre of the volcano collapsed. The two distinctive pillars, Roque Nublo and Roque Bentayga crowning the crater, are the result of five million years of erosion.
Now sparsely populated, the region has maintained local traditions more than any other part of the island so sample the local gastronomy. Try the wonderful, salt-fish sweet-potato “sancocho”', accompanied by the typical “papas arrugadas”, (small potatoes baked in salt). For dessert it must be the honey almond sauce "bienmesabe" – which means "it taste me good", washed down with a shot of delicious honey rum.
The crossroads at Cruz de Tejeda are where the principal roads of the interior meet. It also marks the point where the trade winds hit the top of the island so there’s a noticeable change in climate zones - from sunny Tejeda to the cooler, cloudier and wetter conditions that prevail around Vega de San Mateo. This the mountainous heart, at an altitude of 1580m, and makes a good start for two walks.
This involves a gradual climb up through the pines then a gentle downhill ridge walk. The views across to the Caldera de Tejeda are stunning, with Roque Nublo and Roque Bentayga, dominating the horizon. The path passes the Cuevas de Caballero, caves with aboriginal rock engravings, before descending to the village of Artenara, at 1270m the highest on Gran Canaria.
Some of the houses are built into the rock and the chapel of the Virgen de la Cuevita, dating from the 18th century, has a cave to itself. One of these troglodyte dwellings has been turned into a museum and furnished as it would have been in the 19th century, with living room, bedrooms, and kitchen. Of course caves had no toilets which led to the Canarian expression “Váyanse pa´las tuneras” which roughly translates as “Go and pee in the cactus”.
Heading in the opposite direction from Walk 1, after a short climb this drops down through dense forest and mixed farmland to Teror. The town is famous for being the site where the Virgin Mary revealed herself in a pine tree to a group of shepherds in 1481. The spot became a place of pilgrimage and the 18th century Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pino now stands imposingly in the Plaza del Pino.
The town also has marvellous examples of typical colonial Canary houses with colourful wooden balconies. Go for the Sunday morning market and enjoy tastings of local cheese, tangy olives and freshly baked breads. And don’t forget to sample the local wines, both red and white – they’re surprisingly good.
In the centre of the island, the distinctive outline of Roque Nublo stands stark at a height of 1,813m, and at 80m tall, is one of the world’s largest free-standing crags. The path up to the rock is relatively easy, starting from La Goleta car park at La Goleta, just above Ayacata. There are fine views of Pico de las Nieves at 1,949m, the highest point of Gran Canaria, and the island’s other sacred rock, Roque Bentayga, at 1,404m, as well as towards the sea. It was an ancient place of worship for the Guanches, the island’s aboriginal inhabitants.
Bentayga is a natural fortress and generations of Guanches lived here, building community granaries and funerary caves, lined with inscriptions and wall paintings. A short and precipitous path leads to their almogarén, a spiritual ceremonial space where the sun plays a spectacular game of light and shadow. At the solstice, a single solar ray strikes a circle engraved on the rock, centuries ago, by Guanche astronomers.
GranCanaria-Summit - Roque Nublo © Visit Gran Canaria
The name means “peak of the snows” and, in the 17th century, pits were dug here to store the snow for the summer. By June these blocks of ice were carried on horseback, wrapped in blankets, to the ice cream shops in the capital, Las Palmas, a journey of around five hours. They were also used at the hospital to control epidemics of yellow fever and cholera.
The peak is the highest point on the island at 1949m, although the summit is covered by a dome-shaped radar installation and radio masts. From the car park, follow the signs to the mirador where you look over the entire south of the island, all the way to Maspalomas. Unlike other lookout points Las Nieves has great views on misty days with Gran Canaria’s peaks seeming to float on a sea of clouds.
Near Santa Lucia In the southeast of the island, are the castle-like La Fortaleza rock formations, rising in layers from the fissured valleys below. It was a fortified Guanche settlement and its eastern side has a large of number of natural and artificial caves. These were used as dwellings, food storage and even burial, all linked by a network of paths and tunnels.
It’s recognised as the site of the last stand of the indigenous people against the Castilian conquerors. In 1483 Spanish troops, led by Pedro de Vera, had been besieging the fortress and on the 29th of April the islanders surrendered. It’s said that the leaders, Bentejuí and Tazarte, committed suicide by throwing themselves off the cliff.
The excellent interpretation centre details their tragic history. DNA evidence suggests they were Berbers from North Africa, who arrived around 500BC and lived peacefully until the arrival of the Castilians. Since no boats have been found, some theories suggest they were brought here by the Romans, deported for causing trouble in Africa. The Spaniards found a race of blonde, blue-eyed people and, although many were killed, present day Canarians still have a large percentage of their DNA in their blood.
Situated in the west, this is the oldest and largest natural park on the island covering an area of 7,500 hectares and part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The landscape was moulded by eruptions of the Tamadaba volcano, more than 14 million years ago, and it descends towards the sea in a series of ravines and sheer cliffs.
At its heart of the reserve is an enormous forest of indigenous Canary pines containing the largest variety of endemic flora on the island. It’s also a birders’ paradise with woodpecker, blue chaffinch, kestrels and hawks easily sighted.
Thrusting above the trees, is the Pico de la Bandera, at 1444m, where the weather is always changeable. In winter there may be snow and warm summer winds bring so much moisture that the pines are often covered in mist.
Start at the Tamadaba campsite and first, inside the forest, all is fairly level. Soon the ancient footpath, long used by locals collecting wood for fuel, leads down steeply, passing caves dug into the crags for storing grain. There are spectacular views of the coast and the Agaete Valley and at the bottom, the temperature suddenly rises as the valley floor has its own microclimate.
It’s lush with fruit trees, coffee bushes and vines and it’s worth a stop at Bodega Los Berrazales to sample their excellent wines and sip their coffee. Finally, you arrive at Puerto de Las Nieves where you can soak your aching feet in the saltwater pools by the sea. Don’t miss the excellent fish soup, “caldo de pescado”, it’s a local speciality.
While exploring the Canary Islands, don't forget to enjoy the gorgeous beaches. Choose the right one for you with our guide to the best beaches in Gran Canaria.
This article was written in partnership with Visit Gran Canaria.
Rupert Parker has been exploring the Canaries for the last thirty years and has hiked the length and breadth of every single island.