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A Volcanic Island with Style

Life is good in the north of Fuerteventura where mild year-round temperatures prevail. Author Michèle Graf set out to discover this holiday paradise. She experienced an exciting trip full of adventure, fun and culinary highlights.

On arrival in Puerto del Rosario, I am met by a hot desert wind. The locals call it "Calima". My small red rental car is already parked at the entrance to the "Barceló Corralejo Sands" hotel. If the pictures in my travel guide are anything to go by, I have plenty to look forward to. My plan of the day is to explore the north of the island.

Travel on the recently improved FV-101 route is fast. Agaves and aloe vera plants grow along the roadside. Fuerteventura is a known supplier of this medicinal plant and also home to a large number of aloe vera shops. In fact, I already have a jar of aloe vera cream in my handbag.

Photos: Michèle Graf

Art and volcano go together

My first stop today is the lovely town of La Oliva, which is the capital of the province. With just over 1,300 inhabitants, "town" is probably not the right word to describe it. La Oliva is home to the former manor "Casa de los Coroneles" (house of the colonels). Today, the colonial-style building that features a great many windows and wooden balconies serves as a cultural centre. Set against the backdrop of Mount Tindaya ("Montaña de Tindaya"), it is a perfect photo motif. The mountain is considered sacred by the island’s native population.

Located just opposite is the "Casa Mané", one of the best museums on the island. Works of local artists have been displayed in the museum since the 1990s. Admission into this lovely building costs just four Euros. My being from Central Europe, I cannot help but notice the museum‘s odd opening hours: 10:30 am until 2 pm. But this seems to be quite normal here, as many shops in the island’s more rural areas keep similar opening hours. The bright light-flooded exhibition halls display landscape paintings as well as abstract art. My favourites are the brightly coloured works of the young artist Greta Chicheri from Lajares. She paints surf scenes in oil and also gives workshops. Greta came to the island in 2005 as a tourist, and stayed. The same story rings true for many people here. The real highlight for me is the museum’s volcanic garden, which today I have to myself. Well not quite: I do have to share it with the animal of the island: goats. Artist Albert Argulló created 72 metal goat sculptures which are now "grazing" in the garden. I also sight a Canarian circular kiln ("El Horno") which is where the entire village once baked their bread.

A hippie for a day in a surfing village

A picturesque road leads from La Oliva to Lajares through the dry plain. The road is black and dead straight. Partially dilapidated windmills stand on both sides of the road always ready to perform their work. But Fuerteventura is actually never without a breeze.

Although Lajares is situated in the countryside, it is teeming with surf shops. Accommodation is cheap and the village is situated midway between the island’s east and west coast. Today it is full of vehicles. A signpost reveals why: "Mercado Artesanal – Craft Market". Every Saturday, the village square is transformed into a marketplace for local crafts and jewelry. While, nowadays, many markets of this kind tend to be dominated by cheap Asian goods, here it is not the case. There is even live music performed on a makeshift stage by two ragged guys who look like the archetypal dropouts. I discover some charming handmade children’s items made of fabric at one of the stools. All very modern. No one tries to coax me into buying anything. The market vendors are just as one would imagine surfers to be: completely relaxed. To a considerable extent, Lajares’ status as a surfers’ haven is due to one man: former champion and German surf legend Jürgen Hönscheid and his family have had their surf shop "Northshore" in Lajares since 1998. They even make their own surfboards. This cool shop is one of the first buildings as you enter the village.

On market day, a stroll along the main street lined with small shops and cafés is a fun thing to do. I am drawn to a hip bakery called "El Goloso" which also serves great coffee! The goodies in the display window are irresistible. I eye a cake called "Cabrita"; it is goat-shaped and filled with a delicious praline cream. The price: 1.65 Euros. A souvenir? No, this one is for me to enjoy.

After all, I need the energy for my hike up the red "Calderon Hondo" volcano which is near Lajares. The hiking trails are well signposted. The barren landscape has no trees or bushes. Only lichens seem to survive here. A sense of inner peace grows with every step I take. The first viewing point is reached in about an hour. The crater is 70 metres deep. So it is just as well the platform is secured. Back at the carpark, I burst out laughing: a signpost informs visitors about the availability of a camel taxi. Those who register can ride to the top of the volcano on a ship of the desert. Down the road, I come across a small surfing shack: colourful signs, a hammock and reggae music. I have reached the bar of the "Fuerte Vida" surf school where fresh juices are served and wind forecasts supplied. No, not enough wind today. If I want to take a beginners’ class, I should try El Cotillo on the west coast.

Camera-shy camels and views as far as Lanzarote

But travelling across the island seems so much more fun. The inland is home to wonderful landscapes, interrupted only by low stone walls. I discover the Eco Museum "De La Alcogida" near the village of Tefia. The museum consists of seven different houses and shows how the "Majoreros", the natives of Fuerteventura, used to live. A small journey back in time. The name is derived from "majos", which means caves. Later on, the Canarians moved into mini houses made of brown natural stone. These houses are whitewashed and feature small windows to protect from the heat. The way they are furnished seems to suggest that the people who once lived here have only just left the dining table and popped out to work in the fields. Indeed, farming families lived in the houses right up until the 1970s. I soon find my museum favourites: two camels enjoying a good old chew on some straw. Sadly, these creatures are not keen on selfies and show me their posterior instead. Oh bother! Chickens are dashing around my feet, white pigeons are perched on every roof and a donkey is wiggling his long ears. Yet another blissfully peaceful place, and very different from Fuerteventura’s bustling coastal towns with their gleaming facades.

Back in the car, I am eager to make my way to another highlight, which means driving up to the "Morro Velosa" viewpoint. The road winds in serpentines up to the top of Mount Tegú. My ears pop. A well-developed visitor centre with huge windows sits at an altitude of 645 metres and can be entered free of charge. The centre was designed and built by artist Cesar Manrique who is renowned throughout the Canary Islands. The views from "Morro Velosa" encompass half the island, with landscapes in hues of red, brown and ochre that stretch right to the sea. The only caveat: the strong and cold wind whistling across the mountain. Now I understand why the island’s name is frequently translated as "wild wind". Time to put my jacket on! I spot the island of Lanzarote on the horizon.

A monster coffee in the old capital

Crossing Mount Tegú has not been in vain as nestled in the next valley is Betancuria, the former capital city of the island. With just 200 inhabitants, the term "city" seems a far cry, but it is nonetheless bustling with life. Unlike the rest of the island, Betancuria is very green, featuring prolific oleander blossoms and a gently splashing stream. Tourists are attracted to the village’s idyllic alleyways with their crooked cobblestones. Even without eating in the elegant "Casa Santa Maria" restaurant, the associated souvenir shop should not be missed: the owner has managed to fill every inch of space in the three rooms. A smorgasbord of ceramics, bags, cactus marmalade. I discover some baskets at the back – a shame they are too big for my flight luggage.

Betancuria’s main attraction is the "Santa Maria" church which dates back to the 17th century. One of the largest on the island, the church is where the inhabitants hid from pirate attacks. Entrance into the church costs 1.50 Euros. In the interior, worshippers make their way to the "Virgen de La Peña" statue. The sacristy behind the altar is open to visitors. The carved wooden ceiling is painted in shades of gold and red, and the golden colours are quite dazzling.

Judging by my rumbling tummy, it is time for an afternoon snack. I opt for the "Bodegón Don Carmelo" restaurant situated by the river. Luckily, I find an unoccupied table on the rustic restaurant terrace that is surrounded by fruit trees. Most of the guests order a plate of tapas. Other culinary treats include the delicious "Papas Arrugadas" (wrinkly potatoes) served with "Mojo Verde" and "Mojo Picante". These are typical sauces. I opt for my much loved "Albondigas" (meatballs), olives and "Cumbre de Betancuria" goat cheese, which tastes very mild for Swiss standards. Other guests are already enjoying their afternoon coffee with almond biscuits and a "Barraquito". The bottom layer of this coffee beverage consists of thick, sugared condensed milk. Spanish liqueur 43 and an espresso shot are subsequently added to the mix, and the topping is frothed milk.

The west - rugged and beautiful

I leave the former capital and make my way back along the serpentine road to the coast, to El Cotillo where the waves break hard against the rocks. On getting out of my car at the lighthouse near the village, I am soaked by a shower of salt water. The "Faro de Tostón" tower houses a modern fishing museum. An employee apologises at the entrance: there is a power cut. All of the display boards are dark, which is why I am allowed to enter for free. The views from the approximately 40 m high lighthouse are simply stunning.

I descend from the tower and take a walk along a circuit path. The area is speckled with small stone towers. I watch as other people on the path throw bread crumbs between the porous rocks. Within no time at all, small gophers appear from nowhere to devour the snack. Very sweet! Buggy tours are a popular pastime on the tracks around the tower. Indeed, several buggies rattle past me. This dusty kind of fun is fitting for the island of Fuerteventura where activities truly abound.

I make a quick detour to the harbour of El Cotillo. Sea foam is spraying metres high on the pier where people usually sit on plastic chairs drinking coffee. Some children are playing in the streets. This is a perfect spot to enjoy the sunset. Surfers love the beach of El Cotillo, as it is also suitable for beginners. With lava rocks and turquoise-coloured water, it exudes a wonderful charm. Redolent of the Caribbean. The gently-shelving beach is also great for families.

Just like in the desert

I still have one more highlight to look forward to: the dunes near Corralejo, which are said to be particularly beautiful at dusk and sunset. Vehicles can be parked at the side of the road (only on solid terrain, to avoid the risk of one’s car sinking into the ground). I feel a bit like a Bedouin and enjoy running up and down the dunes. On reaching the ridge, the views of Lanzarote, Los Lobos and the sea are just breathtaking. The drifting sand dunes cover an area of approximately 11 km (seven miles) and are constantly on the move. The area has been designated as a nature reserve. Contrary to widespread belief, the origin of the dune sand is not from nearby Africa, but from decomposed shell limestone. The dunes are the kingdom of the desert bird houbara bustard. Sadly, I do not get to see any today, but enjoy watching some surfers instead.

Back in Corralejo, I head for the Waikiki bar where I plonk myself into a chair and order a daiquiri. I am exhausted. This fabulous bar is situated right on the beach. I bury my toes in the sand and take in the music. Bliss!

My conclusion of the day: Fuerteventura is fascinating, and not just because of the sea, the sun and the sand. The clarity and expanse of the island hold a very special charm. Fuerteventura is so much more than a surfing spot or an all-inclusive destination. And it is perfect for anyone who enjoys being active and wants a sun-rich holiday.

Tips in Corralejo

Fishermen’s bar: Restaurant "La Lonja" at the harbour is where the locals go for lunch to enjoy the tasty tapas. (Calle Isla de Lobos, 35660 Corralejo)

Smoothie bar: Even vegans will be spoilt for choice in the H2O Juice Bar & Vegan Café. Take a seat on one of the colourful chairs and watch the world go by on the town square. Oh, and make sure you try a piece of the café’s renowned vegan cheesecake. (Calle la Milagrosa, 29, 35660 Corralejo)

Sunset bar: The Sunset Lounge is situated on "Vista Lobos" beach, on the outskirts of the village. The perfect location to chill, at any time of the day. In the evenings, guests can dance into the sunset to music provided by DJs. (Av. Corralejo Grandes Playas, 75, 35660 Corralejo)

(Text : Michèle Graf )