Arriving in Fuertenventura’s capital, Puerto del Rosario, on the overnight ferry, my bones still felt the chill of a damp winter in La Gomera, or was it the cramp of fitful sleep? A bunk had seemed like a luxury at the time of booking, but the previous night, I saw cabin keys being doled out to the dozens of truck drivers, who clearly make this run regularly, and wished I’d splurged on one. Even so, I’d guessed sleep might have been elusive, making a bunk a waste of money.
Down below Trix was still snoring when I slid the van door open. By now a fearless ferry traveller, she lapped up her water, and minutes later we were rumbling over the echo-y ramps and off the boat.
Odd how the mind stores stuff without us realizing; it was over 20 years since I’d visited this Canary Island, but my sense of direction nudged me, rightly, south. I didn’t have a map at this stage – part of the adventure. When we got to a suitable spot on the edge of town, we stopped, stretched our legs. The sun was rising rapidly, and had reached that point when you feel its first warmth on your skin, when the day really takes off. Absolutely unfazed by the strangeness of heat after a long winter, Trix gobbled her breakfast. I marvelled, as I had before, at her trust in me. No indication of nervousness at being in a strange location.
That warmth was what had brought us here at this stage of our trip. My original plan had been to explore La Palma and El Hierro, before heading to the easterly islands for winter, assuming them to be warmer; but two months of damp and almost unceasing rain, and I had a need for sunshine. I am nothing if not adaptable – it said so on the letter of recommendation I had from my headmistress when left school, (though how she knew I never understood). Plan B it was then, Fuerteventura, miles of white sand beaches, and a reputation as the warmest, windiest of this island chain.
I had, still have, no doubt that I’d left a part of my heart in La Gomera, but after spending five months dipping up and down green valleys and hillsides, the flat openness with its sensation of freedom was seductive, as we whizzed south along an excellent road, with only light traffic at 8.30 in the morning.
It was a feeling that didn’t wear off in the two months I stayed. The island has an excellent road system. The main roads, linking important towns and villages (and almost all are of the “blink and you miss it” variety) are well maintained, flattish and well signed – too well signed really! I lost track of the number of times I caught sight of an unusual place name, and hurtled off to see if the place was as curious as its name. Even the dirt roads are good, dirt roads – and I’ve been sidetracked down A LOT of them… What else do you do if you spot a windmill, on a plain, beckoning, as they beckoned Don Quixote?
My accommodation was booked in a small, coastal village called Las Playitas, and in no time I’d spotted the sign, and realized it was much too early to call. Not knowing the state of the roads, nor the distances, I’d expected to arrive around 11 or 12, and here it was, barely 9 o’clock, so I trundled on to Gran Tarajal, and settled down to breakfast with a sea view in a promenade café.
A Real Place
Gran Tarajal was to be, my temporary hometown. Las Playitas boasts some nice fish restaurants and a couple of tiny “emergencies only” supermarkets, but little else apart from a super hotel, which specializes in sports groups. The long, straight road into town was always dotted with cyclists, and the running track alongside always in use, but for anything one has to do, Gran Tarajal is the place; supermarkets, post office, fishing port, sports, clothes and electrical shops, vets and dentists – all you need on a basic day-to-day basis. I sat back and watched as the town slowly came to life along the curving seaside walkway; Bars opening, fishermen trotting along with buckets and rods, delivery guys weaving their carts between the people strolling to work, and the general sleepy acceptance of another day as neighbors greeted each other. The coffee and the sandwich were nondescript but there would be two whole months to find the best places to eat.
Despite the foodie disappointment (little to do with quality, just lack of imagination), I came to love the island. Between the beaches, the holiday resorts and that red earth are dotted the villages. Nothing outside of Puerto del Rosario and Gran Tarajal, excepting the resort areas, would qualify for the name “town.” Sometimes, in my rambling down those back roads, I spotted a interesting sounding place name and took a turn, often it turned out just to be two or three houses, huddled together in defiance of the harsh climate, and reminding me of some spaghetti western scene.
The most charming of these villages is Betancuria, the island’s original capital, now beautifully restored, reminiscent of the way the French restore those lovely villages in the south. Stone-built properties, walls and window boxes overflowing with flowers, and despite the tour buses that pull in and out, tranquillity; an excellent museum, as always run by friendly, knowledgeable staff; a couple of naff tourist shops and one genuine artisan one, and that’s about it – except for the most amazing church.
Usually, I resent paying to see religious sites, especially those belonging to the super-rich Catholic Church. Often I give them a miss, but I was drawn to this one and handed over my €1. What I saw inside was more like a museum than a place of worship; chock a block with artefacts from the time of the Conquest in the 15th century. It was fascinating, and clearly money was needed for restoration work. I was driven out by tour bus hoards, and when I mentioned this to the nice lady on the door, she told me to keep my ticket, and she wouldn’t charge me if I came back when it was quieter. I didn’t, but I should have.
Channelling Don Quixote or Clint Eastwood
Fuerteventura’s most iconic features are its windmills, which dot the plains, or are the first thing you see as you approach a village. Years ago they were used for grinding the grains to make the Canarian flour, gofio. Some have been beautifully restored. On an island famous for its wind the spindly modern variety abound too, these recent ones used for hauling up subterranean water.
Chasing windmills one day I mistakenly ended up in the village of Tetir (I was looking for the windmill at Tefía – you can see the similarity in the names, no?). It was eerily quiet, under the hot, early afternoon sun, so I pulled over by the church, and took Trix for a walk. What looked like they might be shops were shuttered, and there wasn’t a soul on the streets. It was getting very Alfred Hitchcock. We wandered past the church, and came to a small farmyard, and more spaghetti western stuff; pigs, chickens and donkeys all mooching around in the dirt, happily sharing it with a couple of turkeys – an unusual sight for the Canaries. It was definitely beginning to feel like Mexico or one of the US border states!
Voices drifted over the claggy air. They came from a bar alongside the church. Someone once told me that when the Spanish conquered other lands the first thing they built was the church, then the bar. It felt that way. Despite hunger, I was wary of entering, the voices were distinctly all male, and outside the bar three pick up trucks were parked. I’m quite sure they would have been friendly, but blame it on seeing too many movies like “Easy Rider,” for once I was deterred. Going to bars or restaurants alone never fazes me usually. Laughing at my over-active imagination I left town, my van stirring up a swirl of dust as we departed!
When I did find Tefía it was a little gem, host to an excellent eco museum depicting how hard life was for the early settlers, and promoting traditional crafts like basket weaving and pottery, about which more another time. There was, also, a beautifully restored windmill. Enough to make Don Quixote quite jealous!
Many villages have adapted in their own ways to the necessities of earning a crust from tourism, some with taste and imagination, others, well, points for trying.
Pájara, a dramatic drive south of Betancúria, a town founded in the 16th century, now welcomes the hundreds of cyclists and walkers who train in the island’s unforgiving heat and wind, with “sporting bars” along its shady streets.
Antigua is a bit livelier. It’s the only place to get your car MOT’ed. But don’t expect (at least as of the beginning of May, when I left) to find the museum open. It looks the part, and rumor has it that it’s completed, but there are no funds to run it. I can’t confirm that. I had an introduction to a person in the island government, with whom I spoke on the phone, and with whom I agreed to send a list of questions, which I did, but never received a reply. One of the questions was: Why are just about half of the island’s museums closed? I was there over the Easter period, a busy tourist time, and yet they remained closed, although they were promoted. Strange. If I ever get a reply I will come up with another post.
Tiscamanita boasts a windmill, and is where you can buy the simplest, but freshest roast pork sandwich, simply meat and fresher than fresh bread (there is a marvellous bakery next door). The bar that sells them is famous for miles around. They also told me that another bar does a to.die.for goat stew, but I missed that.
La Oliva probably the heart of the Guanche kingdom of Maxorata; Tuineje where tourism meets agriculture; Tarajalejo, Puerto Lajas, Las Lajitas and Ajuy – former fishing communities still struggling to come to terms with modern tourism – some looking as if there is still hope, others chomping at the bit for the re-emergence of new construction; Las Lajares which has a great Saturday morning craft market, and which seems like surf city although it’s some kilometres from the coast – all have have their own charms, and interesting quirks. There is certainly plenty to see inland, away from those fabulous beaches.
I missed out on Pozo Negro with its Guanche history and the volcanic tube of Cueva del Llano because they were closed, and the salt museum at Las Salinas because it closes quite early. I have deliberately not mentioned today’s capital, Puerto del Rosario, because, frankly, apart from some quirky street art, I couldn’t find anything to recommend. Despite the cruise ships which now call in regularly, it remains very much the sort of port city which no-one bothered to beautify, and whose history seems to have been lost in the rush to build haphazardly.
My favorite place, however, was Cotillo, on the northern coast, which perhaps does deserve the title of surf city. Whereas further along the coasts it’s all about windsurfing, in Cotillo it’s the real thing, and all about weaving those boards over the incoming swell off gobsmackingly gorgeous golden beaches, which lie at the foot of black, volcanic cliffs. It looks frighteningly as if this, too, may be all concrete by the time I return, but for now it’s hanging on to a beachbum vibe, and if the authorities have any sense, they will build on that instead of creating yet another mass tourism monstrosity.
And, then, there are the resorts. A resort is a resort is a resort. Worldwide. Cement and plastic. For somewhere like the Canary Islands to survive, they are necessary, nowhere more so than on this island, bereft of the winsome beauty of parts of Tenerife or of La Gomera, and I try to look for something to recommend them. Other than their wonderful, natural settings, I found nothing in the resorts of Fuerteventura to recommend. Morro Jable was soulless and expensive, though there is an older part that has more appeal. It’s the gateway to the deserts of the far south, and has a port, which connects you with Gran Canaria. The best thing of course is the incredible, white beaches, and I found the guys in the bars and shops very cheerful and helpful.
I didn’t even set foot in Caleta del Fuste, an hour in the flea market by the main road was sufficient to tell me that I didn’t want to see more. Likewise Costa Calma, which could have been anywhere from Marbella to Florida.
The only resort with appeal was Corralejo, on the northern tip, somewhere I remembered from my first visit all those years ago. The first time I returned, I was so shocked at the change that I drove around the streets and turned tail within five minutes. The outskirts are sheer concrete hell, but when I eventually went back I found the old village, turned into the sort of tourist trap you might call “cute.” That is to say, I’ve seen worse. And then, there are the exotic sand dunes, to which the camels add a surreal touch, and the shimmery blue vistas of La Isla del Lobos and Lanzarote on the horizon.
I nosed around the mostly pedestrianized streets close to the harbor, and decided I’d been unfair on my first visit. Nevertheless, it held no charms for me. Clearly, as soon as the recession lifts more concrete is set to go up, and most of the people I met looked bored with their lot, and disinterested in their customers.
In fact, one of the features of the coast reminded me of Tenerife twenty years or so ago, half finished buildings, abandoned hotels and malls. In time, they will all be finished, and no doubt those white sands will be crowded. La Pared, Giniginamar, Majanicho all these coastal villages have turquoise seas and wonderful views. La Pared, the point at which the island was historically separated into two kingdoms, has that seedy, rundown air so familiar from years of living in the Canary Islands. Although clearly people stay there, the air is thick with apathy, and the beaches crowded with wannabe surfers. I went back several times, because they told me that the best island sunsets could be seen from there, but each time it seemed sorrier than before.
Much of the island is, however, protected. It’s hard for the average observer to understand what needs to be protected on the sterile hillsides around Entallada, the point at which the archipelago comes closest to the African continent, or the wilderness of the Jandia peninsula, where hoards of goats, as always, forage. Though flora and fauna are sparse (an understatement), there is still much to be learned about the geology of these areas.
When you finally top the mountains of Jandia and dip down to the west coast, to Cofete, it’s easier to appreciate those “you are entering a protected area” signs. Endless yellow beaches, lipped by white waves stretch along to La Pared and beyond, like a scenario from “An Endless Summer.” In the third world-style shack that passes for a bar, where donkeys and goats mooch in a corral alongside, they don’t even accept credit cards (so make sure you have cash if you plan to eat there!). I offered up a prayer in lieu of grace, as I tucked in to my delicious and predictable grilled fish, that perhaps this, particular slice of the Canary Islands might never change.
Chastened by the realization that I’d fallen into a happy stupor in La Gomera, I raced around Fuerteventura, trying to absorb its different faces, its sleepy villages; its dazzling beaches; that evocative, red earth; the goats; the waves; the energy; the civic pride; the Mercadona supermarkets (after five months without supermarkets); those protected spaces. I tried to balance those against the rumors of historic sites destroyed by construction and covered up; the feeling that Fuerteventura seemed not to have observed nor learned from the mistakes committed in Tenerife in the name of progress in the 80s and 90s; and, of course, the knowledge that Spain’s central government has authorized oil drilling just off the island’s coast.
Whilst the world recession, La Crisis as they call it here, is responsible for some of the eyesores dotted around – unfinished apartment blocks and hotels looking even worse than completed ones – perhaps this pause might prove beneficial if it gives authorities time to stop and think about what they are allowing to happen. Fuertventura is beautiful in a wild, wilderness way, totally unlike the lush green of La Gomera, and it would be devastating to see that crumble under the pressure of greed and mass tourism in the way so many spaces on the island of Tenerife have.
My question about whether the cabildo (island government) is aware of this dilema is still unanswered, but there are some hopeful signs. Whilst I was there some friends also visited, investigating walking routes (a propect so different from those of La Gomera that it’s hard to believe these, two islands belong to the same archipelago), and there was an abundance of signs indicating rural accommodation. I was lucky to visit one of the island’s few remaining potters to see his workroom on his isolated finca, and he talked about letting off a cottage on the property for those who truly want to “get away from it all.” Encouraging these types of accommodation is one way the cabildo can stimulate a better level of tourism. The other opportunity is sporting holidays, in addition to its famous windsurfing beaches, Fuerteventura now plays host to cyclists and surfers, as well as hikers, and there were some dive schools around. Clearly, this needs to be controlled and not allowed to get out of hand, but now is the time for decisions and action, before the world economy picks up and the race to construct is on again.