When I visited Lanzarote, it stroked me how the population managed to survive and thrive in such a dry and harsh land after one of the most dramatic and destructive eruptions in Canary Islands’ history. The entire archipelago has volcanic origins and it’s therefore covered with (or rather made of) volcanos. Some islands are greener than others, thanks to a lack of recent eruptions or to the fact that they were small and took place close to the coast. The look of Lanzarote changed completely from the long-lasting eruption of the first half of the XVIII century.
A visit to Lanzarote leads to knowing more about the geology of the island and seeing how men took advantage of its volcanic character. Everything in Lanzarote had to adapt to a post-eruption life: from the still very much active Timanfaya Nation Park, to the volcanic tunnels turned into museums; from the black rocks used as building material for fancy restaurants and mansions, to the vines growing in pits dug in the ground.
The eruption in 1730-1736 that changed the look of Lanzarote
An incredible six years-long eruption completely changed the shape and the look of Lanzarote not that long ago. It started on 1st September 1730 and ended on the 16th April 1736.
In 2021, on another Canary Island, a “small” volcano erupted for almost three months. It managed to destroy 10kmq of land, shattering everything it met on its way, from fields to entire villages. I can only imagine what would have happened if the eruption lasted another 6 years!
The look of Lanzarote is quite peculiar. Black lava rocks and volcanic cones represent most of the island’s landscape. In the 1730 eruption, the ashes covered 20% of the entire island!
Curious enough, there’s a book by an eyewitness, that tells what happened during those six long years. It’s the diary of the priest in Yaiza, Andrés Lorenzo Curbelo. He kept a precious written account of those moments, of the lives of both the volcanos and the people living in the area.
Visit Lanzarote: volcanos and black landscape in the Canary Islands
How can you reinvent your life when the fields are under meters of ashes, the lava has destroyed everything on its way and everything around you is black and dead?
Lifestyle in Lanzarote had to adapt to the new look of the island. When Timanfaya went quiet, the population learned to work the field in a new way, to dig and mine the volcanic rock and take advantage of the new environment.
Tourism in Lanzarote mainly focuses on everything related to present and ancient volcanic activity. And there’s really a lot to see and learn about it.
Timanfaya National Park
Let’s start with the must-see destination in Lanzarote: Timanfaya National Park with all its still active volcanos, one of the most incredible places in the Canary Islands!
Timanfaya Volcano, center of the 1730 eruption, its surroundings and the entire area have been declared Biosphere Reserve in 1993. The road to reach the entrance of the park cuts directly into volcanic rock. With black lava on both your left and right side and not even a small sad tree, you have the impression to be on Mars!
The entrance has a fee, and it is limited to a certain (quite high) amount of people per day, in order to protect the park and guarantee the visitors’ safety. Passed the parking lot, you access the area open to the public, called Montañas del Fuego (“mountains of fire”). In the esplanade facing a classic souvenir shop, you can assist and participate in some interesting activities.
Every few minutes, a guided tour by bus leaves to show you some more of the Montañas del Fuego that you can’t reach on foot. The bus drives a narrow steep road that the drivers take with a little too much confidence, for my taste! The landscape is surreal. A vast dry land with no life, made of rocks, sand and volcanic cones over volcanic cones. It’s a pity you can’t get off the bus and take a walk around, but I bet it’s a security measure. The place just doesn’t look very safe for unprepared tourists in flip-flops.
Back to the esplanade, in fact, you can assist in some demonstrations of the still very much alive volcanic activity. Just a few meters below the ground, the heat can reach up to 600 Celsius degrees. You simply have to add dry glass to a pit in the terrain to see it immediately catch fire and burn! For the same reason, pouring water into a hole will create a small geyser.
With all this free heating, guess how the kitchen of the local restaurant is working. The barbeque, being a grill over a hole in the ground, and the oven dishes are the best and most requested on the menu!
Walking Tour on the ancient lava: the Tremensana hike
If the bus tour is not enough for you, you can try a hike on the black rocky ground. Access to the entire National Park area is strictly regulated. But you can book official guides that take you on a 3-4 hours walking tour. Booking in advance is mandatory and you’ll get an appointment to meet the guide that will drive you to the actual starting point of the hike. The pick-up is necessary because on this road is forbidden to park private cars (or even find a wide enough space to stop at all!).
There are a couple of possible routes between the coast and the center of Timanfaya Park. I choose Ruta Tremesana, the driest and more “Mars-looking” one. The path runs through a lava landscape, covered with black rocks, volcanic bombs and centuries-old ashes.
The volcanic tubes (which I’ll explain in the next paragraph) are definitely one of the most interesting things to see on the way. There’s a small one, partially collapsed, that you can enter and walk for a short distance. You can sense another one, invisible to the eyes, under your feet, because the ground seems empty under the surface, and you can feel it tremble when jumping!
For this hike, you’ll need a good pair of shoes!
Volcanic tunnels and jameos
A volcanic tunnel is a hole in the rock that the lava created during or prior to an eruption. Lava flows in an almost liquid state and it solidifies on the surface, especially when in contact with air. The surface crust becomes thicker and thicker. And with time, when the lava stops flowing, the inside of the tunnel becomes empty or gets eroded. Only the external part, the tougher and thicker remains standing. In some cases, the lava manages to create hundreds of meters or even kilometers of incredible underground tunnels.
In some places, the tunnels widen up to big chambers that used to be filled with lava, many meters wide. If they partially collapse, opening up to the exterior, they take the name of jameos.
As happens with many caves, most of the volcanic tunnels are not open to the general public. High tides, new collapses and toxic gasses are just some of the perils they might provide. With all their active volcanos, the Canary Islands are obviously full of these attractions and Lanzarote offers a couple of beautiful ones to its visitors.
Cueva de los Verdes
One of the most famous volcanic tunnels is Cueva de los Verdes. It’s 6 km long above sea level, and another 1500 meters long into the sea. It dates back 3000 years and in the past centuries has often been used as a hideaway from pirates and invaders’ attacks.
The visit lasts one hour and the guide explains in detail the formation, geological structures and the history of the place.
Jameos del Agua
César Manrique is a name you can’t avoid reading and hearing in Lanzarote. He was born in Arrecife, and filled his island (and other places too) with his architectural wonders. In the Canary Islands, many of his creations use volcanic materials mixed up with modern elements. Jameos del Agua is a wonderful example of his work. It includes a restaurant, a concert hall and an art center built around a beautiful jameo of seawater. In these waters live tiny blind crags of an endemic and protected race.
Talking about modern architecture, I suggest visiting the House-Museum Cas-O-Mar. It’s a private house, mostly open to the public. The original project, once again, includes Manrique’s signature. Cas-O-Mar is a white structure half embedded in the black volcanic rock. Hidden staircases and external passages connect the many rooms and caves. Some are dug into the cliff, others are built on the facade. At the center of the villa, there’s a blue swimming pool and a bar for visitors.
If you enjoy architecture, you can’t miss this jewel!
Wine from the volcanic ground
I was surprised by the peculiar way agriculture adapted to the volcanic terrain in Lanzarote. During the 1700 century, when farmers found their fields covered by meters of ashes, had to figure out a new way to work the land so that it could produce something. That unique system is still in use today.
Driving through Lanzarote, you’ll certainly spot round short structures made of stones around trees and especially vineyards. Every single plant had a small wall that surrounds a pit one or two meters deep. The goal is to both reach more fertile ground and protect the plants from the strong wind typical of the island.
Lanzarote’s wines, or more in general Canary Islands’ wines, don’t get exported much. This is due to the fact that the production is fairly limited and the transport would raise the price to an uncompetitive level. But there are very good wines and plenty of wineries open to visit and offer delightful tasting. I’ve been to Bodega la Geria, which produces, among the others, an amazing muscatel, worth alone the entrance ticket!
If you are interested in volcanos, you could read about the majestic Mount Teide in Tenerife, the highest point not only in the Canary Islands but of the entire Spain.
For another beautiful but very different national park in the Canary Islands, I refer you to this article about Garajonay National Park in La Gomera.