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The Canary Islands are a unique part of Spain. Geographically part of Africa and politically part of Europe, it is unlike anywhere where else in Spain or the EU. In addition to being different from the rest of Spain, the islands are all different from each other as well, sometimes having radically different landscapes and geographies.
1) They were NOT named after the canary birds.
Despite the name, the islands were not named after canaries, the cute, chirping birds. It comes from the Latin word for dog, “canaria“. One story is that when some of the first Europeans arrived, they found large dogs on the island of Grand Canary. In fact, they might not even be named after dogs at all, but rather after seals which used to inhabit the island, which the Romans called “sea dogs”.
2) It has the highest point in Spain.
Despite having the Pyrenees mountains in its country, the highest point in Spain is actually on the island of Tenerife. El Teide is 3,718m (12,198ft) high. There are other tall peaks in the Canaries as well including Roque de Los Muchachos on the island of La Palma 2,400 m (7,874 ft). This mountain is of note because it is home to one of the largest collection of astronomical telescopes in the world, including the world’s largest telescope, the 10.4m Gran Telescopio Canarias. Its high volcanic mountains which sit above the clouds makes it similar to the observing conditions you can find in Mona Kea in Hawaii.
3) The Spanish Civil War started here.
At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Francisco Franco was the General Commandant of the Canaries, headquartered in Las Palmas, on Grand Canary island. He and his minions plotted their strategy here in the Canaries, out of sight and mind of the rest of Spain, before moving to the continent.
4) You can cook food over a volcano.
As I mentioned above, the Canary Islands are volcanic in origin. While there are no volcanoes currently erupting on the island, there was a great deal of activity on the island of Lanzarote between 1730 and 1736 when over 100 volcanoes appeared on the landscape. The last eruption was in 1824, but there is still a significant amount of heat just below the surface. If you enter Timanfaya National Park, you can visit El Diablo Restaurant where they have several demonstrations which show the heat just below the surface. In one demonstration they toss straw into a hole which bursts into flame due to the heat. In another, they pour water down a whole which instantly turns into a tower of steam. At the restaurant, there is a 9m hole was which was dug to access the heat, the top of which is used as a grill. The temperature of the grill reaches 400C and uses no energy.
5) The islands were colonized concurrently with the Americas.
While the Canary Islands were known to the ancient Romans and Greeks, they never really grabbed the attention of Europeans until they began to sail across the Atlantic to the Americas. Columbus used the island of La Gomera as a staging point for his first trip to the Americas. Most of the older buildings you can find in the islands, especially in the city of La Laguna are very colonial in style. Unlike the Americas, however, the Canary Islands were not a colony but an actual part of Spain which they remain to this day.
6) The city of San Antonio, Texas was founded by people from the Canary Islands
If you remember the Alamo, then you should also take a second to remember the Canary Islands. The city was originally founded by settlers from the Canaries and their descendants died fighting alongside Jim Bowie and Davy Crocket. The founder of the city of São Paulo, Brazil is also from the island of Tenerife.
7) It is home to a whistling language
On the island of La Gomera, there is a language used to communicate over the large distances across valleys called “Silbo Gomero”. As technology changed the ease in which people could communicate, the language was in danger of dying out in the 20th Century. The government took measures to teach the language to children in school. The whistling is actually just a form of Spanish. The language is more used for announcements and news, not for personal conversation. It was listed as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2009.
8) The Canary Islands had the world’s worst airline disaster.
The world’s worst aviation accident occurred on the island of Tenerife on March 27, 1977, when two Boeing 747’s collided on a foggy airport runway. 583 people were killed when KLM Flight 4805 hit Pan Am Flight 1736 during take-off. Neither plane was supposed to be on Tenerife as they were diverted from Gran Canarias when a bomb was detonated on the runway. The airport had many more aircraft than it could handle and couldn’t fit all the planes at the gates. An investigation after the event by Spanish, Dutch and American teams concluded that there were a host of problems which lead to the disaster including language, not knowing where the planes were, casual terminology and pilot error. The accident led to a host of changes in how plane crews and flight control towers talk to each other to avoid misunderstanding.
9) The Canary Islands has two capitals.
The province of the Canary Islands has capitals on the two largest islands of Tenerife and Gran Canaria. Santa Cruz on Tenerife and Las Palmas on Gran Canaria are both jointly considered the capitals of the province. Santa Cruz is where the Canary Island Parliament sits. The two capitals date back to when the islands were two different provinces of Spain, with each city serving as capital. When the provinces were merged, they both continued to hold the title of capital.
10) Tex-Mex cuisine can trace its roots back to the Canary Islands.
As noted above, many of the settlers of Texas and Mexico came from the Canary Islands, and almost all of the Spanish conquistadors came through the Canary Islands on their way to the New World. Along the way, they brought with them many of their food. The use of peppers and chilies originally came from African Berbers to migrated to the Canary Islands and infused the food their with their flavors. Other things such as the use of sauces, which in the Canary Islands are called mojo sauce, later became the basis of the sauces and salsas which are found in Tex-Mex cuisine.
11) The Canary Islands has its own form of wrestling.
Lucha Canaria is the name of the traditional form of wresting on the islands. It is sort of a cross between Greco-Roman Wrestling and Sumo Wrestling. The traditional wrestling aspects come from the grappling, and the sumo aspects come from the round circle they fight in and try to throw each other out of.
12) The water in Lanzarote’s El Golfo crater is green.
The El Golfo crater is a volcanic crater which is on the shore of the island of Lanzarote. Inland just a few meters from the coast is a pool of water which has developed a green hue. The green comes from an algae which live in the salt water in the pool. The water in the pool is still connected to the ocean via underground fissures, which keeps the water at sea level, and ensures that the pool does not evaporate away.
13) The Canary Islands has been a filming location for many Hollywood movies.
Due to their unique landscape, the Canary Islands has been a filming location for many movies over the years. Some of the films shot on location in the Canary Islands include:
- Fast & Furious 6
- The Land That Time Forgot (
- Clash of the Titans
- Exodus: Gods and Kings
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- Rambo V: Last Blood
- Solo: A Star Wars Story
14) Lanzarote has some of the oddest vineyards in the world.
Lanzarote is a volcanic island that has almost no soil or natural vegetation. To grow grape vines there takes quite a bit of effort. Unlike most vineyards where the vines are planted in rows, on Lanzarote each vine is placed in a small depression with a semicircular wall of lava stone around it to protect it from the wind. The roots are in the lava rock where they get moisture from the moisture which condenses on the rock.
15) The Canary Islands used to be home to a species of giant lizards.
Prior to humans settling on the islands, there were lizards called the giant Gallotia which were about the size of a modern-day monitor lizard. There are Gallotias on the island today, but much smaller and relatives of the original giant lizard.
16) Admiral Horatio Nelson lost his right arm in the Canary Islands…..literally.
On July 22, 1797, Horatio Nelson led an amphibious landing to attack the port of Santa Cruz on the island of Tenerife. The attack was a disaster for the British. The attack was repulsed with 250 British dead and 128 wounded, vs only 30 Spanish dead and 40 wounded. When Nelson was shot in the arm, he was rowed back to his ship where he famously said, “Doctor, I want to get rid of this useless piece of flesh here”. The arm was removed and thrown overboard. Every year till this day the people on Santa Cruz celebrate the battle.
17) The Canary Islands is home to 3 of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Spain.
There are currently 3 world heritage sites in the Canary Islands, located on the islands of Tenerife and La Gomera. They are: