The Canary Islands

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If you think of Spain as the country on the Iberian Peninsula which is sandwiched between France and Portugal, you are not wrong, but you are also not totally right. 

There is also a significant part of the country which is located in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Morocco: The Canary Islands

Here you will find things that you aren’t going to find in mainland Spain or even the rest of Europe.

Learn more about the Canary Islands on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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This episode is sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain.

Did you know that Spain gets the second largest number of visitors of any country in the world? In 2019, over 83 million people visited Spain. 

That means no matter what you want to do or where you want to go, Spain has one of the best infrastructures for tourism in the world. 

They have direct flights from dozens of countries. They have a wide range of accommodations from hostels to five-star luxury resorts. They also have high-speed trains which can take you from Madrid to Barcelona in only 2 hours and 45 minutes.

You can start researching your dream trip to Spain today by visiting Spain.info where you can get everything you need to know to plan your Spanish experience.

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Any discussion of the Canary Islands should start with the name. 

The Canary Islands are not named after canary birds. There are no canaries in the Canary Islands.

The name actually comes from Latin. The Romans called the islands Canariae Insulae, which means the Islands of the Dogs.

Legend has it that King Juba II of Mauretania, which was an ancient kingdom that encompassed much of northwestern Africa, sent an expedition to the islands where they found a whole lot of dogs, and hence got its name.

The problem is, there has never been any evidence found of dogs being on the island, or any explanation of how they might have gotten there.

What they probably saw were seals, in particular monk seals, which did inhabit the islands in antiquity.

So to summarize, the Canary Islands are not named after birds, but rather dogs, which were probably really just seals. 

The islands themselves are volcanic islands. Their creation is very similar to other island chains such as the Hawaiian Islands and the Galapagos Islands. They were created from a hotspot in the Earth’s mantle which poked through the crust. As the tectonic plate moved over the hotspot, a chain of islands was created. 

To that extent, the Canary Islands really are sort of like Spain’s Hawaii

There are seven major, populated islands in the Canaries. 

They are, going from west to east: El Hierro, La Palma, La Gomera, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, and Lanzarote.

I’ve personally been to 6 of the 7, only missing El Hierro. 

The history of the islands is rather odd. They were known to almost every civilization around the Mediterranean. The island of Fuerteventura is just barely visible from the coast of modern-day Morocco. 

While most ancient people didn’t particularly like sailing in the open ocean, sailing approximately 100 km from shore, while it is still visible, is something most seafaring cultures like the Phonecians and Romans could easily do. 

However, there wasn’t really any strategic value to the islands back then. They were located far away, and not on any trade routes. 

Islands like Mallorca, Malta, or Cyprus were in the middle of the Medeterrian and were important to the cities located on the coast. 

So, for the most part, the islands were ignored for centuries. 

The islands did have an indigenous population which was there as late as the middle ages. They didn’t really have much in the way of contact with either Africa or Europe, and their level of development was well below what could be found on either continent.  Genetic tests done on remains show that the people who lived there were related to the Berbers of North Africa. 

Europeans began the permanent settlement of the Canaries in the 14th century. There were visits by Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French vessels on and off, which some of them established small settlements.

At the beginning of the 15th century, the island began being claimed by Spanish nobles, and then in the late 15th century, control and sovereignty of the islands were finally consolidated under the Spanish crown.

In the late 15th century is when the history of the Canary Islands became interesting.

The Spanish structured the economy around a single cash crop: sugar cane. 

If a group of islands apart of the main country growing sugarcane sounds familiar, it is. The Canary Islands were sort of a prototype for what would become the colonial system in the New World. 

The importance of the Canaries changed soon after with the discovery of the Americas. On Columbus’ first voyage, the last place they stopped to get fresh water and provisions was the Canary Islands. 

Before I mentioned that the Canary Islands didn’t have much value to the ancients because it wasn’t on any trade route.

With the discovery of the New World, suddenly the importance and the location of Canaries changed. No longer was it an out of the way location off the beaten path of civilization, but now it had a strategic location between Europe and the Americas. Not exactly in the middle, but it was the last place ships stopped before making the long crossing.

In fact, in no small part, the Canary Islands is why most of the Spanish Colonies in the New World were in the south. The Canary Islands weren’t really a good stopping off point for going to, let’s say, Canada

As the importance of the islands grew, they became very wealthy and they attracted more people. Many of those people and their descendants went on to the Americas. In fact, many communities in the Spanish Colonies were established by Canary Islanders, most famously San Antonio, Texas. 

The wealth of the Canaries also attracted those with less than honorable intentions. The Dutch attempted an unsuccessful invasion of the islands in the 16th century. Barbary pirates harassed the ships going to and from the Canaries in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1797, the British were repulsed in the battle where Admiral Nelson lost his arm.

In the 19th century, the fortunes of the Canary Islands waned. They found it hard to compete against, cheap Caribbean sugar. As more Spanish colonies became independent and ship technology improved, the importance of their location lessened. 

There was a large migration of Canary Islanders to the Americas during this period, and the population declined. 


Much of the tumult of the 20th Century avoided the Canaries. There was concern that the United States would invade during the Spanish-American War, but that never happened.

Other than a few minor skirmishes, the islands largely avoided the Spanish Civil War. It also avoided any action in World War II.

As a fully integral part of Spain, the fortunes of the Canary Islands grew with the advent of the Schengen Zone and the European Union. It turns out, the Canaries are the southernmost parts of the EU where Europeans can travel without a passport and use the Euro. 

The Canaries have exploded as a tourist destination, especially during the long, dark European winters.

Each of the islands are very different, and that isn’t just a saying. There are extreme differences between the islands. 

Take for example the island of Lanzarote. Lanzarote is geologically the youngest of the islands and it is still very volcanically active. It basically has no trees. The entire island is almost all volcanic rock. 

In Timanfaya National Park, there is a restaurant called El Diablo where they cook their food over an open…..volcano. Yep, the grill is just an open hole down to the hot rock below. It uses absolutely no fuel. 

Despite the island not having any real soil, there is a wine industry. Each of the vines are kept in a rock semicircle to protect it from the wind, and the roots get moisture from the dew which condenses on the rocks. 

The island of Tenerife, which is the largest island by both population and area, also is home to the highest point in Spain, Mount Tiede which is 3,715 meters or 12,188 feet tall. 

La Gomera is home to a terraced landscape where for centuries farmers grew crops on the hillsides. That is also the home of the unique whistling language called Silbo Gomero. Farmers would use the whistling language to communicate with each other across the large valleys on the island. 

Today Silbo Gomero is taught in the schools and has been named a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Whereas Lanzarote and Futurventure have very little in the way of vegetation, La Palma is a very green and lush island. It is also home to some of the world’s largest astronomical telescopes. 

Much of the history I spoke of earlier can also still be found on the islands. 

San Cristóbal de La Laguna in Tenerife is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the old town has buildings going back to the 15th century. 

Yet, not too far away you can find the ultra-modern Auditorio de Tenerife which was designed by Spanish architect Santigo Calatrava. 

The vast majority of visitors to the Canary Islands come from Europe, and it is still relatively unknown to North Americans. Most Americans or Canadians who want to go to an island for vacation will go to the Caribbean or Hawaii if they are on the west coast.

The Canary Islands are extremely accessible and very diverse in terms of geology, biology, and history. 

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Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is James Mackala. 

The associate producer is Thor Thomsen.

Today’s five-star review comes from Apple Podcasts. Listener Teacher User wrote.

This has quickly become one of my fav pods. I appreciate that it is brief and I plan on using it in my HS classroom. The content is varied and the brevity makes it engaging. I’ll be a daily listener this year!

Thank you, Teacher User. I actually designed the show from the beginning to be clean and available for use for teachers and homeschoolers, you should never have to worry about language or inappropriate subjects.