Another time, another Tenerife

Ignoring the 'go to the beach' chorus, Andrew Eames discovers a different side to the Canary Islands

"THIS USED to be a potato exchange," Elizabeth was saying as we laced up our boots. "If you look down that side you can see ... oh ... everything." Except that this morning, we could see ... oh ... nothing. The cloud was so thick I could feel its moisture giving my face a greasy makeover, not to mention the insidious chill creeping up the inside of my trouser- legs. So much for the Canary Islands' winter sun: I had half a mind to leave my shorts in the van.

This was the Anaga mountain range on the northern neck of Tenerife, an island known more for its time-shares than its traditions, for its vamos a la playa than its tree-moss in the mountains. But this was a Tenerife that few visitors ever witness, the Tenerife of distant goat-bells, of slow dripping mists, of vines and hanging terraces, and of potato-farmers still living in cave-houses.

It was not a Tenerife I had seen before. The previous day, I had crossed by hydrofoil from Gran Canaria, along with a whole crowd of Mormons en route from the US "into the field". I could not resist turning an ear towards their conversation. "What do the island people do?" asked one. "A bit of manufacturing," said another. "And jobs in hotels," chipped in a third. They seemed ill-prepared for the cross-section of Europeans in full holiday plumage that they were about to encounter.

But there were no Mormons, no fleshpots, and no saggers in slacks up here in the Anaga: the island that hosts two million northern European visitors a year, producing a turnover of pounds 80,000 per square metre of crowded beach, still has a land- and human-scape that has changed little since the Spanish conquest.

Elizabeth's "potato exchange" was the Cruz del Carmen crossroads, on the road that runs along the spine of the range, 3,000ft above sea-level. They were once a marketplace for anyone who slogged up from the barrancos (ravines) below with their squashes, grapes, maize and nugget-sized papas; the price of these local potatoes is still a subject of bar-room discussion across the island.

Some of the barrancos had since been penetrated by roads, but our plan was to follow the web of ancient mountain highways right down to the sea at Punta del Hidalgo, four houses below, where the Canarias Trekking van would pick us up.

The first stage was down through laurel woodlands rising out of mossy embankments. The path was steep and evidently long-established. Oh yes, agreed Elizabeth.

This would have been the main route for the communities below to sell any surplus produce they had, but it had far less traffic today, despite being designated a sendero (path) turistico, than it had before roads penetrated the mountains.

The wood was silent, and beyond the occasional paloma de laurisilva - a magical name for wood-pigeon - nothing was moving except us. I knew that there were 196 species of plant up here, 39 of them endemic, but Elizabeth knew only their Spanish names. So I turned my attention to her; she was, after all, one of the most exotic things on the path.

A wild child with cheekbones to die for, she worked as a trek-guide for most of the year, and as an airline hostess for the rest. Interesting combination, I said. Couldn't she make up her mind? Elizabeth shrugged. Her desire to travel wasn't great, she confessed. Her parents, like many canarios, had spent some years in Venezuela, but the living was not good so they had returned.

Besides, she didn't like the early start for hostessing. But this year, she added brightly, Air Europa (her company) had a route to England.

"To where in England?"

"To Liverpool. How is it?"

A little bit short on mountain-trekking, I answered.

After half an hour, we emerged from the cloud and the woods into the sun, and suddenly there was the sea, way down below, and an old lady with a sickle wheezing up the path towards us. We stood aside to let her pass, and Elizabeth pointed out specks of white clinging to the shoulders of huge, serrated slices of land that plunged down to the sea - white houses that made up the communities of Batan, Taborno and Carboneras. These ravines were lorded over by the Roque de Taborno, a bullet of basalt perched on an eroded volcano, circled by wheedling, bickering birds of prey (again with Spanish names).

By now, the warmth of the sun was beginning to bring the lizards to life in the undergrowth. We took a water-stop in Carboneras's pretty little Plaza San Isidro, and admired the terraced fields which climbed the hillside. They were still carefully worked, although the grape harvest was over, and the wild blackberries were just coming to an end.

These were self-sufficient communities, said Elizabeth, relying on potatoes and gofio - roasted maize meal - as staples, with goat and rabbit as meat. It was not an existence much favoured by the young, but many would return to bring up their families here.

A new road had been built to Chinamada, although no vehicles passed in the 20 minutes it took to walk there, and the fresh tarmac was marked more with dusty footprints than tyre tracks. This new access may have come too late: the 30-odd Chinamadans of 10 years ago had decreased to a bare dozen, still living in cave-houses with no electricity beyond what their solar panels could produce.

Just before Chinamada, we passed a friendly goat, and then his owner, who was using a home-made cable-car to winch a box of potatoes up from a field deep into the cleft of the ravine. A couple of hundred yards further on, another man was shouting for his dogs.

Below Chinamada, we left the cultivated zone and emerged onto the northern shoulder of the Tamodoro ravine, in a drier landscape of friable rock splotched with euphorbia. From below came the flat crack of a rifle shot, followed by a drum-roll of appreciation as the echo climbed the ravine walls.

A couple of years ago, Elizabeth told me, an escaped prisoner went to ground here, and it had been many months before he was found. How did he survive, I wanted to know? "The villagers gave him food," she replied. These were very independent-minded communities.

She was too late to warn me not to touch a prickly pear. The season for eating them had gone, she said - and now my fingers were full of prickles. It seemed that many of the euphorbia were pretty poisonous. She bent a branch of one, and it bled milk. "The Guanches (islanders before the Spanish conquest) used to use this for fishing," she said. Apparently, it poisoned the water.

Now we met our first tourists, a German couple heading uphill, consulting their guide at every turn. They looked hot. "The Germans," commented Elizabeth admiringly, once they had passed. "They always like to start at the bottom."

We stopped to exchange our longs for shorts above a sheer drop to the sea, and set off on the last stage, passing two more German couples on the way, and emerging at the bottom of the ravine at the same time as a party of huntsmen and their dogs.

The Canarias Trekking van was waiting, as planned, above a ruined banana- packing factory. Looking back up at the Anaga, it was clear that the clouds had finally been blown off the top. "From up there you can see everything," Elizabeth said. I took her word for it. I was not walking back up to see for myself.

FACT FILE

walking in tenerife

Getting there

Andrew Eames travelled to Tenerife courtesy of Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011) and stayed in the Hotel Nivaria (tel: 00 34 922 265052). January flights to Tenerife are absurdly cheap: Unijet (tel: 0990 114114) offers once-weekly flights from Gatwick for just under pounds 100, including tax.

Going walking

Several companies offer guides and transport for walking in the Anaga mountains. It is also possible to use the TITSA bus services: most of these remote communities are served by four or five buses a day, and there is a handy pocket timetable. If you are going it alone, you will need an ICONA map, available locally, or one of the 23 walking brochures just published by the tourist office. For itineraries, visit the Canarias Trekking website: www.canariastrekking.com; or call/fax them (tel: 0034 922 201051). Group guided walks cost from about pounds 14 per person.

The walking routes on the island of La Gomera are better organised and signposted than on Tenerife, but they are busier too. A couple of companies run organised days, with buses to key drop-off and pick-up points. Ask at the tourist office for details, and for its own trekking map. La Palma is also becoming a walkers' destination. The tourist office does its own hiking guide, and La Palmatour offers guided one-day walks to parts of the island inaccessible by road.

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