On Sept. 19, 2021, the Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma, one of Spain's Canary Islands, erupted, spewing red-hot lava for months and causing challenges for an archipelago that relies heavily on tourism, especially during a pandemic.
This occurred in the days leading up to a trip I took to the Canary Islands in October. Texts arrived from family and friends asking about my safety, and I assured them that La Palma was not on the itinerary. Instead, I traveled to the islands of Tenerife, Fuerteventura, and Lanzarote — and apart from smoky skies in the distance upon landing, I didn't experience any disruptions or even a hint of ash.
However, the trip made me start thinking about the importance of active volcanoes. Yes, eruptions might deter people from traveling there, but the fact is, there wouldn't be a "there" without the eruptions. The Canary Islands were formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, and they are integral not only to the landscapes, but also to the distinct activities that help make the destination such a draw. And while there are attractions on each of the eight islands, the ones I encountered on Lanzarote were my favorite. Here are some of the best ways to experience Lanzarote's epic volcanoes.
Grape lovers are in for a treat on Lanzarote, since the island produces a range of red and white varietals, including the local Malvasia Volcanica. It took a series of volcanic eruptions between 1730 and 1736 before locals realized its winemaking potential. This is when wheat farmers sifted through the ash of their destroyed crops only to discover a new fertile soil, called picon, buried under lava stones. These stones, it turned out, retain moisture, acting like a sponge, and thus provide water to fruits and vegetables through a gentle hydration system.
Grapevines did exceedingly well, especially when planted in funnel-shaped ditches surrounded by circular lava stone walls, called zocos, to protect them from the trade winds, which is what you'll see today. Not only are Lanzarote's vineyards an otherworldly sight to behold with their iconic zocos contrasting against the black soil, but they also make a fun activity.
Arrange your own tastings at individual wineries, like the family-operated Bodega La Geria, or join a small group tour with Wine Tours Lanzarote, which visits three vineyards for several tastings of wine and goat cheese (another local specialty). Going one step further, plan your Lanzarote visit around the annual Wine Run in June, when thousands of participants run or walk 7.5 miles through the region, stopping along the way to taste wine and tapas from local producers. At the finish line is the Traditional Cuisine Festival with — you guessed it — more food and wine.
Hiking Between Beaches on Volcanic Rock
Volcanic beaches aren't exactly a novelty on Lanzarote, with options to suit all ages and water sports (surfing included), but one to put at the top of the list is Papagayo Beach on the south coast. It takes a bumpy dirt road to arrive, making this beach an adventure from the start. Put on some sturdy shoes and explore a series of five coves accessed by hiking trails along stunning volcanic terrain. Each cove, like the popular Papagayo, offers white sand against lapping turquoise waves, so you can relax on the beach and take a refreshing dip wherever your heart desires. Bring a picnic lunch, or head to the beach shack above Papagayo for seafood and cold beer.
Timanfaya National Park
Remember that steady stream of eruptions that spawned Lanzarote's wine region? Those same eruptions shaped much of the rest of the island, including Timanfaya National Park, with terrain so akin to the lunar surface that NASA's Apollo space program has tested the moon buggy here.
Start your adventure at the visitor center, designed by César Manrique (more on him below) for a complete overview of the park. Here, you'll find videos and interactive maps, plus a convincing simulation of a volcanic eruption with sounds, vibrations, and even sulfur smells. You can sign up for free guided walks (book in advance) that leave from the center. Choose between a shorter trip called the Tremesana Route, covering volcanoes and traditional agriculture, or a longer five-mile jaunt that heads along the nearby coast. Make sure to wear appropriate hiking shoes. Visitors are also free to explore some trails on their own — just be sure to check the meteorological conditions at the center before heading out.
Another park attraction: Montañas del Fuego (or Fire Mountains), with nearly 100 volcanoes in varying shades of ochre. Enjoy the scenic views and trails ideal for both hiking and mountain biking. For a volcanic meal, have lunch at El Diablo, which grills meat and vegetables over a hole in the ground kept at a sultry 752 degrees Fahrenheit.
With more than 1,400 species of cacti, this is the island's largest cactus plantation and one of the world's best. It's situated in the village of Gautiza, in a former quarry used for extraction of volcanic rock and ash, allowing the plants to be laid out in a series of layered terraces. Manrique first saw potential in the unused space, and the garden was developed under his guidance, which became one of his final projects. Walk around the plants and enjoy the contrasts of color with the green shade of the plants against the volcanic background — often accompanied by sunshine and blue skies. Have lunch at the restaurant and bar, situated beneath the restored windmill, reminding visitors that cornmeal was ground here until the 19th century.
César Manrique Monuments
After a few days on Lanzarote, you'll start to notice the magnitude of César Manrique's influence on the island. The artist, architect, activist, and naturalist — among many other things — was born in the island's capital of Arrecife in 1919. He left the island as a young man to study art in Madrid and New York City, meeting influential artists along the way, before making a permanent move back in 1966. He is, perhaps, most famous for helping restrain development on Lanzarote during a time when other parts of Spain were keen to profit from high-rise constructions and mass-market tourism. Manrique pushed for Lanzarote's low-rise, traditional architectural style — and hindered billboards and large-scale developments — which is why he is often called the architect of Lanzarote.
Manrique also helped create and curate many of the island's most impressive art and cultural attractions, like Jameos del Agua, a series of lava caves, which includes a Mediterranean restaurant and an underground concert hall. On the north coast of the island, visitors can head for the clifftop structure of Mirador del Rio, designed by Manrique, with a cafe and gorgeous vistas of another volcanic island called La Graciosa.
You can learn about Manrique at two museums on Lanzarote where he lived and worked. One is aptly called the Volcano House, built by Manrique in 1968. It sits in the middle of a lava coulee, which was formed during the eruptions in the 18th century. The visitor experience takes you slowly through the two-story home, which is essentially a series of volcanic bubbles used as rooms — many designed for entertaining as this was a lively time of the artist's life — where you can peruse his travel books, photos, and letters. Palatial windows on the top floor reveal more views of the surrounding hardened lava and nearby volcanoes. The Volcano House is also a base for Manrique's contemporary art collection, including murals, designs, sculptures, and ceramics, under the César Manrique Foundation.
With his many passions, one thing kept it all together: an integration of the natural surroundings and a constant search for harmony. Manrique won many awards and hearts for his artistic and environmental work on Lanzarote, and the island would not look the same without him. His motto sums it up: art into nature, nature into art.