It must get pretty warm inside El Pinar’s wrestling arena in summer. On this cold January night, however, the small crowd that’s assembled to see local boys C.L. Concepción fight a visiting side from Gran Canaria are keeping their scarves on and their coats zipped up.
My family and I are the only foreigners here, which isn’t surprising really: it’s low season and El Hierro, the smallest and most remote of the Canary Islands, barely gets any foreign visitors at the best of times. Plus la lucha Canaria (Canarian wrestling) is not exactly well known outside of the archipelago.
We’re only here because Joseba Landaeta, our scuba diving guide for the week, mentioned he would be competing along with his brothers, William and Irving. The trio, who run dive centre Buceo El Bajon in the coastal village of La Restinga, have been wrestling since childhood – but it’s only this past year that they’ve been members of the same side.
The match has just started by the time we arrive and Joseba and his brothers are yet to fight. There’s no players’ bench as such – they and the rest of the 12-strong team sit on concrete bleachers in tracksuits, occasionally jumping up to stretch or jog on the spot.
I’d been expecting a jovial atmosphere – El Hierro is a supremely relaxed and friendly island – but the mood among both wrestlers and spectators is one of focus and determination. A group of young children are making merry along the empty rows of plastic green seating behind me, but other than that there’s little noise to distract from the grunting of the pair of luchadores in their tight embrace. Occasionally someone gets up to buy a plastic cup of red wine or a bag of crisps from a makeshift stall at the top of the arena.
Canarian wrestling originated among the Guanches, the aboriginal people who inhabited the archipelago before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 15th century. With little contact between the islands, each community developed its own distinct style, and it was only in the 1940s that Canaries-wide rules of play were imposed.
While those rules are complex, the basic idea is to get your opponent to touch the ground with a body part other than his feet, throwing him off balance by way of a range of mañas (tricks). Bouts last 90 seconds and take place in a sandy-floored, covered ring known as a terrero (such is the popularity of the sport that the tiny island of El Hierro, population 10,000, has no fewer than seven of these arenas). The match ends when every member of a team has been defeated.
I was expecting all the wrestlers to look like body builders – the Landaeta brothers are clearly fans of the gym – but actually they come in all shapes and sizes, with some of the smaller, skinnier guys scoring impressive defeats over men far larger. This is one of the defining features of the sport, it turns out: success in Canarian wrestling is more about skill than stature.
As the long-running Canarian folk choir Los Sabandeños sing in their joyful Himna a la Lucha Canaria (Hymn to Canarian Wrestling):
“El grande perdió / el chico ganó… / como ganaron Méndez y Angelito, Palmero y Camurria / frente a rivales de peso mayor” (“The big one lost / the boy won / how Méndez and Angelito, Palmero and Camurria won against heavier rivals”).
At first I find it hard to differentiate the various mañas used by the wrestlers, but I’ve got my eye in by the time Joseba’s brother William takes to the ring. He and his Gran Canarian foe keep tight hold of each other throughout (“Hand on the shorts and on the back,” warble Los Sabandeños with feeling), shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes bent double in their attempt to get a better purchase.
After a minute of tense struggles, William succeeds in flipping his opponent onto his back, a flurry of sand kicked into the air in the process. He wins the second bout easily, sending the other man head first to the floor in a move too fast for me to make out.
There’s an electronic scoreboard hanging from the ceiling but it’s not turned on. Instead, one of three stern-faced judges flips numbers on a tabletop scoreboard, a smattering of applause ringing through the terrero in recognition of William’s achievement.
He helps his opponent up, the two men hug and they cede the ring to the next pair of fighters.
Later in the match, William and his brothers take a sort of low-key victory stroll around the outside of the ring, catching coins thrown by appreciative spectators. This will be the only money they or their teammates take home from the match tonight. While some wrestlers in other leagues are able to live off their earnings, members of third division C.L. Concepción – currently El Hierro’s only wrestling team – compete for the love of it and to “keep the tradition alive,” according to Joseba.
We leave before the end of the match, tempted away by the prospect of dinner and good local wine in a warm restaurant around the corner from the increasingly chilly arena. The teams seem pretty evenly matched at the point we leave, but I find out the next morning that it was the Gran Canarians who won the day.
I ask Joseba how he’s taking it. Being beaten is always disappointing, he says, but he and the boys don’t like to dwell on things.
“Moments after losing we’re hugging and shaking hands and thinking about the next fight,” he tells me with a rueful smile. I just wish I could be there to cheer them on.
Direct flights to Tenerife from multiple UK airports with airlines including British Airways, Ryanair and easyJet, then either a short flight with Binter or a 2hrs 30 mins ferry journey with Naviera Armas to El Hierro.
Hotel Balneario Pozo de la Salud sits at the end of the beautiful El Golfo Bay, backed by high cliffs. There’s a spa and the sea views from the dining room and terrace are hard to beat.