- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2005

One of the planet’s most mysterious people once inhabited the Islas Afortunadas, or the Fortunate Islands. We attempt to enter their lost world in three of the Canary Islands, not in the museums, but in those magical parts of the islands that remain relatively unchanged, the islands’ national parks.

We land at Tenerife, the most majestic of the Canary Islands, rent a car and head off into the night for our room in an isolated 9,000-foot volcanic crater. The road unfurls like a dream as we twist and turn along serpentine mountain roads that cut through majestic pine forests. At midnight, we make a sharp turn, then look down on an orange frappe moon.

Europeans, who landed in the 15th century, found tan-skinned, powerfully built people, blue- or gray-eyed, with blond hair flowing to their waists. These rangy islanders became known as Guanches — guan (man) and che (white mountain), a reference to the snowcapped volcano looming ahead.

They have intrigued anthropologists because blond natives are a rarity. Some claim they are related to the Berbers of neighboring Morocco, who share the same physical characteristics when unmixed with the Arab majority. Isolated in their islands, the Guanches were prevented from mixing sexually with other races until the arrival of the Europeans.

Others link them to the Cro-Magnon types who inhabited Portugal around 8000 B.C. A few propose that the Canaries are the lofty volcanic peaks of mythical sunken Atlantis and that the Guanches are their descendants. Another theory has them descended from viking raiding parties.

The Guanches (pronounced go-wan-chays) fought fiercely with primitive weapons, lances, rocks and an itenique, a stone wrapped in animal hide and wielded like a mace. The term Guanche came to be used for all of the people of the seven Canary Islands, although not all fit the description of those encountered on Tenerife.

Rabbits race across our headlight beams. At last, in a silent lunar landscape, we sight our destination, the parador in Las Canadas, the world’s largest crater with a mountain rising from its center. Above it soars snowcapped, 12,500-foot Mount Teide.

On Tenerife, the Guanches worshipped a god called Achaman, associated with the sun that they called Magec. They held that Hades was in this caldera, ruled over by the god of evil, Guayota.

Above, glittering Orion hunts in diamond brilliance, and the Big Dipper is hanging upside down. The heavens appear close enough to touch. We leave the cool night air, awake the night porter and fall into bed.

When we awake, we’re surrounded by 170,000 years of geological fantasy. Above us is snowcapped Mount Teide, a tan cinder cone with serrated black volcanic flanks that towers over the national park and dwarfs our hotel, the Parador de Teide, which is run by the Spanish government.

Las Canadas, called the “caldera” or kettle in Spanish, helps form the mountainous spine of Tenerife. A short walk away stand giant volcanic dikes that twist high above the crater floor, and the Roque de Cinchado that stands like a tortured golf ball on a weathered tee. Neither building nor tree is in sight, just exotic high-altitude plants that cling to the volcanic cinder floor.

Our hike through the crater follows a path that descends into a miniature Grand Canyon filled with rocks of every conceivable shape — arches, pinnacles, towers and walls; at one spot, aptly called the cathedral, the rocks spiral skyward.

As our boots crunch on the volcanic rock, we’re reminded of the primitive existence the Guanches led — simple farming, hunting and gathering, but amid nature’s grandeur. Their ancestors apparently came by sea with domesticated animals, goats, pigs and dogs. They drank milk, used butter and savored some fruits. Their staple was toasted barley or gofio, a brown, tasteless dish still served.

The Guanches detested the sea and never sailed it, leading some to think they were brought on ships by early seafaring peoples. Their women made pottery and decorated it with vegetable dyes. Implements were fashioned of wood, stone and bone; jewelry from shells and beads; and tunics and vests from goatskin leather or plaited rushes.

Tired, but exhilarated, we climb out from the caldera, slipping and sliding on the cinders. We’re rewarded on the parador’s terrace with cool Dorado beers in iced mugs and munchy pistachios as the setting sun turns the mountain, called “Papa Teide” by Canarios, crimson.

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