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.

In the parador’s rustic dining room, we savor a Canary Island stew of pork, beef, cabbage, squash, garbanzos, string beans and corn and a tasty conejo al salmorejo, a rabbit dish served with papas arrugadas — salted potatoes in their skins — followed by a custard flan.

Suddenly, off go the lights. Candles are lit. Ah, romance. We adjourn to a fireplace, where we sip a Spanish brandy.

A brilliant morning sun greets us on this “island of eternal spring.” We pick up maps, pack a lunch and make the arduous, all-day climb up a cindery stairway to heaven. From the peak of Teide, the islands of Gran Canaria, La Palma and El Hierro appear as specks on the vast Atlantic and the Guanche god Magec shines down.

After a sound sleep and a fine buffet breakfast — steaming coffee, juices, goat cheese, serano ham and fruits and breads — we follow in the footsteps of earlier guests, astronaut Neil Armstrong and Spain’s King Juan Carlos, and hike an old shepherds’ trail that makes a horseshoe curve through a maze of giant fingerlike rocks. High above are the snow-encrusted cracks of the crater’s rim.

Our path takes us toward Montana Blanca, passing below rocks pocked with caves, through an obsidian-bright lava field dotted with moss, and on to a giant basin of iron-colored rocks and ridges. Guanches often called caves home in lower altitudes, but not here.

At an overlook, we encounter a smiling, dusty elf, a 76-year-old German trekker with her hiking stick. She hikes daily to maintain her health and spirits and says, “It’s good to go and look. I love the crater’s colors. These mountains are my Picasso.”

The park is crisscrossed by 21 hiking trails, but it’s time to take a 75-minute car ferry to the isolated island of La Gomera, a rocky fortress of difficult terrain whose cliffs fall sharply into the sea. We disembark at San Sebastian, called Hipalan by the Guanches, where we spot our destination, the white-walled parador perched high on a cliff above the port and its 6,000 inhabitants.

On Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, he stopped here on Sept. 8, 1492, to take on provisions, timber and water. Near the harbor stands a Gothic tower, the Torre del Conde, where Beatriz de Bobadilla, fabled lover of Columbus, barricaded herself in 1488 during an island revolt. Not far away are the church where Columbus worshipped and the house where he is said to have stayed, which today houses New World antiquities. Of all the towns Columbus visited, laid-back San Sebastian is the best preserved.

The graceful Parador Nacional Conde de la Gomera, built in 1969 as a Canarian-style plantation house, offers breathtaking views across the water to Mount Teide and down on the town’s white-walled dwellings with terra-cotta roofs. At the parador’s entrance, a shield depicts Beatriz’s family tree.

Beatriz was King Ferdinand’s favorite lover. His wife, Queen Isabella, was not amused. She forced the hot-blooded beauty to marry the murderous Count of Gomera and exiled her here, where, after the count’s murder, Beatriz fell into Columbus’ embrace.

Shortly before the discoverer’s visit, Hernan Peraza, Beatriz’s husband, fell for a Guanche beauty, Yballa, enraging his wife and her Guanche suitor, Hautacuperche, who killed Peraza. Another version has Peraza seizing five Guanche women for his officers during a wild party. In any event, a bloodbath ensued as the Guanches laid siege to tiny San Sebastian and its garrison.

On the neighboring island of Gran Canaria, a Spanish officer, Pedro de Vera, learned of the uprising, assaulted Gomera and ordered all Guanches hanged, impaled, decapitated or drowned. The women were parceled out to his militiamen or sold, along with their children, into slavery.

Historically, Gomera has been home to conquistadors, scoundrels, pirates and lovers as well as Guanches. We sip sherry in the parador’s library and read that the Phoenicians, Persians and Carthaginians all knew of the Canaries. Pliny the Elder records an expedition to these Fortunate Islands during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Ptolemy fixed his antique meridian, 0 degrees latitude, nearby, where it remained until it was changed to Greenwich in 1890.

Gomera, whose highest peak is 5,000 feet, lies about 180 miles from the African coast and enjoys a subtropical climate. It is the only Canary Island where volcanoes have not erupted for 2 million years. Instead, erosion has gouged out deep ravines amid marine cliffs and rock pinnacles. More than 400 species of flora abound in many climatic zones.

Our first outing takes us to the central plateau, where we enter a Tertiary laurel forest, a World Heritage Site. This subtropical evergreen cloud forest is some of the planet’s most ancient forestland. Similar forests flourished in the Mediterranean basin eons ago.

We park on a cobbled side road and hike down into an otherworldly forest out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” Moss and lichen flourish in the dense, fern-covered forest as the path snakes over the damp earth. Small, brush-covered paths split off, perfect for mountain goats. At clearings, distant pueblos appear as white dots far below.

In this netherworld, we reflect on the Guanches’ disdain of gore and death, yet they mummified their dead kings and nobles. Their embalmers, who were treated as untouchables, wrapped the mummified remains in goat skins, up to 15 for a king, and erected stone walls around the burials in inaccessible caves. Once Guanche mummies numbered in the thousands, but only a handful remain, mainly in museum collections.

Each sunrise brings magnificent hikes in the little-changed natural world of the Guanches. At Alto de Garajonay, we look out on distant mesas, terraced fields and neighboring islands. On the Peraza hike, we spend a day following a deep ravine that falls away thousands of feet. After lunch, we begin our arduous climb back up to the car.

In the evening, we relax in the parador’s gardens, which blossom under the loving care of Domingo Danas, 64, a father of five who has labored here for 34 years. As Mr. Danas says, “This beautiful, tranquil garden is my true home.”

Here, amid a profusion of carnations, bougainvillea, poinsettias and cactus, stand mango, acacia, orange, lemon and 15-year-old dragon trees. The dragos are famed for their resin, which looks like coagulated blood and was sold by the Romans as a cosmetic.

One day as we rest at poolside, I write: “This aerie approaches perfection on a sunny day. Hawks ride the thermals above the pool. Below, the town carries on its business. But there are no cares here on Mount Olympus.”

I continue my studies of the Guanches, learning that the rights of succession were passed through the mother, but when famines threatened them, infanticide was practiced. Then it was the girls who were sacrificed, never the boys.

Soon it was time for the two-hour passage to La Palma or “la isla bonita” (the beautiful island). Our ship takes us past isolated Gomera villages perched high on sheer cliffs. Footpaths circle down to them. We stand on deck, enjoying the air until we disembark at La Palma’s capital, Santa Cruz.

The Guanches, who were divided into battling clans, called this bay Timibucar and the area around it Tedote. At the time of the conquest, tiny La Palma had 12 independent Guanche clans or kingdoms.

This northernmost of the western Canary Islands was annexed by Castile in 1493, ending the bloody defeat of the Guanches. With its rich forests, the island became a shipbuilding center. In the 16th century; Santa Cruz became the most important port in the Spanish empire after Seville and Antwerp.

We drive to where I recall the parador stood, but its windows are boarded and its once pleasant street is a noisy, dirty harbor boulevard. Luckily, a sign leads us to Spain’s newest parador, a short drive into the mountains, where it rests in a serene setting backed by majestic peaks and fronted by rolling Atlantic swells.

The parador is a perfect base from which to explore the island and is only a 20-minute drive to La Caldera de Taburiente National Park, the last refuge of the Guanches. We wind upward to Cumbrecita, where we look out on a crater six miles across, whose awesome walls drop 6,000 feet.

Here, the invading Spaniards could not dislodge the Guanches, but the honorable Guanche chieftain was induced to come down for peace talks and was ambushed by the Spaniards. The era of the independent Guanches ended, followed by slavery and their slow disappearance.

Crenelated shafts of rocks shoot up and fall away into tree-lined valleys of lime-green Canarian pines. Landslides cut trails that disappear above sheer cliffs. Hundreds of lava spires point toward the sun from the caldera’s walls. An early snow remains in crevasses.

Around a bend a German hiker warns us: “The path narrows ahead. The drop is 1,500 feet. Best stop here.” We turn off, crossing crude wooden bridges arcing steep gorges. Chocolate, rust and buff-colored rock pinnacles tower over us.

One day we drive to Mazo to visit the handicraft center at the Escuela Insular de Artesania and the centuries-old Church of San Blas, and we stop at the Cueva de Belmaco, home to the vanished Benahoare, a Guanche people. The ancient inhabitants left behind four sets of engravings on cave walls whose meaning has perplexed scholars since their discovery in 1752. The rest is crumbled rock, dust and a confusing mass of rubble. The spirit of the Guanches is not found here.

We push on to the newly active volcanoes of Fuencaliente, where we park near a sign that states: “The Fuencaliente Town Hall will not be responsible for any loss of personal belongings or cars.” This is not far-fetched. The lot sits on the rim of a volcano that blew in 1949. Farther on stands another crater that erupted in 1979, creating Spain’s newest landmass.

Our last day finds us hiking in the sunshine through pines with lime-green needles up to the 6,000-foot Pico de la Nieve, or snow peak, where we pass the isle’s famed observatory. The area is called an astronomical preserve. Here, in a crystal-clear arc of sky, European astronomers study heavenly phenomena from star bursts to the expansion of the universe.

With its far-ranging views of rocks, gorges, calderas and silent forests, it seems like the perfect spot to say goodbye to the vanished Guanches.

• • •

A fine time to visit Tenerife is in February during carnival. Tenerife’s carnival is said to be second only to that held in Rio de Janeiro

Airlines serving the Canaries include Iberia and Spanair and other international carriers.

The islands’ climate is called an eternal spring whose temperatures warm a bit in summer. The busiest time for the Canarian paradors is from mid-October to mid-April. The English and Germans come in winter, the Spaniards in summer. As author James Michener wrote, “The noun parador is derived from the verb parar, to stop. A parador is therefore a stopping place or inn — and in the opinion of travelers they are the best in the world.” For information, visit, or

The Museo de la Naturaleza y El Hombre in Santa Cruz de Tenerife houses several Guanche mummies, skulls and an array of Guanche artifacts.

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