Tenerife; searching for a soul and finding a few surprises

A few days in Tenerife and it didn’t fail to live up to expectations. If, like me, you believe that travelling to foreign climes is about immersion in another culture, experiencing local character or enjoying cuisine and places that are different, this is not for you. Of course, on the largest island in the group some parts do remain unspoiled and they are frequently visually stunning but, in its headlong rush to attract and exploit the tourist, Tenerife’s identity and history have been significantly obliterated by timeshare apartments, hotels and shopping malls. There were some pleasant surprises tucked away in a destination that attracts twelve millions sun-seekers annually but, for the most part, it’s sad and breathtakingly awful.

Our rural retreat on the banana plantation was located in the north-west corner of the island; an area that has the least tourist development and which consequently retains the last remnants of the pre-Thomas Cook Islas Canarias. But we’d decided to take it slowly and see something of the south side first. The convenient overnight stay near the airport was in San Miguel de Abona, an urbanización comprising holiday rentals, a golf course, clubs, retirement villas, timeshares and shopping facilities. Oh, and several Indian restaurants.

Don't panic, we're here to help.

Have you ever read reviews of hotels on TripAdvisor or similar sites? As most people are only motivated to set the record straight when they have a grievance it has always been enjoyable to read about hapless holidaymakers blaming hotels for swollen feet, holes in the road, insects on the lawn or surly staff that don’t acknowledge a birthday. These days you can’t always trust the reviews as there is more than a little suspicion that ‘good’ reviews have been planted. They can, however, give you some insight into what to expect and so it was at the Vincci Hotel Golf, where we’d planned to crash. One positive ‘reviewer’ has photographed the newly-made bed, the bathroom and poolside sunbeds, which was useful if completely unbelievable, but less convincing was another eager contributor who enthused about the sight and sound of aircraft passing overhead on approach to the adjacent airport. Nonetheless, the hotel was clean and comfortable if a little run-down. In true Spanish tradition builders were sanding and varnishing the decking around the roped-off pool but I guess they have to do it at some time. When I first went to Spain I was fascinated by how inept the maintenance work was and how low the standard. Now, a career in construction and too many years to mention later, I’m left scratching my head at why that hasn’t changed. Pepe was not only sanding down the decking in a wind that blew the dust into the pool but was also splashing varnish onto newly-painted white walls. The electrician attending to the poolside lights had the air of someone unaware that touching two wires at once might kill you and I suspect he was the guy who wired the telephones into the rooms; it wasn’t until I had paid for access to the internet and plugged in the cable they kindly provided that I was told by the reception staff that ‘the signal didn’t reach up as far as the eighth floor’. I didn’t see mention of that on TripAdvisor.

Bargains, offers and mementos - but not of Spain

The perpetual dilemma suffered by the expatriates we saw in Tenerife is how to live in a foreign country without it  being, well, foreign. After all, in seeking an all-year tan and a cheap lifestyle there are so many things to avoid quite apart from the smell of the sewers – language, poor driving, that funny food, strange habits like keeping out of the sun and those little dark houses with small windows. Developers, being a clever sort, know about these things so rows of speculative ‘villas’ and apartments are built in the international ‘turret and pergola’ style, simultaneously presenting eye-wateringly poor design with the promise of a utopian lifestyle to an undiscerning clientele.

If you can't trust the spelling can you trust the service?

Our surroundings reflected just that; the accommodation cramming the urbanización Del Sur had at its centre, the heart of the development no doubt, the shopping plaza – a parched and shadeless citadel holding fast against all and everything Canarian. This soulless expanse of cheap bars, restaurants, empty units and peripheral expatriate services was as depressing as the couples wandering slowly through it with miniature dogs, cheap wine and cheddar cheese slices. With the developer long gone – I couldn’t help wondering if he had retired not to his own place in the sun but to a house in Hampshire or the Cotswolds – the paint was beginning to peel, the roads and footpaths were cracking and the ‘for rent’ signs in the empty shop units were bleaching in the sun. The area was livelier in the evening, but there was nothing Spanish about what was on offer – Asian favourites, tandoori specials and English beer. There was one Spanish outlet that sold souvenirs to holidaying northern Europeans; the owner was British. This was a microcosm of awfulness.

A little research provided us with the details of a local restaurant at a pretty village in the mountains called Valle San Lorenzo. The Mesón Era Las Mozas is well off the beaten track in the back streets and served a late lunch in a shaded courtyard. It is patronised by local people and survives because the food is excellent. We drank Canarian red wine – Tacoronte-Acentejo – from the oldest wine-producing area on the island and which is surprisingly good, local ham and cheese, a hot dish of beans cooked with pork and a vast salad. The drive takes you out of the tourist areas and up into the lower slopes of the mountains so your journey has the added advantages of spectacular views, greener surroundings and cooler air.

None of that foreign stuff.

In the evening we drove to Los Abrigos, a traditional but now slightly fake fishing harbour a few kilometres to the east of the hotel. We didn’t know that we could have walked along the rocky shoreline to it. It holds a few little restaurants, each claiming to sell the best local fish, but it was the temperature rather than the ambience that made it pleasant. Again the Canarian wine was excellent; a chilled bottle of Tierra de Frontos blanco from Granadilla de Abona was near perfect. The view took in hotels and apartments stretching away to the Costa Del Silencio and, beyond, Playa De Los Cristianos; inland and between unfinished concrete buildings that might be apartment blocks or might be hotels there was more development encroaching on the backdrop of the mountains. There was a pervading sense of sadness about it all – a feeling that perhaps the island had lost its soul and was still in mourning.

Tomorrow we’d head for the bananas.


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About Barrowboy

Architect, artist, writer, conservationist, birder, traveller and bon vivant.
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5 Responses to Tenerife; searching for a soul and finding a few surprises

  1. dragojac says:

    I enjoyed reading this and am looking forward to reading your next blogs to see how you’ve come to the conclusion that ‘Tenerife’s identity and history have been significantly obliterated by timeshare apartments, hotels and shopping malls’.

    There were no settlements of any significance on the south coast of Tenerife until the resorts were developed, so no destruction of identity there.

    Most Canarios historically have lived in the metropolis area and northern slopes where culture and sense of community is a strong as it has ever been – ask a Canario.

    Like I said looking forward to reading more.

    • barrowboy21 says:

      Thanks for your comment, which I appreciated receiving. You clearly know the island better than I do and so will have a view that doesn’t stem, like mine, from a fairly short visit. I don’t take issue with what you say but I did gain a clear impression that there was concern for identity going forward. Perhaps I should say that my conclusion isn’t just based on a couple of nights in a nightmarish development at San Miguel. I spent the majority of the time in the Garachico area where I met and spoke to Canarians. I found that part of the island enchanting and everywhere the Canarian people as friendly and welcoming as any I’ve met anywhere in Europe, probably more so. In these respects I readily understand why you’ve come to love the place. But five million visitors can’t have zero effect. There’s no question in my mind, however, that there is concern amongst those I spoke to that the island is losing its identity and they cited the roadwork and port developments at Granadilla as being symptoms of a government that is focused on a fairly narrow range of putative benefits. Agriculture is important still but now represents only about 1.8% of the economy and is a low priority for grant application from the EU. Whilst substantial funding has been applied for to ‘beautify’ parts of Santa Cruz De Tenerife, a significantly smaller amount is being allocated on Tenerife in rural areas for ‘improving’ agricultural buildings. As someone who’s been involved in managing international aid I am still scratching my head trying to work out the meaning of what has been applied for and to what use it will be put in justification; one could be cynical. When I asked people I was with in Garachico what benefits they had received when the fabric of the town was ‘improved’ with paving, civic landscaping and urban cosmetics they couldn’t come up with a single answer. But it’s a lovely place to visit on a day-trip from Puerto.

      I spent my last day on the Adaje coast as I wanted to see what it was like first-hand and spoke at length to a chap who was born locally and now works in a resort there. He told me that he’d grown up in a small village that had now been lost to the accommodation, hotels and leisure facilities. He understood clearly that whilst his prospects as a youngster weren’t that far-reaching he and the people he grew up with were largely left no option but to take up the opportunities presented by the new development, what meant tourism or construction. His family had fished for generations but fishing now presented neither options nor prospects. His village wasn’t a significant settlement, so I agree in some respects with what you write, but it did have history and has now been erased. The point I make is that there appear to have been no efforts made to maintain that microcosm of Tenerife it being assumed that the economic benefits from tourist development will suffice. And people survive so he has a job and new accommodation. But no boat.

      A common theme than ran through conversations in the north and on the Adaje was the feeling that the local people and their interests are now some way from the front of the queue when it comes to government priorities. Coupled with an aging population, reducing options in rural areas, an increasing problem with water resources [our friends on the banana plantation could only survive with federal government subsidies] and an apparent view that income from tourism or a major port will cure all ills I do believe identity is in danger of being lost.

  2. dragojac says:

    I can’t argue with much of what you say is taking place here, but I don’t go along with your conclusion.

    Tourism isn’t the curse of Tenerife. If anything it has improved the lifestyle (materialistically if not spiritually) of many Canarios who, prior to its rise, were terribly poor, eking out hard existences as peasant farmers and fishermen – in the arid southern badlands anyway. The development in that area may have changed people’s lives, but it hasn’t impacted on the Tinerfeños cultural identity as much as you may believe.

    Most Canarios still live where they historically always have done; in cities, towns and villages where most tourists rarely set foot. In these places the sense of community and cultural identity is incredibly strong, as strong as I’ve witnessed anywhere. It’s one of the ingredients that makes living here (in the north) so rewarding. In fact it’s only in relatively recent years (post tourism) that they’ve embraced their Guanche heritage and that has strengthened this belief that they are different and unique. It’s not always beneficial as it can lead to an inward looking and protectionist culture. However, it would be folly to suggest tourism hasn’t had an impact. But to point the finger at it for a loss of identity is to avert the gaze from what the real problems on Tenerife are and that is political mismanagement both at Cabildo and local authority level.

    Like you say, this need to build pointless ports and road networks that are unnecessary is perplexing. But in some ways it’s an extension of the way many Canarios are handling the relatively new found wealth brought by tourism – spending their money on things that are shiny and new. Look at that tunnel just outside of Garachico. Millions spent on it, but why? I travel the road often and it was rarely busy, except during fiestas (cultural identity). Like many projects it is a scandalous waste of money.

    But who is ultimately responsible, who votes for the parties that are riding roughshod over ‘the people’s’ wishes? It hasn’t been tourists and it certainly isn’t extranjeros. It has been the very people that complain that politicians are ignoring them. And the name of the political party that is the biggest culprit? Coalición Canaria. Voted for because they have the Canaria in the name (okay that’s simplistic, but a friend did vote for them for that reason – that plus the mayor did their mother a favour).

    As for farmers needing subsidies – is that really exclusive to Tenerife? Industries change, evolve or die out; just because Tenerife’s main one happens to now be tourism doesn’t make it different from what has happened everywhere else. But historically they tend to put their eggs in one basket – it’s been boom and bust for centuries.

    Sometimes a romanticized notion of Tenerife pre-tourism can be painted. Take your man in Adeje. His family may have survived from fishing, but it would have been a hard life, especially on that coast. It’s not so long ago that fishermen were living in caves around that area – some still do in other parts of the island. Northerners considered the people down there as very poor. There wasn’t even a road connecting the south with the more prosperous and more populated north until the 1940s. But would he really want to return to those days, or is he just suffering from a bout of rosy nostalgia? Even now in many places on Tenerife people do still live in the manner he described.

    Problems? Yes. Tourism a factor? Of course, but not the only one. Loss of identity and culture? Absolutely not. This comment too long? – A definite yes.

    By the way, why on earth did a guy who clearly does his research opt for somewhere like Golf del Sur…oops I meant San Miguel de Abona?

    • barrowboy21 says:

      Thanks for taking an interest in this and for the long comment – it’s appropriate and I’m grateful. In hearing your views and in view of further posts that will go up soon I think there’s not a lot of space between us. I bow to superior knowledge on the subject of course; my offering is not a treatise on all things Canario, it’s just my travel journal. Er, and as for being in San Miguel, – Tenerife was a compromise; I’m waiting to start an impending assignment in Buenos Aires and Mission Control wanted to feel the sun on her back. As I was only prepared to stay in the north if we visited SM simply meant that we’d avoid driving across in the dark. At least I know where to get Chicken Masala in the north Atlantic now! 🙂

  3. dragojac says:

    Travel journal perhaps, but there’s greater depth and a grasp of the blight of Tenerife in your blog than is often found in the locally printed English language rags.

    I have to admit that at first I thought the blog was going be one of the usual ‘Tenerife is Blackpool in the sun’, albeit a far more entertaining one than normal, but your reply to my comment soon put me straight on that.

    Anyway, from now on no more War and Peace sized comments. I’ll simply settle back and enjoy tales about visiting Tenerife that are refreshingly different.

    And if you ever find yourself back on Tenerife and MC wants the sun, El Médano is close in geographical terms, but light years apart in every other way from Chicken Masala land.

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