With the toe of my boot, I scrape away a thin layer of coarse gravel and lean down to pick up a handful of the exposed pebbles. I let go immediately as they burn my fingers – the ground I walk on is too hot to handle. I shouldn’t be surprised, having just watched a guide dig a small hole and toss dry brush into it. The brush smoldered about a minute before bursting spontaneously into flame.
What did I expect, standing atop the shoulder of a live volcano? For one thing, not quite this intimacy with its intense heat. At least my feet won’t get cold.
Lanzarote is one of the seven Canary Islands, and although the archipelago lies less than 80 miles off Africa, it is part of Spain. All the islands are volcanic summits, and neighboring Tenerife’s El Teide volcano is the highest mountain in Spain. Lanzarote’s may not match 12,198-foot Tiede, but the island’s volcanic history is fully evident. And it’s had more impact on its human inhabitants.
In fact, we discover that nearly everything on Lanzarote is closely connected to volcanoes, from its world-famed Malvasia wineries to the remarkable legacy bequeathed by Spanish artist Cesar Manrique, who used its lava tubes to frame his brilliant architecture.
In Your Bucket Because
- You can get up-close and personal with a live volcano
- You’ll be inspired at how resourceful, creative people have forged extraordinary beauty out of desolation
- It’s the only place you can see seven major architectural works by artist Cesar Manrique
- Good for travelers who love nature, even at its extremes
Bus Tour into Sci-Fi Land
But my attention today is riveted on this mountain of Islote de Hilario, percolating under my feet. We began at the top with a bus tour, the only way to see most of Timanfaya National Park’s tortured lava landscapes up close.
The multi-lingual ‘Route of the Volcanoes’ winds through a bizarre scene of twisted rock in surreal colors, like a sci-fi movie stage set designed by a madman. In places the rock seems to have been stirred by a giant spoon as it hardened. Jagged lava fields called malpais – badland — look like fields of petrified black sponge.
Occasionally the bus stops so we can peer into fissures and volcanic tubes. These giant bubbles formed in molten lava when gases from subterranean explosions were trapped beneath the quicker-cooling surface crust. Still-hot lava continued to flow underneath, sometimes emptying into the sea to leave long lava caves. Elsewhere on the island we would find these hollow tubes, called jameos, housing sunken gardens, a restaurant, living spaces, even a concert hall. But here they remain just as the cataclysmic eruptions of the 1730s left them.
Back at Islote de Hilario, another guide pours water down an upright pipe, jumping back as it spews forth a geyser of boiling water. No wonder those pebbles burned my fingers – just beneath the surface the ground temperature is 284F degrees.
At the summit, glass-walled El Diablo restaurant overlook Montanas del Fuego (mountains of fire), and beside it chicken sizzles over a wide pit. The heat source is the volcanic fire in the belly of the mountain on which I am standing. How could we not stay to a lunch grilled on nature’s own barbecue, with a glass of white wine from the nearby black wasteland of La Geria?
The Six-Year Eruption
Lanzarote hasn’t always been like this. Until 1730, it was covered in lush gardens, fruitful orchards and vineyards watered by clear springs. Shakespeare praised its Malvasia wines, favored by the royal courts of Europe, and the island provided food for the entire archipelago. Then came the world’s longest recorded volcanic eruption, lasting from 1730 until 1736, when mountains rose and collapsed, lava flowed in fiery cataracts, vapors condensed into boiling rain, fish cooked in the sea and dozens of new craters appeared. A century later another wave of eruptions made the total about 300 on the 307-square-mile island.
After lunch I see how they grow grapes in this rainless land, whose old springs were filled by lava. Returning farmers had to innovate, so they dug wide pits in the volcanic ash, planted a single vine in each, then covered the surface with black volcanic sand to hold the dew each night.
The Genius of Cesar Manrique
Working with what nature left them became a fine art, led by Cesar Manrique. North of the vineyards, he built his home inside the earth, carved from a cluster of small jameos, as unreal as the jagged black stone landscape. Inspired by a fig tree sprouting from one of these lava sinkholes, he made each jameo a sunken room, painted white to reflect sunlight from above. In the largest is a swimming pool, and volcanic tubes form covered hallways between rooms. To the north, he turned a pair of larger jameos into a terraced garden framing a saltwater pool that slopes into the long, deep underwater part of the tube. The world’s record for aqua-cave diving was set here — by someone more intrepid than I. Instead, I dive into a bowl of giant local mussels at the restaurant Manrique designed to perch on a terrace inside one end of the cave.
A crater at Charco de los Clicos collapsed into the sea, leaving a bowl of volcanic layers eroded into swirling patterns. Below on the beach are peridots, semi-precious green stones that locals drill to string in necklaces. We collect a handful, plus a larger stone also from a volcanic bomb thrown out in the eruption. Black on the outside, its entire center is peridot crystals. Sure beats clamshells as a beach comber’s prize.
Fly to the Canary Islands from the US via connections at Madrid or UK airports. Inexpensive short flights connect the seven islands; most visitors to Lanzarote also take the 30-minute car ferry to Fuerteventura. Roads are good and the islands are easy to get around by rented car (reserve ahead to get the best choice). The Canaries are popular with British travelers, so English is widely spoken. For more information, visit www.spain.info