Lanzarote: The Odd Island
BY JAMES EGAN
“If you think the Canary Islands are paradise,” said the Connecticut public-utility executive who had retired to Gran Canaria (Grand Canary) to grow bananas, “you should see our local version of hell. Go to Lanzarote.”
My friend exaggerated the Dantesque character of his neighboring island. In the Canaries, even hell has aspects of Eden. But among Lanzarote’s infernal phenomena are black-sand beaches and a peculiar green lake, a landscape as desolate as the surface of the moon, a steaming mountain so hot you can cook eggs in the earth. There is so little water that the natives use camels to pull their plows. It is so windy that they plant fig trees in deep pits for protection. The treetops are below ground level; one reaches down to pick a fig.
This extraordinary island is one of the smaller and less populous of Spain’s Canary Islands, 650 miles south of Spain in the Atlantic and only 60 miles off the African coast. They are among the world’s last penny paradises; the climate is eternal spring, give or take a few degrees winter and summer. The two most popular islands. Gran Canaria and Tenerife, are almost indistinguishable from any sunny Spanish (or Italian or French) watering place in season. There are deluxe hotels, a lazy resort life, crowds of Scandinavians, Germans, and British, fleeing their own dank climates and bulging pinkly out of their bikinis, and even a few American vacationers who have progressed beyond Florida and the Caribbean. I met one lady traveler from Chicago who had stepped off a cruise boat at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to spend two days and was so charmed she stayed for two years.
But primitive Lanzarote is almost “undiscovered,” as the tourist agents say, perhaps because it takes a rather special taste to savor some of its attractions. Volcanic in origin, the island had its last eruption only a little over two centuries ago, and it left vast stretches of land without vegetation, covered with solid black rivers of lava, and more than three hundred gaping craters; hence, the stark, uninhabited lunar landscape of much of Lanzarote. But the rest of the island is terraced and planted and dotted with white Spanish villages — a triumph of its cheerful and resourceful people over formidable natural odds.
I flew from Las Palmas, the cosmopolitan capital of Gran Canaria, to Lanzarote in less than an hour. The DC-3 was in the hands of a dashing Spanish pilot who handled the plane like a motor scooter. I was happy to put down at the tiny airport and hail Crispin, a taxi driver recommended by my banana-growing friend. Crispin spoke fragmentary English, but he was a born communicator. By the time he had driven me to Arrecife, the principal town of Lanzarote, we had established clear two-way communication, despite my limited Spanish. I learned, largely through his eloquent gestures, that he was married, that his wife was beautiful, that together they traveled as far as Seville to enter folk-dancing competitions (the Canarians are great dancers), that they had a year-old baby, and that the hotel was fine. Crispin was to escort me around for the rest of my stay — at $8.00 a day, including the car.
My room at the Parador National in Arrecife had its own balcony overlooking the glittering blue waters of the harbor. The hotel is one of the paradores, or inns, that the Spanish government has built in recent years in the provinces. They are comfortable and clean; the food is good; and they are usually picturesque. This one stood at the end of a flowering esplanade along the sea. The architecture was typically Canarian
— white stucco, red-tiled roofs, and ornately carved wooden balconies. The interior was decorated with native pottery and handwoven textiles. My room and bath, along with three enormous Spanish-size meals, cost only $7.50 a day.
Arrecife is a fishing port and market center for the fantastic agriculture of Lanzarote. I sent Crispin off to his wife and baby, while I explored the town on foot. Halfway along the esplanade leading from the Parador, I came upon a monstrous black statue, some ten feet tall, of a strange bird. It was molded of fragments of lava stuck together. The Firebird, perhaps? A local sculptor’s bad dream? I averted my eyes and went on to the pleasant town square with its dazzling white church outlined in black basaltic lava. A covey of shrill little girls in their school uniforms swooped in from a narrow side street and swirled around the church in play. In the arcaded marketplace, country women in the traditional Lanzarote costume were selling their produce. Like Victorian ladies, these farm women believe in avoiding the tropical sun. so they swathe themselves in anklelength dresses, cover their arms to the elbows with fingerless white cotton gloves, and shade their olive faces with strange headgear. The married women wear wide straw cartwheels with brims turned down to the tips of their noses; the unmarried girls smile shyly from beneath stiff white cotton bonnets. All stand straight and walk with a graceful stride.
Later, Crispin and I started out on our first tour of the island’s oddities — a forty-mile loop to the north, through what passes for the arable section of Lanzarote. With a worldembracing gesture toward the men and women working bent over in the surrounding fields, Crispin said, ”Gente amable!“ I could see they were an amiable people as they straightened up to wave, but I could not see what they had to be amiable about, since the land can be cultivated only by the most backbreakinglabor and tireless ingenuity. Less than two inches of rain a year falls on the island, so the farmers must spread every field with a six-inch layer of black volcanic cinders, which act as a condenser, extracting moisture from the cool night air. The cinders are made of crushed volcanic rock, stored in great piles, and laboriously spread like topsoil. When the pale yellow grains and green vegetable crops push up through the terraced blackcinder fields, they create gaudy striped patterns. Walls of black lava mark off the fields in precise rectangles of various sizes, turning the entire countryside into a series of gigantic Mondrian canvases laid flat on the ground.
Pointing to a camel pulling a wooden plow in one of the fields, Crispin said, “No mucho agua.“ “Not much water” is an understatement. To supplement the scanty Lanzarote supply, water for drinking and washing has to be brought in by tanker from one of the more fortunate Canary Islands. The business of supplying it is said to be a comfortable monopoly. This is why the people use camels, with their built-in water tanks, as beasts of burden. I could never quite get used to the spectacle of an angular-faced Spanish peasant, complete with beret and baggy pants, driving a supercilious camel instead of a donkey.
“No agua — mucho vino,“ Crispin commented, tilting an imaginary bottle to his lips, as we passed by some curious vineyards. True, the cultivation of the grape is another agricultural oddity of Lanzarote. Because a prevailing northeast wind blows all year around, the vineyard workers have to nurture the young grape vines with loving care. I noted a series of short semicircular walls of lava rock built stone on stone by hand, all facing northeast, each sheltering a vine. They described a pattern of parabolic curves stretching across the fields like so many arched black eyebrows.
The fruit growers protect their fig and orange trees from the wind, too, in pits dug deep in the earth. I stopped by the road and peered down at trees laden with figs and oranges, full-grown but still well below ground level. I stretched my arm down and fished up a fig for myself. “Mucho labor,” Crispin said, putting it succinctly. However much work it takes to produce them, Lanzarote figs and oranges are sweet, and Lanzarote grapes make a sound wine that is shipped all over the Canary Islands.
My introduction to hell proper did not come until I circled the southern part of Lanzarote. This
sixty-mile excursion took us through a tumbled volcanic wasteland, in marked contrast to the cultivated areas. Even the resourceful Lanzarotes could not cope with this desert. Six continuous years of eruptions, starting in 1740, so obliterated life here that nothing has grown for more than two centuries. Hundreds of volcanoes blew their tops, leaving empty craters everywhere. Streams of lava turned into black petrified rivers, which today cut wide swaths across miles of stony rubble. I asked Crispin why the entire population had not deserted the island in the course of this holocaust. “Impossible,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. The King of Spain had passed a law forbidding it, so the people stayed captive and worked the land that was left.
At this uninhabitable end of the island, I had arranged to be met by a camel and driver, on loan from the fields, to ride up to a thousand-foot mountain lookout. Gazing down from the rest house at the top, I got an astronaut’s preview of the moon — cratered desolation as far as I could see, a gray and black landscape with rusty streaks like dried blood. I shivered in the wind. This was a reasonable facsimile of hell.
A swaying camel ride brought me back to the car, and Crispin and I drove on to Fire Mountain. The heap of rock and gravel was quiet but ominous. We climbed up a hundred yards or so. Now I could feel the heat underfoot; we were close to the earth’s bubbling innards. Steam rose from fissures in a nearby ravine. The place looked like a set put together by a Hollywood special-effects man for a horror movie. Crispin shoveled a shallow hole in the gravel and stuffed in some dried brush and two eggs. Soon the brush burst into flame. Some minutes later, with a showmanlike flourish, he extracted the eggs from the earth — hardcooked. The temperature, I learned, is 140 degrees at a depth of four inches; and at two feet it is 460 degrees — hot enough to burn the handle off a shovel.
Next stop on our southern excursion was El Golfo, an arm of the sea surrounded by cliffs of black lava which had run down to the water and abruptly frozen in grotesque shapes. The sea was bordered with a beach of coal-black sand. Here was a sheltered, hospitable corner of hell — a sort of way station for minor sinners, and a fine place to eat a picnic lunch provided by the Parador. We sat on a ledge and ate cheese sandwiches, drank beer, and threw black pebbles into the sea.
Then, as if I had not seen enough of nature’s practical jokes, Crispin led me around a promontory to a landlocked lagoon at the foot of the cliffs. “Lago verde,” he said. Yes, it was deep green. A marine plant does it, Crispin told me. But if he had said that it is dyed every night by little green devils out of Hieronymus Bosch. I would not have been surprised.
My mood was a bit bleak. Along the way back to Arrecife, however, we again passed a few cultivated patches of land, which reminded me of the islanders’ indomitable spirit. A gentle fog was rolling in from the Atlantic, bringing life-giving moisture to the black cinder-topped fields. We made a last stop at a high, rocky headland overlooking the sea, where a single farmhouse stood shrouded in mist, one side windowless against the wind. As we climbed up the headland to peer over the edge at the water a hundred feet below, a little girl from the farmhouse appeared out of the mist. She was about seven; her eyes were as big and brown as saucers of Seville lusterware; and she held a fistful of pink and yellow carnations, which she offered me with an angelic smile. I thanked her, reaching in my pocket for a coin, but Crispin shook his head. I found some caramelos instead; she took them and popped one gravely into her mouth.
Flowers coaxed from cinders and shared with a stranger — this was my final impression of Lanzarote, an island that refuses to be damned, after all. As we left, the little girl waved with her palm toward her, Spanish-style, so it looked as if she was beckoning. She stood on the headland waving until we could no longer see her in the mist.