Parque Nacional del Teide

The Canary Islands, like the Hawaiian Islands, were each built as they passed over a volcanic hotspot in the ocean floor. Mount Teide is the third highest volcanic structure in the world after Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Some of the Canary Islands volcanoes are still very active, as shown by the 2021 eruption on La Palma.

Mount Teide, the volcano on Tenerife, is fairly quiet, but when you get near the top, you realise things are still happening there.

At 3,718 metres (12,198 feet) above sea level and more than 7,500 metres (24,606 feet) above the ocean floor, the peak of Teide is the highest point of Tenerife, of any Spanish territory, and in the Atlantic Ocean. Its location, size, looming silhouette in the distance and its snowy landscape give it personality. The original settlers considered Teide a god and the volcano was a place of worship.

I only made it almost to the top because you need a permit for those last few metres, but I didn’t know that until too late, so I had to make do with the tourist route.

Mount Teide is easily accessible from any of the resorts on Tenerife. There is a road going past it, and plenty of parking space. For those of us who prefer not to drive when on vacation, there are also buses – two each way a day, so you take one out there in the morning, and catch the other going back in the afternoon, whichever end of the island you are staying on.

Once you’ve parked, or got off the bus, the next stage of the journey is by teleferico – cable car. You can do it on foot, though I don’t recommend that if you have to be back in time to catch the bus. The teleferico runs continuously from 9am to 4pm, unless it gets too windy. It’s a popular tourist destination, and even in late October, we had to queue for a while to get tickets.

On the way up (and again when coming down) you get wonderful views of the surrounding lava fields – different colours indicating different types of volcanic activity over the millennia. Various shades of red dominate, but there are also browns and blacks.

Cocooned in the cable car, you don’t appreciate the effect of altitude until you step outside at the top. Suddenly it is cold. Very cold at times. Even with the steam coming out of the sulphur vents, it’s hard to feel warm. Quite a few visitors were heading back to the teleferico within five minutes because they were inadequately dressed.

A sign tells you which way to go – if you have a permit for the top, you go one way, otherwise take one of the two trails to lookout points. Safe paths have been made in the rocks, but they are still uneven. And you need to walk slowly. The thin air can make you feel light-headed, and a helping of sulphur gas makes it worse. But once there, the view is fantastic – worth staying and appreciating until you feel too cold.

Back at the bottom station, you can explore the surrounding crater – Teide itself grew up within the remains of a much older volcano. Footpaths take you out to the rim, or to the visitor centre and café.

I’ve seen photos taken in the spring (apparently April – June is best) with the area ablaze with broom and other wildflowers, but in October the vegetation was mainly dead and dry. There are birds and lizards here too, and a variety of insects.

The Tizon lizards were great characters. Probably attracted by the bananas in our lunch, they thoroughly investigated the camera bags, and we had to check that we weren’t taking any back to base. Each of the Canary Islands has its own lizard species.

I had planned to visit again in spring 2014, but horrendous storms created mudslides that blocked the roads, and the best I could do was photograph the snowy peak from a distance.

In 1954, the Teide, and the whole area around it, was declared a national park. In June 2007 it was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for being “one of the richest and most diverse assemblages of volcanic landscapes and spectacular natural values in the whole world“. Just west of Teide is the volcano Pico Viejo (Old Peak). On one side of that, is the volcano Chahorra o Narices del Teide, where the last eruption in the vicinity of Mount Teide occurred in 1798.

With 2.8 million visitors per year, Mount Teide is one of the most visited national parks in the world. It is surrounded by the Park Natural Corona Forestal – a massive natural forest for hiking & biking amid mountains, valleys & ravines with native wildlife.

I could go on and on about this place, but all the information is in the two websites mentioned below. I previously didn’t think a trip to a tourist hotspot like the Canary Islands would interest me. However, most of the mass tourist activity is in the main resort in the south and along the coast. There is so much more to this island, and, having been there, I’m happy to go again – I’ll try a different time of year next time.

The Roques de Garcia are amongst the many volcanic rock forms in the National Park. This is on a popular hiking trail.

Tenerife resources

The easiest way to visit Tenerife is via a cheap holiday deal, however this will likely leave you in either the mass tourist area of the south, or a small resort in the north.

Either way, there are two buses a day from each end of the island to Mount Teide, giving you a few hours to enjoy the mountain and its surroundings. Also, organised coach trips are available from most of the hotels.  If you have a hire car, you have more flexibility.

Two websites with loads of information are the Volcano Teide experience (background information) and the linked Teide Guide where there is more practical information for visitors, what to visit en route, where eat, tours and trails, etc.

General information for visitors to Tenerife

Tenerife information centre

Teleferico de Teide – cable-car information

Apply on-line for a permit to hike to the top


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information.

Books on wildflowers are more easily obtained on the islands – I always found more there than in any online shop.

Note that buying books through these links makes a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that helps with the maintenance of this website.

Probably the most comprehensive and wide-ranging volume on the subject.
This walking guide for Tenerife presents 35 of the most scenic walks on Tenerife and will introduce the reader to the island’s dramatic landscapes and varied flora and fauna.
Covers Tenerife and la Gomera
Where to watch birds – in Spanish (English version is out of print)

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Lanzarote walking

Walking from Peurto del Carmen to the Playa Quemada with views of the Monumento Natural de Los Ajaches.


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Lanzarote walking

Friends visiting Lanzarote in December told us of the magnificent wild-flowers there. A check on the internet indicated that February was the best time for flowers. What we didn’t know, until we got there, was that there had been no rain since Christmas, and most of the flowers had died off. We persevered, using the bus routes and footpaths, and eventually managed to photograph over 100 species. The bird-watching was good too, but butterflies were hard to find.

Puerto del Carmen to Playa Quemada

The book described it as “Easy rather than spectacular, this route provides a good introduction to the island’s countryside, and is ideal as a stroll out taking a drink at the new marina then continuing to Playa Quemada for a relaxed lunch, Repeat the procedure on the way back for a laid back day’s walking.” It sounded ideal for our first full day on the island.

Of course, it didn’t quite go to plan.  We should have left by 9am.  By the time we had sorted out what to take,  what to wear, what to leave in the safe, etc, etc, it was nearer 10:30. 

Then there were two parakeets to photograph in a nearby garden, and a brief stop at the tourist information centre to ask about bus times – no printed timetable available, but you can check the times on the screen, or photograph the timetable with your phone (at the time, I didn’t have a smart phone).

The walk starts from the old port at the eastern end of Puerto del Carmen, we had checked where this was the previous afternoon, but had failed to factor in this extra 3km from our hotel to the port – a mistake I would pay for later.

We take a leisurely stroll through the harbour, stopping to watch the large fish and the ducks and little egret watching them. A broad, rope-handled, zig-zagging stairway leads to the start of the coastal walkway.

The photo shows the view back over Puerto del Carmen.

At the top of the stairway, there is a broad pavement, which continues beyond the residential area as a broad dirt path, heading out into the countryside. It’s well-worn enough to be easy to follow, though the white-painted posts are reassurance that we’re on the right track as the path swings inland to cross a rocky inlet – a small barranco.

Aizoon canariensis: this Macaronesian species has now spread through the world, The creeper can grow up to one metre; its tiny flowers – just a few millimtres in size – open in strong, direct sunlight.
Southern Grey Shrike

We find the odd wild plant here and there, photographed some, identified fewer, and kept walking.  As is our habit, we took twice as long to do sections of the walk as the book suggests – it would have been even slower if there had been more flowers.  And from time to time, a bird hangs around for a photo too.

Ahead is the new village of Puerto Calero: a marina full of expensive-looking boats, the Paseo Maritima – a promenade with shops for tourists, and hotels overlooking the sea. Midday is long-past, and we find a café for a late lunch – a rather expensive menu del dia – and a reminder that the first course is usually larger than the second, which is unlikely to include vegetables. 

Canary palms Phoenix canariensis provide welcome shade in the otherwise treeless landscape.

Continuing westwards, we track through an almost barren landscape. It looks like it hasn’t rained here for months (we learn later that it hasn’t rained for two months), and plants with flowers are few and far between.

The dusty track takes us into a more undulating landscape. The tracks seem more complicated, the area being popular with quad-bikers. White markers are less frequent, and on occasion, the instructions in the book are more than a little helpful in keeping us on the right path. Basically, we are following the coast via a series of gentle ascents and descents to head westwards, eventually leading to Playa Quemada, a tiny coastal hamlet of a few houses and a couple of small cafés.

Here, things liven up as linnets, trumpeter finches and Spanish sparrows (above) feed on the seeds of scrubby plants between the houses. There are bees on some of the few remaining flowers, but they are no easier to photograph than the birds – and will be more difficult to identify.

It’s already 4pm, so a stop at the café for a drink and cake is welcome.

Monumento Natural de Los Ajaches

Behind and beyond Playa Quemada is an ancient volcanic landscape. Some geologists think these hills were probably around 4,000m high, but 11 million years of erosion have reduced them to mounds of around 500m. There are fossils here dating back to the Lower Pleistocene (up to 2.5 million years ago).

As well as being a Natural Monument for its geological and paleontological features, lost Ajaches has been declared a special protection area for birds ( ZEPA ), in accordance with the provisions of European Directive 79/409 / EEC on the conservation of wild birds.  There is a network of trails for hiking/biking/running, more information on the alltrails website, though roads for cars are fortunately few and far between.

Los Ajaches covers some 30 sq km of the western end of Lanzarote, and we did explore other parts – around Yaiza and across to the salt flats of Janubio – on other days. If you stay in one of the south coast resorts, such as Playa Blanca or Playa Mujeres, you have Los Ajaches on your doorstep.

Goats (accompanied by goatherd and dogs) graze the dry vegetation. Puerto Calero beyond, and Puerto del Carmen in the background.

The journey back

Then it’s time to return, following the same tracks, but now with the sun behind us. (There is a bus service if you time your arrival correctly, but it wasn’t a consideration for us this time).

On the edge of Puerto Calera, I stop to photograph a few plants – I’d ignored them earlier, to make sure we had time to finish the whole walk. By the time we leave Puerto Calero, it is 6:30 and the sun is sinking behind the western hills. The walk becomes a route march to get back to the streetlights of Puerto del Carmen while we can still see where we are going.

The sixteen-kilometre round trip route from the port to Playa Quemada and back, with the additional 3km to and from our hotel is now taking its toll on my feet. I am already looking forward to an easier day tomorrow!


Bookshop

Books about the natural history of Lanzarote were hard to come by. The standard flora is out of print – but was only any good if you were already familiar with all other Mediterranean species.

Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with maintaining this website.


More about the Atlantic Islands

Parque Nacional del Teide

Mount Teide National Park, on the Canary Island of Tenerife, is the highest volcano in Spain, and in the Atlantic. Here’s how to get to the top.

Madeira – The Laurel Forest at Ribeiro Frio

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The Island of Madeira is a popular stopping point for cruise ships, but where does the naturalist go to make the most of a day ashore?

If the weather is at least reasonable, I’d recommend taking a bus ride north to the mountain village of Ribeiro Frio.  The route winds its way up through Funchal, through commercial forest, then the edge open plateau of the top of the island, then down into the Laurel forest and the village.  

Best to leave the bus at the restaurant at Ribeiro Frio (just south of the village) from where there are several options for walking, birdwatching and botanising.

If this area is in the clouds, you might prefer to continue on the bus to Santana or Porto da Cruz on the north coast.

If the weather is good, another option is to get off the bus at Poiso, and walk the 4km to Pico de Arieiro near the top of the island – best in clear weather.  But leave enough time to walk back to catch the bus back.

The Madeira Islands were known to the Romans as the Purple Islands. It is likely that the Arabian sailors knew about the archipelago in the 14th Century – it appears on a 1351 Florentine map named as “Isola de Lolegname” (Island of Wood).  The official date of discovery is 1419 by Portuguese seamen.  And within the next ten years most of the endemic forests were burnt away to make room for agriculture. Some forest still remains on the steep slopes on the northern half of the island.  This woodland is most easily accessible at Ribeiro Frio.

Ribeiro Frio

Just below the bus stop a track is signposted to “Balcões”  (Balcony or viewpoint) and an easy half-hour walk leads to a magnificent view over a valley.  Alongside the path is the Levada (water channel) do Faial, and a selection of laurel forest plant species, such as Madeira mahogany Persea indica, Bay tree Laurus axorica, Madeira orchid Dactyloriza foliosa, and Yellow foxglove Isoplexis isoplexis.

The balcony itself (a viewpoint) juts out over a 200m drop. If you have visited the site in the past, and been put off by the rather rustic and fragile-looking wooden railings, you’ll be pleased to know they have been replaced by much more sturdy iron ones. Here is probably the best place for birdwatching – the endemic races of sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus granti, kestrel Falco Tinnunculus canariensis, buzzard Buteo buteo harterti, blackbird Turdus merula cabrerae, chaffinch Fringilla coelebs madeirensis, and firecrest Regulus ignicapillus madeirensis and the endemic Trocaz pigeon Columba trocaz can all be seen from here.  However, nothing is guaranteed except perhaps the chaffinches, which have learned that tourists mean food.

The Madeiran chaffinch is similar to the European chaffinch, but the male has much more blue on its flanks. The birds at the Balcões are very tame, and easily bribed with seeds or apples.

On clear days, you can see the the island’s central chain of mountains – Pico de Areeiro, Pico do Gato, Pico das Torres, Pico Ruivo and Achada do Teixeira. Even a cloudy day may allow occasional glimpses:

In the valley below is the Ribeira da Ametade, and it is possible to walk along the track at the bottom from a point some 7km north of Ribeiro Frio. There is no direct way down from the viewpoint.  This whole valley is a protected area within the Madeira Natural Park. 

Trocaz pigeons keep their distance, but can be seen with luck and patience. We saw as many from the restaurant as we did from the Balcões. They are found only in the laurel forest, and numbers are low.

This bright jewel of a bird is the Madeiran firecrest, weighing only 6g (1/4 ounce).  It is continuously active, often hidden in the vegetation, but can be very confiding, as was this individual foraging in the heather by the Balcões.

Adjacent to the gift shop and restaurant is the government trout farm, where the fish are reared to restock the rivers, as well as for food.  Here there is a break in the forest, allowing growth of flowers such as the native Erysimum bicolour to attract butterflies like the Madeiran Brimstone Gonopteryx maderensis 

On the opposite side of the road to the trout farm is the Parque Florestal (Forest Park) – a botanical garden of Laurel forest plants. Over 100 flowering plants are endemic to the island, many of them hidden within the Laurel forest. The Parque Florestal is best visited in late spring and summer, and is especially useful if you don’t have time to look for the plants in the wild, or want to check the identity of something, as most are labelled. It’s open all day, every day, with no charge for entrance.

Madeira has three species of endemic cranesbills, all with large pink flowers from spring to winter. The Madeiran cranesbill Geranium maderense (above) is endemic to the island’s Laurel forests and has flowers of 3 – 4cm diameter.

By the trout farm, concrete steps lead up to a levada path which takes you to another kind of forest – full heather trees.

Tree heath Erica arborea (above) has small leaves and white flowers with red anthers and stgmas.  It grows well above 700m, and old specimens can be 5m tall.  It was formerly used for charcoal-making, becoming quite a scarce plant.

Besom Heath Erica Scoparia maderincola (left) also grows to tree proportions, and these two species are often found growing together.   Besom heath has broader, longer needle-like leaves, and reddish bell-shaped flowers. It grows from sea level to to 1400m, and plays an important role on the island, condensing the mist into small drops that feed the water tables.  Its wood was formerly used in furniture-making, and it is still used to make brooms (hence the name besom) and fencing hurdles.  The latter are especially characteristic in the landscape around Port Moniz in the north-west of the island.

Going west from the Ribeiro Frio restaurant, is the Levada do Furado to Portela (above). This 12km hike is considered to be one of the best on the island, but involves steep drops and rock-cut tunnels, so is not for the faint-hearted.  

You also need to be aware of the time in order to be sure of catching the bus back to Funchal at the end. If you suffer from vertigo, you can still do the first kilometre or so of the walk, then turn back to Ribeiro Frio when you’ve had enough.

Further information

Tripadvisor lists a number of tour operators who provide guided walking and driving tours which may include wildlife.

Wildlife specialist operators include MadeiraWindBirds. We went on a night watch with them to see petrels and shearwaters coming to their nests after dark, and found them to be excellent and helpful guides.

Bookshop

On our first visit in 1996, we found a few books about the cultivated plants on Madeira, but nothing about the natural history.  

In 2006 this had changed, with the publication of a delightful book called Madeira’s Natural History in a nutshell by Peter Sziemer and available in several European languages. Note that this book is probably a lot cheaper to buy in Madeira than from elsewhere.

Click on the book covers for more information. We have used the ones that were available at the time of our last visit in 2016. (Buying from this source earns me a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that goes towards the cost of this website)

Levada Walks

Walking the paths beside the levadas (water channels) is a popular past-time.  If you plan to take any of these paths, please make sure you have up-to-date information.  We followed one from a 1996 book, and found the end of it had changed due to building and road works.  Another one we had followed in 1996 and found a bit hairy then, was no longer considered a safe route in 2014.

The original Levada-walking guide was Landscapes of Madeira which is frequently updated, and is now also available as a pdf for use on tablets, etc.  We would recommend this, but have not tried any of the other books now on the market.


More about the Atlantic Islands