A trip to Spain would not be complete without some time in the Canary Islands, and Gran Canaria topped my list. It was a place celebrated for its beaches and nightlife, and was the first stop of our epic Spain itinerary: Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, Barcelona, and Madrid all in a little over two weeks. On the last leg of our flight, we purchased two mini-bottles of cava. Who cares if we were flying coach? We'd made it.
"Salut," my husband exclaimed in his best Spanish, extending his cup.
"To an epic adventure," I raised my cup to his and we drank.
Little did we know what the next 72 hours had in store. Epic adventure indeed.
We arrived in Gran Canaria with nothing but our backpacks. This was not the plan. Our monstrosity of a suitcase, which was loaded with bathing suits, dresses, shoes, endless outfit combinations, oh and a few of my husband's things, didn't make it. Despite our luggage being checked all the way through, it was left behind in Madrid. We had a choice: hang out in the airport or get out and explore the Island, so we picked up our rental car and headed out on the open road. The airport attendant would contact us when our luggage arrived.
Gran Canaria is the second largest of the Canary Islands which are governed by Spain despite being so close to Morocco. A popular hideaway for Europeans, Gran Canaria features breathtaking beaches and warm waters, white-washed port cities, thick forests giving way to historic villages built into the countryside, and an incredible array of artisans and family-owned establishments just off the beaten path. We'd start our trip in one such port city and end it in the countryside, pushing our 72 hours in Gran Canaria to its limit.
Arriving in Mogán
I'd booked an Airbnb in Mogán, a close-knit community just far enough from the coast to attract very few tourists. My husband and I prefer traveling just beyond the tourist centers, and this apartment was no exception. Complete with a bedroom and a kitchen, the simple space had it all, and was only a 10-minute drive to the port town of Puerto de Mogán, where hotels and high-rises invaded a historic fishing port with all of the charm you'd expect from the Mediterranean (although technically we were on the Atlantic).
There are few things better than a hot shower after a day and a half flight, and a few things worse than having to put your sweaty airport clothes back on...it's just dinner, I told myself. I flipped my Spiritual Gangster tank top inside out and traded my Lululemons for the pair of wide leg pants I'd serendipitous packed in my carry on (finding them felt like Christmas).
We made our way to Puerto de Mogán. Wandering the restaurant-lined streets and courtyards, up and over a charming foot bridge, we found a shopping area with a few shops still open. We ducked into Desigual and emerged 20 minutes later looking like locals. Feeling much more the part, we found a restaurant.
Dining in Puerto de Mogán
There were dozens of restaurants to choose from, all with strikingly similar menus. The ambiance alone set one apart from the next. Our first night we dined along a cobblestone street a couple of blocks from the port. There was seating on a patio and tables draped in white, and it was about 9:00pm and still crowded. We noshed tapas style on grilled goat cheese, Canarian potatoes, and whole roasted fish. The meal was served with warm rolls and two types of Canarian mojo - red and green sauces. The goat cheese was not like the soft, pungent kind we have in the US, it was hard, moist cheese - more like a Munster, with a smooth, mild taste. The Canarian potatoes were boiled in salt to shriveled perfection (also called "patatas arugadas" or "old potatoes" for their appearance), and served with a tangy sauce. The fish was simply prepared and my husband skillfully removed the bones. We shared a bottle of cava and toasted to our first night in Spain. Although it had been a long journey here, and not without a few bumps along the way, we couldn't be happier.
The Sand Dunes of Maspalomas
The next day, still traveling lighter than we'd like, we set out to find bathing suits and a beach. Our luggage had yet to arrive, so we needed some beachwear, or did we? We found a beach shop and got outfitted with everything from towels to flip flops. I even found a bikini I didn't hate. We headed down to the beach. The water was sparkling blue and so warm, it made me forget about my lost luggage, sort of. We were surrounded mostly by blond families speaking English, and with my darker hair and features, I was the one out of place. In the distance, we could see the beach became broader and wondered if that was where the dunes began. We headed that way.
The sand dunes of Maspalomas stretch 1,000 acres and have been protected since 1897. The dunes were formed during the last Ice Age when sand from the bottom of the ocean was upturned and ended up on the Island. The shapes of the dunes are constantly changing, based on the direction of the winds, and the dunes back right up to Playa de Ingles, a lively beach.
We wandered the dunes in awe as they stretched in front of us forever. The ripples created by the wind were incredible. We snapped a few photos and that's when we noticed it: nudes. Naked people, here and there, one with a backpack, another with a blanket, casually strolling the dunes and not the least bit shy. Were we imagining this? As we made our way down to Playa de Ingles for a dip in the water, it became clear we were on a nude beach that was extremely popular with the 20-something male crowd. My husband and I looked at each other and laughed. We stopped at a beach bar for a beverage. There was no line to the ladies room, and when I returned, my husband wasn't exactly in his birthday suit.
"Let's keep walking," he grinned.
The second evening we chose a restaurant right along the water, again table draped in white, and elegant service to go with it. It was a very romantic scene. Two stray cats wandered the cobblestone path that gave way to the port, their date rivaling ours' for most romantic. We shared a bottle of the local wine, Malvasia, which has been harvested in the Canaries since the 17th century. The wine really impressed us, and became a new favorite. Our knowledgeable server shared our excitement and suggested pairing gambas al ajillo (shrimp cooked and presented in boiling hot chile oil), which became a favorite we took back to our restaurant in Bend. He also suggested we visit a winery during our trip. The following week in Lanzarote, we visited El Grifo, one of the oldest wineries in Spain, on our server's recommendation, and enjoyed several more glasses of Malvasia along the way.
We were off to our next destination - a cozy-looking inn at what must have been one of the highest points on Gran Canaria. Along the way, we'd stop for a hike, so before we set out, we stopped by a roadside market for some snacks. The market was filled with fragrant tropical fruits, wheels of fresh goat cheese, breads and pastries, and even made-to-order mango smoothies. A rotund woman stood behind a wine barrel with a wheel of cheese and a big smile.
"Queso Majorero?" she offered, holding out a slice.
"Si, gracias," I nodded along with my best Spanish, accepting the sample. It was goat cheese from Majorero goats, native to the Canaries, and it was delicious: creamy, slightly tangy, and semi-hard.
Steven took a bite and gave me a nod that said, "get the cheese".
I ordered a couple chunks while he gathered a picnic of produce. Mango smoothies in hand, we headed on our way.
Highway 60 is not for the faint of heart. In fact, from the moment you travel inland from the coast, it's an uphill drive, but continuing on passed Mogán was like nothing we'd ever experienced before. The narrow road was just wider than a single lane yet it was open to two-way traffic. Switchback after switchback, we wondered if we should turn around. We stopped to take pictures and gasped at the view. It was too beautiful to turn back now.
Not only was the road narrow, the cliff's edge seemed to be closing in - especially when a car was coming from the other direction. I found myself closing my eyes and bracing for impact (don't worry, I wasn't the one driving). Somehow, we made it. The views from the top looking out on the valley below, were breathtaking. But the adventure wasn't over yet.
Close to the summit of Highway 60, just before Cruz de Tejeda, we arrived at the trail head to Roque Nublo, a rock formation that looks almost like a face - watching over the Island. As we stepped out of the car, we realized the air had changed. It was thick and moist, and small puddles filled the space between cobblestones. Compared to the beaches of Maspalomas, it was much colder here. Unfortunately, we were still without luggage, but our airport attire served us well.
We began the climb to Roque Nublo, amazed as forest stretched out before us, complete with pine needles, fallen trees, and insects buzzing. We passed massive, hollowed out boulders along a steady climb upwards. Then came the rain. I wasn't sure if it was the thickness of the air, my damp airport attire, or my need for a nap but I wasn't sure how much farther I could go. Eventually, we arrived at the summit.
Hotel Rural El Refugio
Once back at the car, the rain really picked up. A short drive took us to Hotel Rural El Refugio. When we arrived, the rain was coming down in sheets. We were impressed by what we could see of the tropical, overgrown gardens surrounding the inn. Clearly, they were well watered. We scurried into the welcome area, the owner greeting us warmly and inviting us for breakfast the next morning as he handed us our keys.
The hotel was quaint with antique fixtures and eclectic decor. We walked a long corridor to our room. Once inside, I surveyed the space. The queen sized bed looked comfy enough, with a warm brown blanket pulled up over the bedspread. The hardwood furnishings included a desk, chair, and armoire filled with additional blankets and a separate heating unit. Although it had been a balmy 80 degrees on the coast the day before, between the elevation and the rain, there was a definite chill in the air. The small bathroom was well furnished, and a hot shower was just what I needed.
Finally, it was picnic time. We used the small desk as our table and sliced up all of the fruit, cheese, bread, and popped a bottle of cava. After the excitement of the drive, the hike, and the rain, our picnic lunch couldn't have been more comforting, and was one of the high points of our trip. Isn't it amazing how we plan exciting itineraries, and yet the downtime somehow becomes the best part?
After the picnic, I showered while my husband went out to explore the surroundings. He wandered into Hotel Parador less than a block away. With its resort-style lodging and beautiful architecture, it certainly made an impression from the outside. Steven made us a reservation for dinner that evening.
Dinner at Hotel Parador was a coursed meal in a brightly lit dining room, with the majority of attendees senior citizens. Compared to our dinners in Puerto Mogan, this meal was much more expensive and lacked the same bold flavor and authenticity that we'd come to expect. The food was bland, the service stuffy, and the menu lacked variety.
11:00pm, 12:00am, 1:00am...
Sleep that night was another adventure. We were awoken at least a dozen times by an amorous couple somewhere in the hotel. It wasn't clear if they were above us, next to us, or maybe down the hall. It was as if they were in the same room as us. We realized then the downside to old hotels: the walls were paper thin. This helped explain the extra blankets and additional heating units, but it wasn't the cold that kept us up that night.
The next morning, we awoke bleary-eyed, ready to stake out the breakfast area and identify the couple that ruined our slumber. But we were all alone in the breakfast room, maybe for the best. We enjoyed a drama-free spread of boiled eggs, cheese, meats, pastries and hot coffee. Thankfully, we'd only planned to stay one night, and after the little sleep we'd had, we couldn't leave soon enough.
We had plenty of time to explore more of the Island on our last day in Gran Canaria, with a plan to drive through Tejeda and some of the villages in the northeastern part of the Island.
Tejeda & Beyond
It was a magic moment - like something out of a fairy tale. Although the rain had finally stopped, a literal and metaphorical dark cloud still hung over Hotel Rural El Refugio as we drove away. Just as the sight of the hotel faded from view, we turned a corner, and the sky brightened.
We'd driven out of the clouds, and into verdant countryside. Not more than a few miles from the hotel, we'd arrived at Tejeda, a pastoral town of white washed buildings and locals going about their day, as they had for hundreds of years before.
It was as if we'd stepped into a different world. A world where a single row of shops sustained a village, and where the central grocery store was a weekly farmer's market. And then there was the smell: delicious, caramel-scented air led me right to the source: Dolceria Nublo where I savored a freshly-made pastry filled with almond paste. Along with these views, our restless night became a distant memory (our lack of luggage couldn't even take away from this moment).
After exploring more of the town, we regretted that we hadn't discovered it the night before. There were restaurants with tempting dinner menus, winding streets, and even a central inn where we could have stayed had I done my research on this gem of a town.
We headed back to the car for the tail end of our trip leading us back to the airport, where we'd catch a flight to Lanzarote that afternoon. Along the final stretch of the drive, we passed by villages renowned for their pottery and others overtaken by succulents growing out of every space crumbling stone walls allowed. We passed countless churches, bustling villages, all the while transfixed by the rugged hillside stretching out before.
Lost luggage aside, our 72 hours in Gran Canaria were well spent. From al fresco dining to nude beaches, and from pastoral towns to sleepless nights, our Gran Canaria road trip was truly an adventure. For those looking to simply relax, stick with the beaches. But for those looking to experience all that the Island has to offer, I recommend taking Highway 60 all the way to the top. Just beyond the tourist track, you'll find some of the most authentic experiences, people, and shopkeepers you'll ever meet. It was these experiences I'd hold onto long after I left.
Next stop, an eco-lodge in Lanzarote.
How To Get To Gran Canaria
Depending on where you're coming from, getting there can be a cinch. From cities like New York, Chicago, Miami, and DC, one stop flights are available. And if you're already in Europe, nonstop flights are available daily from Madrid, Barcelona, London, and Madrid.