Join the Hikers in Gran Canaria for its 5th Walking Festival

Gran Canaria is famous for sun, sea and sand, but that’s just a small part of its story. Craggy mountains dominate its wild centre, hiking trails link tiny colonial villages, and the Walking Festival, in November 2016, highlights its natural side. Rupert Parker hits the trail.

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Although I’ve checked out hiking paths on other Canary Islands, including Tenerife and La Gomera, this is my first time in Gran Canaria. It’s never been high on my list as I’d mistakenly believed it was one of those package tour destinations that I’d rather avoid. My first big surprise is how unspoilt it actually is – most tourist development is concentrated down south and the interior is almost empty, populated by extinct volcanoes, deep ravines and indigenous pine forests.

I’m here in early June, colourful flowers are blossoming everywhere and although the sun’s out, it’s not too hot for walking. It will be slighter cooler in November when the Walking Festival takes place, but I’m still keen to check out some of the trails. There will be six themed hikes, taking in summits, Laurisilva forest, a water route and even a couple of astronomical night hikes. Every day participants will be picked up either in the South at Playa del Inglés, or in the capital, Las Palmas, and experienced guides will lead the walking tours.

My first hike is one offered by the Walking Festival, and begins at La Cruz de Tejeda, right in the mountainous heart at an altitude of 1580m. There’s a gradual climb up through the pines then it’s a ridge walk sloping gradually down. The views across to the Caldera de Tejeda are stunning, with Roque Nublo and Roque Bentayga, two freestanding volcanic pillars dominating the horizon. Visibility is so good that I can see right across to Tenerife, and the peak of Teide really does dominate the horizon. The path passes the Cuevas de Caballero, caves with aboriginal rock engravings, before descending to the village of Artenara, at 1270m the highest on Gran Canaria.

Some of the houses are built into the rock and the chapel of the Virgen de la Cuevita, dating from the 18th century, has a cave to itself. One of these troglodyte dwellings has been turned into a museum and furnished as it would have been in the 19th century, with living room, bedrooms, and kitchen. It’s surprisingly comfortable, warm in winter and cool in summer, although you have to be careful not to bang your head. Of course, back in the day the caves had no toilets which led to the Canarian expression “Váyanse pa´las tuneras” which roughly translates as “Go and pee in the cactus”. I do indeed do that as it’s a fitting end to the day’s hike, an easy 8 km.

Next morning I start again at Cruz de Tejeda and walk in the opposite direction, due north to the town of Teror, famous for being the site where the Virgin Mary revealed herself in a pine tree to a group of shepherds in 1481. The spot became a place of pilgrimage and the 18th century Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pino now stands imposingly in the Plaza del Pino. The town also has marvellous examples of typical colonial Canary houses with colourful wooden balconies. I arrive when the Sunday market is in full swing and enjoy tastings of local cheese, tangy olives and freshly baked breads.

My final day takes me to the North West of the island, and the Tamadaba National Park. This is home to one of the island’s best preserved indigenous pine forests and the ancient trail was long used by locals collecting wood for fuel. Inside the forest, all is fairly level but it soon descends steeply, passing caves dug into the crags for storing grain, and there are spectacular views of the coast and the Agaete Valley.

At the bottom, the temperature suddenly rises as the valley floor has its own microclimate here and it’s lush with fruit trees, coffee bushes and grape vines. It’s worth a stop at Bodega Los Berrazales to sample their excellent wines and sip their coffee before the final slog down to Puerto de Las Nieves. Fortunately they’ve transformed the old salt pans into sea water pools so I soak my aching feet and have a chance to cool down before lunch at Roca Negra Hotel & Spa.

Before I leave, I visit the South and swim from the sandy Playa del Inglés. Although it’s crammed with hotels, the development is surprisingly tasteful and it’s easy to access the well signed network of trails that criss-cross the island. Even better, after a hard day’s walking, you’ll have somewhere to cool down and recharge your batteries. Normally you’ll need a car, or have to take a taxi, but during the Walking Festival you’ll be picked up from here, making it an easy way to sample the rugged beauty of Gran Canaria.

The Gran Canaria Walking Festival runs from 2-6 November 2016. Hikes cost between 18-25 euros per person or you can do the whole lot for 120 euros.
Gran Canaria Active has information about activities on the island.
Gran Canaria has tourist information.
Spain Info has information about the country
Hotel Mondalon makes a good base, just outside Las Palmas, if you want to stay in the North of the island.
Iberia Express flies direct from Heathrow to Las Palmas.