What (and Where) Are the Canary Islands?

As beautiful as the Canary Islands are, this archipelago is a relatively unpopular destination for American tourists, who don’t even rank among the 10 most popular nationalities that visit. Geology buffs, backpackers, historians, and beachgoers alike will find something thrilling to explore on the Canary Islands. Here’s everything you need to know about this beautiful island chain.

Where Are the Islands Located?

 Santa Cruz de Tenerife of the Canary Islands.
Credit: cinoby/ iStock

The Canary Islands are an autonomous region that is politically part of Spain but located off the northwestern coast of Africa. All seven principle islands — Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, and El Hierro, in addition to several smaller islands — are situated on the African Tectonic Plate.

Geographically, the Canaries fall into two separate groups. Islands in the western group, including Tenerife, Gran Canaria, La Palma, La Gomera, and El Hierro, are volcanic mountains that rise from the floor of the Atlantic. The second group, which includes Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, sits atop the Canary Ridge, a submarine plateau.

Where Does the Name “Canary” Come From?

Blue Chaffinch in its natural habitat.
Credit: aaltair/ Shutterstock

Though canaries (the birds) are native to the islands, it might surprise you to learn that the archipelago’s name has nothing to do with the chirpy, yellow species — and everything to do with dogs! Until the 15th century, a Berber community known as the Guanches inhabited the Canary Islands. Around 40 B.C., however, King Juba II of Mauritania conducted an expedition to the islands — an account of which was subsequently preserved by the ancient historians Plutarch and Pliny the Elder. According to King Juba II, the islands were home to extremely large dogs. The Latin word for dog is “canis.” Thus, the islands became known as Canariae Insulae, or “Islands of the Dogs,” which then inspired the name for the bird.

Are the Islands Volcanic?

Puerto de la Cruz, in background Teide volcano, Tenerife island, Spain.
Credit: Balate Dorin/ Shutterstock

Millions of years ago, when the Atlantic Ocean formed, parts of Earth’s mantle began to heat and swell upwards through mantle plumes, creating magma-filled hotspots on Earth's surface. These subterranean eruptions are believed to have later become the Canary Islands. The Canary Islands are considered volcanoes by definition, though each island’s volcanic activity varies.

El Hierro, for example, is home to the most active volcano of the Canary Islands. Seismic activity last caused an eruption there in 2011. Both El Hierro and La Palma are located above what’s called the “Canary Hotspot,” and La Palma is similarly active. Its volcano, named Cumbre Vieja or “Old Summit,” is actually quite young compared to volcanoes on other islands, and scientists believe it is due for an eruption. While the last two eruptions that happened on La Palma during the 20th century weren’t catastrophic, there is a possibility that future activity could cause a major landslide, launching a tsunami that would devastate the Eastern Seaboard in the U.S.

By contrast, Lanzarote’s and Fuerteventura’s volcanoes are old and possibly dying, since they’ve entered what’s called the erosional stage. This is when a volcano has moved so far from the original hotspot that created it that it no longer has a source of magma, and therefore, will not erupt.

What Language Do Locals Speak?

Santa Ana square with many visitors and old town hall.
Credit: Pacotoscano/ Shutterstock

If you leave mainland Spain and travel to the Canary Islands, you’ll immediately hear a linguistic difference in conversation. Canarians speak a variant of Spanish that is more like the Spanish spoken in the Americas; the tongue is particularly akin to Caribbean dialects spoken in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. This Spanish is called Canarian Spanish, and its flourishes are called canarismos. Softened consonants and aspirated “h” sounds distinguish this dialect.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Indigenous Guanches are believed to have spoken another language referred to as Guanche, which would have been part of the Berber family of languages. Though not many people speak Guanche today, similar Berber languages are still spoken by millions of people in Africa.

How Do the Main Canary Islands Differ From One Another?

Aerial view of beach in Fuerteventura island.
Credit: NicoElNino/ Shutterstock

On the island of Tenerife, the largest and most developed of the islands, an abundance of beachside resorts stretches along the coast. Tenerife boasts everything from Mount Teide, Spain’s highest mountain at over 12,000 feet tall and the third largest volcano in the world, to the historic wine district of Icod de los Vinos.

Second-largest in size, the island of Fuerteventura is characterized by its desert-like climate and landscape, which makes sense given its proximity to the Western Sahara and Morocco. Surfers love this relatively undeveloped island. Meanwhile, the island of Gran Canaria, which hosts Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, is home to a wide array of historical sites, such as Dunas de Maspalomas, a 1,000-acre body of golden sandy dunes; the charming, 500-year-old Vegueta neighborhood; and the whitewashed beachside village of Puerto de Las Nieves.

Smaller in size but larger in population than Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria, Lanzarote is perhaps the hippest of the Canary Islands. Protected from over-development by celebrated architect César Manrique, whose namesake foundation is open to visitors, Lanzarote is notable for its bohemian culture, wineries, and mostly untouched, white sand beaches.

La Palma, La Gomera, and El Hierro are the smallest major islands in the archipelago. Beloved by hikers, La Palma and La Gomera have endless trails to explore without crowds. La Palma has even been declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and is known for being home to the world-renowned Roque de los Muchachos Observatory. Finally, there’s hard-to-reach El Hierro, where Christopher Columbus stayed in 1493 for 17 days en route to the Americas. Once the westernmost point in the known world, El Hierro is known as “Meridian Island.” Since El Hierro is also a UNESCO site and a beacon of sustainability, 58% of the island’s land is protected, and the island uses 100% renewable energy.

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