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Tenerife – the perfect blend of Spain and Africa

Tenerife - Guanche statues

Strewn off the coast of north-west Africa in the Atlantic Ocean but with a predominantly Spanish lifestyle, it’s no wonder that Tenerife – along with the rest of the Canary Islands – has something of a dual identity. From its original settlement by African nomads, to its adoption of Spanish siestas and cuisine, it’s long been an island belonging to two very different world regions. Holidays to Tenerife still offer the promise of both, meaning you can combine the best of Africa and Spain in one short trip…

Tenerife’s African origins

Legacy of the Guanches

Tenerife was originally settled by the Guanches, who are thought to have been a tribe from north-west Africa, and who may have carried similar Berber traditions to those you can still find in the art, culture and music of Morocco. Explore more about Tenerife’s ancient past at the Museum of Man and Nature (Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre), including the story of the Guanches and some early artefacts.

As far as the map goes, Tenerife is still closer to Morocco than it is to mainland Spain and you can get a feel for this influence at places like the Our Lady of Africa Market or ‘Recova’ in Santa Cruz – the building itself is colonial in style but it’s a good place to come for traditional Canarian handicrafts from local merchants.

Tenerife carnival

Carnivals of colour

In addition, one of the biggest events in the Tenerife calendar is the Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Though this period of revelry before Lent is most associated with Catholicism, the costumes, music and style certainly owe something to tribal Africa, as with many carnivals across the world. The use of feathers, bright colours and African-style drumbeats, as well as the original concept of parading in masks, is partly derived from village ceremonies that were used for warding away evil spirits and bringing good luck.

The influence of mainland Spain

Of course, Tenerife is still very much part of Spain and since the conquest of the late 15th century, Spanish culture has thrived here.

Tenerife cuisine

Canarian food is a branch of cuisine with its own distinct flavour, with the notable addition of ‘gofio’ a grain grown locally and used in everything from soups to ice cream. However, a love for small plates, seafood and stewed meats is reminiscent of Spanish cooking. Even in unique favourites like papas arrugadas (‘wrinkly’ potatoes cooked with salt), the influence of tapas dishes from mainland Spain is evident. Try restaurants like La Vieja in Adeje and El Calderito de la Abuela in Santa Cruz to find the best marriage of Canarian and Spanish flavours.

patatas bravas

Siestas and fiestas

The daily lifestyle of Tenerife islanders is very similar to that of coastal Spain, with a laidback ‘mañana’ attitude and a siesta habit going strong. On the flip side, whenever there’s a party in town, the people of Tenerife know how to celebrate just as hard as they do on the mainland: come for the energetic, bonfire-fuelled Night of San Juan in June (the shortest night of the year) the respectful Festival of the Virgin of Candelaria in August or the huge celebration in El Medano village September, with processions, Latino musicians and folk dancing in honour of patron saint Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes de Rojas (Our Lady of Mercy Red).

There have been many other influences on the Canary Islands over the centuries, from British battles to Latin American immigrants to the scores of holidaymakers from all over the world who come here today. Native islanders have even been known to proclaim Tenerife as the last visible part of the lost city of Atlantis, having sunk beneath the waves long ago and left only the volcanic mountains like Mount Teide above sea level!

Whatever has shaped the island in the past, its irrepressible and kaleidoscopic culture offers anyone on holidays to Tenerife some eclectic cuisine, joyous festivities and fascinating people, ever-ready to welcome newcomers seeking to join the party…

Images by José Mesa, office15 and Fernando Carmona Gonzalez, used under Creative Comms licence.