Exploring Teide National Park in Tenerife, Spain

View from the top

By Stuart Forster

Published: Thu 2 Jun 2022, 4:11 PM

The sky melts from unblemished blue through yellow and golden then burnishes into an ever deepening red as the sun sinks behind the enormous crater within sight of Mount Teide, Spain’s highest mountain. Holidaymakers visiting Tenerife gaze at the spectacle, snapping selfies and the occasional rugged landscape shot.

A woman comments how much cooler it is up here compared to on the beaches of black volcanic sand down in Puerto de la Cruz. Zipping my fleece right up to my chin, I’m inclined to agree. That’s hardly surprising at our altitude of around 2,300 metres (7,500 feet). Though we’re on the same latitude as locations in Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, winter visitors to Tenerife often see the slopes of the volcano dusted by snow.

Teide erupted most recently in 1909. Occasionally, Mount Teide is described as the world’s third tallest volcano. To understand why, you’d need to travel in a submersible vehicle deep below the surface of the North Atlantic. Rising from the ocean floor, the full height of Teide measures approximately 7,500 metres (24,600 feet).

Incidentally, the prodigious depth of the Atlantic around the island is a factor in explaining why as many as 21 species of cetaceans can be spotted throughout the year. The deep water holds a rich supply of squid, a favourite food for resident short-finned pilot whales. Along with bottlenose dolphins, they are frequently seen during the whale- and dolphin-watching cruises that sail from the Puerto Colón marina near Tenerife’s southern tip. Occasionally, the world’s largest living creature, the blue whale, can be spotted in seawater off the Canary Islands.

From Puerto de la Cruz, the 80-minute minibus journey up here towards Mount Teide was along the twisting TF-21, a road long acknowledged as one of Europe’s most scenic driving routes. In recent years the road’s steep incline and challenging curves, coupled with the island’s mild year-round climate, have resulted in rides on the TF-21 becoming a favoured training route for elite cyclists. Bradley Wiggins made the ascent many times ahead of his overall victory in the 2012 Tour de France. More recently, the Slovenian professional Primož Roglič retained the 2021 Vuelta a España — Spain’s grand tour — after altitude training in Tenerife.

Despite enjoying cycling, I was secretly relieved to head up here in a minibus rather than on a bicycle. As we laboured uphill in second gear, Juan, my local tour guide, had to raise his voice to be heard over the bus’s whining engine. He explained that Alexander von Humboldt, the German polymath, visited Tenerife in 1799. Studying the island’s plant life, Von Humboldt noted how vegetation was stratified, varying according to altitude.

As we climbed, Juan pointed out how lush laurel woodland gave way to giant heather trees. He explained that markedly different species grow on Tenerife compared to the African mainland, less than 300 kilometres (186 miles) to the East. At a height of between 800 and 900 metres Alpine vegetation begins to thrive. The forest is dominated by Canarian pines bearing similarities to trees found in the Himalayas. In the pine forest’s upper reaches keen birdwatchers have the best chances of spotting the blue chaffinch, one of the island’s most easily recognisable endemic bird species.

Declared a national park in 1954, Teide’s arid, rocky landscape was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2007. Just 200 people a day get to view the moonscape-like vista from Spain’s highest point, 3,718 metres (12,200 feet) above sea-level. That’s the maximum number of licenses granted by the national parks’ authority to trek the narrow Telesforo Bravo Trail that leads towards Mount Teide’s peak. Many more visitors have the chance to gaze down from La Rambleta, from the prodigious height of 3,555 metres (11,663 feet), after ascending with the Teide Cable Car.

To my layman’s eye, the national park’s rugged terrain is how I imagine the planet Mars’ rock strewn surface. Experts clearly think so too. The European Space Agency selected locations in the national park among test sites for the Heavy Duty Planetary Rover designed for deployment on Mars.

“We have one of the best skies in the world. It can be compared to the skies of the Atacama desert in Chile and Hawaii, but at a lower altitude,” says Juan, adding that the sky is clear more than 300 days a year. That plus the low level of light pollution in the night sky explain the white domes and silo-like structures of Teide Observatory. The darkness of the area’s night sky facilitates work by professional astronomers.

Craning my head upwards, I note that the night sky sparkles with a surprising concentration of stars — many more than are visible from urban areas. An expert from the Teide by Night team points a green laser beam at a distant constellation then invites guests to look through his telescope. Excitedly, we line up and await our turn while staring upwards.


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