Many millions visit Gran Canaria each year, but most never venture far from the beaches. Airport –> Playa del Ingles –> Airport is a typical routing. Efficient if you want to drink pints in the sun, while watching Sky Sports and eating burgers and chips, but not a great way to experience a bit of Canarian culture.
I’m not looking down on people – I was one of those people who visited the island for sun, beach and beer for a few years. But last year I discovered there was more to Gran Canaria than that. The key is the bicycle. It was the catalyst that let me discover a bit more about the island – its landscapes, culture, climate(s), food and people. There is a great bike rental company, Free Motion, which have daily organised tours for road and mountain biking, which make it real easy to discover the island.
This Christmas, I took 3 mountain bike tours and one day on the road bike. Each day is a different route, so you never get bored. The MTB trips take about 4 hours and usually cover 40km+ with climbs of over 600m and descents over 1000m. There’s a mixed bunch that join the tours, usually a few Germans, as well as Scandinavians, Dutch and Belgians. Really not that many Irish or British, considering so many of them are in Playa del Ingles. The northern Europeans seem more active than Irish, especially guys in their 50s and 60s, who have no problem doing a day’s mountain biking. One Finnish guy seemed to be a sports junkie – golf, kite-surfing, cross-country skiing, skating, cycling…you name it.
My toughest MTB ride was on 27th Dec, when we climbed El Roque (16% gradient). This involved a bus ride up through the valleys of the island to a starting point at over 1,200m. It was chilly in the shade where we started – not like the 20 degree heat we left behind down below. On the way up, our guide, Dieter (70y.o.), threw loads of facts about GC at us (in German and English). Fifty years ago there was nothing here, only tomato plantations. There was no tourism in GC, only rural people trying to make a living off the land. Then an Earl decided to sell some land for a hotel and the OASIS was opened. This hotel attracted British Army officers returning from British Colonies in Africa. So that’s how the area became known as Playa del Inglés (Beach of the English).
The name Maspalomas also came from the local people. The tomato plantations attracted pigeons and when the tomatoes were replaced by hotels, the pigeons stayed. The tomateros christened the area Maspalomas, meaning Mas Palomas, or more pigeons. The area is still full of them to this day.
The MTB ride involved climbs of over 700m in total, coupled with descents of over 1800m. There were some steep climbs, involving of 20 minute climb to El Roque, with 16% gradient at times. The bikes are first class, Cannondale bikes worth over €2,000. Full suspension and disc brakes – some difference from a road bike. On the first day I learned a lesson after crashing – don’t be eager to pull the front brake. It’s like touching a super strong magnet which holds you to the spot. I fell over the handlebars, but luckily landed on rocks with only a few scrapes on my knees.
Along the way, Dieter filled us in on the history of the island. In short, the island has been inhabited for thousands of years but when the Spanish arrived they quickly killed off the indigenous folk by 1540. Since they didn’t write, there is little record of their civilisation, except for forts and graveyards. A big pity.
The difference in climate and landscape strikes you as you climb inland. Forget about the golden beach and concrete town landscape. Think of soaring valleys, dotted with small white villages and tall pine trees. Once you pass 800m you see pine and after 1000m almond trees grow in abundance. There’s plenty of tomato plantations, as well as orange orchards, vineyards and palm trees.
The highest point in GC is Pico de los Nieves, a sharp rock peak at 1,949m. You can clearly see it from most of the valley and it’s reachable by road. It’s a good cycle of 50km up from the beach, climbing over 2,500m. I’ll have to give it a go next year!