Northern Gran Canaria is a leafy, mountainous landscape of craggy coastline, fertile valleys, deep gorges, and terraced hillsides planted with avocados, tomatoes, mangoes, figs and delicious little Canarian bananas. There are picturesque villages dotted around, their streets lined by colourful, colonial-style houses with traditional wooden balconies. Woven amongst this misty landscape, you can find evidence of pre-colonial Canarians, a cave-dwelling race of people known as the Guanches.
Gran Canaria is divided into a number of touring routes that visitors can take to explore the main sites on the island. Shortly after my arrival, I met up with a group of locals who were exploring Gran Canaria to see some of the Guanche sites on the Northern Route running between Agaete and Las Palmas. So I set off to see what I could discover about Gran Canaria’s aboriginal history and explore some of the archaeological sites in the north of the island.
The Guanches of Gran Canaria
There’s much mystery surrounding the original settlers of the Canary Islands. However the Spanish conquistadors’ tales of a tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed race of people has led to the conclusion that they originated from North African Berber tribes, with whom they shared elements of their lifestyle and culture. A handful of place names and Canarian words bear a striking resemblance to Berber tribal languages, and there was even a tribe called Canarii from where the name Canary possibly originates.
Theirs was a primitive, cave-dwelling culture, with basic stone tools, weapons and clay pots; there was no metal on the islands. They had a simple life, shepherding, gathering fruit, fishing in coastal pools, and carrying out limited agriculture.
Surprisingly for an island race, they had little knowledge of boats and navigation, although they probably arrived by boat as they bought domesticated animals, such as goats, sheep, pigs and dogs, plus wheat and barley with them. It’s been suggested that they were dropped off by seafaring people and left to fend for themselves, or that it was too difficult to navigate the islands due the strong currents and trade winds and they gradually lost their sea legs.
Once settled, it appears that the natives of the Canaries rarely interacted, if ever, and each island developed its own dialect and way of life. The aboriginals on Gran Canaria were known as Canarios or Canarians, however over time Guanches, traditionally used to describe the settlers of Tenerife, has been been applied to the aboriginal culture across all seven islands.
Maipés Archaeological Park, Agaete
First stop on our tour was the Maipés Archaeological Park in Agaete. I instantly loved the dramatic setting of this open-air archaeological site, nestled at the foot of the Pinar de Tamadaba (a pine wood). It lies on a great lava flow at the bottom of a volcanic lava plain. Here lush greenery contrasts with grey land, resulting in an atmospheric, otherworldly feel.
This spectacular site is where Guanches choose to honour their dead in almost 700 tombs of various types and sizes, constructed from volcanic stone and dating back almost 1,300 years. The burials mounds have been sympathetically reconstructed in places, with wire mesh discreetly marking the original border of the tumbledown tombs to give visitors an idea of what the site looked like when it was in use.
I wandered round the steel walkway, peering into nearby graves and admiring distant, dark mounds standing out against the green hills. In one place ancient contrasted with modern, as wind turbines lined up along the ridge of a hill juxtaposed with the dark burial mounds beneath. Overhead swifts danced in the sky, their screams strangely fitting, while in the distance large raptors circled the mountaintops.
Maipés is well worth a visit, if nothing else to witness the strange beauty of this arid landscape.
Gáldar and la Cueva Pintada (The Painted Cave)
The colourful town of Gáldar sits at the base of a dormant, bare volcanic hill. Once home to the former kingdom of Guanartematos, its brightly coloured houses and pretty central square are ripe for exploration.We had a brief wander before stopping to munch tapas in the shadow of Iglesia de Santiago de Gáldar, allegedly one of the most beautiful churches in the Canaries. But we didn’t have time to visit, as our day was all about the Guanches. Instead, we headed off to one of the most important sites on the island: la Cueva Pintada.
La Cueva Pintada is part of a large museum and archaeological complex. The site encompasses an entire Canarian aboriginal village where you can look over the foundations of the houses that once stood here. These mainly circular structures were dug into the ground or built into caves to form a reasonably large settlement.
In the centre, a handful of houses have been reconstructed with stone walls and thatched roofs to give visitors an idea of life in these basic but functional homes. However, the real star of the show is the painted cave. Here, symbolic figures and geometric shapes decorate the walls of a small cave in various shades of red, plus black and white.
The significance of these paintings is unknown, although they’re thought to be religious or ceremonial, perhaps representing female fertility or the cycles of the moon. I found it a little difficult to get a proper impression of them, as you can only enter in groups, where you shuffle into an enclosed space and peer at them from behind protective glass – a necessary evil to protect them from humidity. However, it’s wonderful to see such a well-preserved example of ancient cave painting.
You can only visit as part of a guided tour. Various languages are available throughout the day so check before you go. I was with locals so I joined the Spanish tour, but I can’t comment on how useful it was as my limited Spanish wasn’t up to it! It’s worth noting that photography is forbidden in the painted cave.
Cenobio de Valerón
Perched above a canyon high in the winding hills just off the northern coastal road is the impressive site of Cenobio de Valerón. Once thought to be the site of a monastery or convent, it’s now believed to be the largest granary in Gran Canaria.
Here, the ancient Guanches stored cereals and seeds in 200–300 tiny caves, each dug with stone picks and sealed with pintaderas, which were decorated to identify their owners. The location was suitably off the beaten track to protect the food from neighbouring settlements, pirate raids and even the Spanish conquistadors.
It’s a decent climb up to the caves, but you’re rewarded with a spectacular view over the mountains and down the valley, where falcons swoop overhead, tiny birds dart about in the scrub, and giant lizards sunbathe in the dusty earth. As for the caves, they’re pretty damn stunning too, especially considering their humble purpose.
El Museo Canario, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
A few days after my trip to the Guanche sites, my folks were in town. So once we’d hugged, climbed to the top of Santa Ana Cathedral and eaten a mountain of tapas, we went to El Museo Canario.
This charming little museum tucked in the side streets of Vegueta houses an impressive collection of exhibits from the pre-Hispanic era. It gives a pretty good overview of the life and culture of the Guanches of Gran Canaria, although there’s limited information in English.
I loved Room 7, especially in light of my visit to Maipés. Walking in took my breath away, albeit in a slightly creepy way. It houses the skeletal remains of Gran Canaria’s aboriginals, mainly consisting of skulls sitting in lit glass cabinets lining all four walls of the room. It’s a dark, atmospheric place and somewhat old-fashioned. It’s strange to think that people who lived so closely with nature in such wild, desolate locations ended up as museum exhibits.
Visiting Gran Canaria
I spent a few months in Las Palmas living in this gorgeous flat that’s now a hot Airbnb property (if you haven’t signed up to Airbnb yet, use my link for a discount of your first stay). Alternatively, there’s loads of accommodation around the island. Check hotel prices on Agoda, and see TripAdvisor for the latest hotel and apartment reviews.