Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Heart 2 Heart

In the little town of Tejina above the northern coast of Tenerife, the people wear their hearts, not on their sleeves, but on giant frames that play the starring role in the Fiesta de Los Corazones de Tejina (the festival of the hearts of Tejina).

The fiesta is one of the most deep-rooted festivals of the Canary Islands and its origins are bound to the seasonal celebration of the harvest. Offerings of fruit, flowers and boughs to the local saint are a common feature of fiestas in the Islands and date back to pre-Hispanic times when the Guanche wove boughs of laurel, palm leaves and aromatic herbs into arcs which were used to adorn holy places during religious rituals.

But in Tejina, the arcs have evolved into something extraordinary.

Standing in the Plaza de San Bartolomé on a sultry morning in August, the air is suddenly split by the whirr and bang of firework rockets as the ‘hearts’ appear; three huge wooden and iron frames bearing hearts decorated in fruit and pastry discs with an extravagant bouquet of flowers atop, are being carried by groups of 20 or more men, their faces wet with the strain of the 800 kilo weight.

On a wall by the side of the church, a small girl is hurling insults at the group right next to where I'm standing who are straining to raise the heart with poles and ropes onto a waiting cross fixed into the plaza. The girl is wearing an orange Calle Arriba T-shirt while the men beside me are wearing white El Pico ones; these are rival hearts from rival districts of the town.

As the El Pico team slot their frame onto the waiting bracket a roar goes up from around me; they’re the first to raise their hearts. The little girl is furious and stands with hands on hips, still badmouthing the team who now laugh at her and congratulate each other.

When the hearts are secured, Spanish flags are inserted, three into each side and the finished spectacle is awesome; the plaza is filled with flags, bunting and coloured bulbs that hang in swathes above the brightly coloured kiosks selling jams, wine, flowers and wood carvings. Centre stage, the three ‘hearts’ stand like characters in a Lewis Carroll adaptation, creating a Wonderland in the plaza.

From beneath the hearts, groups of rival neighbours are making comments about the quality or otherwise of the workmanship of the pastries, the freshness of the flowers and the uniformity and positioning of the fruit. Voices rise as the observations turn to insults, each one attracting a retort from the neighbouring heart and a cheer and laughter from the crowd. But the rivalry is good natured, and witty, and the atmosphere in the plaza feels like a local party to which I haven't been invited but am nevertheless welcome.

Tomorrow the hearts will be stripped of their fruit and pastries which will be thrown to the crowd as ‘trophies’ of the fiesta. Minor injuries such as an orange in the eye or a pear blow to the head will undoubtedly occur and people of a nervous disposition will be well advised to stand clear. So just for today, the Corazones de Tejina fill the plaza, a wondrous sight and a tribute to the agricultural heritage of Tenerife’s ‘greenhouse valley’.


The Fiesta of Los Corazones de Tejina takes place this year on Sunday 26th August in the town of Tejina in the valley above Bajamar on Tenerife’s northern coast.
  • 11.30 am – The hearts leave their barrio, accompanied by their parrandas, and are carried to Plaza de San Bartolomé in the centre of the town.

  • 12.00 midday - Offerings are made to San Bartolomé and the hearts are raised.

  • 21.30 – Poems and dedications are recited to the hearts in Plaza de San Bartolomé

  • 27th August at 19.00 hrs – hearts are stripped of fruit and pastries which are ‘distributed’ to the crowd

  • 28th August from 11.30 am – children’s version, or Corazones de Los Chicos de Tejina fiesta

Copyright © 2007 Real Tenerife Island Drives. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without the written permission of Real Tenerife Island Drives.

    Lying on a beach all day every day might make for a relaxing holiday, but memories of it fade as quickly as your sun tan. Island Drives is aimed at travellers who want to experience the real essence of Tenerife, not just its pools and beaches. If you want an unforgettable holiday as opposed to a good one, Real Tenerife Island Drives will make the difference.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Tenerife Myth the island is just a big resort

Playa de las Américas

The mainstream media, particularly the "sensationalist" British type, but including some of the ones that I had previously trusted to be above that kind of thing and, be better informed, came up with some really misleading (and, I feel, irresponsible) headlines when reporting on the recent fire on the island, with exaggerations of the facts and plain untruths that are as potentially damaging to the islands, financially, as the fires themselves.

Indeed, I'm not alone in this opinion and, representatives of the tourist industry in the Canary Islands are asking for measures to "palliate the damage caused by the sensationalist international media". You can hardly blame them, as reading many of the British media's headlines, you might have been led to imagine scenes of tourists running from the beaches into the sea to save themselves. The truth is no tourist was ever in any danger.

Apart from the fact that "Nature ruined, native birds homeless, farmers affected" is not a relevant and compelling headline to the average Brit who knows Tenerife only as a holiday destination (thanks to the British press), reading these reports, it becomes clear why many assume (there's no excuse, they should fact check, or ask someone on the island) that tourist resorts would be affected, because they appear to think that is all there is: that Tenerife is just a big resort with only beaches and hotels.

Here are just some examples of the terrible headlines I saw:

Holiday chaos for British tourists as fires devastate Canary Islands | the Daily Mail
(Headline and story repeated exactly by This is London)
This is what I expect from the Daily Mail, but honestly, the only tourists in Tenerife who may have been in "chaos" were a handful of not so happy campers in the mountains. None of them were British, as far as I have been able to ascertain. No British tourists in the resorts were affected at all.  Nevertheless, in their usual fear mongering fashion, the Daily Mail began this article, "Holiday-makers are being urged to check with their tour operators before they travel after the Canary Island's top tourist holiday resorts have been left devastated by forest fires." There was never any need for such wasting of tour operators' time and the resorts were not devastated. Massaging the truth is bad enough. That kind of pure invention is criminal. As proof, it seems, that they're not interested in the truth (only circulation), my first-hand, factual, comment does not appear. Presumably it was rejected.

British tourists in waiting game as fires sweep holiday islands - Times Online
You really expect better from The Times, don't you? What would these tourists have been waiting for exactly, a bus perhaps? What's even worse is that you have know-nothing idiots who have clearly never even been to the island, commenting there and advising Brits to stay away. Worse yet, I tried to comment here too, explaining that I was one of those people evacuated and telling the truth of the matter. My comment was not posted, nor have The Times contacted me, as I invited them to do. They say, "The British Embassy in Madrid said that six British residents were among those evacuated." Well, I can personally list 5 and I really don't know that many British people on the island. I'm sure the true number is a bit higher, still, by their own figure here, they must be able to work out that a half dozen or so residents is hardly "British tourists in waiting game". No flights were disrupted even. This is just not true. They also say, "So far, tourist resorts have remained largely unaffected.", which should read, "Tourist resorts remained TOTALLY unaffected."

Britons evacuated from Canary Islands - Telegraph
Gee, are they talking about me and those 5 others again? Well, actually no, as they say, "Wildfires sweeping across Spain's Canary Islands have forced authorities to evacuate around 11,000 people, including several hundred British tourists and residents." Several hundred now? That number seems to have grown faster than the forest fire itself!

Tourist alert as Canary Islands burn |
"More than 11,000 people including holidaymakers have been evacuated." More than 11,000 were evacuated, but these were not the resort tourists that the word "holidaymakers" leads you to believe. They were 10,994 locals and us 6 (see above).

Tourists Evacuate As Holiday Island Fires Take Hold (from This Is Lancashire)
Clutching at straws for an angle, their piece begins, "HUNDREDS of Bolton holidaymakers could be among tourists being evacuated from hotels on the Canary Islands." Could being the operative word. No tourist from Bolton, nor anywhere else, was ever affected.

Spain: Thousands Flee Canary Islands Fires - New York Times
Not quite as bad as the British examples, though it still gives the impression of people fleeing off the island. All that was required was to go to the safe coastal areas (you know, like the resorts) and out of the mountains.

Canary Islands - Arsonists at large in biggest ever fires.
John McGinty, writing (plagiarizing mostly and, the problem when you copy untrue reports ...), takes my award for most alarming headline. He talks about more than 5 arrests too, which is news to me. I've heard a rumor that they may have been one arrest in Tenerife, but that was a long time after July 31st when this article was published. Strange that, isn't it?

Even the BBC were running a sensationalist story, but I notice they later changed their headline and content to something more realistic.

It doesn't help that, in many of these reports, they are talking about both the Gran Canaria and Tenerife fires in the same breath. In Gran Canaria some visitors (I don't know nationalities) were evacuated from rural accommodation inland, in the mountains. Putting the two together, not being specific (deliberately, or not) and calling these people either "tourists" or "holidaymakers" gives an entirely false impression. Not only could this affect bookings, where some might think that there is a risk and not want to come here, but what about the families back in the UK of people who were on holiday in Tenerife at the time? If they had read those reports, they will probably have suffered days of unnecessary anguish. That I know to be the case from worried calls I got from my own relatives.

Apart from some yellow smoke, high in the sky above them, holidaymakers in the resorts would have been pretty oblivious to the fire and will not have considered any need to phone home to say that they were OK. Someone on the spot saw the sky and "thought they were simply storm clouds", until they learned the truth, but then only from reports on local television. "Holidaymakers" would not have been watching local television (which is, after all, in Spanish), so they probably remained none the wiser.

Now, I would still invite the British media, if any of them are monitoring blogs, to contact me if they would like some true stories about the island, but lets just try to get this whole "resort" idea into perspective shall we?

How much of Tenerife is a "resort"?

The area of the whole of the island of Tenerife is 2,034 km² (785 sq.mi).

Well, I could stop there really, because you don't need me to tell you that nobody ever made a resort as big as 785 square miles in size. But lets take the area of the district of Adeje, which has part of the resort of Las Americas or Costa Adeje, of 105.94 km². Add the area of the district of Arona, which has the other part of Las Americas, Los Cristianos, and Costa del Silencio, at 81.79 km², making 187.73 km² in total. The major part of those two districts are mountains, villages, proper towns and anything but "resort", but we'll ignore that fact, because that will compensate for Puerto de La Cruz (all 8.73 km² of it), Los Gigantes and other small coastal areas dedicated to tourism that I'm not counting. All in all then and, being really generous, at most only 187.73 km² - about 9.2% - out of the total of 2,034 km² of the island of Tenerife is a "resort". In truth, it's probably not much more than half of that area.

Tenerife: Geographic introduction: situation and size

What's the rest of Tenerife made up of?

Well, almost 45% of the island is protected and that includes vast areas of mountains and forests. Of the rest of the island, there are lots of historic villages, "normal" towns and cities providing work and housing for "normal", ordinary citizens; there are farms, banana plantations, golf courses and, lots of huge areas that are simply empty, because the terrain is such that you can't do anything else with it. This is all a far cry from being only a "resort".

Now just imagine how you would react if someone said, "Oh, don't go to England, it's just a resort" (full of kiss-me-quick hats, rock candy and pleasure rides), after the only place they'd heard of was Blackpool. You'd not only think they were wrong, but you'd think they were being pretty unreasonable and totally illogical, wouldn't you? Yeah, well so do we!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Tenerife Highs

Sunrise from the peak of Teide
Living on the North West coast of Tenerife, its impossible to ignore Mount Teide. From Punta de Hidalgo through Tacaronte, El Sauzal and the La Orotava Valley to Icod de los Vinos, its vast presence looms like a monolithic Guardian Angel.

An icon of Tenerife and the Canarian archipelago, at 3,718 metres, Mount Teide is Spain's highest mountain, Europe's highest volcano and the third highest volcano in the world. To Tenerife's earliest inhabitants, the Guanche, it was the place where the devil lived and where the earth held up the sky. This year, Mount Teide gathered a new title to add to its CV when UNESCO awarded it National Heritage Site status, and last week, for the first time since re-locating to Tenerife, I took the cable car trip.

Less than 10 minutes after boarding the car, I was standing at a height of 3,555 metres overlooking Gran Canaria, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro all floating on the horizon like a satellite image. It was all a great deal quicker and easier than the last time I looked out over the neighbouring islands from above the clouds.

It was November then, still hot on the beaches at the coast as I set out from the base of Montaña Blanca at a height of 2,200 metres to begin the ascent to the Alta Vista Refuge where I was to spend the night before continuing onto the summit to witness sunrise from the peak.

The climb wasn't technically difficult at all, an easy ascent for a couple of hours before the thigh-stretching two hour climb to the Refuge. But the effects of altitude multiplied the effort required, lungs and muscles straining to work effectively in the oxygen-starved atmosphere. By the time the roof of the Refuge came into sight, I could barely put one foot in front of the other.

After one of the longest nights of my life at the Alta Vista Refuge where I lay in icy silence for six hours in a dormitory shared with 14 strangers; the altitude and my aching legs ensuring that sleep remained an unapproachable stranger, I stepped out of the Refuge into the pitch dark at 4.30 am for the final ascent.

After two hours of tortuously slow progress, every step a test of physical and mental stamina, I finally reached the summit and climbed onto the topmost boulder as the grey half light of dawn retreated behind the peak. Cloud floated all around like a halo of foaming sea and the horizon burned pink, then orange as the sun rose. The lower peaks floated in the cloud like a school of hump back whales riding the white surf; beyond the circle of cloud, the lights of the south coast and La Gomera burned like diamond shoes at the feet of the giant volcano. I had a six hour, nine kilometre descent ahead of me, my fingers were numb and my feet and legs were screaming. But just for now, none of that mattered; I was standing with the Gods on the top of the world where the earth held up the sky.

Taking Refuge

The Alta Vista Refuge sits at a height of 3,270 metres and offers basic shelter to those climbing the mountain. There are no facilities for cooking and no refreshments on offer. Theres a small gas burner available to heat water, but with only one burner and lots of climbers, a hot drink is just a distant dream.

Its essential to book in advance. Fee per adult: 12.00.
Tel. 922 010 440; Fax. 922 287 837.


To climb to the summit of Mount Teide you have to apply in person to:

National Park Office
C/ Emilio Calzadilla, nº 5 - 4th floor
Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Tel. 922 290 129 - 922 290 183 ; Fax: 922 244 788
Office hours: from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., from Monday to Friday (take a photocopy of your identity card or passport).

However, if you stay the night at the Refuge, and provided you climb before sunrise and return past the cable car station before 9 am, you don't need a permit. You'll need a good torch, preferably one on a head band to leave you hands free.

Copyright © 2007 Real Tenerife Island Drives. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without the written permission of Real Tenerife Island Drives.
    Lying on a beach all day every day might make for a relaxing holiday, but memories of it fade as quickly as your sun tan. Island Drives is aimed at travellers who want to experience the real essence of Tenerife, not just its pools and beaches. If you want an unforgettable holiday as opposed to a good one, Real Tenerife Island Drives will make the difference.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Tenerife Fire: News from Masca

Masca, they tell us, is the second most visited place in Tenerife, after the Teide National Park and that the tiny village - home to just 140 people - sees something in the region of 800,000 visitors per year. Being familiar to so many, it's no surprise then that over the last few days, I've received lots of emails asking about the fire, among them questions about Masca and, in particular, one asks, "Please tell me how bad Masca is after the fire."

Visitors aren't the only people asking. Local postal services yesterday wanted to know if they are able to get over to Masca as the roads had been closed for a few days. Whom do they ask: the security forces, the town hall? Nope, that ever reliable source of local knowledge (apparently), me! :)

An article in La Opinión (La sabiduría de un pueblo en Masca) praised the wisdom of the people of Masca, who when they saw the fire coming over the Cumbres del Bolico (Bolico Peaks), left everything and got the hell out of there before they might have become trapped by the flames. Smoke had got down into the Masca valley by afternoon, says the article (this must have been the afternoon of Tuesday, July 31st); the wind was blowing and gusting strongly (up to 70 kmph), while the fire was "doing its own thing" in Santiago del Teide and had started to climb upwards on the south face of the mountains from Erjos. At 04:45 the mayor rang someone in Masca to say that things were going to get "complicated," which is when the inhabitants began to leave before the valley became a death trap.

The problem with the wind, we are told, is that turbulence meant that helicopters couldn't be used in the area, so tight within the valley walls around it. The palm trees acted like torches and, as the fronds burnt and broke off, so the gusts of wind took them where they will, catching anything dry and flammable alight and causing various fires all around the valley. However ... That same haphazard pattern also meant that the majority of the houses in Masca were saved. Those homes that did burn - they list 6 homes destroyed, among whose owners is the Collins family - burnt completely, while other houses, right next door didn't burn at all.

This video seems to confirm that extent of damage.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Tenerife Fire Just how big a disaster?

See bigger map

UPDATE: the Ministry for the Environment have released their official figures for the areas affected, which in Tenerife, was a total of 18,800 hectares. This is greater than the 15,000 hectares originally estimated and converts to 46454.8 acres, or 188 square kilometers, 72.59 square miles or 17,398.8 football (soccer) pitches! The biggest part of the disaster is, of course, for those who have lost their homes and all they owned and, for the nature and wildlife of the island, but what I wanted to know, after hearing constant references to so many hectares, is how big is that in something I can "get my head round?"

Click to see notes

The satellite image clearly shows the area affected by the fire, which the official figures put at 15,000 hectares. So what is a hectare? This Area Converter provided by the World Land Trust allowed me to put the number into some more readily understood terms:

15,000 hectares is equivalent to:
  • 37,065 acres
  • 150 square kilometers
  • 57.9 square miles
The island of Guernsey would fit twice into the area devastated by the fire and the area of Mahé, the largest island in the Seychelles and home to an estimated population of 72,000, is roughly equivalent at 155 square kilometers. The city of Kaohsiung a major industrial base in Taiwan covers 150 square kilometers and has a population of 1.4 million.

As a football (soccer) pitch is 2.67 acres, the area of the fire is equivalent to about 13,882 football pitches or space for 7,413,000 parked cars. For the Colonial viewers, it's about 28,079 American football fields. And based on the World Land Trust' ratio of 150 trees per acre, this disaster in Tenerife could, potentially, have wiped out, 5,559,750 trees.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Tenerife Fire: the evacuation and aftermath

As I'm writing this, there are helicopters circling over the Teno mountains every few minutes, so we imagine that the fire must have reactivated again nearby. You may have deduced from the international media reports (most of which bear little resemblance to the truth) and my absence, I was one of the thousands in Tenerife who were evacuated because of the forest fires. And here I will make a couple of public personal thanks, first to Jack and Andrea Montgomery of Real Tenerife Island Drives, who kindly put this "refugee" up in their own home. Please buy lots of copies of their guides to pay for all the food I ate! :)

Secondly, if you should ever find yourself in need of urgent temporary hotel accommodation for your animals in Tenerife (dogs, cats, parrots, iguanas, tortoises, rabbits and more), I can thoroughly recommend the Hospital Veterinario Tenerife Norte, who looked after my "furry tribe" of four cats and a dog for the night.

The other saint of animalsApart from the fact that our lovely vet, Dr. Ana, one of the owners and founders of the hospital, approved a "numerous family" discount, even on such short notice, their handling of me, under well, shall we call them, reasonably stressful circumstances, was reassuring and marvellous: something I really appreciated too.

Evacuation: We were woken up here in the higher part of the El Palmar valley; Las Portelas and Las Lagunetas at 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning, when the Civil Guard were going door-to-door telling people to leave.

The sky above the mountains at the head of the valley was vivid red against the darkness and the fire looked to be in danger of coming in this direction.

The larger risk was the smoke, which was getting quite strong already while we were all outside damping down houses and surrounding plants and trees in an attempt to make them less flammable. Fortunately, the wind changed and took the fire back the other way, but if winds can change once, they can do it again and it could so easily have been much worse for us.

The fires have left us without DSL at times here, as John at Sorted Sites points out, that the fires "caused some of Telefonica's ADSL internet servers to go down, leaving many people without internet access."

Masca Village Destroyed

The emblematic and picturesque village of Masca, which is just over the mountains from here, was not as fortunate as we were and, we are still scratching our heads over how the fire could get down into that valley.

Reports vary widely between 4 houses burnt to the whole village having been turned to ashes, but frankly we do not know what is the real situation yet. Yesterday, the roads to Masca were still closed: they would not even let local inhabitants through to give food and water to the animals that have survived and have been without both for days. As you will see from this video though, the lower estimates look to be rather over optimistic:

Everyone in this valley has family or friends in Masca, who will probably have lost everything. An article in El Dia talked of the desolation and lists amongst others affected, an English girl, named as Susana, who has lived with her partner, Calvin, for 16 years in a house that they built themselves. The reports says that, having contained a lot of wood, it burnt completely.

The news about another English girl, married to an Italian, and who had only recently bought a house in Masca in the last 6-7 months and that they are restoring as a rural hotel, we are hoping at this point is better. Reports are that their house has escaped the flames and that their goats - which came from my friends Gregorio and Fernanda - are safe and sound.

If the international media coverage of the fire has been awful, the local media coverage, with one notable exception, has been not much better. That exception is Canarias7, who put together a special on the fire, including good use of Google Maps to show the area affected by the fire, which was started near Icod el Alto.

Francis at Television Daute in Los Silos was doing the best he could to bring live information on Tuesday, but his efforts were seriously hampered, because phone lines were out there and he had no links to his cameras in the affected areas. On Wednesday morning, the larger local stations were showing what happened on Tuesday still, only they weren't making that entirely clear, so one had absolutely no idea how things were progressing. In particular, I had no idea if I was allowed to return home, the town hall weren't manning phones and I had to phone a neighbour in the end to find out.

When I did come home on Wednesday, there was still a strong smell of "barbecued" pine in the air. Since coming home, I don't think I've been off the phone for long and we're all suffering "post traumatic stress" here, because we're all sniffing for burning smells and looking into the sky, temporarily worried that a grey cloud behaving like smoke could indeed be smoke.

Besides that, the helicopters continued to circle today, collecting water from the reservoir at Las Portelas here in the El Palmar valley, roughly once a minute. That seems too frequent for a simple cooling exercise, which adds to the concern. From there, they seem to be dropping the water over the area of Los Carizales, between here and what's left (if anything) of Masca.

For certain this fire is something that nobody here will forget in a hurry.