The Canary Island's 900km gravel adventure – Gran Guanche

We travelled around the Canary Islands archipelago with the aim of getting to know a permanent changing landscape. A cultural and historical heritage, starry night skies and the immensity of the ocean.

If you're a cyclist and you land in Lanzarote, you'll want to hit the road straight away. And that’s exactly what we did. We unpacked our bags and rode towards the starting point of a 900km epic across the Canary Islands.

Matteo Minelli, Matt to his friends, is the creator of Gran Guanche’s cycling route, and it is his headquarters where we start our route. Matteo, is an Italian engineer who arrived at Lanzarote fifteen years ago, to practice windsurfing and never left. He fell in love with the islands and with cycling. He had always wanted to share the island’s lesser known unknown natural wonders.

Matt devised Gran Guanche during 2020’s lockdown. There are three versions of the same route: one for road, one for gravel and one for mountain bikes. They all start at the island of La Graciosa and travel through Lanzarote, Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura. The road version ends in La Gomera, the gravel version in El Hierro, and the trail version in La Palma. We opted for a tailored route: a combination of the gravel and trail version. I rode a mountain bike, my riding partner Ricard rode a gravel bike.

Altimetries and ferry timetables

When you plan to ride through an archipelago, whichever version of Gran Guanche's route you choose, you have to hop from island to island boarding ferries. It’s a bit of added fun, but it’s also an extra cost and requires some advance planning strategy. If you miss a ferry, you’ll be stranded for twelve, or even twenty four hours on the same island.

That first morning, we enjoyed the waves on Famara beach and sat down for a coffee, until the dreaded wind of the Canary Islands. From then on, the Gran Guanche led us on trails through seas of lava, near Timanfaya, through the salt flats of Janubio. In the end, we managed to catch the ferry that would take us to Fuerteventura, the closest island to the African continent and also the most arid.

In Fuerteventura, a good part of the route runs along the coast. The sun rose ahead of us, like old sailors with the wind at our backs. It was a perfect sun, with touches of pale yellow due to the floating sand from the Sahara, the famous “calima”.

We enjoyed it all the way to El Cotillo. Returning to reality we had to buy food at a supermarket and camped near the beach, just a few kilometres away from the village. The following day we had headwinds, a side wind and finally a tailwind that supported us to Morro Jable – miraculously catching the last ferry departure.

From Gran Canaria to Tenerife, reality lessons

On our first day in Gran Canaria Island, we climbed up the 1956 metres high of Pico de las Nieves. Little did we know that the next day we would have something wonderful to look forward to: the Tamadaba Natural Park. Filled with fabulous natural forests of native Canary Island pines and steep cliffs. It’s an inaccessible coastline with a rich biodiversity. One of the best perks is that motorised traffic is forbidden on a long track that crosses the park.

We arrived at the next island — Tenerife. Known as the island of beaches, sunshine and night parties. At least, that was our preconceived image of the route. However Gran Guanche offered us a lesson: we discovered that water is scarce in Tenerife Island. We followed a track, surrounded by forests that leads us to the foot of Mount Teide (3,715 m). We followed trails for hours, until well into the afternoon when the mist lifted up at last, and we could see the summit.

To my mind came the Guanches, the island's aboriginal population. They were the island’s inhabitants until the Castilian conquest in 1496. I was wearing everything I had, and I was still shivering, so wonder how on early those early inhabitants survived. When we reached the highest point of 3,300m, we could feel it in our bones. We decided to descend a few metres to avoid a cold and wet night.

A chapel, better than a large suite

We arrived at El Hierro at night. At this time of the year, there is only one ferry crossing from Tenerife to this island. The night was placid, with a very warm breeze and with a blanket of stars overhead. We saw that near the harbour, there was the chapel of San Telmo. We both thought it would probably be a good place to spend the night, so Ricard and I camped in our bivvy bag without a tent.

We woke up at the first light on a grey dawn. It is often said that El Hierro is a captivating place, and so it was. As we climbed up the asphalted slopes I discovered a different and unique island. On one hand, I was excited to learn that, with the Gorona del Viento hydro-wind power station, El Hierro is the first Canary Island to be completely self-sufficient, with renewable energy sources. On the other hand, the scenery transported me to the rugged west coast of Ireland. We got wet, we got cold, we had to negotiate a landslide... but El Hierro made me fall in love with it and it surely captivated me.

The beautiful island of La Palma, was the last one left out. And to avoid boredom, a 200km route awaited us. We spent the first morning in a jungle. We rode through vines, ferns, sounds of tropical birds, moss-covered rocks and slippery roots and enjoyed a sea of fog from the emblematic Roque de los Muchachos climb (2,426 m). The type of terrain and vegetation changed drastically, giving way to pine forests, vineyards and banana plantations. We passed through La Palma until and onto our final destination, the capital.

Historic finale

Santa Cruz de la Palma is one of the most beautiful towns in the Canary Islands. Life here runs at a leisurely pace. Between cobbled streets, ancestral homes and wooden balconies. A flirtatious city that can whisper stories of conquistadors, corsairs and overseas adventurers.

We treated ourselves to a couple of nights in the impressive Casa Emblemática de Don Gabriel — a house dating back to 1649. Which from 1930 until 1987 belonged to the illustrious Don Gabriel Duque Acosta, known as "the doctor of impoverished people". He was a character of enormous generosity who refused to charge patients in need.

To sleep on a mattress again for a couple of days, in this grand house, enjoying delicious typical Canarian cuisine, savouring a good local white wine, allowed us to recover the energy that we had left on the trails and on the slopes of the Gran Guanche. In total, we rode almost 900km with 21,000m of accumulated positive altitude gain.

If Matt's aim was for us to discover the most unknown essence of the Canary Islands by bike, he had certainly succeeded.


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