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The ups and downs of Fuerteventura

At first Fuerteventura, with its arid and barren landscape, appeared unwelcoming. Broken shards of rock lay scattered over the dark, sterile soil and a perennial wind beat away at the hills. Above, a heavy stratus cloud sat in the sky, obscuring the sun and casting a dull aura over the landscape. Yet, as the cloud dispersed with the morning and the sun beamed down, everything changed. Stratus became cumulus, their shadows dancing over the now honeyed, volcanic landscape. The milky, turquoise sea glistened in the sunshine and frothed along the rocky coastline. Everything seemed golden.

Indeed, the Canary Islands have a history related to things gold. Myth has it one of Hercules’ 12 labours was to bring back some golden apples guarded by the Hesperides, the daughters of Atlas, who created night to protect their treasured possessions. Hercules had to travel to the end of the world, thought to be the Canary Islands, to succeed in his final task.

Despite being mentioned by Homer as Elysium, the place where the righteous spend their afterlife, and other ancients, it is not known whether these cultures actually made it to the canary islands, beyond their imaginations, pens and storytelling. It is thought, although not established, that the original inhabitants of the canaries came from the sands of North Africa, as shared cultural and linguistic traits suggest. Mysteriously though, first encounters between Europeans and the Guanche, the general name for the indigenous Canarians, suggest they knew little about their history, navigation or for that matter, sea travel.

Heading north from the airport near Puerto Del Rosario, straight into the wind (why do I always make this mistake?), the igneous and spurge splattered hills gave way to the wonderful Parque Natural de Corralejo, a huge sand dune spreading south from Corralejo, along the coast and to the hills inland. The sand whipped my legs as it was blown across the road by gusts of wind before settling back down on the wavy dunes, a ridged surface looking like a cage of ribs. Beyond the sand, the sails of kiteboards rose high, hooking on the wind and twisting like leaves.

From Corralejo it’s possible to catch a ferry to Lanzarote, or the small, isolated island of Lobos, but I decided to continue round the northwestern coast to El Cotillo, a small fishing village. Following an off-road trail skirting the unbridled, crashing Atlantic breaks, I was stunned by the dramatic changes in the landscape. Gone were the dunes, gleaming under the sun. I now entered a post-apocalyptic world of spat out volcanic remnants, a carpet of jagged black rubble stretching down to the turquoise sea. With the moaning wind, it felt eerie and dead. Yet, unbelievably, there was the occasional shack, protected faithfully by ferocious Presa Canarios, and crumbling walls fading inland. In such close vicinity to the ocean, where the land falls into the violent water, the rock built and caravan residences looked isolated and outcast, defying the elements and odds, as though banished to hell. Perfect for camping!

The Presa Canario is the unique breed of dog that gives its name to the islands. These muscular canines are thought to be cross breed of Hispanic holding dogs, brought to the Canary Islands by the Spanish conquistadors, presumably to protect cattle and aid butchers in slaying for meat, and Fuerteventura’s Bardino, a courageous goat herding dog. These dogs have “a great physical resistance, moderation of size, scarce bark, an extraordinary set of teeth and an incorruptible courage” and “a good disposition for the fight.” It was these words that followed me as I cycled through the Canaries, accompanied by these baying guards infuriated by a man on two wheels.

I stayed near El Cotillo, a quaint fishing village boasting what is more like a Martello tower than a castle. The sky was heavy and threatening rain. As I left the square cliffs of the western coast and headed inland along a road of buckling palms, the land looked thirsty for water. Everything was parched, the only colour on the honeycombed desert being the minty green Lichen covering the rocks. The clouds didn’t disappoint, bursting open and soaking both the land and me.

I passed small settlements, as well as the historical town of La Oliva, the capital of ancient Maxorata (the old name for Fuerteventura). Places looked poor and destitute, more like Africa than Europe. Accompanying each settlement came the feeling of being watched; not by the inhabitants, as they were nowhere to be seen; nor the goats meandering around, searching for something nutritious on which to graze; but by those muscular heads and bulging eyes of the Bardino, stirred into a snarling frenzy by the sight of two wheels.

Climbing up a hill and past ashen peaks, I then descended into the windswept Tefia valley, swiftly swamped by the rain. High above, some Kestrels hovered in the thermals, unconcerned by the moisture. Tefia seemed to have more of a population than some of the other settlements I’d passed, yet even here things seemed sleepy and quiet. As like other places, it’s hard to imagine how communities like this continue to survive in the globalised world. Whilst, of course, Fuerteventura’s small size means it’s easy to travel to work in resorts and within tourism, surely the youth want more than goat herding and cheese making as livelihoods. Perhaps, however, I’m just misguided, underestimating the strength of heritage, family ties, and the possible to live so closely to the wild.

Continuing south, up and out of the valley, the wind carrying more maddened canine howls, a panorama of northern Fuerteventura fell before me. Curving hills rise from this honeycombed gravel, mottled by rapidly passing clouds and intermittent sun. The viewpoint was dramatic, but by now the wind was so vicious I had to walk my bicycle.

Again the land changed, the rusty rock replaced by the most beautiful, copper soil. The whole Betancuria valley was ochre, sculpted into earthen fields and lined by palm trees, placed to clutch even the smallest of rainfall. Now though the rainfall was steady, saturating the flora and basting the road. Betancuria was the first town that really suggested historical and architectural nods to Europe. As well as the whitewashed cottages seen throughout the island, an impressive 17th century Baroque church stands proudly in the idyllic surroundings. Its pretty brick façade and squat double bell tower is striking. Indeed the town caught the eye of pirates who frequently ransacked it, yet it has maintained its pretty appearance, almost oasis-like amongst the rocks and mountains of the national park to its west.

It’s hard to leave a place so idyllic and secluded, but I had to continue, past the equally pleasant town of Pajara, towards the southern coast and the resort of Morro Jable. Cycling south I passed the quaint fishing village of Tarajalero and continued along a busier road, encountering traffic for the first time in a number of days. Modern apartments and tourist precincts were scattered roadside as I rode parallel to the coast, climbing hills that offered beautiful views down to the glistening Atlantic. Dunes that spread from south to north, marking the beginning of the Peninsula de Jandia, replaced the windswept hills of the north.

Arriving at Morro Jable made me want to retreat back to the hills. As far as resorts go it is small and relatively tasteful, but after the peace and wilderness of the north it felt claustrophobic and busy. If I’d had a mountain bike I would’ve fled into the mountains and explored the rough, unpaved beauty at the foot of the peninsula, but I didn’t. Instead I headed for the port to catch a ferry to Gran Canaria, my other escape route. Although looking forward to the new scenery and culture, I felt sad to leave behind such a charming island.

Basking in the warmth of its vicinity to the tropic of Cancer yet cooled by the ocean and Atlantic winds, Fuerteventura makes an ideal destination for cycling in winter. It is small enough to cycle in a few days, but wild enough to encourage exploration and a longer stay. As with the other Canaries it has so much to offer, a far cry from the image of tacky resorts and cheap alcohol. Just watch out for the dogs.

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