Following in the footsteps of Victorian travellers on Tenerife

The passage of time brings constant changes to the world. What is the norm for us was not the norm for our parents.

Take Tenerife. Outside of the Canarian Archipelago, and even occasionally within it, it is mostly characterised by its main resort areas. In the first year after its inauguration in 1978, Tenerife Sur Airport welcomed around one million visitors. Last year (2017) that figure exceeded eleven million, most heading south after touching down.

In historical terms, that is a relatively new development. Up until the 1930s there wasn’t even a main road linking the metropolis area of the north with the south of Tenerife. The road heading south had ended at Güímar. Before the arrival of the road, all major transport between the two was conducted by sea.

Historic ship, Santa Cruz, Tenerife
A blast from the past in the port at Santa Cruz.

For centuries, the main route travellers followed when they arrived by boat at Santa Cruz was quite different. They headed along the north coast, passing through busy little towns, many of which are now considered ‘off the beaten track’. These days the drive isn’t particularly scenic, which is why we haven’t included it as one of our driving routes, but it is one which is full of history and interest.

These are some of the places they would have passed through.

La Laguna

Typical street, La Laguna, Tenerife
Not much change in centuries… except maybe the chairs and tables in the street might not have looked quite the same.

Tenerife’s former capital had around six inns in the mid 19th century. We used to say there were more hotels in the centre of the city in 1860 than there are now. However, with the relatively recent additions of the La Laguna Gran and MC San Agustin hotels as well as others planned, it’s almost back at 19th century levels. Today’s accommodation is in similar colonial style town houses as those experienced by Victorian travellers; although modern visitors are less likely to have to negotiate pigs in interior courtyards to get to their rooms. As La Laguna’s old quarter is a UNESCO Heritage World Site, 21st century visitors wander streets which haven’t changed much since their Victorian predecessors did the same.


Santuario del Santísimo Cristo de Dolores, Tacoronte, Tenerife
Santuario del Santísimo Cristo de Dolores all decked out for a fiesta.

Another stopping point for travellers was Tacoronte which remains a bustling Canarian town despite the absence of visitors. The Calvario here also attracted pilgrims as well as those journeying on coach to La Orotava. You have to explore to find the area the old road passed through as the more modern part of the town is now the ‘centre’. There are charming lanes, a park with examples of the various ways vines are grown on Tenerife, an ancient grain store which is used as cultural centre, and the grand old Santuario del Santísimo Cristo de Dolores and its plaza where fiestas take place.

El Sauzal

View from church plaza, El Sauzal, Tenerife
A church plaza with a view in El Sauzal.

Some more intrepid visitors make it to the La Baranda Casa del Vino (the wine museum) but not so many venture beyond, to the town of El Sauzal itself. There you get impressive views of Mount Teide from the plaza at the Parroquia de San Pedro Apóstol, a quite unusual church in that it has a white dome as well as a tower. El Sauzal is one of those towns where you have to put in the effort to find its most interesting corners – the tumbling Parque Las Lavaderos, or the clifftop Mirador de la Garañona where, in the gardens, are the remains of an old elevator used to bring up sand from the beach way below.

La Matanza

Tinguaro, Guanche freedom fighter who defeated the Spanish, La Matanza, Tenerife
Guanche freedom fighter Tinguaro who saw off the Spanish with just a spear and a facecloth by the look of things.

From El Sauzal the travellers’ route would head inland slightly reaching La Matanza first where the coach might stop for refreshments for passengers and horses. La Matanza (the slaughter, or massacre) was where, in 1494, Guanche warriors inflicted a heavy defeat on the conquistadors, sending them homewards to think again. Tucking into tapas at La Cuadra de San Diego it’s easy to imagine a stagecoach could still come rolling up at any moment.

La Victoria

Centenary Pine, La Victoria, Tenerife
The Centenary Pine.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out where neighbouring town La Victoria got its name. It is where, in 1495, the conquistadors exacted their revenge. Now the town is mostly unremarkable. But there are still interesting features to be uncovered, such as the Centenary Pine where a mass was held following the defeat of the Guanches. This is a land of chestnut trees and vines where traditional food is served in basic restaurants or guachinches.

Santa Ursula

Humboldt's Mirador, La Orotava, Tenerife
Between Santa Ursula and La Orotava towns, the spot which got Humboldt excited.

Like La Matanza and La Victoria, Santa Ursula is yet another bustling northern hill town which you wouldn’t describe as picturesque, which is probably why, despite their historic pasts, they barely get a mention in guidebooks. However, it is a good place to experience a taste of authentic life in the Tenerife hills There are plenty of good bars and restaurants and ‘se vende vino’ (wine sold here) is scrawled on signs attached to quite a few buildings. Don’t confuse the town with the La Quinta development on the coast where there’s a hotel – they are completely different in personality; one is a town, the other a housing development. Santa Ursula is also the municipality which the great Guanche warrior Bencomo called home, according to the good people of Santa Ursula. The cave recognised as being Bencomo’s main abode is in La Orotava, just over the municipality border, and is now used to keep goats warm and dry. The exact location of the border between the two municipalities has been a bone of contention for centuries.

La Orotava

Old street, La Orotava, Tenerife
Our favourite Tenerife streets to stroll, lovely La Orotava.

La Orotava is clearly not ‘off the beaten track’ as its colonial buildings attract bus loads of excursionists daily. Saying that, plenty of visitors still miss a lot of the historical town’s more interesting features. It was on the route between Santa Ursula and La Orotava that German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt waxed lyrical about the view across the Orotava Valley to Mount Teide. It’s a view which remains a stunner, even taking into account the development of the lower valley.

La Orotava would signify the end of the line for many travellers. They’d book into an inn, freshen up and then dine heartily on a bowl of puchero; something modern day travellers who wish to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors can also do.

Parts of Tenerife have clearly changed enormously since the opening of the Tenerife South Airport. But what’s rather reassuring is there are lots of areas where fundamentally it feels as though things haven’t changed that much at all.

About Jack 450 Articles
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+

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