The Canary Islands are a group of seven large and six smaller islands in the Atlantic, 100-300km/60-180mi off the northwest coast of Africa (Morocco, Western Sahara) and around 1,100km/680mi from mainland Spain (Cádiz). They lie between latitude 27°38' and 29°35' north and between longitude 13°20' and 18°14' west.
The archipelago extends for some 500km/310mi from east to west and 200km/125mi from north to south and has a total land area of around 7550 sq.km/2915 sq.mi.
The eastern islands of Gran Canaria (area 1,532 sq.km/592 sq.mi), Fuerteventura (1,731 sq.km/668 sq.mi), Lanzarote (795 sq.km/307 sq.mi), Graciosa (27 sq.km/10.5mi), Alegranza (10 sq.km/4 sq.mi), Lobos (6 sq.km/2.5mi) and Montaña Clara (1 sq.km0.sq.mi), together with the reefs of Roque del Oeste and Roque del Este, form the province of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (chief town Las Palmas). The province of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (chief town Santa Cruz) consists of the western islands of Tenerife (2,057 sq.km/794 sq.mi), La Palma (728 sq.km/281 sq.mi), Gomera (378 sq.km/146 sq.mi) and Hierro (277 sq.km/107 sq.mi).
Origin of name
It is not known for certain how the Canaries got their name. The designation "Isla Canaria" appears for the first time on a Spanish chart of 1339. In antiquity the group was known as the Blessed or Fortunate Islands; later the name Canaria was applied by Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) to the island now known as Gran Canaria. Pliny related the name (canis = "dog") to the large dogs which lived on the island. There were certainly dogs in the Canaries in Pliny's time, though they were not unusually large. The Romans associated the islands with the kingdom of the dead which lay in the west; and it is possible that this had something to do with the name, for in ancient mythological conceptions the dead were conducted into the underworld by dogs. It has also been suggested that the bird known to the Romans as canora (singing bird) may have lived on the islands. Still another possibility is that the name may have come from the cape of Canauria (probably Cape Bojador) on the African coast.
Flora and fauna
The flora of the Canaries is unique in two respects. On the one hand there are found here within a relatively small area species of plants from almost every vegetation zone in the world; on the other there is a strikingly high proportion of endemic species (plants which are found only here). Altogether the flora of the Canaries comprises almost 2000 species, fully 30% of which are endemic. The fauna shows a much narrower range of species than the flora, though here too endemic species are relatively numerous.
There are no large mammals - only rabbits, hedgehogs and bats. It is reassuring for visitors that there are no scorpions or poisonous snakes.
Prominent in the landscape of the Canaries are the extensive banana plantations. Bananas are grown predominantly on the north side of the islands at height of up to 400m/1300ft. At higher levels and on the south side of the islands the main crops are tomatoes and potatoes, together with corn, maize, fruit, vegetables and fodder plants for domestic use. Since the Canaries have a relatively low rainfall, agriculture depends on extensive irrigation schemes or on the use of special dry-farming methods. Stock-farming is of secondary importance. In many areas goats are reared; cattle and sheep farming meets only part of the islands' requirements. Fishing (particularly tunny-fishing) is practiced off all the islands. In general agriculture, once the main means of subsistence, is declining, accounting for barely 10% of the gross domestic product. The production of foodstuffs covers only 25% of local consumption.
Industry contributes about 25% of the gross domestic product. It concentrates mainly on food-processing, but there are also a number of medium-sized woodworking, papermaking and fish-canning plants and factories producing building materials and fertilizers. Craft goods (embroidery, etc.) are produced in small (sometimes very small) establishments.
Since 1852 the Canaries have been a free trade (duty-free) zone, and this has given a great boost to trade. Shortage of water, raw materials and power, however, put a brake on economic development, and as a result the balance of trade has long been in deficit. Imports, principally from mainland Spain, are increasing.
The hotel business may only constitute 15% of the total economic income of the islands but 60% of the gross domestic product is generated either directly or indirectly through tourism. Tenerife alone attracts 2.5million visitors annually. Despite concern for the environment tourist development continues to expand with the smaller islands also wanting their share of the "tourist cake".
The Canaries are believed to have been settled from around 3000 B.C.onwards by at least two waves of incomers. The history of these first inhabitants (often called Guanches, though that name should properly be applied only to the people of Tenerife), living almost totally isolated from the rest of the world, is obscure. There are no written records - apart from some rock inscriptions which have not been deciphered - until the Spanish conquest. From 1402 onwards Castile made serious attempts to take over the islands, and this process was completed by the conquest of Tenerife in 1496. Those of the original inhabitants who were not sold as slaves gradually became assimilated into the Spanish population. The economy of the islands began to develop in the 19th Century with the establishment of free ports, and from the mid 20th century tourism took possession of the archipelago.
There are weekly ferry services by the Spanish company Trasmediterránea from Genoa to Palma de Mallorca, Málaga, Cádiz, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Arrecife (Lanzarote). The voyage from Genoa to Gran Canaria takes six days. There are regular ferry services between the various islands.
There are frequent scheduled flights by the Spanish national airline Iberia from London Heathrow to Gran Canaria (Las Palmas) and Tenerife (Santa Cruz), usually with an intermediate stop at Madrid or Barcelona, and less frequent services to Lanzarote (Arrecife), with an intermediate stop at Las Palmas. It is also possible to fly from airports around the world to Madrid and get a connecting flight from there. In addition there are numerous charter flights from London and other European cities, usually as part of a package which includes accommodation.
There are regular scheduled services between the various islands.