The Canaries are closer to North Africa than they are Europe, and none more so than Fuerteventura, the second largest island after Tenerife that lies just 100 kilometres off the Moroccan coast.
Many see Fuerteventura simply as a beach destination for a few days of sunshine and solace, however the island’s long history has left plenty of culture to enjoy alongside the higher profile natural attractions.
This post will give you some historical background to Fuerteventura as well as some of the must see cultural highlights from art to archaeology that are sure to mix up your trip and add some extra flair to the desert landscape.
Long before the arrival of the first colonial settlers, the Canary Islands were populated by pagan tribes who most likely arrived from North Africa and are to this day known as Maho people after the goatskin shoes that they favoured.
Conquerors Jean De-Béthencourt and Gadifer de la Salle arrived in nearby Lanzarote in 1402, completing their conquest of Fuerteventura in 1405 and establishing a capital in Betancuria in the south western hills of the island.
In the centuries that followed, the island fell prey to numerous pirate invasions that spurred the construction of castles in an attempt to fend off aggressors, whilst also forcing much of the population inland, further away from the vulnerable, unprotected coastline.
Eventually the Spanish monarchy gave control of the island to local militia leaders known as the Coroneles (colonels) in 1708 to try and stave off foreign looters, leading to over a century of feudal rule and the creation of southern parishes in La Oliva and Pájara.
After gaining autonomy from Spain in 1912 the island’s tourism industry blossomed in the 1960s, whilst the population grew from 11,000 in 1911 to just over 103,000 in 2009. With the global recession of 2008 many feared Fuerteventura would fall on hard times given its dependence on tourism (13 million people visited the Canary Islands in 2014), however some see the slowdown as positive in terms of preserving the island’s ecological jewels and avoiding the over commercialisation that they believe could ruin the island.
The future’s looking bright for conservationists with UNESCO recently acknowledging the island’s natural beauty by awarding it Biosphere Reserve status in 2009 and the government proposing ambitious plans to transform the entire west coast into a natural park.
Nestled within the picturesque landscape are some of the Canary archipelago’s oldest churches and structures, as well as some intriguing small museums showcasing ancient relics, art and local produce.
At just under forty minutes drive from the airport is Betancuria. This quaint and secluded town is a former capital with a tumultuous past. Although it was built inland to shelter itself from invaders it was still pillaged by the pirate Jaban in 1593, leading to the subsequent rebuilding of its main church Iglesia de Santa Maria in 1691, before forfeiting its capital status in 1834, as trade grew on the east coast.
Today the small town draws in visitors thanks to the photogenic aforementioned church that also houses local artist workshops and a restaurant, as well as an archaeological and an art museum. Recommended if you’re looking to gain a sense of island’s history.
Nuestra Senora de la Regla
Within the small village of Pajara on the the Jandia peninsula lies this unique church with its characteristic stone entrance said to have Aztec influences. The well preserved ornate stonework is impressive. A ten minute drive east takes you to the equally handsome town of Tuineje which was once the site of a battle between local farmers and English pirates. The town’s striking lighthouse is also worth a visit.
A great way to visit the church is as part of the Grand Tour of Fuerteventura that incorporates many of the Island’s major historical sites into a single day trip.
Puerto del Rosario Sculpture Park
As more and more visitors flock to Fuerteventura, the capital and major port on the island has attempted to bolster its cultural standing by commissioning over 50 street-side sculptures around the town. These add real character to the recently redeveloped seafront walkway and are a pleasant surprise to discover on a stroll around the city.
Puerto del Rosario also boasts a 570 seat auditorium for balls and concerts, as well as a local museum of culture with art and photography exhibitions.