Climbing in Tenerife
Updated: Jan 4
A winter sun rock review
I'll admit that Tenerife was not a place I'd ever had an interest in visiting. The main impression I had of it, along with the other well known Canary Islands, was as a resort island where Brits go on cheap flights to get drunk and tanned. But in the ever-evolving weirdness of 2020, there was a window in late November when the only places in Europe where the FCDO didn't advise against travel were those pretty much not in Europe - a handful of Greek islands, to which there were no direct flights, and the Canaries. It seemed worth investigating.
To cut short a tedious story of internet quest, carefully timed Covid tests and booking things in the right order that we wouldn't lose out if everything fell through, we decided it was worth the hassle and the flightshame to get out of the midwinter ming of Britain for a while, and settled on Tenerife. None of the sources I researched, other than those with an interest in saying so, suggested that Canarian climbing was particularly outstanding, so our expectations were not too high. Sport climbing holidays in the middle of winter for us are as much about being somewhere less dark and damp than Britain, as about the climbing itself - which only needs to be good enough, and in pleasant surroundings, rather than the stuff of dreams.
Of course, there is more to Tenerife than the resort vision that I'd ignorantly imagined. Sunshine, although pretty significant, is not its only asset. The Canaries sit off the coast of southern Morocco on a volcanic hotspot which accounts for their existence. This is still slightly active, though there have been no eruptions on Tenerife since 1789. The classic cone of El Teide in the centre of the island is the highest point in the Atlantic, and 'in' Spain, at 3715m. The whole island is rough and rocky, and nothing is flat. It looks like a paradise for masochist cyclists, with the high road through the Teide crater getting up well over 2000m. The south of the island is semi-arid, and the north, which we visited only once, noticeably more lush, getting much more of the prevailing rain. My initial impression on arrival at the South airport was that the coastal highway strip is ugly as hell, a dry-roast and scarred industrial mess. The coast itself is much better, even if every building is a soulless concrete box, with bijou beaches, harbours and rocky coves. The pine forest that grows between about 800-1500m altitude makes that zone of the island feel less blasted and exposed. There is a good network of footpaths, with plenty of interesting peaks and gorges other than the famed centrepiece of El Teide. There are of course more resort-y attractions too, though the world's best waterpark according to Tripadvisor was obviously and sadly closed.
The climbing hub of Tenerife is the village of Arico, which has within a short drive the majority of the best developed crags, although I can imagine there is tons of less developed potential elsewhere. These crags generally form the sidewalls of shallow gorges around the lower limit of the pine zone, and are sometimes partially quarried - perhaps the volcanic rock benefits from some erosive stabilisation by water to make it good to climb. A lot of the cliffs we saw elsewhere on the island looked impressive but not very attractive from that point of view. Aesthetically and style-wise, the crags offer something different to stock European limestone venues. Visually they are sometimes surprisingly redolent of Utah, partly because its surface is coloured by what I guess is Saharan dust, and partly because of the shapes into which it fractures, with curving cracks and blocky roofs. The pocketed ignimbrite in Arico gorge, where the popularity of a route in the dusty environment is pretty much proportional to the dazzle of white on the holds, looks and feels quite similar to certain types of sandstone.
We climbed mainly in the lower Arico gorge, and at the nearby crags of El Rio and Los Naranjos. We never made it to the recommended Guaria, simply because it was further away, sounded like a little too much at risk of being a sun trap for our fussy thermostats, and there was plenty to keep us busy close by. We didn't bother taking our climbing stuff when we drove up into the Teide National Park - preferring to hike to one of the crater rim summits, as the climbing up there on Las Cañadas sounded less good, despite its impressive setting.
So how good was the climbing in Tenerife? In short, we were pleasantly surprised.
If you went expecting world class, you would probably be disappointed. I liked it at least as much as some of the more popular venues I've visited for winter sun, such as the Costa Blanca. Compared to sport climbing at home, it's great. The volume of quality routes might taper off a little into the 8s, but from the mid 6s to mid 7s there is no area in Britain that comes close. It helps of course in that regard, that apart from considerations of being in or out of the sun, the rock is easily accessed and permanently climbable, not seeping or bird-banned or sea-smegged or half underwater, or indeed sharp, loose or too badly polished. I realise British mid-grade sport climbing does not present a very highly raised bar to compare, but at least it's one that most people likely to read this will be able to identify with.
The routes are mostly not very long, averaging about 20m, so tending to be either bouldery or power endurance rather than stamina. The angle varies all the way from slabby on some of the lower grade routes to impressively steep, with some excellent lower-off swings from the bottom clip, even in the higher 6s - I don't think I've climbed a route below 7a where the landing zone is as far out from the base of the climb as La Vagoneta at Arico. There is a good variety of climbing on pockets, cracks (including a small bit of bona fide crack technique), jugs and small edges. Rock quality is generally very good and skin friendly, though with the odd alarming block. The grades seemed generally fairly consistent, with a few slight softies and sandbags. The bolting was generally fine, though sometimes with bizarrely high first bolts, or lines forced out of more obvious features by the bolt positioning. We were glad of the decision to squeeze a clip-stick into our hold luggage.
We climbed mostly routes from 6b to 7a+ on sight, with attempts on harder onsights and redpoints up to 8a, so my assessment is based on that grade range, but it seemed that the highest concentration of starred routes was from about 6a+ to 7b+ in any case. Arico Lower felt like the epicentre for 7th grade stuff, with a clutch of good warm-ups and plenty of steep things to go at, mostly on the sunny side of the gorge. Arico Upper we visited only once, but it had a lot more to do in the 6s and a more open piney vibe, with some good looking bouldering too (the climbing shop in Arico offers pad hire, should one be so inclined). At El Rio the rock was different, a trachyte that felt not unlike slate on some routes, but steep and blocky on others. The Galeria sector here was the other place that stood out for harder projects, but there was something offputting about its blocky, dusty appearance and the nearby presence of great swathes of alarming choss. Nonetheless we enjoyed some of the routes at sectors Preso and the shady Fondo, where I was surprised to actually get a bit cold one day, with a wind funnelling out of the narrows of the gorge. Los Naranjos is a small but pleasant crag with an open water duct gurgling at its base, ready to get your pulled rope wet but handy for washing the ubiquitous dusty grime off your hands after belaying. In fact, a better solution would be to bring full finger belay gloves.
In terms of 'when to go', Tenerife seemed pretty ideal as a midwinter destination. I read somewhere that the Canaries have the lowest seasonal variation of climate in the world - whether or not that's true, it's very pleasant in December to be somewhere that is reliably 18-20°C and nearly always dry. Right across the Mediterranean from Iberia to Turkey, it tends to be colder and wetter than that. Being further south than the rest of Europe also means more daylight around the solstice. Even if the Canaries don't get as hot during the rest of the year as more continental venues, 20°C is warm enough for me at any time, especially with a mind to being active. I wouldn't have minded if it had got a bit colder at night really, as our fussy thermostats would have allowed better sleep. There was often a breeze, and despite the reliable temperatures, a lot more cloud cover than the weather forecasts tended to suggest, which from the point of view of climbing on sunnier aspects wasn't a bad thing.
The Arico area obviously makes sense as a place to stay from a purely climbing perspective, but we opted to stay down on the coast, first in a little village called El Jaca then a bigger one called El Poris. It was Ferdia who wanted to prioritise being by the sea, but I quickly came to agree - being able to get in the water every day without having to drive there was great. The sea was a good temperature - refreshing, but even scrawny beings like us could stay in for five or ten minutes before starting to get cold. Snorkelling with brightly coloured fish in the clear shallows was one of the highlights of the trip. Trying to eat a respectable amount of an intimidating seafood platter at a local restaurant, less so. Driving from sea level to 800m within a few kilometres to go climbing caused a daily bout of grumbling from our micro hire car, but was worth it.
I don't know that I am personally likely to go to the Canaries on holiday again, but I might feel differently if I didn't have to fly there. This year in the circumstances it felt like a compromise worth making, when it was a bit of a coup to get away at all. I suspect that in normal years Tenerife is busier around Christmas than it was in 2020, which was busy enough for us. There is however, plenty to recommend a visit. The climate is fantastic, and even if the island is busy around the honeypot playas, there is plenty of space to escape to. The water sports and cycling seem excellent. The climbing probably won't blow your mind, but it's more than good enough to satisfy a trip.