Bizarre beauty of artful Lanzarote

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The Cueva de los Verdes in Lanzarote, one of Spain’s Canary Islands.
The Cueva de los Verdes in Lanzarote, one of Spain’s Canary Islands. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Turismo Lanzarote

Stepping onto Lanzarote is like tumbling into someone's psychedelic dream. The volcanic, moonlike landscape of Lanzarote, one of Spain's Canary Islands, was the trippy inspiration for the realization of artist Cesar Manrique's mental playground.

Today, it is a destination pocketed with artistic and architectural discoveries that Manrique blended seamlessly into the landscape, making this island one of Spain's more unusual and untapped secrets.

The volcanic, moonlike landscape of Lanzarote, a hot spot for adventure travelers.
The volcanic, moonlike landscape of Lanzarote, a hot spot for adventure travelers. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Turismo Lanzarote

Cruising the winding roads of Lanzarote, I felt like I had landed on another planet. Black and red ash blanketed the craggy landscape, leaving a harsh contrast against the blues of the sky and sea. For miles, I stared out at a blank, expansive black space, dotted with the occasional whitewashed house trimmed in Kelly green. "Beautiful" wasn't exactly my first thought; in fact, I thought it was a bizarre joke. But for Cesar Manrique, bizarre and beautiful were one and the same, and before I left the island I realized the joke was on me.

Born in Lanzarote's capital, Arrecife, in 1919, Manrique honed his artistic vision in New York in the 1960s (where he befriended Andy Warhol) and returned to Lanzarote just as the island was beginning its tourism development.

His experience with abstract expressionism, pop art and new sculpture heavily influenced his aesthetic vision for the island, which he termed art-nature/nature-art. He saw the island as a treasure trove of natural beauty from which to create and blend abstract public art seamlessly into the landscape. After seeking approval from the government of Spain, Manrique was put in charge of the design. Today there is not a corner of Lanzarote's tourism scene that has not been touched by Manrique's tripped-out vision.

Jameos del Agua is an underground system of caves with a surprise ending.
Jameos del Agua is an underground system of caves with a surprise ending. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Turismo Lanzarote

The best known of Manrique's works is Jameos del Agua, an underground system of caves with a surprise ending. Lanzarote's terrain is veined with underground volcanic riverbeds caused by the eruption of the resident volcano La Corona about 4,000 years ago. Manrique harnessed this natural phenomenon into the base of his design for Jameos del Agua.

The journey through the elaborate cave system is peppered with natural surprises. Footbridges blend into the landscape, and lakes appear as if from nowhere as Manrique's subtle lighting system plays tricks on the eyes.

After winding my way through the stalactites and stalagmites, I crested a landscaped wall and reached the Jameo Grande, the piece de resistance. What Manrique had built was a massive underground concert hall, restaurant, bar and nightclub. Think Studio 54 meets "Fraggle Rock." The space is still fully functional and a memorable experience for travelers. I dined on fresh fish, salad and white wine, followed by a requinto guitar concert as hundreds of candles twinkled and reflected in the nearby natural lake, all underground.

Manrique's influence also extends to attractions such as the Cueva de los Verdes, another lava tube within the Monumento Natural del Malpais de la Corona. The cave system spans 4.3 miles, but one mile has been sectioned for tourists to explore and is decked out with Manrique's colorful lighting scheme.

Mirador del Rio, set high atop a cliff, offers a view of the Chinijo archipelago.
Mirador del Rio, set high atop a cliff, offers a view of the Chinijo archipelago. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Turismo Lanzarote

Mirador del Rio is another creation of Manrique's. This viewpoint over the Chinijo archipelago is set high atop a cliff, and its architecture blends seamlessly into the landscape. Beyond the major tourist attractions, Manrique's influence extends right down to the details of the island. Historically, buildings and homes on Lanzarote were washed in white. Today, thanks to Manrique's vision, it is government-mandated that all buildings retain the white look, with green trim around the windows and doors for a pop of color.

But there is more to Lanzarote beyond being a groovy outdoor museum. It is a hot spot for adventure travelers and nature lovers. Papagayo, Puerto del Carmen and Matagorda on the island's southern side have some of the best beaches and coves in the Canary Islands. In the north, surfers will love the beach of Famara and the towering cliffs that surround it. Temperatures in the Canary Islands average about 75 degrees year-round.

Outdoor lovers will enjoy Club La Santa, one of the largest athletic training resorts in the world. The resort recently added 96 apartment-style suites overlooking a lagoon and the classic volcanic terrain. A new swimming center offers two outdoor pools. A new putting green and outdoor restaurant as well as a bike center and dance studio round out the more than $45 million investment that was poured into the resort last year. Other beach resorts can be found in Puerto del Carmen, Playa Blanca and Costa Teguise.

Lanzarote is a far cry from a "typical" Spanish experience and is best for travelers who have been to Spain more than once. Nature lovers, outdoor enthusiasts and day-trippers from neighboring Canary Islands will get the most out of this island.

Far from the spotlight of Spain's top destinations, Lanzarote is an undercover, secret surprise. I'm still pretty sure that I would use the word bizarre to describe it, but for me, now, the difference between bizarre and beautiful is far less clear.

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