Lanzarote history & geography

Lanzarote history & geography

Lanzarote geography

Lanzarote (Latitude 29° 04’ N Longitude: 13° 59’ W)) is the eastern most island of the Canary Island archipelago, and is the 4th largest of the group, being 60 kilometres long from north to south, and 21 kilometres wide. At the northern end of the island the Chinijo archipelago is comprised of five islands: la Graciosa, Alegranza, Montaña Clara, Roque del Este and Roque del Oeste.

Lanzarote is the oldest island in the Canaries and due to the relatively low altitude and gentle relief, the island does not catch the humidity of the trade winds, and rainfall rarely reaches 200mm a year. But the extraordinary landscapes created by the violent volcanic eruptions of the 18th and 19th centuries are breathtaking, with the vast malpais (literally the bad lands) of lava flows set against a skyline of jagged cones and dormant craters.

Lanzarote is divided into 7 municipalities, each with its own distinctive character: Arrecife, Haria, Teguise, Tinajo, Tias, San Bartolomé and Yaiza.

Find out more about the 7 municipalities and the island of La Graciosa

Map of Lanzarote

Lanzarote history

The island was first settled it is believed by slaves of Berber descent from North Africa but the first European explorer to land here was the Genoese seafarer Lanzarotto Malocello in the 13th century. Seized by the Spanish adventurer Jean de Bethencourt in 1402 the island suffered numerous raids by Turkish, Moroccan and European slavers over the next two hundred years and by the end of the 16th century the number of inhabitants – who are known as Conejeros - was reduced to barely 300.

In the early 18th century devastating volcanic eruptions covered a third of the island’s best farming land with layers of volcanic grit (called picón in local dialect) driving many to flee to neighbouring islands. However, it was quickly discovered that the fine black picón not only absorbs moisture from condensation and the infrequent rains but also kept the root systems of plants cool and moist despite the fierce sun and wind.

Javier Garcia
Javier Garcia, cave guide
"The cave is a huge lava tube 7km in length… it looks like the volcanic eruptions were yesterday, it's so well preserved"

Lanzarote culture

Adapted ingeniously by islanders to become one of the best wine producing areas of the Canary islands, with vines thriving in the moisture retaining black volcanic gravel which blankets more than a third of the island, Lanzarote was granted cherished UNESCO MaB (Man and biosphere status) in 1993.

Today the island is world renowned for the quality of its Malvasia wines, produced from grapes introduced from Crete in the mid 18th century, and its distinctive black landscape is lined with unique vineyards of curving stone walls each protecting an individual vine. Known as La Geria, the whole area of 3,000 hectares produces between 5 and 6 million kilos of grapes per year. Today the island, thanks largely to tourism, is a prosperous place and has a population of about 140,000, of whom about 40 percent can trace their lineage back to the original Conejeros. The majority of people live and work in the capital Arrecife, or the main tourist resort areas of Playa Blanca, Puerto del Carmen and Costa Teguise. Much of the island though is relatively untouched with many of the small villages still retaining the traditional architecture of small white washed houses with distinctive green painted doors and neatly tended vegetable gardens.

The survival of this older way of life owes much to Lanzarote’s most famous son – César Manrique. Painter, sculptor, ecologist, architect and designer, Manrique who was born in Arrecife in 1919 was years ahead of his time. Horrified at the ravages of mass tourism he saw on the coasts of Mediterranean Spain and France in the 1960s he battled to conserve the natural beauty of the island he so passionately loved. Largely thanks to Manrique and the movement he created with his friends, which is exemplified by the 7 Centres of Art, Culture and Tourism built throughout the island, Lanzarote today still retains its special atmosphere and unique beauty. Mass tourism exists, and plays a vital part in supporting the island’s economy, but the resorts are limited to three defined areas so that the island can still cater for every taste, from those simply wanting winter sun and a long beach, to others who want to sample some of the peace and beauty of the remoter areas which first inspired Manrique so many years ago.

Find out more about Lanzarote's culture, beaches and nature & wildlife
Responsible Travel would like to thank the Lanzarote tourist board for their sponsorship of this guide
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