How the Conquistadors Changed the Landscape of South East Tenerife

Mon, December 22nd, 2014 - By Linda

As we set off on our hike from the zona recreativa, El Contador, above Arico, mists shifted through the graceful Canary Pines, even though on the coast below we had left behind a warm, June morning. Through the fog a haunting sound emerged, one of our guides had brought along a bucio, a conch shell, used by the aboriginal Guanche as a means of contact. It seemed fitting, and it seemed like a million miles away from the glamour of Costa Adeje or the discos of Playa de Las Americas.



I was on a guided walk organized by the local town hall in conjunction with the Tenerife island government. These walks are intended to reinforce links with Canary Island history and traditions, but are open to all, and I was to learn a great deal on this particular one, entitled La Ruta de la Brea, which translates as the tar route.

Anyone driving between Los Cristianos and Santa Cruz these days can see that the tree line is high on the hillsides, but on the hike we learned that at the time of the conquest in 1496 the forests extended much lower. Much of the deforestation was to provide timber for the boats, which in those days plied between the “new” and “old” worlds, but in addition to the wood itself tar was also needed to seal the planks which made up the boats.


'Brea' oven


Trees were felled, and fed into a crude kind of oven, made from plentiful local rocks. From the first oven the tar, extracted from the burned pinewood, seeped down into a second oven, and thence into a drying area. Once dried, it was carried by mule down to the port of Poris de Abona, a steep route which had us pausing for breath as we’d walked up. Not easy work, and much of it was carried out by slave or underpaid local labour.

It was the familiar tale of colonial exploitation. Not only Spain devastated the woodland, but they permitted the Portuguese to rape the hillsides too. We were told that even then, five hundred years ago, they were aware of the perils involved in deforestation, mainly the soil erosion which came with the winter rains, carrying topsoil down to the coast. The results we see today on that barren landscape along the southeast coast.



Excavation of these sites is still ongoing, so far 28 have been found around Arico, though there are thought to have been many more. Once an area had been cleared of all useful timber, the teams, usually 6 or 8 men, moved on to the next area, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake, and caring nothing for the consequences of their actions.

This isn’t, of course, the only part of the island which suffered deforestation, and there have been attempts in other areas to replant. Unfortunately, in places California pines were planted, which proved to be far less resistant to the winds and sometimes unpredictable winter weather on the high hillsides. These days there is a push to replant with elegant native Canary Pines.



The biggest lesson from this hike for me was understanding that destruction of our environment isn’t a modern problem, but goes back hundreds of years. Hopefully, something which is now being addressed.

Posted : Monday, December 22nd, 2014 at 11:32 am
Category : about tenerife
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