Of clouds and pines

My mother and I just spent a week on Tenerife. I knew little about the place when we set out, other than that it gets lots of tourists. As it turns out, the island has a fascinating human history, a surprising variety of micro-climates, and once you get away from the tourist centres, stunning volcanic landscapes and associated ecosystems. Perched in the centre is Mount Teide, which, at 3718 metres, is the highest mountain in Spain. Looking up from the coast, its peak is often obscured by clouds. These arrive with the northeastern trade winds and are intercepted by the island’s high topography, bringing moisture to the land in the process.

Owing in part to those clouds, the way ecosystems change with elevation is quite striking. My mom and I had a chance to observe this first hand on a one-day hike in the Teno mountains.

On the way up, we saw cloud forest made up of laurel and tree heathers, then a high-elevation desert-type landscape with the occasional shrub or succulent. On the way down, we walked through a gorgeous forest of canary island pine (Pinus canariensis).

According to several guides we encountered in the course of the week, Tenerife’s pine forests are vital to the island’s water supply. The tree’s long needles intercept fog, condensing water that then drops to the ground and infiltrates into the soil. Part of it is later intercepted for human use in man-made tunnels called water galleries.

Pinus canariensis also has the most adorable cones. They are flat on the bottom, so you can stand them up for optimal viewing.

Overall, the island felt like a study in contrasts. The botanic garden in Puerto de La Cruz is not very large, but it holds amazing sub-tropical and tropical flora. At the other extreme, the caldera of Mount Teide is a moonscape from a different world. The island has stunning beaches and baths, and in the major tourist centres you get, well, many tourists. Once you move above 1000 metres elevation, there is usually no dwelling in sight, and the views above the clouds are amazing.

Mount Teide