Carnival in Tenerife, taking over the Canary Islands every February, is the largest carnival in the world after Rio de Janeiro. For more than a week, daily life comes to a complete standstill and the locals move and live on the rhythm of the music. Trot Op! joined the party and never looked back.
¡Hola amigos y amigas! Looking for a chance to party hardy after two miserable years of covid isolation? Well then stick some feathers up your butt and book a holiday to Tenerife this February*. That is when Carnaval de Tenerife takes place in Santa Cruz, and with the exception of Rio de Janeiro this is the biggest carnival in the known universe. What you’ll see here is much closer to the blistering orgy of Rio than to whatever you’ll experience on your silly local fairs in the rest of Europe. The entire island takes a weeks’ leave, and tens of thousands of party people fly in from all over Spain, dressed in colourful outfits ready to go coco. This obviously sounded like something I wanted to see for myself. Two years ago, I was able to make it happen when I got invited to write a travel report for Goodbye Magazine. I packed my prettiest princess outfit, got myself a rainbow wig and drove to the airport straight away. It would prove to be my last party before spending the rest of 2020 in my PJ’s on the sofa, but I didn’t know that at the time. Happy days!
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Carnival in Tenerife: 6 tips for a holiday to Europe’s largest carnival
Before I headed over there again, Tenerife wasn’t exactly the first place I thought of when it came to adventurous travel. A sun-drenched island annually overrun by hairy German and British retirees: that was about the idea I had after spending a week at some hotel pool here as a student in the early 2000s. I quickly changed my views on my second visit. This was partly because I wasn’t staying at the resort ridden south coast, but in the bustling centre of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. I also went looking for adventurous things to do during the day, be it mostly to combat my hangover from the night before.
“What you’ll see here is much closer to the blistering orgy of Rio than to whatever you’ll experience on your silly local fairs in the rest of Europe.”
There’s a surprising number of activities on Tenerife to choose from. The most famous excursion is a trip to El Teide: the volcano dominating the look of the island, and with its height of more than 3.700m also the tallest mountain in Spain. Unfortunately, the summit was hidden behind a huge cloud of desert sand from the Sahara when I was there, so there was no point in making the climb. Luckily there were plenty of other options to choose from. But first I needed to squeeze myself into a tutu and join the party. Let the beast go!
*Carnival in Tenerife was recently moved to summer this year, to avoid most of the covid-problems.
1. Carnival in Tenerife: the big parades
Carnival in Tenerife is broken up into a number of colourful and visually stunning parades. The first takes place on Friday evening and is there to present the carnival queen. Every year another local hottie is elected – which makes for a much more attractive sight than the unemployed booze bags we crown prince carnival here in Belgium, just to give them something to do. The girl is then crammed into a beautiful gala dress that took months to make, and paraded through the streets on a float followed by every local group that could find matching costumes.
“Carnival in Tenerife is broken up into a number of colourful and visually stunning parades.”
A day later, everything gets larger than life when dozens of dance groups compete for a choreography award in front of a frenzied audience on exhilarating samba music. I haven’t been to Rio yet, but I doubt you’ll get closer to it than here. And the chance of your wallet gone missing the next morning is considerably smaller. On Tuesday afternoon, another procession full of floats is organised, this one aimed more at families. On Wednesday evening carnival is officially laid to rest. Everyone then takes to the streets in black mourning clothes to pay their last tribute to the earthly remains of this edition, which are represented – I’m not making this up – by a large papier-mâché sardine. Hey, why not?
2. Carnival in Tenerife: wild parties and making friends
Obviously massive parties take place in between (and during) these activities. These last until Sunday: four full days after the last parade. Stages, beer taps and food stalls are set up on every square and the streets fill up with dancing crowds on a daily basis. Once the sun goes down, the floodgates open. Carnival in Tenerife attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year (which is more than the total population of the island) and the outfits they wear are often hilarious, wild and quite revealing. I’ve spotted a dozen nuns in sexy lingerie accompanied by a drunken Jesus on a cross. I’ve seen several Greta Thunbergs, a whole family of Where’s Waldo’s, an African guy dressed up as “Kony 2012” and literally thousands of drag queens (of which I was one). The atmosphere is incredibly friendly. Although nearly everyone was boozed up, I hardly noticed any signs of aggression. I was asked to be on pictures, was offered drinks from people’s bottles (corona wasn’t a thing yet) and even got hit on in my fairy dress. Maybe I should wear it more often. Truly one of the best parties I’ve ever been part of.
3. Casa Carnaval Santa Cruz: a taste of carnival for those who were late
If you were dumb enough to book a trip to Tenerife in a different month but still want to experience the carnival atmosphere, you can visit Casa Carnaval Santa Cruz. This is of course not even close to the real thing, but it’s a pleasant museum nonetheless, where the entire history of the event is showcased with photos, videos and costumes. Not much drinking, dancing and grinding going on here, but sometimes you have to make do with what you can get. Quite a fun place though. You can even try on some outfits for a selfie. This way, granny can still think you were actually the light of the party when she checks her Facebook feed later. If you do want to be present for the actual carnival, and you want to get a hotel room in Santa Cruz as well, you’ll have to book several months in advance. You’re not the only one with the idea, and the number of rooms is limited. www.santacruzcarnivalhouse.com
4. Dolphin watching around Tenerife
When you’re tired of partying, there are plenty of other things to do on Tenerife. For example: the island is one of the best places in Europe for dolphin and sea turtle watching. There are three ways to go about it. 1. Go stand on some beach with your binoculars like a moron and see nothing at all. 2. Hop on one of the large catamarans full of drunken Brits and see more whales on the boat than in the ocean. 3. Book a slightly more expensive but smaller boat and actually enjoy the experience. Of course I decided on the latter.
“Tenerife is one of the best places in Europe for dolphin watching.”
For the first two hours of sailing I saw nothing but a lost turtle and some pilot whales in the far distance, but then suddenly two dolphins popped up on starboard (I don’t know which side starboard is but it sounds professional). A minute later, I was surrounded by more than fifty of them, playing in the wake of the boat and performing graceful antics in the air. They swam around us for half an hour, entertaining both their audience and themselves. Quite a moving experience. www.bigsmilecharters.com
5. Parque Rural de Anaga: Tenerife has a rainforest
*Thank you to Hedda from Tenk Koffert for posing.
Did you know Tenerife has an actual rainforest? And I don’t mean the one in Loro Parque where they drop off whole buses of tourists just to see a parrot riding a tiny bicycle. No, I’m talking about Parque Rural de Anaga – in the far northeast – which is the real deal. This part of Tenerife has a unique microclimate, which means much more rain falls here than on the rest of the island. The weathered laurel forests full of moss are technically part of a subtropical jungle, and are more importantly also enchanting to stroll around in. This is the oldest biotope in the Canary Islands, and taking a walk here is like traveling through time. This forest is tens of millions of years old, which means you are literally stepping through a prehistoric flashback. This is what most of the Mediterranean looked like before the ice ages set in. Almost the entire area used to be a dense, subtropical rainforest. And they say I’m the least informative travel blog of the Low Countries. How rude.
6. La Laguna: visit the most beautiful city on Tenerife
Close to this forest you’ll find what is most likely Tenerife’s prettiest city. La Laguna is an attractive student town, and has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for years. This used to be the capital, before Santa Cruz took over that role. La Laguna is located much higher in the hills, which makes it a lot more pleasant for summer stays. There is a lot to see as well. The boulevards are full of old churches, museums and ornate mansions with lush courtyards. La Laguna was the blueprint for several cities that the Spanish would later build in Latin America. Almost the entire city centre is pedestrianized. This means no honking cars about, and a nicely preserved historic atmosphere to enjoy. Perfect place for a day trip if you want to take it easy. Stroll through some alleys, sit down with an espresso and watch the people pass by. Not every day has to be a wild adventure.
Carnival in Tenerife: booking a hotel and other practical info
For all information about Carnival de Tenerife, click here: www.carnavaldetenerife.com.
If you want to find out more about Tenerife or other Spanish destinations, visit www.spain.info.
I stayed at Hotel Taburiente in downtown Santa Cruz. If you want to experience the carnival to the fullest, it’s best to sleep in the capital and not in the South: it’s a long drive and you don’t want to be waiting for a taxi with a few thousand others in the middle of the night. As mentioned before, it’s best to book a hotel during Carnival well in advance – up to six months. The event is very popular all over Spain and the number of rooms is limited. www.taburientehotelsantacruzdetenerife.com
If you’re interested in some other European trips, click here, here and here for my cycling adventures in Dresden and East Germany, or read my articles about Amsterdam, Scotland, Oslo and the Wadden Islands.