Teide looks like Mars but smells much better,” says my Spanish friend Rocio as I mention my upcoming trip to the UNESCO World Heritage site, a sprawling national park in Tenerife, Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa. Rocio waits for the confused look to cross my face, then explains with a grin: The atmosphere on Mars contains stinky sulphur. So if humans could breathe on Mars (which we can’t since there is barely any oxygen in the atmosphere), it would reek of rotten eggs or a sewer that’s been backed up for days. The vague olfactory description doesn’t prepare me for the sight that awaits.
I’m driven from Tenerife (the most populous of the Canary Islands) to Teide National Park by my local guide, Ancor. As the car ascends, I spot the skyline of rust-coloured, jagged boulders of various sizes and shapes, emerging from desert-like landscapes and reaching for the sky. I watch as the sun rises behind the boulders, almost setting them ablaze. The site reminds me of pictures I’ve seen on NASA websites of the fiery planet of Mars. We stop on the side of the road to take in the surreal view, and right on cue, a vehicle packed with kids parks beside us.
“Hola,” say the kids who jump out of the van, dressed in Star Wars costumes. There’s Yoda, green and serene; Darth Vader in his formidable face mask, while Luke Skywalker brandishes his lightsaber. They fit right into the set.
Ancor informs that Teide is also quite the star, having made it to the silver screen. Scenes from the blockbuster "Clash of the Titans," and its sequel, "Wrath of the Titans," were shot here. More than just a fantasy film location, Teide has also reportedly been frequented by astronauts and space scientists who’ve used it as a training ground for the Perseverance Rover and ExoMars, thanks to the unique topography.
Little wonder that Teide is the stuff of legends. One of the most popular tales is traced to the Guanche people, the indigenous inhabitants of the Canary Islands. Over the years, their legends have taken on many versions, and a popular account proclaims the victory of good over evil. Guayota (a fierce devil) apparently trapped Magec (the God of light) within the volcano, and the world plunged into darkness. The Guanches then appealed to the supreme God, Archman, to free Magec. The mighty Archman was able to trap Guayota in the volcano and free Magec. Light returned to Earth, but every now and then, the devil tries to flee, and the Teide remains an active volcano. Alas, his attempts thus far have failed, thanks to the grace of Archman.
Science has not conclusively unravelled the origin story, but the most widely-accepted theory traces the formation of the unique structures to violent seismic activity that occurred 1,70,000 years ago. Volcanic eruptions and a catastrophic landslide laid the foundation for the unmatched landscape. Over time, more seismic activity occurred, and as eruptions piled one atop the other, the layers created the largest peak, i.e. Mount Teide. Erosion over centuries further shaped the innumerable mounts and valleys. Time continues to alter the landscape ever so slowly.
The mineral content of the rocks lends colour to the scenery. My hiking boots take on a red sheen, courtesy of the basalt rocks. Essentially, when these rocks come into contact with groundwater and oxidation occurs, they take on a rust-coloured hue. I see the many colours of Teide as we drive past the La Tarta del Teide or the Teide Cake. Think of this rock formation as a slice of cake packed with many delicious flavours: White and yellow from the pumice stone, black from basaltic lava rocks, and red from the basalt that met the water.
The unique flora and fauna add to the palette. I glimpse forests of towering pine trees with their yellow-green needles for leaves. These Canarian Pines grow even on the slopes and are almost fire-proof. Forest fires are a real threat in the area, and this particular variety of pine—Pinus canariensis—is magical. The tree comes with epicormic shoots that grow around the lowermost portions of the tall trunk. These shoots allow the species to regenerate, even if the bulk of the tree is burned.
In spring, the areas around Mount Teide are ablaze with the Red tajinaste in full bloom. The stem of the flowering plant stands tall, even as bright red flowers grow all around it, blanketing it entirely. The vibrant plant emerges even between rocks. With the flowers come a host of colourful butterflies, beetles and wasps.
Life thrives even in the midst of this arid desert: spiders lurk beneath the rocks, and a blue-brown lizard flits between my feet. I’m both afraid and intrigued by what I later learn is the Southern Tenerife lizard which is endemic to the islands, with the males being more colourful than the females.
Ancor informs me that bats are the only native mammals in Teide; the rest have been introduced here by humans. Today the park contains animals like rabbits, hedgehogs, feral cats. The only mammals I spot are humans; some look like miniatures in the distance as they ascend the trails around Roque Cinchado.
Roque Cinchado is among the most recognized symbols of Teide National Park. I have spotted it on brochures and postcards, and it was once featured on the 1,000 peseta notes (before Spain adopted the Euro). Finally, I glimpse it in person; the roque (rocky formation) stands tall, almost like a gigantic tree. Cinchado translates to tightened and refers to the narrow base that holds up the roque. It seems like some crazy engineering is allowing this rock to stay upright, given its narrow base. Scientists fear that erosion over the years will lead to its eventual collapse.
As we drive back, the sun goes down on the horizon, and the tall structures begin to transform into silhouettes, above which twinkling stars emerge. Ancor informs that the park is a stargazer’s delight; removed from the artificial light pollution of the urban areas, all you need is a telescope to spot various constellations and nebulae. Various elevated look-out points dot the park, where you can take in the beauty of the vast universe.
It’s almost impossible to believe this fantastic national park grew out of a series of natural disasters. And did I mention the air? It’s fresh, crisp, pure, and smells nothing like rotten eggs.
Getting there: Fly from Mumbai/Delhi to Madrid. Opt for a domestic carrier from Madrid to Tenerife. The ride from Tenerife city centre to Teide National Park is approximately one hour.
Know before you go: While it could take months to explore the park that is spread across 18,990 hectares, dedicate at least a day when making a fly-by visit. There are many full-day tours and night-time camping options.