Exploring the Symbiotic Nature of Lanzarote
Words and Imagery by Sami Kimberley / Published 2023

Situated in the expansive Atlantic Ocean, Lanzarote is the easternmost island in the Canary archipelago, made up of otherworldly moon-like landscapes encircled by rugged coastlines of black and golden sands. Inland, mountainous horizons, surreal lava fields and volcanic formations command the view. Lanzarote is an destination known by many but only understood by few. Beyond the beach resorts and concrete hotels, the island reveals a perfected harmony between its ecologically rich and resilient landscape, existing symbiotically with art, architecture, and tradition.

Before this trip, my knowledge of Lanzarote was very naive. It wasn’t until researching European cycling destinations that I understood the island to be entirely different from my preconceptions of hotel complexes and British holidaymakers. With dramatic volcanic landscapes, unique biodiversity and a rich history of art and architecture, it took me by complete surprise. It is home to some of the most scenic cycling routes I’ve ever seen, and its Atlantic surf swells have donned it the nickname ‘Europe’s Hawaii’. I felt silly; Lanzarote is an adventurer's paradise hidden in plain sight, and the more I explored, the more I found.

The formation of the Canary Islands is a geological history of millions of years, emerging from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Over time, repeated volcanic eruptions and subsequent cooling solidified the islands into the forms we know today. As the most easterly, Lanzarote sits just eighty miles from neighbouring Morocco whilst it is six hundred miles from mainland Spain. Before the century-long conquest and colonisation of the Canary Islands in the 15th century, Lanzarote was home to the indigenous Majos people, a community with many similarities to the Berber people of North Africa, where they are thought to have migrated from. Each of the Canaries was home to distinct yet interconnected indigenous communities eventually known collectively as the Guanche people, each with different laws and customs, many of which still hold influence today in a blend of Spanish, African and indigenous cuisine, architecture, culture, and agricultural practices.

One of the first things that strike you as you move away from the well-trodden coastal spots is circular depressions in the terrain surrounded by short man-made stone walls strewn across the land, creating an almost alien pattern when seen from a distance. These circles form part of the island's unique agricultural practice of cultivating fruits, nuts and vegetables such as grapes for wine, almonds and figs.

Lanzarote is around eighty miles from the Sahara, the world's largest hot desert, and gets just six to eight inches of rainfall in a good year and up until the 19th Century volcanic eruptions and lava flow regularly destroyed land and crops. It was the learnings from these hardships which paved the way for ingenuity, resulting in an entirely unique way of farming through a mix of Spanish, African, and indigenous knowledge and available resources.

Across the island porous volcanic rocks are placed around circular dips in the ground, drawing in moisture from the air, which is in turn is distributed into the soil; the walls also provide much-needed shade and wind protection for the crops. Picón, a black mineral ash formed as a product of volcanic activity, serves as a rich mulch spread across the crops, harnessing its moisture-absorbing capabilities to redistribute water to the plants; whilst the dark colouring of the rocks and ash play a crucial role - attracting and storing extra heat, providing an invaluable resource for the plants during the night once the sun has set.
Amidst the farms and barren lava fields, Lanzarote's architecture and art similarly reflect a harmonious blend of tradition, functionality, and a connection to the island's unique ecosystems. This is emblematic in the flat, low-rise, whitewashed buildings which exist here, inspired both Canarian tradition and their surrounding volcanic landscape whilst successfully heading off the relentless sun. An interdependence and respect between nature and contemporary life seems to be ingrained; something which can traced back to influential local artist and architect César Manrique, whose motto ‘Art Into Nature, Nature Into Art’  became a principle that guided both his own work, and through him, those in charge of the Lanzarote’s development.

After living and working as an artist in New York, Manrique returned to Lanzarote in 1966, telling friends of his desire to reconnect with the island's bare landscapes and distance himself from the city's artificiality. His vision aimed to conserve and celebrate the distinctive volcanic terrain and natural elements of Lanzarote, a dedication seen in architectural landmarks such as Jameos del Agua, an underground arts centre nestled within a lava-carved tunnel dating back thousands of years. In the Taro de Tahiche, his former residence and now the César Manrique Foundation, you really see his ambitions come to fruition, seamlessly blending cavernous lava caves with volcanic formations and modern design aesthetics. According to the tale, he erected this home on a desolate lava field, carefully integrating a singular fig tree standing proudly in the middle of the structure.

Manrique also advocated for preserving the island's beauty amidst the tourism and concrete boom, working with the governors to bring in legislation around allowing only low-rise buildings, banning advertisements and restricting tourism to three areas. Although his influence was substantial, many of his ideas became fleeting policies, but the idea of preserving nature and working with the landscape lived on in many ways.

For me, a small B&B in the centre of the island was the perfect encapsulation of the symbiosis between architecture, nature and the culture of the island: a small collection of buildings elegantly restored by owners Mayca and Gonzalo in collaboration with the architect Néstor Pérez Batista make up the Buenavista Suites. Here, tradition and modern minimalism intertwine, nestled between volcanic mountains and farmland, with giant windows that engulf you into the landscape whilst beautiful ceramics by local artist Eguzkine Zerain adorn the breakfast tables and suites. It felt all-encompassing of Lanzarote’s past and present, constructed as a celebration of the artistic and ecological partnership of the island.

The salt flats, or the Salinas de Janubio, offer another example; situated along the island's southwestern coast near the village of Yaiza, the vast area of rectangular shapes creates a patchwork of colours between mountain and ocean. Utilising Lanzarotes’s unique geography and natural elements, seawater travels through interconnected shallow ponds where the water evaporates under the intense Lanzarote sun, gradually concentrating and leaving behind a crystallised layer of sea salt, which is then packaged and sold. The colours of the patches, which make the flats so visually striking, result from microorganisms and algae thriving in the varying saline conditions, which are tended to by the local salt workers, or ‘salineros’.

This partnership of tradition, utility, nature and aesthetics intertwine across the island in a way that seems innate to the lanzaroteño/a people; away from the busy tourist areas, at least, it feels like an act of preservation of the past and a demonstration of how humans should live harmoniously with nature in equal measures.

Further Reading -
Cesar Manrique (The Guardian)
Lanzarote: Agriculture as Art (pacifichorticulture.org)
The genomic history of the indigenous people of the Canary Islands (nature.com)

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