Exploring history and nature in Gran Canaria’s unmissable UNESCO World Heritage Site

The mountainous site of Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria preserves traces of a long-vanished Aboriginal culture in lush natural surroundings. 

By Tourist Board of Gran Canaria
Published 4 Jun 2021, 15:00 BST
Mirador de Unamuno, one of the lookouts in the town of Artenara, located in the mountains of Gran ...

Mirador de Unamuno, one of the lookouts in the town of Artenara, located in the mountains of Gran Canaria.

Photograph by Ramón V. Otero Fernández

Away from its famous beaches, Gran Canaria’s rural centre is a place where peaks soar, volcanoes reach for the sky and gorges dip into a tangle of green. But it’s not just its biodiverse credentials turning heads: hidden among the landscapes are traces of the island’s pre-Hispanic culture, which travellers can explore at the World Heritage Site of Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria.

Prehistoric cave dwellings, temples and granaries all feature in the troglodyte-era Amazigh settlement of Risco Caído. Scrawls of rock art coating the walls of its 21 caves may relate to magical or religious beliefs, but it’s thought the site might also have functioned as a prehistoric astronomical clock: one of the caves, known as the almogarén or Cave 6, has a small opening in its roof letting light through from the summer solstice to autumn, revealing a series of rock art engravings. As special as Risco Caído is, it’s just one of 1,500 settlements making up the Sacred Mountains’ troglodyte-era landscape, with a set of archaeological sites scattered among the municipalities of Artenara, Tejeda, Agaete and Gáldar.

In its entirety, this gargantuan World Heritage Site covers around 18,000 hectares — including almost all the entire Caldera de Tejeda crater, the Tamadaba massif and part of the Barranco Hondo gorge — meaning it can be hard to know where to start. To get your bearings, head to the visitors’ centre in Artenara; the municipality has recently opened an exact replica of Cave 6, with a larger capacity and visiting hours to avoid pressure on the original cave. Travellers can then set off on one of the island’s hiking trails, many of which are based on age-old caminos reales (king’s highways).

With the site sharing part of the territory of the island’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, scenic views await after every turn. The circular five-mile route of Acusa-Las Hoyas-Lugarejos-Coruña takes you along agricultural terraces that climb steep ravines, through farmland that still retains some of the ancient traditions practised by the Canary-Amazigh people. The route also nudges the Tamadaba Natural Park, where pine trees, cliffs and green valleys merge. Elsewhere, head towards the north edge of the Caldera de Tejeda on a five-mile hike, where dramatic views of the Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountain Areas sit in the shadows of Roque Nublo, Roque Bentayga and Altavista. Then there’s the longer trek along the crossroads of Roque Nublo; the seven-mile path takes you to the mountain that’s become a national symbol of the island, where you can stare out across Risco Caído from on high.

The archaeological site of Risco Caído contains pre-Hispanic cave dwellings, temples and granaries.

Photograph by Ramón V. Otero Fernández

Two more ways to discover the island’s heritage


Stay at a traditional accommodation
For a unique stay that puts you among the soaring peaks of the Guayadeque ravine, bed down in the Casas rurales de Guayadeque, a remote cave hotel where guests perch on wraparound private terraces to gaze at mountain views and eat oranges plucked from nearby trees. Rooms lie underground, hidden in former cave dwellings that have been restored and spruced up for guests, with miles of bucolic beauty right on your doorstep.

Sample local foods and produce
Gran Canaria has Europe’s only coffee plantation, a multi-award-winning cheese production and a signature Honey Rum. Travellers can head to age-old places like the Arehucas rum factory, one of the continent’s oldest cellars, or eat at restaurants where young chefs are putting a spin on traditional dishes. Otherwise, learn about local life at farmhouses, such as Finca de los Berrazales, a 200-year-old farm that nurtures avocado, oranges and coffee and holds wine-tasting tours with cheese, jams and cakes all on the menu.

Essentials

Carriers including EasyJet, BA and Ryanair operate direct flights from the UK to Gran Canaria. When on the island, renting a car is highly recommended, but local buses and taxies are also available.

Head to grancanaria.com for more information, or click here to watch a video on the island's beautiful landscapes.

Published in the July/August 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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