The Mole Diaries: Las Palmas, Gran Canaria
It’s amazing how quickly your year abroad actually goes but it’s also amazing how much you can fit in in such a short space of time. My destination of choice for my year abroad – Gran Canaria - was questioned by both my family and friends with many claiming it was far too ‘touristy’ and that I wouldn’t learn much Spanish because everyone would speak English. However, with a few exceptions, this has not been the case; I have had such an amazing time in the capital Las Palmas and it just takes a little exploring to scratch beneath the tourist reputation that the Canary Islands have. Here are some of my top tips:
Like many other language students, when my year abroad advisors suggested finding accommodation once you were abroad, I was horrified. I’d never even considered this as an option and so I vowed to find somewhere to live before I got on a plane! The last place I expected to find a flat was twitter but I saw a link to a company called Qflats and once I’d done some research I put down a deposit and secured a double room in a flat near the beach. Now, I wouldn’t recommend this way of finding accommodation for everyone but it certainly worked for me. I’d heard horror stories about people turning up and finding that the flat looked nothing like the photos on the internet but luckily for me my flat was lovely. Qflats is such a reputable company and offers quite a few student flats so you’ll probably end up living with other Erasmus students or in my case some Erasmus and some Spanish people which is perfect for learning.
One thing I wish I’d listened to when speaking to past year abroad students is to relax - Spanish universities are notoriously unorganized and slow at administration. The Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria was to be my university for the year and while the Welcome Week was surprisingly organized and amazingly fun, the rest of the paperwork and administration was not! Fresher’s week didn’t have a patch on Welcome Week – we had a surfing lesson, a boat party complete with dolphins and a hot tub, hiking and endless cocktails! However registering for courses and student cards at the university was not so easy but my main advice is to just relax, it’ll all resolve itself in the end and you may end up doing some really interesting courses as a result. The university allows you to make your own timetable and depending on what your home university lets you study you can choose from so many different courses, I ended up taking Mythology and Literatura Canaria which turned out to be so interesting and something that I never would’ve studied at home!
Eating and Drinking
Before I arrived in Gran Canaria, I imagined myself sitting on a roof terrace drinking freshly squeezed orange juice and eating delicious exotic fruit for breakfast, however this was not to be. The idea of me being healthy on my year abroad soon faded as most nights I would eat out because it’s so cheap and much more social. I have eaten more tapas than I could ever have dreamed of and the Canarian speciality of ‘papas arrugadas’ literally, ‘wrinkled potatoes’ with a spicy pepper sauce is a particular favourite of mine (I would highly recommend De Tapa en Tapa near Plaza de España). Although eating is a regular occurrence, hosting international evenings are fun too - everyone can bring a dish from where they’re from and you end up eating some amazing things like spicy Mexican rice and homemade tortilla.
As for drinking, the cocktails here are delicious especially at a tiki bar called Aloha (a regular hang-out for Erasmus students). Most nights out here are a mix of Erasmus and Spanish students and seem to go on well into the night. Honey rum is the island’s drink and it’s absolutely delicious, you will most likely find yourself doing a shot (or 5!) of it on a night out! If you do fancy a tacky, tourist night out then you can head to the South of the island where you will find some very cheesy bars and clubs but in the North it’s mainly students.
Travelling/Things to do
The Canary Islands are about 4 hours away from London by plane and although they are Spanish, sometimes it feels like you’re not even in Europe! There is so much to do on Gran Canaria itself, not to mention the other islands, mainland Spain and even Africa! Thanks to my year abroad I have travelled to more places in 7 months than I have in my entire life!
I would definitely say the North is my favourite part of the island, the South is more built up with hotels and mostly accommodates for tourists. The Global bus service that runs outside the city and all around the island is reliable and cheap and you can get to most places fairly easily although renting a car is easier for most off-the-beaten-track places. My favourite part of the island is La Caldera de Bandama, a volcanic peak and crater that offers breath-taking views over the city of Las Palmas; on a good day, from the peak you can see Fuerteventura and the crater itself is spectacular with a single uninhabited house at the base. Other highlights of the north are the Sunday market in a mountain town called Teror where they sell the best cheese and El Jardín Canario, Spain’s largest botanical garden which has such a wide variety of amazing-looking cacti. The gardens are so peaceful and perfect for a picnic, as is Parque Doramas in Las Palmas.
As for the capital itself, my favourite parts are the old quarters of Vegueta and Triana which offer a more authentic feel to the city. The guagua bus service that travels around the city is frequent, cheap and reliable and a ‘bono’ or bus card costs €7.50 for 10 journeys. The Cathedral in Vegueta and the square that surrounds it are beautiful and the Casa de Colon is also worth a visit, although it’s highly debatable whether Christopher Columbus actually stayed there or not! On a Thursday evening Vegueta comes alive, with most of the bars offering a drink and a small tapas dish for €2, Erasmus students flock here for the amazing atmosphere and cheap food. Triana is a little more modern than Vegueta and has a main shopping highstreet where you can find most chains like Zara and Pull and Bear.
The South offers more touristic attractions such as Aqualand which is fun but pricey. Palmitos Park is a favourite with tourists but I went to Cocodrilo Park in the South-East instead as it was €20 cheaper and well worth the lengthy journey (get a Global bus to Aguimes and then a taxi to what seems like the middle of nowhere); here you can watch a crocodile show and feed the monkeys which are all rescued for only €10. The dunes in Maspalomas are also worth visiting, you can spend hours rolling around in them, although you will probably end up covered in sand for days even after scrubbing everywhere!
However my favourite place in the South is definitely Mogán, a quaint little fishing village that would make a perfect postcard picture, the market on a Friday morning sprawls out for what seems like forever and the beach-front cafes offer delicious refreshments especially the strawberry sangria and chocolate waffles at La Tortuga.
The most amazing perk of living in the Canary Islands (aside from the amazing sunshine) is the Residencia discount you can get if you’re staying for more than three months. It’s a bit of a nightmare to actually get (just photocopy absolutely every document you have about 5 times!) but once you have it, it entitles you to 50% off travel between the islands and to mainland Spain!
So far I have travelled to: Barcelona, Madrid, Fuerteventura and Tenerife and next on my list are Lanazarote and the smaller, lesser known but beautiful Canary Islands of El Hierro, La Palma and La Gomera (they are excellent for hiking). The boat to Tenerife costs a mere €7 while flights to Barcelona can cost as little as €20 return! I have also travelled to Morocco (this is not included in the discount scheme because it’s not in Spain) which was an incredible cultural experience and one which I would never have thought to do unless I was here. I have no idea how I’m going to fit all my souvenirs in my suitcase to go home at the end of the year!
One last piece of advice
I know it’s a cliché but your year abroad will probably be one of the years of your life, so relax and make the most of it! It goes so quickly so pack in as much as you can and just enjoy yourself while you have this amazing opportunity!