Long before our transatlantic cruise on Carnival Breeze began, we booked an all-day Island Exploration tour for the day our ship docked at Las Palmas, Grand Canary Island. This tour said an all-terrain vehicle would take us to visit two volcanic craters and to visit places where tourists don’t normally go. On board, the shore excursion booklet said that vans would take this tour places where busses can’t go.
We were to see two volcanic craters and the highest point of the island, have lunch at a castle, and visit a museum and a cave. However we did not look at the paper until we got back, so when we saw the waiting vans as we exited the Carnival Breeze, we initially thought they would take us somewhere to board an all-terrain vehicle (expecting something similar to the jungle bus from Australia.)
We were given stickers with the number 8 on them in the lounge on the ship, so we boarded van number 8. Our group actually had only 6 vans, of which ours ran in the middle of the group. The lowest numbers had gone to passengers on a different tour. The vans zipped through the city in a line, while an Englishman in the first one gave commentary that came over a speaker into the rest of the group. We thought for the majority of the tour that our driver did not speak English as he did not say a word until it was nearly over.
As the vans snaked up the mountain in the pouring rain, the guide explained how it rarely ever rains on Gran Canaria (the Spanish spelling of Grand Canary, as the Canary Islands belong to Spain.) The island has many reservoirs to catch what rain does fall for watering a thirsty island. Prickly pear cactus and agave grow wild on the steep hillsides between the steep winding roads. He also mentioned a leaf discoloration on some plants caused by an infestation of beetles which they harvest and turn into food coloring. So if you see red food color made of carmine or cochineal extract on the list of ingredients of your food, it may have come from bug juice. Which is at least natural. It could be worse, some red dyes are petroleum based.
According to Live Science, the bugs are not beetles at all, but a species considered a “true bug,” called cochineals. If it weren’t for the fact that some people are allergic to it, the dye ingredients would just be listed as natural. Cochineals are harvested mainly in Peru and the Canary Islands on plantations of prickly pear cacti, the bugs’ preferred host. About 70,000 insects are needed to produce a pound of dye.
As the altitude grew ever higher, the vegetation changed mainly to pine trees. In this very dry climate, the pine trees developed a unique system of obtaining water. Instead of drinking through their roots like other pine trees, the Canary Island pines have the longest needles of any pine tree in the world and use them to extract moisture from the air.
We reached Bandama crater, enshrouded in mist and clouds. We exited the vans, but through the rain and clouds did not get the views or photo opportunities our position high on the mountain would have provided on a nicer day. On the way there and back we drove past Bandama Golf Course, the first golf course built in all of Spanish territory.
I was quite glad to see a golf course up in the mountains rather than by the sea where run-off from all the fertilizers and things used to keep it green harm sea life. The guide said it is quite expensive to play golf there because of the amount of water needed to keep it green on an island where rain comes so infrequently. While we would have preferred it not rain during our visit, locals are probably quite happy to see rain whenever they can get it.
Next, we went to the highest point on the island. As the vans pulled into the stop, I noticed a dog chasing the last one. If they think about the Canary Islands at all, most people associate them with little yellow songbirds. In actual fact, they were named after the dogs that once ran wild there (canis – canines.) The natural assumption that Grand Canary is the biggest of the Canary Islands is also false, as it ranks only third in size. Gran Canaria translates literally to big dog area. The aforementioned songbirds were later named after the island, and some do live there.
The dog I saw had a different look to it then regular dog breeds so I figured it to be one of the Canary Island dogs. It vanished from sight before I got a chance to get a picture of it. Through heavy winds driving the rain sideways, I did get some pictures of the pine trees. I entered one in the on-board photo contest. It didn’t win, but they make a nice 8×10 photo of all the entries and let the contestants keep them, so I got it a frame to hang it on the wall in my house.
My husband entered photos that he thought had a chance to win and his made the finals, but they are not photos we’d want to display in our home. I entered photos I’d want to hang win or lose so I got a couple nice pictures for free. (My other entry was a sunrise.) The winner got a larger copy of their photo as their prize, so I saw no point to entering something not wall worthy.
We made a brief stop in a small town. Spanish speaking passengers could buy saffron at the pu
blic market there for very cheap. Our Spanish is limited more to a few useful phrases like “Donde esta el bano?” (Where’s the bathroom?) and a few things better not mentioned. The stop was too short for haggling between people who don’t understand one another, so we skipped buying saffron there, being more interested in not getting left behind in the boon toolies on our last port stop before crossing the ocean.
Later we stopped at a small café in the mountains. We got a large package of Canarian saffron there for next to nothing. Locals consider it “tourist prices” because the local markets have it for less, but we got it far cheaper than most people would ever dream of finding it for. Saffron comes from part of a particular type of crocus flower and it takes 50,000 to 75,000 of them to make a pound of the world’s most expensive spice.
We had photo stop at a scenic overlook on the mountain road. With the peaks of the mountains still in the clouds, we never did get the views we might have seen, but we did see some rainbows, interesting rock formations, and some towns down in the valleys.
As we came down from the mountains, the weather got warmer and sunnier. Viewpoints now looked both up and down, with the ups showing the mountaintops still in the clouds. In a cute little town we stopped at a museum made of stones. Being Sunday, it wasn’t open, but someone came along eventually to unlock the door. Inside it had interesting light fixtures made of natural objects as well as an eclectic collection of items ranging from stones and bones to no-longer-living birds, sealife, and artifacts. Outside the building’s archways lemon trees and giant cactus grew along the stone paths through its small garden.
We stopped for lunch at a camel farm where they had a number of camels saddled up for rides, though we did not see anyone riding them. We had a hearty lunch with choice of soup or salad and pork or fish. We didn’t mind eating at a camel farm rather than a castle, but there was a person in our group allergic to camels who was quite unhappy about that and everyone would have liked to see the castle even if we didn’t eat there.
After lunch we returned to town and back to the ship. One of the benefits of booking a shore excursion through the cruise line is that the ship will wait for you even if you return past the all-aboard time, which we did even though we had not gone to all the stops listed on the tour.
People on their balconies clapped when our vans pulled up, though late as we arrived a few other people straggled in later still, lucky that the ship got delayed by our tour. One person came running down the dock not only after the gangway got pulled in, but actually after the ship had begun to pull away from the dock. Arriving that late usually means watching the ship sail away without you and finding your own transportation to the next port. Our captain had a kind heart knowing that getting left behind there meant five days and an ocean to cross before the next port, and he knew he could safely get back to the dock so he did return to pick up the last straggler.
Normally ships only wait for their own tours, and if the boat has left the dock the passenger is out of luck. That last straggler should feel very thankful that the captain so kindly returned for him. With 5 days and an ocean between ports catching up to the ship would have gotten very expensive had he missed the boat. Odds are security had already checked the safe in his room for his passport, as Carnival will have someone meet their missing passengers at the dock and help them make arrangements to catch the ship at the next port. Usually the next port is not so far away in time or distance though.
We enjoyed this excursion even though it did not quite match up to our expectations, but felt the price was too high for what we got considering we missed several things the tour should have included. We have learned over time that the excursions don’t always match up to the hype. This one could have improved through better organization. At all the small stops we lost time because the drivers and guide all gave people different amounts of time for how long they planned to stay there, and the vans all tended to move after we got out of them. So nobody knew when exactly to get back, and then had to find either the right van or even the entire group of vans after they did.
If the museum had been open when we got there, and lunch (which the guide called ahead and ordered) ready upon arrival we could have saved time in those places as well. Then perhaps we might have had time to visit the cave we were supposed to see. It turned out that the lunch stop was at a camel farm instead of a castle because of the large size of our group. If we had time for camel rides that would have been fun, but we did not. I’m not sure if we ever went by the second volcanic crater either. If we did we didn’t stop for photos, which probably would not have been good anyway since the mountain tops remained in the rainclouds all day and if it was anywhere near the first one we probably couldn’t have seen it anyway due to the weather.
Missing out on the cave on that particular island was a big loss because to this day some of the island’s inhabitants live in cave houses, and we missed seeing one. The guide had talked about seeing a cave house on the way to lunch, but did not mention it again afterword while heading straight back to the ship past the all-aboard time.
After mentioning these discrepancies to the shore excursion desk on Carnival Breeze, they said they would ask that the wording in the description get changed to include the lunch stop at any places it might go, which may depend on the size of the group. It has already changed to vans rather than all terrain vehicles. Even though the tour is ran by an outside vendor they also kindly refunded us $25 each since we did not complete the tour.