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Lanzarote: A Travelers’ Guide to Its History and Culture

Updated: Apr 29



Ultima Cena, Leonardo da Vinci


In between Europe and the ocean, Lanzarote can sometimes remind visitors of Spain, Greece, North Africa or surprise them with an entirely new visual and natural experience.


With a breathtaking volcanic landscape that covers a large portion of its territory, Lanzarote hides a unique (and difficult) interesting past and a cultural background that is absolutely worth exploring. If you are planning your next trip, are visiting the island or are just curious to know more about Lanzarote's history and culture, this guide is the right pick for you!


 

In this article:


Lanzarote: A Travelers’ Guide to its History and Culture | Overview
Lanzarote: A Travelers’ Guide to its History and Culture
Lanzarote: A Travelers’ Guide to its History and Culture | Tools for Travelers

 

Lanzarote: A Travelers’ Guide to its History and Culture | Overview



INTRODUCTION


Today, when we think of the Canaries and of Lanzarote, what comes to our mind are the ocean, the sand and the wild nature. We imagine spending days sunbathing and relaxing on the shores, alternating a good trekking session with some chilling on the beach.


In reality, Lanzarote is much more than this and once you step on the island you feel the presence of an entire culture that shares some characteristics with Europe but that is unique in so many ways.


In this post, we will retrace the history of Lanzarote to understand what contributed to creating the island we see today - socially, culturally and geographically. Then, I will leave you a few suggestions and ideas to get deeper into this topic and make the most of your trip to the island with full respect for the culture there.



BRIEF CHRONOLOGY


  • ca. 2 million years ago: Formation of Lanzarote from the collision of two tectonic plates

  • ca. 10th century BCE: Possible first human settlements in the area, according to Carbon14

  • ca. 500 BCE: The Majos settle in Lanzarote

  • ca. 2nd century BCE - 5th century CE: The Majos trade with the Romans

  • 999 CE: The Arabs visit Lanzarote

  • 1312: Lancellotto Malocello "rediscovers" the island and finds it populated by the Majos

  • 1339: The Atlas Dulcert includes the island on the map and calls it "Lanzarote" for the first time

  • 1402: Juan IV de Bethencourt and his companions conquer Lanzarote

  • 1405: The first cathedral, Saint Martial de Limoges, is built on the island

  • 1479: Treaty of Alcaçovas that grants Lanzarote to Spain. Beginning of a feudal system on the island

  • 1617: Walter Raleigh attacks and destroys Arrecife

  • 1730-36: Timanfaya eruptions

  • 1812: Constitution of Cadiz, abolition of the feudal system

  • 1824: Volcanic eruption on the island

  • 1850s: Emigration and economic boom

  • 1857: Arrecife becomes the main city

  • 1936-1975: Francoist era of Spain, Lanzarote lives on its own resources, isolated

  • 1966: César Manrique returns to Lanzarote

  • 1967: Opening of the first two tourist establishments

  • 1992: Death of César Manrique



Lanzarote and its natural landscape


Lanzarote: A Travelers’ Guide to its History and Culture



PRIMORDIAL LANZAROTE


Before being called Lanzarote, the island was known as Tyterogakat, "the burned one" or "the one that is all ochre".


We don't know for sure when the first settlements should be dated, but most scholars assume this could be around 500 BCE. The first inhabitants of the island, which was much older with its 2 million years history, likely came from North Africa and the Sahara area and were of Berber origin.


The reason why populations with little to no knowledge of shipbuilding and with few advanced skills ended up on the island is not known, but it was probably the result of an immediate need that required emigration or simply of an exploration that led to the discovery of an empty land, Lanzarote, that was geographically-familiar enough as to allow the Berbers to live as in their homeland.


In fact, the Lanzarote we must imagine at this point is not the one we see today: today, the island's landscape is dominated by the signs of the 1730-36 eruption and looks partially arid. At the time when the first inhabitants arrived and for a long time after that moment, Lanzarote was rich in stone carvings, much more fertile and green, thus allowing the first settlers to live on rudimental agriculture and livestock.


The primordial settlers of the island were called Majos and used to live in natural caves or deep houses (simple buildings where the floor was dug into the earth, leaving half of a room underground and half above ground level). They lived in a society that can be considered "of stone-age-level", meaning that they were fairly hierarchically organized, could craft and use tools to hunt, cook and build, and produced artefacts such as pottery, cutlery, decorative objects, etc. Of course, the extremely scarce contacts they had with the "outside" world and their limited resources only allowed them to learn and improve up to a certain point.


During this early period, we have proof that the Majos entered into contact with the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and other Berber populations. The first known record came from the Roman literate Pliny the Elder, who mentioned the island in his Naturalis Historia (77 CE), then Roman poet Lucan and Greek geographer Ptolemy. We also know, thanks to archaeological records, that the Majos actively traded with the Romans, although the latter had probably never been interested in occupying or settling in such an isolated land - the products and resources they could obtain were probably their only focus.


After the fall of the Roman Empire, for a long time little was known or remembered about the Canaries and we have to wait until 999 CE to find another mention of it, this time by the Arabs, who however did not seem to show much interest in the islands. After this, silence followed for a few more centuries, until everything changed forever.



THE ARRIVAL OF THE EUROPEANS


During the late Middle Ages, so around the 13th-14th centuries, a new trend was on the rise in Europe: the exploration of new lands in search of adventures, resources and... space. In a world where kings, lords, nobles and merchants were increasing in number and degree of power, the small territories of the Old Continent suddenly felt too tight. As we know well, this would eventually result in the discovery of the Americas and all that this involved.


Amidst this context, in 1312 the Genoese navigator Lancellotto Malocello arrived in Lanzarote, which had been completely forgotten over the centuries, so much that it didn't even have a name. Upon his arrival, he found the island populated by the Majos, who he reported were still living in a stone-age-like society.


Lancellotto did not stay long in Lanzarote, but the stories and evidence he brought back home triggered many consequences, unfortunately not always positive. While his "discovery" made the island appear once more on the maps (1339, in the Atlas Dulcert), this time called Lanzarote from Lancellotto who (re)found it, it also generated several expeditions, all with the aim of collecting resources and slaves to be exploited on the Old Continent.


This situation got rapidly worse: in the 15th century, a period of intense explorations, Lanzarote caught the attention of two Norman mercenaries, who proposed to King Henry III of Castile (1379-1406) an expedition to dominate the island and intensely make use of its lands. The king accepted, and Juan IV de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle set sail for Lanzarote, reaching it in 1402.


When they arrived, the Majos were worn out by the decades of attacks and plundering that followed Lancellotto Malocello's visit and feebly opposed the occupation. In a matter of years, churches were built (the first cathedral on the island, Saint Martial of Limoges, now gone, was erected shortly after the conquest), Lanzarote was turned into a feudal lordship, the nephew of Juan de Bethencourt, Maciot, married the local Princess of Teguise and started a mixed lineage, and the Majos were decimated until they were no more than 300 in total.



Jardin de los Cactus, Lanzarote
Jardin de los Cactus in Lanzarote, designed by César Manrique


MODERN ERA ON THE ISLAND


For most of the 15th century, expeditions, battles (especially between the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain) and pillages would continue, until in 1479 the Treaty of Alcaçovas eventually granted Lanzarote to Spain, establishing a feudal system that would be used for centuries.


In the meantime, a mixed population of European settlers and Majos lived on the island, often victims of the continuous attacks of pirates and mercenaries and forced to hide in what today is Cueva de los Verdes to have their lives spared.


In 1586 Berber corsairs attacked the island and in 1617 the English explorer Walter Raleigh destroyed Arrecife, at the time the main urban center of Lanzarote. These continuous assaults were mainly caused by the strategic position of the island and its profitable resources.


Anyway, despite these not-too-promising circumstances, Lanzarote also took some advantages from the conquest, first of all the introduction of shipbuilding and several other skills, which allowed the island to be connected to the other Canaries and see its agricultural and commercial sectors flourish from exportations.


But everything was about to change. In 1730-36, the Timanfaya eruptions occurred and totally altered the appearance and geographical conditions of a significant portion of Lanzarote. Several towns were buried, and for six years the lava continued to spread, covering a quarter of the island. The eruptions disrupted the whole economy of Lanzarote: if in the previous centuries the island had exported cereals, wheat and other goods to the Canaries, the lava made most of the agricultural activities impracticable. It would take decades for the local farmers to come up with special systems to make the most of their modified territory and, despite the incredible results that now make the production of wine possible, the pre-eruptions conditions were forever lost.


READ NEXT: if you wish to know more about the 1730-36 eruptions and how they changed the landscape of Lanzarote, your place to be is definitely the Timanfaya National Park, a breathtaking UNESCO Reserve. You can find a complete guide to visit it here on the blog!


Of course, the eruptions also brought other emergencies and eventually forced much of the population to emigrate to the Continent or to the Americas. When another volcanic episode occurred in 1824, Lanzarote was so changed as to have even abandoned its feudal system (in 1812 with the Constitution of Cadiz, which made the Canaries an official province of Spain).


For the rest of the 19th century, what remained of the local population tried to exploit its new position as an official province of a modern country. By the 1850s, the economy was booming, having abandoned the old agriculture- and livestock-based systems in favor of more profitable sectors such as long-shot trade. In those same years, Arrecife emerged as the main urban center.



THE TWENTIETH CENTURY


As it's sadly known, the first half of the 20th century was dominated by the World Wars. The Canary Islands played a vital role because of their strategic position, and especially during the Second World War they were the frequent subject of diplomatic and military discussions.


However, besides the constant fear caused by an ongoing conflict, these first decades saw Lanzarote quietly isolated, keeping a low profile during the Francoist period and surviving on its own resources.


Then, by the 1960s, no ocean could separate the Canaries from the momentous winds of change that were shaking the now-globalized world. In 1967, Lanzarote opened its first two tourist establishments (at Puerto del Carmen) and in a matter of years the tourism sector boomed. However, this took preparation, as since the eruptions the island was forever affected by famine, lack of resources and of drinking water, and was not ready to sustain the numbers tourism would have brought.


To deal with mass tourism, Lanzarote came up with a solution for the water problem with the first desalination plants (you can still visit them, the experience is one-of-a-kind!), then worked hard to ensure full electricity coverage on the whole island, starting from the most enticing spots for tourists.


At the same time, it became evident that savage tourism would have destroyed Lanzarote culture and landscape if nothing was done to prevent it. An illuminated mind came to aid: César Manrique, a Lanzarote-born artist who had been living in the United States for years, came back from NYC in 1966 and started planning a method to preserve Lanzarote's soul while allowing tourism. The solution, fully visible today and the very beating heart of the island came to life as a veritable tourist brand, the CACT, a series of cultural spots, museums, attractions and natural reserves that narrate the history and culture of Lanzarote while at the same time saving the most impressive and significant places from massive urbanization and modernization.


DISCOVER NEXT: check a list of places Manrique designed here on the official website of the CACT (Centers of Art, Culture and Tourism)


Unfortunately, despite Manrique's efforts, mass tourism inevitably brought some unsustainable changes and architectural disasters that partially disrupted the original geographical features of the island. This was already clear before Manrique's death in 1992, so much so that he spent the last years of his life protesting against the massive construction of horrendous building blocks meant for tourist purposes that were engulfing the shores. In the 2000s, the impact of tourism was still increasing, then, thanks to some pioneering urban planning regulations the trend began to slightly reverse, not always with impressive outcomes.



LANZAROTE TODAY: CULTURAL Q&A


What does Lanzarote look like today? As a person who visited it recently, I can say that Lanzarote surely shows signs of 20th-century mass tourism and its implications. But also that Manrique's work is clearly tangible, and so is the peculiar culture and history that made the island what it is today.


What is Lanzarote culture? In between Europe and North Africa, Lanzarote today may feel half familiar half stranger, recognizable and unique at the same time. The natural landscapes have little in common with the Old Continent but the architecture doesn't hit you as new. There are churches around, but once you step inside the ingenuity of the style and the cult brings you closer to a more genuine form of spirituality and to what you perceive as a mixture of cultures. The language you hear and the people you see remind you that an ocean is not enough to divide.


Is mass tourism still a problem? Tourism is certainly a problem but is also an immense resource for Lanzarote. Surely enough, not all tourists are well-behaved (and nor are their travel agencies) and it's unfortunately way too common to see big buses packing the cultural centers with their hordes of people or large or noisy boats disturbing the tranquillity of the shores and the small islands around just to make sure their guests can check off every beautiful beach from their bucket list. And yet, even in low season, the island is mostly kept alive by tourists, often genuinely interested in exploring and learning about the local culture. Its weather allows people to come in all year round and enjoy an eternal spring, in April as in January.



MOST NOTABLE FIGURES: WHO AND WHY


Yes, historical narrations can be a bit weary. And the fact that it is often necessary to mention lots of names without having the time to get deeper into who they are and why they did what interests us doesn't help.


This is why here you will find a few very brief biographies of the most important figures in the history of Lanzarote, thus giving a bit more context and hopefully making everything more easily enjoyable!



Lancellotto Malocello (1270-1336)

Lancellotto, Lanzarotus, or Lanzarotto Maloncello was an Italian merchant and explorer from Genoa who is mainly remembered for having re-discovered the Canary Islands during his peregrinations.


A man who lived in a world that was changing but that was still not ready for the great naval missions that would eventually bring the Europeans to the Americas, Lancellotto originally began his journey around Africa in the hope of reaching the Indies (as many before and after him) and finding men who had been long lost at sea. He eventually ended up on Lanzarote in 1312.


According to a few historical records, he might have stayed some 20 years, only to be then forced away by a revolt of the Majos without really coming to full domination. During his rather long stay, he ordered the building of a fort, later destroyed.



Juan IV de Bethencourt
Juan IV de Bethencourt | Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Juan IV de Bethencourt (1360-1425)

Juan IV de Bethencourt, also known as Jean de Béthencourt, was a French nobleman and explorer. Playing the role of the conqueror, he is probably the least likeable figure in this list by our modern standards and well represents an early generation of those who are notoriously known as conquistadores.


Born around 1360 in Grainville-la-Teinturière in Normandy, Bethencourt was a member of a noble family with ties to the French court. In 1402, motivated by a common desire for adventure, Bethencourt embarked on a journey to the Canary Islands. Along with his nephew Gadifer de La Salle, he sought to conquer and colonize the islands on behalf of the Kingdom of Castile, as this would have brought money and prestige to his family.


Bethencourt easily managed to establish control over Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, and El Hierro but his rule was marked by both successes and challenges. He established trade relations with European merchants, introduced Christianity to the Majos, and implemented laws to govern the islands. However, his authoritarian rule and conflicts with local leaders led to unrest.


After several years of governing the Canary Islands, Bethencourt returned to France in 1418, leaving the administration of the islands to his nephew. He died in 1425 in Grainville-la-Teinturière.



Princess Teguise (ca. 1400 - ca. 1491)

When Juan IV de Bethencourt arrived in Lanzarote, the Majos were organized in a society that at high levels included nobles, kings and queens. When he left in 1418, they had already started to mix with the foreign settlers, a trend that was initiated by the rediscovery of the island by Lancellotto Malocello but that was then reaching the high society.


Princess Teguise - whose name today-visitors of Lanzarote known thanks to the homonymous city - is probably the best remembered of that generation of Majos that first bonded with the conquerors. Unfortunately, there is not much we know about her or her life: documentation is extremely scarce and when it comes to women, it is even scarcer. Legends and oral narrations are yet many: she left a strong mark on the local culture.


She is said to have married Maciot, the nephew of Juan IV, and with her offspring to have given life to a lineage of people with the surname Bethencourt, still to be found in Lanzarote today.



César Manrique in Lanzarote
César Manrique in his natural habitat: Lanzarote | Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

César Manrique (1919-1992)

Soon after arriving in Lanzarote, tourists get to know César Manrique and understand his strong connection with the culture and life of the island.


Born in Lanzarote and early exposed to the island's peculiar volcanic landscapes, Manrique was an artist and architect whose work always showed the signs of his homeland's influence.


At a young age, he left Lanzarote for Madrid first and New York then in search of more inspiration for his art, but in 1966 he eventually returned. Upon arriving, he embarked on a mission to preserve the natural beauty of Lanzarote while fostering sustainable development. He created works and designed cultural centers that harmonized with the island's rugged terrain, such as Jameos del Agua and Mirador del Río.


Manrique's advocacy for environmental conservation and his efforts to promote responsible tourism earned him international acclaim and his legacy continues to inspire. Unfortunately, when he died in 1992 in a car accident, his island was completely transformed from that he was born into and mass tourism was taking over. Nevertheless, without his work, today we wouldn't probably be able to understand Lanzarote's culture as we are and would have lost much of its cultural heritage.




 



Lanzarote: A Travelers’ Guide to its History and Culture | Tools for Travelers



WHAT TO VISIT: BEST CULTURAL EXPERIENCES AND MUSEUMS


Lanzarote is a medium-sized island, one that you can explore in 10-15 days. And yet, the cultural attractions it offers are numerous and each of them is a chance to discover the unique history of this place!


The majority of the best and most interesting cultural sites come with the unmistakable signature of César Manrique, whose art and design you will quickly recognize before reading any label: bright colors, geometric shapes and the perfect intersection of art and nature, humans and geography.


More than this, there are several other options that you can consider if you are interested in Lanzarote's history and culture. Here, I cannot go through them all (over time I will write dedicated guides and pages and I will update the list here!) but I made sure to select a few places that I visited and that helped me connect with the local culture the most:



Timanfaya National Park
A view of Timanfaya National Park

Timanfaya National Park

What: Location of the 1730-36 eruptions and today a protected natural area open to visitors as a national park

Price: 20€ adults / 10€ children

● Visit Duration: 3 hours

Why: Timanfaya Park is the perfect place to understand today's Lanzarote and how strong had been the impact of the volcanic eruptions, how much it changed the island. It also gives a sense of what must have meant living on a suddenly arid land and having to readjust to a place where nothing could grow.




César Manrique Home
A view of César Manrique's home for 20 years

César Manrique Foundation - Volcano House

What: Home of César Manrique, where he lived for 20 years (1968-1988)

Price: 10€ adults / 3€ children

How: Buy the tickets on-site, check the website here

● Visit Duration: 2 hours

Why: It's hard to find a better place on Lanzarote where to feel how profound was the connection between César Manrique and his island and how this latter's landscape impacted his life: Manrique's home was built on a lava coulee formed during the Timanfaya eruptions and is the perfect mixture between local architecture and the artist’s modern style he acquired during his years abroad.



Cueva de los Verdes, Lanzarote
The interior of Cueva de los Verdes

Cueva de Los Verdes

What: 4000-year-old natural volcanic formation of tunnels and galleries

Where: Haria - Las Palmas

Price: 15€ adults / 7,50€ children

How: Buy the tickets on-site or in advance here

● Visit Duration: 1 hour

Why: This place was used as shelter by the local inhabitants of Lanzarote during the 16th and 17th centuries to hide from the corsairs and pirates that were continuously attacking the island. It is also where the power of nature and the influence it had on Lanzarote and its population are clear to all visitors - it was adapted into a museum by César Manrique so that all visitors could get closer to Lanzarote's heart.



Teguise city center, Lanzarote
Teguise's main church under a blue sky

City Center of Teguise

What: Historical city center of the small town of Teguise

Price: free entry

● Visit Duration: 3 hours

Why: A small town that shares its name with that of Lanzarote's most popular princess, Teguise today is a tranquil town that becomes animated on market days. Strolling around it and its historical city center only takes a few hours but is a great occasion to see Lanzarote's authentic traces of a past of mixed experiences: bright and simple traditional architecture shining in white and earth brown, low buildings, parish churches, palms and remains of forts and town walls. Check out the ruins of Santa Barbara Castle!



Mirador del Rio, Lanzarote
The breathtaking view from Mirador del Rio | Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Mirador del Rio

What: César Manrique-designed viewpoint

Price: 8€ adults / 4€ children

How: Buy tickets on-site or here on the official website

● Visit Duration: 1 hour

Why: A place like Lanzarote, a geographically extraordinary island in the middle of the ocean, surely deserves a viewpoint like Mirador del Rio. Visiting this place is 100% worth it for the view alone, but it's even more so if you know that Manrique specifically designed the building (and adorned it with sculptures) to make sure that its structure would not disturb the natural landscape, likely preventing any invasive building from being inevitably constructed later. Pro tip: avoid it on foggy days!




LANZAROTE IN LITERATURE AND CINEMA


Immaculate landscapes such as that of Timanfaya National Park undoubtedly catch the attention of writers, musicians and movie directors. They remind us of continents that are not Europe and provide an amazing alternative that looks out to the ocean and is just flanked by cities, stone carvings and fields of green.


Here are a few suggestions for you to check in case you wish to see Lanzarote on the big screen or immerse in its natural paradise with a good book!


Literature

Honestly, I've struggled a bit to find books about/set in Lanzarote that were worthy of a suggestion nor do I remember finding many while I was there, in bookshops or museum bookstores. Anyway, here are a couple:


Lanzarote Notebooks by José Saramago: this series of books is probably the highest homage ever paid by a contemporary literature master to Lanzarote. Here, Saramago describes his years spent on the island. Unfortunately, it is not available yet in English, but, as far as I could understand, it is in Portuguese, Spanish and Italian.


The Canary Islands: A Cultural History by Juan Cruz Ruiz: this is a good read for all those who are interested in the history and culture of not only Lanzarote but all Canary Islands and for that decided to read this post. A detailed historical and cultural exploration of the islands.


Living in Lanzarote by Mike Cliffe-Jones: to all the Brits out there, I am talking to you! As some of you might know, when in Lanzarote is extremely common to find British people visiting it. Well, this book is the funny story of a family from the UK who decided to move permanently to Lanzarote - might find something to relate to here!


Fundación César Manrique: a guide to the house-museum of César Manrique in Lanzarote and to the work of the Foundation that manages it.



Cinema/TV

One Million Years B.C.: if you are into historical cinema, this is the right pick for you. One Million Years B.C. is a 1966 fantasy movie set in an imaginary historical period when humans lived together with dinosaurs. It is entirely set in the Canary Islands and several scenes depict Lanzarote and its volcanic landscapes - the movie is particularly interesting because was filmed right before the tourist boom of Lanzarote!


Black Mirror: Lanzarote appears several times in the popular TV show Black Mirror and was even the main protagonist of a specific episode called USS Callister (2017), where the island is used as the location for the Star Trek-inspired plot.


Marvel's The Eternals: and we almost reach our days with this 2021 classical superhero movie by Marvel! Not really a fan of the genre so I haven't watched it, but the plot rotates around the Eternals, immortal beings who awake from a several-thousand-year repose to defend the Earth from their evil counterpart. Many of the movie's scenes were filmed in Lanzarote, exploiting again the incredible volcanic landscape.





 



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