Fuerteventura - Introduction and History

Fuerteventura - Introduction and History

Introduction to Fuerteventura.
When you circle above Fuerteventura to prepare for landing and when you only focus on the land below you, you will see a completely barren area with no visible vegetation and you might think that you’re about to land on Mars. And when you are transferred from the airport to your hotel the views you capture from your bus seat may confirm your first impression and raise the inevitable question “Is this a holiday destination?”

Well yes, Fuerteventura indeed is a barren island with little vegetation and limited fauna, but if you invite yourself to have a closer look, you will be astonished about what the island has to offer: the pure lines of the wide horizon with many shades of grey and blue, the free views over the areas – land and sea, the impressive geological formations, the local culture not to mention the miles of unspoilt sandy beaches (152 beaches, most golden sand but some black) considered to be the finest in Europe - this is our island - an island of many opportunities for leisure & fun.

Geographical History.
The Canarian archipelago consists of seven major islands – Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, La Gomera, Hierro and La Palma. Fuerteventura is part of the African continental plate and is a result of a combination of tectonic and volcanic activity. Some 70 million years ago, volcanoes arose from the relatively young Atlantic sea bottom and created a submarine geography of volcanic origin. Later – some 20 million years ago – the entire African plate in that area was lifted up till it came out of the sea, formed the island and became exposed to erosion. More recently – some 2 million years ago – the island had frequent periods of volcanic activity and the most recent ones date from about 6000 – 4000 years ago. There seem to be evidence that Fuerteventura once had 3 major volcanoes, each of them with about the size of mount Teide on Tenerife : one in the North, one in the Centre (around Betancuria) and one in the South (Pico de Zarza – Cofete which at 807 mtrs is the highest point on Fuerteventura). They diminished due to erosion and major land slides (which still can be seen from space). Worthwhile to note is that the East-to-West road from Corralejo to Lajares/El Cotillo runs across the ancient (50.000 years ago) coastal line of Fuerteventura. After that period, eruptions from the series of volcanoes North of Lajares including the one on Lobos, have created about 100sqkm of new land. This is why you still can see white hills and dunes around Villaverde, La Oliva, Lajares and El Roque.

Fuerteventura is the second largest of the Canarian Islands (and the nearest to Africa) lying approx 100 kms from the saharan west coast of Africa. It is considered by geologists to be the oldest island in the archipelago and at 100kms long by 31kms wide Fuerteventura is also the least developed and per sq km the least populated (the last census was around 100.000 inhabitants) and when you compare that to the other major islands (all figures approx as the islands are fairly transient) Tenerife (800.000) Gran Canaria (600.000) and Lanzarote (142.000) it is not difficult to imagine how tranquil and un-crowded it is here.

Human & Political History.
There is no certainty about who the first settlers on the island were and when this happened. There are a couple of hypotheses but the most probable one refers to a Berber origin, a tribe of tall, fair skinned, blonde blue eyed people from Northern Africa. Basis for this are Libyan-Berber inscriptions that can be found on mountains where these Berber settlers, also called Majos, once lived (please notice the similarity with the actual name of the locals “Majoreros”). They are believed to have set foot on Fuerteventura some 3000 years ago.

In the beginning of the 15th century, the island was conquered by Jean de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle. At that time, there were 2 kingdoms; the one in the North was called Maxorata, ruled by Guize and the one in the South, Jandía, was ruled by Ayose. Shortly after the invasion, both kings were baptised (along with many of the natives) as Bethencourt had introduced Christianity to the island and subsequently the kings changed their names into Luis and Alfonso, respectively. In order to be away from the marauding pirates of the day Betancuria became a safe haven to settle and this became the old capital of Fuerteventura. It is here that the Franciscan monks founded the Monastery of San Buenaventura of which the ruins still can be visited.

Fuerteventura was private property between the 15th and the 19th century suffering many invasions and resulting in this considerable numbers of the islanders were forced into slavery. After that it became part of the Canarian Islands.

Economic History.
Significant economic activity only started since the arrival of Jean de Bethencourt. Before that – and even whilst the growing economic activity between Fuerteventura and mainland Spain – most economic activity at that time has to be regarded as “survival economics” with only local impact.

The main economic activity was agriculture and livestock. Fishing was only done to fill in the “gaps” between seasonal agricultural activities. With very primitive tools to go out fishing, nobody was fond of “going out far”, as one may understand. So, most of the people were not living on the shore, but inside the island. Other reasons for living inside the island were the availability of sweet water and better protection from pirates. Only later, when the threat from pirates diminished, some villages were built along the East coast with its calmer sea and close to the “Barrancos”, the dry riverbeds.

Due to the slightly salty water that was provided from wells that were scarce, the agriculture was limited to simple and easy-to-grow vegetables like tomatoes, wheat, barley, chickpeas and lentils. In order to collect the limited amount of water the farmers used to build dams around their plots of land and constructed terraces on the slopes of the hills. These constructions still can be seen all over the island.

In the 17th century, people were also burning a salty plant from African origin, “Cosco” to provide the raw material for soda. The vast majority of this product was purchased by the English.

At the end of the 18th century many people were involved in burned chalk that was mainly taken out from the areas of Ajuy, burnt locally and then shipped to mainland Spain till about the 1950’s. This activity regularly represented “the last resort for income” as decent harvesting from agriculture and the survival of livestock was uncertain due to unpredictable climatic conditions. It is reported that this activity was one of the major causes for the massive destruction of the Fuerteventura forest, next to construction and domestic fires for cooking.

In the middle of the 19th century a new source of income was generated by the cultivation of the larvae of the “Cochinilla”, a tiny insect that lived on certain cacti and that was the supplier of a red colorant (cochineal) for dying purposes. However due to the invention of the synthetic form of the dye in 1880, the business soon died. The remnants of the ancient cactus gardens still can be seen in the area of Pájara. And when at the same time the rain lacked for 5 years and the island really became a desert, many locals emigrated to Latin-America.

Tomatoes were cultivated on industrial level as from 1927, mainly around Antigua and Tiscamanita, but the Second World War and government taxes for export gave the initiative little support. However the tomatoes from this island are considered to among the most flavoursome in Europe and used in many renowned restaurants.

Another initiative was the cultivation of “Agaves” from which the Sisal fibres were planned to be used as material for textiles and bags. However, due to the lower-cost synthetic fibres, this initiative was unsuccessful.

Livestock is mainly represented by goats that thrive almost anywhere. They are held in high esteem for their milk which is the basis for the famous goat cheese “Queso de Cabra”. The quality is excellent and meets world standards. Proof of this are the many international awards and the officially recognised label “Queso Majorero”. There are 3 major classifications: “Tierno” (soft), “Semi-curado” (medium-aged) and “Curado” (aged). The taste of the “Tierno” is very soft and enjoyable – even to kids – and certainly not what you expect from a standard goat cheese like at home. Please do yourself a favour and try them all, beginning with the “Tierno”.

As from the 1960’s, a new source of income presented itself: tourism. In the beginning Fuerteventura only was for the “Happy Few” who discovered the clear benefits of the island and stayed here for its climate. Some sources state that the start was given by some Belgians who fled the independency revolution in Congo in the 60’s and who were searching for a similar climate and way of life. They built one of the very first hotels on the island: the HOPLACO complex in Corralejo, which is next to the beach and is reported to stand for “HOTEL PLAGE CORRALEJO”.

Most of the new tourist complexes are built outside the villages or even in “the middle of nowhere” so that their impact on the local dynamics is limited. For this reason one may spot very nice locations inside Fuerteventura with a lot of traditional buildings and activities. The impression that one may have from Fuerteventura by only staying in the tourist complexes is not representative at all for what may be experienced in the inside of the island. Open your mind and prepare yourself for an astonishing discovery tour…

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