With over a million package tourists visiting the island every year you might think Gran Canaria is one giant resort. Fortunately, most of the tourists are happy to stay in the gaudy resorts along the south coast and the rest of the island is pretty much unspoiled.
The Capital city Las Palmas is one of the ten biggest cities in Spain and apart from a few souvenir shops in the old district of Vegueta, hardly caters to visitors at all. The beautiful golden sand Canteras beach that runs the length of the city is completely local except for a few restaurants along the promenade with multi-lingual menus. The main beach snack sold by hawkers is Barquilla, which are basically thin sheets of dry ice cream cone sold in bags. Nightlife in the city caters to the local salsa crowd and karaoke bars are mostly for sailors and best avoided.
As soon as you head up into the hills (Gran Canaria is 2,000 metres high) you will have the island to yourself apart from the odd busload of tourists being whizzed around between viewpoints. Most mountain towns have one or two restaurants that offer local food at inflated prices and another round the corner with better food at half the price. A local restaurant will never have a man outside waving a menu! You can hike between towns in the hills for hours and hardly meet anyone except for a few people working in the fields and the odd hunter and his dogs (Canarian hunting dogs are completely benign unless you are a rabbit).
For a genuinely local experience find out if there is a Romeria or town fete being held while you are on the island. Canarians are very proud of their culture and music and even the smallest village has an annual party where everyone dresses up in local costume and listens to Canarian music while drinking rum and eating salt cod stew (sancocho) and goat meat (carne de cabra). Romerias start in the early afternoon and run until well after midnight.
Most Romerias have some sort of theme. In La Aldea de San Nicolas, everybody jumps into a big brackish pool and catches fish with their hands. The person with the most fish is crowned king of the fiesta. In Agaete, everyone carries branches down from the hills and beats the sea with them to encourage the rain. Ayacata in the very centre has an almond blossom festival. Around Easter, every seaside town or village takes the Virgin Mary icon out of the church and out to sea accompanied by a flotilla of fishing boats and lots of fireworks.
Images: © 2010 Alex Bramwell