The very first time we visited La Orotava we got it completely wrong. It was a rush job at the end of the day and we hadn’t time to properly explore. We weren’t really blown away by what we saw. We’d only been on Tenerife a couple of months by that point and knew nothing about the island we’d chosen as home. However, the part we were unimpressed by was in the new town, as we discovered on our next visit when we actually ‘found’ the old quarter and realised what the fuss was all about.
Mind you, although we didn’t escape the new town on our first visit we weren’t quite as bad as the reviewer on Tripadvisor who mistook the nearby shopping centre of La Villa for the town of La Orotava, commenting “Not worth the time to visit. El Cortes Ingles outlet is really a jumble sale, the main indoor mall is low key and unspectacular.”
Over the years, La Orotava became our favourite town on Tenerife. It’s one of those towns we never tire of wandering around. From a photographer’s point of view, there’s always, always that better shot to be found there. And for anyone interested in wandering atmospheric, historic streets, La Orotava offers a deep well of riches. I couldn’t tell you how many times we’ve pounded those steep(ish) streets, but we find something new to discover every time. As well as the obvious attractions, such as the Casa de los Balcones which draws the excursionists, there are less obvious nuggets to be uncovered.
Although coach excursions head to the same handful of spots, the best way to really get a feel for La Orotava is to explore as many of its streets as possibly. It’s an historic town, everywhere in the old quarter is potentially interesting. Tiny cottages with house leeks sprouting from their tiled roofs are squeezed between more elegant town houses; in the town’s gofio mills locals still pick up daily rations of the distinctive smelling toasted flour; shops tend to be small, independent affairs, there are no familiar ‘High Street’ shop names; and tascas display blackboard menus with Canarian dishes such as rancho canario, queso asado, and conejo en salmorejo scrawled on them. There are a handful of gardens to explore, all free entry. Some are easy to find, others you have to know they are there to know they are there – that’s often the Canarian way.
Although the town sits at nearly 500m above sea level (there’s quite a difference between the lower and higher parts of town) which generally makes temperatures a couple of degrees cooler than the coast, we’re generally lucky with the weather in Orotava. Most of the photos I’ve taken over the years have been in sunshine. Fiestas and festivals we’ve attended in winter and summer have been in good weather. One exception was during Corpus Christi one year when it lashed it down, the first time it had rained on the day the flower carpets were laid in something like 45 years. Another exception was the second to last time we visited when the heavens opened and we sheltered in the courtyard of the Iberoamerica Museum of Art as it monsooned it down. The museum itself acted as a dry and fascinating sanctuary, featuring the most bizarre range of figures you’re likely to find in any museum on Tenerife. As well as taking time to enjoy the odd exhibits, we simply sat in the cloisters of the museum’s leafy courtyard watching torrents of rain gush out of ancient wooden spouts protruding from equally ancient tea wood balconies. It was hypnotic watching the rain bounce off the courtyard’s luminescent, human-sized palm leaves.
On our last visit, to update our La Orotava Town Guide, it was back to pounding sunny cobbles. The streets and buildings which line them may have been there for centuries but things can change, even in subtle ways. Arguably the best looking church in Tenerife, the Iglesia de la Concepción, had been given a paint job and is looking all shiny, if not new. Similarly renovation work on the bandstand on plaza de la Constitución had been completed and it’s looking grand, with the cafe located in its bases also having been given a makeover so that it’s now looking modern and professional. We still had to pop inside to grab the attention of the female waiting staff who were deep in conversation – you can spruce up the looks but the fundamentals remain the same. In a way it’s quite comforting.
One of the biggest changes in recent years has been the removal of the tall palms which added greenery to the perimeter of the plaza in front of the Town Hall. We were gutted when the news came they were to be chopped down because disease had made them dangerous. In their place are low-lying palms. They don’t yet have the same exotic presence, but they do at least soften the loss of the old palms. First time visitors will only see a pretty plaza.
On a negative note, still closed were the Victoria Gardens. Back in 2017 it was announced works to improve these neat gardens with their views over the Orotava rooftops would take around a month. Tenerife is a bit like the dream world levels in the film Inception. What is a month in Tenerife time can be more than a year in the outside world. Still, by all accounts, they’re open again. Improvements do eventually get there in the end and the town invariably looks all the better for it.
Although a popular place with coach tours, La Orotava’s streets don’t get clogged with big tour groups. You might encounter them around the Casa de los Balcones, but most of the time, unless there’s a fiesta, the majority of streets are quiet. Often it can be just you and maybe a local carrying a sack of gofio over his shoulder. That’s one of the reasons we love the place. It’s not a touristic theme park, it’s a living, working town and to visit it properly gives an insight into life in the real Tenerife.
La Orotava historic town route is part of our Tenerife Town & Cities walking guides. It includes all the sites and curios we like the best as well as some of our favourite refreshment stops. We’ve also broken these town and city routes into two separate guides for people who might prefer to explore specific areas – Tenerife Northern Town & City Guides – The Orotava Valley, and Tenerife Northern Town & City Guides – The Metropolis. Click here for more information.