Some trips turn out perfectly, everything goes as planned. Better than planned. You discover jaw-dropping scenery and magical places off the beaten track, make local friends who introduce you to delicious authentic local dishes. Come home with a tan, great photos, and a renewed energy and perspective on your life.
Some trips don’t go as planned at all.
My trip to Fuerteventura was one of the latter.
Fuerteventura is the second largest of the Spanish Canary Islands in the Atlantic. Not far from the coast of Africa, it’s a true desert island—in the sandy sense of the word—with vast dunes and over 150km of beach. A reliable destination for pasty Northern Europeans to top up their vitamin D levels during the winter, myself included.
Inspired by this post by Spencer over at Whisky Tango Globetrot, I headed to Fuerteventura to try surfing. I’d fallen in love with sailing and figured this passion would naturally spill over to other watersports, so I booked myself some lessons at Aloha Surf Academy and planned to island hop before flying back from Gran Canaria.
THIS IS NOT WHAT TRAVEL MOJO LOOKS LIKE
Mistake #1 LOSING MY PASSPORT
There are some people who plan as if every disaster is going to happen to them. Not me. I was damned surprised to discover that my passport was gone. And a bit flummoxed because, to be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to such a scenario. It probably involves embassies, right? But what if you’re on an island? And you have no money? I had no idea (mistake #1a).
My flight had been diverted to Lisbon thanks to a broken toilet. A couple I met on the plane kindly gave me a lift to Corralejo, the town I was staying in, as the last bus had long since gone.
Soon after, I realised the absence of my wallet containing my bank cards and passport (rookie mistake! #1b), although thankfully not my small wad of spare cash. Hopefully the wallet had fallen out of my bag in the back of the car, however, I hadn’t thought to take the Kind Couple’s contact details.
A fraught day of face-palming ensued.
Thankfully the travel gods were smiling upon me that day. Just as I was preparing to knock on the door of every villa on the island, I saw them marching down the street towards me—passport in hand!
I was lucky.
By this point, though, I’d already cancelled my bank cards. My budget had just got substantially smaller.
Mistake #2 NOT WEARING SUNCREAM
Passport safely locked away, cortisol levels returning to normal, I knocked back a piña colada and promptly fell asleep on the beach. With no suncream on.
Hey, at least I blended in with my fellow Brits abroad.
Mistake #3 INFLATED EXPECTATIONS
I’ll be honest, getting to know Fuerteventura wasn’t my top priority. It was the end of winter and I was in search of sunshine and #surflife.
I had envisaged an incredible week catching my first waves, feeling close to nature, taking yoga classes on the beach, drinking smoothies, and chilling out around campfires with new friends. Isn’t that what surfers do? I even compiled an amazing playlist.
Everyone in the surf lodge just wanted to talk about surfing and go to bed early, which is kind of boring if you don’t catch the bug. There was no drinking, no campfire, no music. I had a few lonely wanders in search of smoothies and other things I could no longer justify buying.
The yoga sessions all seemed to involve unrealistically early mornings. I was so beat from the waves and the wind and the sunburn that I didn’t feel remotely healthy. All I wanted was beer and a sofa and my pyjamas.
Mistake #4 NOT TRYING SURFING BEFORE I BOOKED SURF CAMP
Now, Whisky Tango Globetrot did make this sensible recommendation, but I didn’t want a little thing like inexperience to get in between me and #surflife.
If I had tried surfing beforehand would I have signed up for a camp? Maybe not.
Surfing is HARD. It’s exhausting being pummelled by waves all day. It’s nothing like sailing, where you sit around on a boat a lot of the time, sometimes with a beer.
Mistake #5 BOOKING ACCOMMODATION AND LESSONS SEPARATELY
I chose to stay at Billabong Beach House as it had dorm rooms right on Waikiki Beach, but I took my lessons with Aloha. With hindsight, it would have been a more sociable experience if I’d booked accommodation and lessons with the same outfit.
Sensibly though, I had only booked 2 days of lessons in advance rather than a whole week, planning to extend if I enjoyed it.
(Not that I would have been able to pay for extra lessons anyway without my bank cards. Oooops.)
This turned out to be a wise move, because . . .
READER, I QUIT
I’d love for this story to end with my triumphant first wave, but it doesn’t.
After the first day, I consigned myself to bodyboarding (which is fun!).
After the second day, I gave up. Let’s just say I’m not structurally built for surfing. Plus, I was really sunburnt.
This is no reflection on Aloha, I was impressed with the quality of instruction, but ultimately surfing was not for me. I’m not afraid to change my plans, and I wanted to make the most of my remaining time and money.
Time to tap back into my modus operandi—cheese-exploring, tiny islands, hammock-time, cheap sangria, ancient civilisations, abandoned convents, and long winding bus journeys with a driver intent on teaching me the Spanish names for every animal that we pass.
#stephlife, not #surflife!
THINGS TO DO IN FUERTEVENTURA
Fuerteventura may the second largest Canary island but development is fairly restrained compared to Gran Canaria and Tenerife. Resorts are modest and family-friendly, with the north of the island popular with Brits and the south with Germans.
The island is an intriguing blend of intensity and nothingness. More rugged and windy than it appears in photos, but with a noticeable gentility and contentedness amongst its inhabitants. People come to Fuerteventura for the elements and simplicity of life.
I stayed in Corralejo (pronounced ‘coral echo’), a relaxed resort town in the north with the tourist tat mainly confined to one strip. I found it a little lacking in atmosphere, but it is conveniently located and has plenty of cheap accommodation options, beaches, and watersports. The famous sand dunes are a 30-minute walk as long as you can brave the wind.
The more interesting accommodation options seem to be inland, near the villages of Lajares and La Oliva which are popular with surfers who can hit the coast in three different directions from this prime location.
Not wanting to aggravate my sunburn, I bought a sunhat and hit the road instead.
El Cotillo is a quiet fishing village on the west coast with an offbeat feel. Much smaller than Corralejo, it can feel like the edge of the world when the wind is howling.
The Clean Ocean Project is a cool little NGO which organises beach cleans and initiatives around the reduction of plastic use. Their shops in El Cotillo and Corralejo sell incredibly fluffy bamboo t-shirts and hoodies, ideal if you’re under-dressed for the sometimes chilly Atlantic winds.
The first capital of the Fuerteventura, Betancuria has a refreshingly different character to the seaside resorts and is the best bet for getting a taste of Canarian history and culture. Located inland to protect from invaders and still sporting some traditional architecture, as well as a few interesting museums, the first convent on the island (now abandoned), and some green things that aren’t aloe vera for a change, Betancuria is now a prime day trip destination.
The little archaeological museum gives a clue as to why there is so little on the island: goats.
It wasn’t always so. Known in classical times as the Fortunate Isles, Fuerteventura was once green and fertile, but goats and logging resulted in desertification and the island went into decline until the tourism boom in the 1970s.
Relatively little is known about the indigenous period of the Majos, before the European conquistadors arrived in the 13th and 14th centuries, as few archaeological sites have been excavated.
Casa de Santa María, a restored 17th-century house, has lovely gardens and demonstrations of traditional textiles, and there’s cheese-tasting available at nearby Finca Pepe, a working farm.
ISLA DE LOBOS
My highlight in Fuerteventura was Isla de Lobos, a tiny volcanic island just off the coast at Corralejo.
There is nothing much here which is precisely why I loved it.
Lobos is a protected ecological zone so visitors are contained to walking trails. The only settlement is at El Puertito, a few simple cottages and a restaurant with one item on the menu: fried parrot fish with potatoes and red pepper sauce.
The water is an astounding turquoise here. Lobos is just big enough to nip over on the ferry, read about the flora and fauna, walk a circuit of the island, eat a fish, have a swim, head back.
It’s the perfect day trip.
Canarian cuisine is simple and big on fish, goat, and goat’s cheese. There is no shortage of local cheese in the supermarkets here, I particularly enjoyed the smoked variety.
Potatoes here are cooked in salt water, boiled away to leave a salty residue on the wrinkly tatties and called papas arrugadas, and served alongside a red mojo picon or green mojo verde sauce.
My favourite find was almogrote, a spread made from peppers and goat’s cheese.
I was delighted to discover lapas (limpets) on the menu in Fuerteventura. Not commonly eaten in the UK but considered a delicacy in Portugal, I became a fan whilst in the Azores, where I watched locals pluck them straight out of a bucket and eat them raw. But they’re also good cooked with garlic, lemon, and herbs.
Foodies might want to check out this food tour which takes in various agricultural stops and tastings.
My biggest regret was not taking the opportunity to stargaze with local astrological outfit Stars By Night, who also run astrophotography sessions. Alas, my funds had disappeared on almogrote.
As well as holding UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status for land and sea, Fuerteventura is also a designated Starlight Reserve, meaning it is committed to preserving the quality of light.
It’s best to rent a car in Fuerteventura if you can—the roads are easy and uncrowded. Tourism here is mainly geared towards package holidaymakers so there’s no shortage of organised trips, but locals seemed perplexed by an independent traveller not in search of a wave.
The Tourist Office is simply a shed for tour leaflets, and I found it difficult to get food recommendations by asking around.
There is a bus route which links Corralejo with Lajares, La Oliva, and El Cotillo, and less frequently with to Betancuria.
I was just getting into the groove of this weird and intriguing island when I started to seriously worry about my lack of money. Then somehow I managed to score a last-minute €20 flight home. How often does that happen?
So last minute, in fact, that my name wasn’t on the flight list when I turned up at the airport. I got home in the end, but my plans to island-hop in the Canaries will have to wait for another time.
Just not for surf camp.
HOW TO AVOID A PASSPORT PANIC
- Travel with more than one set of bank cards, stashed in different places, plus emergency cash, spare passport photos, and a photocopy of your passport
- If you do lose your passport, find the number for your consulate in the country that you’re in
- File a police report
- Use your backup card/emergency cash to get to your nearest consulate (in this case, Las Palmas on Gran Canaria)
- Apply for an emergency travel document
Have you also tried—and sucked at—surfing? Should I give it another go? Got a story about misplacing your passport? Please keep me company.