This Otherworldly Island Is One of Spain’s Coolest Spots

It's like entering a genius' mind mid-acid trip.

a white-painted village in the mountains on a black sand beach
Lanzarote's El Golfo Village essentially combines Greece and Mars | rusm/Getty
Lanzarote's El Golfo Village essentially combines Greece and Mars | rusm/Getty

Artists have been leaving their marks on places since the first petroglyph was etched on a cave wall. And across time, artists have helped define their region’s identity, from the Roman masterworks of Michaelangelo to the Mexico City murals of Diego Rivera. 

Cesar Manrique was not content to simply leave his mark on a place he loved. Instead, the Spanish artist, architect, and sculptor was given free rein to turn his tiny island home off the coast of North Africa into a psychedelic dream come to life. Now, that island paradise is one of the funkiest, most unexpected places on Earth—and with Spain and the Canary Islands both recently reopened to fully vaccinated travelers, Manrique’s work on Lanzarote is sure to remind you that “unprecedented” can be a good thing.

Lanzarote, Spain
Playa Papagayo is the most famous beach in Lanzarote | Piet Bastine / unsplash

Manrique was born on Lanzarote, a tiny island in the Canary Island archipelago—seven volcanic islands that are technically part of Spain, but much closer in proximity and climate to North Africa. In the late 1960s, he was given permission from the Spanish government to redesign much of the island to appeal to tourists, employing his Lewis Carroll-meets-M.C. Escher-meets-Andy Warhol aesthetic to mold the island into a trippy fantasyland.

To be clear, Lanzarote was already naturally otherworldly. The 327-square-mile island looks like the face of the moon, dappled with craters, sliced by plunging ravines, and smeared with valleys of solidified lava. It is home to the sprawling Timanfaya National Park in the Montañas del Fuego, with a driving route that winds in and around 25 dormant craters. The rich soils of that lunar landscape also make for superlative viticulture, and its mountains are cloaked in red and purple. 

Its signature beach, Playa Papagayo, is tucked into between towering cliffs, the colors transitioning from muted volcanic tones to golden sands and deep turquoise waters. Between the surfing, vineyards, volcanoes, and climate, Lanzarote was one of Spain's best-kept secrets well before Manrique tweaked its surreality.

If Manrique wanted Lanzarote to be even more surrealistic, he was going to have to work for it. Fortunately, he did. Today, Lanzarote is home to underground cave systems-turned-concert venues, LED-lit subterranean chambers, and lunar cactus gardens. There’s even a restaurant that uses the island’s natural volcanic heat to prepare its food—all designed as part of Manrique’s singular vision.

Canary Islands, Spain
Traditionally white buildings are mandated to get a splash of green | BremecR / E+ / getty images

Manrique sculpted his artistic vision in New York in the 1960s, where he was friends with Warhol amid the city’s legendary, hedonistic art scene. Toward the end of the 1960s he returned to his birthplace as the tourism industry was in its infancy and looking to make its overlooked beauty a known commodity.

The artist’s experience with abstract expressionism, pop art, and sculpture drove his vision for the design of the island, one which he called “art-nature/nature-art." While in the past people had described Lanzarote as barren, bizarre, and boring, he saw its potential as obvious. The idea: Blend abstract art seamlessly into the landscape. The result? Most of the island has been shaped by the inner acid trip that was Manrique's mind, making it a giant, living installation at the confluence of Mother Nature and modern expression. 

people crowded near an underground cavernous lake
Jameos del Agua is a colorful descent into an underground wonderland | A.Ruiz/Shutterstock

Perhaps the most stunning of Manrique's work on Lanzarote is Jameos del Agua, a network of underground tubes caused by the eruption of La Corona volcano around 4,000 years ago. The caves—now one of the largest public art projects in the world—were the foundation for Manrique's vision. The artist morphed the system into a sensory experience, with LED lighting, optical illusions, and lakes that appear to be mirages.

At the end of the cavernous maze, you'll reach Jameo Grande, a sprawling underground concert hall that doubles as a restaurant, bar, and nightclub. After all, Manrique was embedded in New York’s swinging arts scene, so it's safe to say he was frequently on the guest list of Studio 54. Consider this his version of that, only with more stalagmites.

Jardín de Cactus is Manrique's final masterpiece | BremecR / E+ / getty images

But Manrique was more than an architect of the underworld. Visitors to Lanzarote will notice that most of the buildings are washed in white, with a bright Kelly green trim around the doors and windows. Historically the buildings on Lanzarote were always white, but Manrique added that pop of green, because what is life without a little color? Today it is government-mandated that all buildings follow the same aesthetic. 

His cactus garden—Jardín de Cactus—is famous island-wide for its more than 1,100 species of cacti from all over the world. This was the last major work of art that Manrique designed on Lanzarote before his death in 1992.

Mirador del Rio is the closest you can get to seeing Manrique's entire vision at once | Albrecht Schlotter / EyeEm / getty images

While Lanzarote is a hyper-focused project of the artist, he also believed in offering perspective on the bigger picture, so he constructed a 1,300-foot viewing point, Mirador del Rio, that looks out over a smaller islet of the Canary Islands and straight out to sea. It is, in a way, the perfect way to see the full panorama of what Manrique did with this giant canvas (at least on the surface), and the closest you’ll get to viewing it like a piece of art hanging in a gallery. 

This is unlike anything else in Spain. Or anywhere else in the world. Nothing like it has existed before, nor will it exist after. That’s the allure… and the whole point.

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Meagan Drillinger is a contributor for Thrillist.