Cesar Manrique's Lanzarote: How one man saved paradise from overtourism

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The garden features plants from all over the world.

People who live in cool-looking underground lairs carved out by molten lava are usually, in Bond movies at least, hellbent on global destruction.

But on the wild, volcanic landscape of the Canary Islands, one man used his subterranean hideaway, complete with open-air pool and striking artwork, to plot something far better: the preservation of paradise.

The man was César Manrique, an irrepressible Spanish artist who spent part of the 1960s hanging in New York with the likes of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock before returning home to the Atlantic island of Lanzarote with some spectacular ideas.

While he may not be as famous as some of his artistic contemporaries, he’s arguably responsible for a far greater legacy — helping save his stunning island from the darker forces of the travel industry.

In doing so, he foreshadowed today’s concerns about global overtourism by nearly half a century.

An underground mirror lake is a highlight of La Cueva de los Verdes.

Lanzarote, blessed with a year-round mild spring climate and superb sandy beaches, was threatened by what Manrique called an “avalanche” of mass tourism that, had he not made passionate interventions, would’ve fueled rampant development.

Lanzarote Cactus Garden: Years in the making.
The hotel's central atrium is a gloriously verdant jungle.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Manrique highlighted the pollution and destruction he began to see on his island. He warned his homeland was “dying,” but insisted “good and enthusiastic people can save what’s left.”

Manrique designed the road that twists through the Timanfaya National Park.

Luckily for Lanzarote, Manrique himself came to the rescue.

Eulogio Concepcion Perdomo -- Lanzarote's last traditional basket weaver.

Not only did he document the island’s traditional architectural style to persuade locals to preserve it, he collaborated with its tourism authorities to create magical attractions with a unique artistic style inspired by the volcanic scenery.

A kinetic force of nature, Manrique showed few signs of slowing as he got older, but tragically died aged 73 in a car crash on Lanzarote in 1992. But even 26 years after his death his presence can be felt across the island.

He bequeathed a passion for culture that in 2017 saw the opening of the Museo Atlántico Lanzarote, an underwater sculpture park beneath the waves that lap the unspoiled sands of Papagayo, on the island’s southern tip.

For the real César Manrique experiences visitors need to get out and explore — and following in the artist’s footsteps is a great way to explore the best that Lanzarote’s rugged landscape has to offer.

Here’s where to go:

Fundación César Manrique / César Manrique Foundation

The ideal starting point is this sprawling Volcano House compound that was once Manrique’s home and is now a dedicated museum and resource center exploring the artist’s work.

And what a home it was. Plunging into tunnels and underground spaces created by molten lava, Manrique cranked the funky dials up to 11 when he kitted out this ultra-cool crib.

The story goes, says Eva Acero Pegito — a fount of Manrique knowledge who runs tours for Lanzarote-based Uniguides — that the artist was passing an inhospitable field of basaltic lava when he spotted trees sprouting from holes.

César Manrique railed against mass tourism in Lanzarote.

He bought the barren land from a baffled farmer and immediately set to work converting the lava holes, tubes and even the trees beneath the field into the swanky pad he lived in from 1968 to 1988.

The buried spaces conceal a swimming pool and retro sci-fi chill-out rooms where he hosted guests from all over the world.

His cosmopolitan lifestyle raised a few eyebrows on the sedate island, says Acero Pegito, particularly the snug Speedo-style bathing trunks he favored when posing for poolside pics.

Above ground, his former studio now houses artworks by Manrique and others but the undisputed highlights are the widescreen windows offering views over inland Lanzarote that can hold the gaze for hours.

“He was always saying that the best painting is nature,” says Acero Pegito.

Mirador Del Rio, Lanzarote

César Manrique Foundation, Calle Jorge Luis Borges, 16, 35507 Tahiche, Lanzarote; +34 928 84 31 38

Hotel Meliá Selinas

Proving he was as much concerned about embracing visitors to his island as he was with limiting their impact, César Manrique collaborated in the design of this bold, modernist resort hotel on Lanzarote’s eastern seafront.

While tame compared to modern creations, it was a major statement back in the 1970s.

Chill-out spaces: A tree sprouts in the center of a relaxation room.

The concrete structure, now nearly completely refurbed to its former glory, is built up in tiers that lean back from a sprawling 1,800-square-meter seawater pool complex surrounded by dark volcanic rocks and bright flowers.

Haría resembles a desert oasis town.

Some of the hotel’s 270 rooms, says Guest Relations Manager Virginie Corthals, get booked out by Manrique fans making a pilgrimage.

Inside, an atrium drips with green vegetation that, in the four decades since the place opened, has grown into a beautiful and dense jungle.

Manrique’s primitive bas relief sculptures depicting sea life line the lobby and the stylish restaurant, lending the communal areas a minimalist 1970s chic.

Hotel Meliá Selinas, Avda. Islas Canarias s/n, 35508 Costa Teguise, Lanzarote; +34 912 76 4747

Road junctions

There’s a certain pathos to Manrique’s death at a road junction given the artist’s contributions to improving them.

Criss-crossing Lanzarote’s smooth roads (often filled by cyclists) involves numerous encounters with colorful mobile metal sculptures designed by the artist that now stand at intersections.

Manrique’s restless “wind toys” were likely inspired by the island’s windmills, a legacy of the warm but sometimes blustery air currents.

Jameos del Agua

"The best painting is nature," Manrique is quoted as saying.

This is Manrique in full Bond Villain mode. A huge rugged sinkhole created by molten lava transformed into a mind-blowing subterranean upscale restaurant.

Daytime, it’s a pleasant place to lunch out of hot sunshine. At night it sparkles as an exquisite party venue.

Best of all is the lava tunnel that plunges into a gigantic cavern where an underground lake seems to glow from shafting sunlight. On the other side of the cave, back out in the open air, is a swanky swimming pool under palm trees.

The pool’s just for show these days, but you can imagine the wild nights here in its 1970s heyday.

Jameos del Agua, Carretera Arrieta-Órzola, S/N, 35542, Lanzarote

Mirador del Río

Manrique was a man who never let a good view go to waste. During military service, he was posted to a gun battery on this northerly clifftop crow’s nest and fell in love with the epic panorama taking in Lanzarote’s tiny, unspoilt island neighbor, La Graciosa.

Wine walls: Curved windbreaks shelter vine plans by the Monumento al Campesino.
Seventies style: Manrique creations decorate the wall of the lobby.

He returned in 1974, with Soto and Cáceres, with the dream of building a restaurant with this mouthwatering vista on the menu. The result is straight out of the Bond Villain playbook — an eternally cool space with a cinematic window that drinks in the wide Atlantic scenery.

Today the space houses a simple bar and cafeteria, not a restaurant, but it’s still a Michelin-starred feast for the eyes.

Mirador del Río, Carretera de Yé S/N Haría, 35541 Lanzarote; +34 901 20 03 00

Casa Museo César Manrique / César Manrique House Museum

It’s easy to become blasé about Lanzarote’s ability to draw fresh gasps around every corner, but the descent into the inland northern town of Haría easily blasts away any complacency.

After crossing barren highlands, the road suddenly zigzags down into what can only be described as a classic desert oasis of towering palm trees, rich greenery and whitewashed houses.

It’s here that Manrique lived for the last few years of his life — transforming old farm buildings into a photoshoot-perfect home riddled with his signature style and flamboyance.

Preserved pretty much how he left it, right down to the exotic kimonos hanging in the closet and the arsenal of colognes in the bathroom, it’s now a museum honoring his final years.

Although more conventional than his underground pad, it’s still astounding. There’s a pool with lurid orange sun chairs, a vast bathroom, and open-plan living and dining room.

Best of all is Manrique’s garden studio — a bright space splattered with paint and cluttered with paint pots, unfinished works and other paraphernalia that reveal the inner workings of an artistic genius.

Cool pool: Manrique designed his own Volcano House.

Time your visit right and you might catch another true artist, 84-year-old Eulogio Concepcion Perdomo, busy in his dusty workshop just up the road from the Casa César Manrique.

Concepcion, wearing a flat cap, leather apron and protective wrist bandages, is the last person making traditional baskets from palm fronds in the entire Canary Islands.

He recalls regular friendly conversations with his famous neighbor and was possibly one of the last people to see him alive as Manrique drove off on his fateful last journey.

“He came by and said to me, ‘keep on working,'” Concepcion recalls.

Casa Museo César Manrique, Calle Elvira Sánchez, 30, 35520 Haría, Lanzarote; +34 928 84 31 38

La Cueva de los Verdes

En route to forming Jameos del Agua, lava from the nearby Volcán de La Corona also created these caverns, the highlight of which is an eye-deceiving reflection pool deep underground.

Once a hiding place from marauding invaders, the caves have no direct link to Manrique, but his friend and collaborator, Lanzarote artist Jesús Soto designed the light and sound show that makes the visit worthwhile.

La Cueva de los Verdes, 35542 Arrieta, Lanzarote; +34 901 20 03 00

Monumento al Campesino

This photoshoot-perfect house was Manrique's last home.

Driving along Lanzarote’s smooth, newly surfaced roads is a real pleasure. Cycling them, unless there’s a headwind, is even more so, which is why the island is a year-round training ground for pro and amateur riders.

Whatever the means of transport, it quickly becomes apparent that all roads seem to lead to the Monumento Al Campesino.

Cesar Manrique's studio is a glimpse into the artist's mind.

Looming high over a crossroads right at the heart of the island, this giant whitewashed stack of blocks and curves is Manrique’s tribute to the peasants who toiled Lanzarote’s black soils long before the tourists came to town.

It’s very much of its era, but well cared for. There are steps up inside it, for the full immersive art experience, and nearby a small field showing the curved walls locals use to protect vines from prevailing winds.

Need more of a breather before getting back on the bike? There’s also a museum paying homage to Lanzarote’s farmers and restaurant serving up local dishes (if in doubt, always go for the papas arrugadas — salted, wrinkly potatoes served with spicy mojo dipping sauce.)

Monumento Al Campesino, Ctra. Arrecife a Tinajo, 35559 Mozaga, Lanzarote; +34 901 20 03 00

Jardín de Cactus / Cactus Garden

Not just any old jardín, but possibly Manrique’s greatest work: a massive al fresco crucible of cacti, a place spiked with prickly plants from the Canaries and all over the world.

Hewn from barren rock and earth, this giant amphitheater was Manrique’s giddy love letter to the vegetation of his homeland and to the people it sustained through good times and bad.

Channeling the surreal world of Dr. Seuss as much as his own imagination, Lanzarote’s artist-in-chief spent years developing and nurturing the cactus garden, setting it on the path to become the otherworldly attraction it is today.

In the garden’s wind-sheltered hollow, cacti of all shapes and sizes line pathways that twist around calming water features. Above, a traditional windmill keeps watch.

A nightclub in a volcano: Jameos del Agua is the ultimate party place.

It’s an incredible work of vision, not just from Manrique but also the local officials who trusted him with the time and money to go wild and create a place like nowhere else on the planet.

Jardín de Cactus, Av. Garafía, 35544 Guatiza, Lanzarote; +34 901 20 03 00

El Diablo Restaurant, Timanfaya National Park

Vacationers to Lanzarote often stick the coastal resort they get as part of their package deal, which is a shame as they’re missing out on a volcanic landscape that in many ways rivals that of Iceland — only much warmer, and with added camels.

One of the best ways to experience it is to take a car or coach tour through the Timanfaya National Park, a singed hellscape of slumbering volcanoes that formed during eruptions 300 years ago, and has changed little in the intervening years.

It’s long been a draw for tourists, but in the 1970s, Manrique stepped in to design a road that switchbacks up through the scenery in a series of stomach-flipping hairpin turns.

He also created, alongside artist Jesús Soto and architect Eduardo Cáceres, the El Diablo restaurant, a typically bold lookout serving Canary Island specialties including food cooked by geothermal blasts from beneath the earth. Evening meals are served with tasty sunsets.

El Diablo Restaurant, Montaña del Fuego Carretera General Yaisa- Tinajo, s/n, 35560 Tinajo, Lanzarote; +34 928 84 00 57

Museo Atlántico Lanzarote / The Underwater Museum

Opened more than two decades after Manrique’s death, this subaquatic park has no direct connection with the late artist, being the work of British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor.

But the ambitious concept behind it — blending the natural environment with sculpture to create a tourism attraction with a message — is arguably pure César Manrique.

Museo Atlántico, Lanzarote; +34 928 17 94 92

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