The Canary Islands have a rich, though turbulent history. Its original inhabitants suffered greatly at the hands of a series of invaders. Jean de Bethancourt, a Norman knight, changed history when he invaded Fuerteventura in 1404 and established the archipelago’s first capital, Betancuria.
A look into the past
So, what would the archipelago’s first capital be like? Why was a hidden location in the heart of the mountains chosen for such an important settlement? I was curious to find out, and to see it for myself.
We slowly start to climb with the ocean behind us, admiring the smaller villages. There’s something quite relaxing about driving away from the tourist resorts towards Fuerteventura’s interior
Wherever you are staying on Fuerteventura, you will eventually reach the FV-30 road that takes you to Betancuria. At 395 m altitude, Betancuria isn’t the highest point on the island, but the winding road around the mountainside affords spectacular views.
Mirador de Guise y Ayose
The two imposing 4.5m metal Guanche sculptures at this viewpoint present an excellent photo-opportunity. There is plenty of parking space on both sides of the road, so pull up and admire the amazing panoramic views. It was a little hazy the day I was there, but beautiful nonetheless.
The sculptures represent two ancient Guanche kings who reigned simultaneously at around 1400 A.D, long before the islands were colonised. Fuerteventura was then split into two regions: Guise reigned over Jandía in the South, while Ayose governed the northern region of Maxorata.
At this point I turn to see the town of Betancuria, nestled into the hills towards the south. I was surprised at how small it is, considering it was the island’s capital; and that to reach it must have been quite difficult in the 14th century.
Retreat to the hills
But then that’s the whole point, I realised. It was chosen for precisely that reason: to make it more difficult for invaders to attack. That, together with the fact that this was the most fertile region of Fuerteventura, due to its higher humidity levels. It was once an important grain-producing area, feeding the island’s inhabitants and also for exportation.
The town where time has stood still
We were able to park right in the heart of this pretty town. The lush green vegetation against the white-wall houses and terracotta rooftops is a welcoming sight. The colours of the summer blooms and the tranquil atmosphere was a colourful contrast to the drier coastal areas.
Betancuria lies 13 miles to the southwest of today’s capital, Puerto del Rosario, and the municipality covers an area of 40 square miles. The town is now home to around 800 people.
The former capital of the island appears to have changed very little since is was established in 1404. It was one of the first European settlements in the Canary Islands, the only other at that time was Rubicon, in Lanzarote. Bethancourt made it the administrative, military and religious centre of Fuerteventura, and the original town hall still stands today.
It was an affluent town in that era, being home to noblemen, renowned military figures and religious thinkers of the time. Its cobblestone streets are evidence of this, something that was reserved for the more important towns of the islands.
The church of Santa Maria de la Concepción.
The original church bell tower of Santa Maria de la Concepción still stands today. Sadly, it is one of the few original remaining parts of the church, which was ransacked and burnt by north African pirates in 1593.
The pirates, who also destroyed several other buildings, attacked in revenge after the Normans took 600 Moroccans as slaves and brought them to Fuerteventura. In a tit-for-tat invasion, the pirates also took 600 islanders, who were int turn forced into slavery in aristocratic Berber households.
Nevertheless, the church is still magnificent today and is an interesting mix of baroque, gothic and renaissance architecture, due to reconstruction which spanned several different eras.
The interior has several magnificent altars, artefacts which are hundreds of years old and some intriguing artwork.
Casa Santa Maria sits just opposite the church. Built in the 17th century, and since restored to its former glory, it is a beautiful example of a traditional Canarian house. The building offers several interesting areas for visitors, including a museum, a lovely gift shop, café and restaurant.
We visited on a Sunday, so unfortunately the museum and restaurant were closed, as was the town’s Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology.
Our pursuit of coffee was not lost, however, as we discovered another café just across the road. It was perfect, with shady seating under the lush vegetation of its garden.
When visiting Betancuria, it’s also well worth passing by the ruins of the San Buenaventura Convent, just on the outskirts of the town. Today only the arches of the church remain as it was also burnt down by pirates in 1593.
I would definitely recommend visiting Betancuria on a weekday, to be able to explore more of this lovely town through its museums and other attractions. Aim for the morning, to avoid the larger coaches and so that you can finish off with a relaxing lunch or coffee in one of the pretty cafe courtyards.