The author has travelled extensively and writes illustrated articles about his experiences, with advice on must-see sights.
The Canary Islands archipelago 100 kiilometres (60 miles) off the coast of North West Africa, is one of the most popular destinations in the world for tourists - most notably those from European nations such as the UK and Germany, and also mainland Spain. The appeal of this little collection of Spanish governed islands is quite simple - for Western Europeans they provide the closest place on Earth where winter sunshine and warmth is guaranteed, whilst the relaxed and informal atmosphere of the Canaries offers tourists a safe, easy to visit, easy to enjoy, vacation destination.
It follows therefore that the attraction for most visitors to the Canary Islands is sun, sea and sand, and the island of Lanzarote - the fourth largest in the archipelago and the closest to the African continent - certainly has its fair share of all three. Most of the tourist influx is concentrated in three or four seaside resorts where hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and souvenir shops dominate the scene. And of course beaches.
This article focuses on just one section of coastline and a series of eight or nine sandy beaches and coves which - as a group - must surely rank as among the loveliest of all, certainly in the Canary Islands, and possibly anywhere on the planet. These are the Papagayo Beaches, and on this page, the original photographs of the author of this article are used to illustrate just why they are regarded so highly by the tourists who fly to this island every year, winter and summer, for their vacations.
Playa Blanca and the Beaches of Papagayo
One large tourist resort dominates the southern coast of Lanzarote, and its name is Playa Blanca. It's a typical resort in many ways featuring all the ingredients of good coastal tourist resorts the world over. And of course that includes the presence of sandy beaches. Playa Blanca hotels are sited adjacent to or within just a few hundred metres of three such resort beaches - the central namesake beach of Playa Blanca, and on either side, the beaches of Playa Dorado and Playa Flamingo. And these are fine as resort beaches go - golden sand, lots of facilities, easy access and safe swimming. And they are popular too. But they are never going to win any awards for character. And they are never going to be beaches to dream about. They are typical resort beaches.
But a short distance to the south-east of Playa Blanca, there is a stretch of rocky cliffs deeply incut by the sea, and the areas between the cliffs and promontories are filled with golden sand in a beautiful setting. A whole series of these sandy beaches stretch for about three kilometres (two miles) around the coast, and collectively they are known as the Papagayo Beaches. And collectively they offer a very different and more alluring appeal to the town beaches of Playa Blanca.
Monumento Natural De Los Ajaches
The Papagayo beaches are part of a protected area called the 'Monumento Natural de los Ajaches' (the Ajaches Natural Monument). This is a volcanic massif, the highest point being Ajache Grande at 562m, protected as a site of natural beauty, rare island flora, and archaeological ruins.
The Sandos Papagayo Beach Resort
The author of this review chose to stay at the Sandos Papagayo Beach Resort in Playa Blanca primarily because of its location. This is the last hotel on the eastern end of Playa Blanca. The downside of this is that it's a fair walk from the hotel to get to many of the resort facilities, though there is a free shuttle bus service which runs four times a day between the hotel and Playa Dorado. The up side of this location however, is that the hotel is the nearest to the distinctly more attractive Papagayo beaches - the subject of this article.
Getting to the Beaches
One can drive to the beaches from anywhere on the island, though the last short distance is over dirt tracks. Nonetheless, it's not difficult to do. The principal car park is near the refreshment centre at the heart of Papagayo, but there is a nominal charge of three euros to drive into the Monumento Natural de los Ajaches.
One attractive option is to take a boat taxi from nearby Playa Blanca. The Princess Yaiza glass bottom boat sails four times a day dropping people off at Playa de Papagayo and collecting others. A dingy transfers tourists from offshore to the beach.
If one chooses to walk, there are options available. Coming from Playa Blanca and walking along the beach front one comes to a rocky outcrop adjacent to the Sandos Papagayo Beach Resort. This steep outcrop needs to be climbed, and one needs to be careful of tredding on loose rocks, but it is perfectly manageable for anyone of modest agility. The alternative is to pass by the front of the Beach Resort (facing away from the beach) which is a slightly longer walk, but over much gentler ground. Either way, once the outcrop is scaled or the hotel is passed, it's a pleasant walk. The distance to the first beach at Papagayo is about 750 metres.
Topless Sunbathing and Naturism at Papagayo
Lanzarote is a Spanish island, and just like on most Spanish islands, topless sunbathing is commonplace. Some even on the popular town beaches will go topless, and on out-of-the-way beaches like Papagayo, it is more common.
And naturism is legal and also common on some of the more secluded beaches. Two or three of the Papagayo beaches are frequented by a high proportion of naturists, and this will be drawn attention to in the sections where each beach is described in turn.
No embarrassment exists among those who like to get an all-over tan, and there are no restrictions on how much is worn by others. It all seems very relaxed. If you are considering coming here, it is your choice. For some visitors it may be a turn-off, while for others the chance to go ‘au natural’ may be a draw.
A Few Words of Caution
It is important to emphasise a few points, some of which will also be highlighted under each individual beach description.
These are natural beaches, and on most of them there are no refreshments, no sunshades and sun beds, and no toilets. Anything you need, you'll have to bring yourself.
Above all - a warning. These beaches do not all have lifeguards, and it is difficult to ascertain the strengths of currents here. Certainly in places the sand may drop away rapidly to deeper water, and waves can be quite powerful. I've heard of no accidents, but be aware that there may be risks associated with swimming off unattended beaches. Take care.
The Beach Names
One of the problems in compiling this article has been to identify the correct names of each beach. A review of webpages shows that many appear with different spellings of the name, and several appear under entirely different names on different sites. For this article I've used the names which are recorded on a signpost close to Papagayo. However, only 5 beaches are so named. I have also used some reputable tourist sites. Small coves described below are not always recorded and some websites simply regard these as offshoots of the adjacent major beaches. On other sites these coves are given specific names, but these may not be official. I've given the most reliable names I can in each case.
Heading due south east from the resort of Playa Blanca, the first of the Papagayo beaches we encounter is Playa Mujeres - and it is in many ways the most typical holiday beach - a long expanse of golden sand, and broad too; Playa Mujeres is the widest of all. The walk down to the beach is an easy and gentle sand track, but as an alternative, it is also possible to drive a vehicle close by. This lovely stretch of sand has plenty of space for all who use it, and many who walk from Playa Blanca, never get further than this - it is exactly what they are looking for. In the summer, this no doubt can lead to Playa Mujeres attracting rather more sunbathers than other beaches, but as can be seen in the images here, in winter the beach may be really quite sparsely populated. The downside in this review of great beaches is that Playa Mujeres perhaps lacks a bit of character. It really is just a broad, long, flat expanse of sand - one of the best of the Papagayo beaches for sunbathing and swimming, and the most accessible of all, but not quite as interesting as some others. (One feature which is of interest is a curious circular building at the northern end - it's an old kiln once used to heat local stone to produce lime - one of several archaeological sites in the Ajaches Natural Monument.
The Small Coves
Beyond Playa Mujeres and before we get to the next big beach, there are several little coves which deserve a mention. The first two of these coves are small, but the third one is pocket handkerchief sized - just big enough for one fat tourist or two thin ones! The names of these coves are not listed on most sites, but on one official website the two larger ones are called Caleton del Cobre and Caleton de San Marcial - and they are both wonderfully secluded. The second is particularly delightful, and both are little visited, not least because they are inaccessible from the cliff tops for all except those are adept at rock climbing - there are sandy paths down, but the final 2 or 3 metres need hands as well as feet to negotiate them. But it’s really not necessary to try. At low tide all the beaches from Playa de Mujeres to Playa de la Cera can be reached by anyone who’s moderately sure-footed by walking over the boulders at the foot of the cliffs. This is the less tiring option and the quicker option. But bear in mind that at high tide the coves are not accessible by this route, and so if you visit these coves, you must keep a watch on the rising water.
Playa Del Pozo
Beyond the last of the small coves is the next big beach, Playa del Pozo. Heading from the north, as already mentioned it's quite possible at low tide to reach Playa del Pozo along the sea front, or one can climb down from the headland to get there. This beach is almost as long as Playa Mujeres, though not as wide. It has a bit more character though. Colourful rocky outcrops at either end, and a series of boulders deposited where the sand meets the sea approximately mid-way along the stretch, give this beach a more interesting look. Playa del Pozo is perhaps not quite as suitable for swimming as Playa Mujeres, and you may feel is not for families either - it is one of those beaches more favoured by those who want to go ‘au natural’, though on my visit these were mostly concentrated in little communities of like-minded individuals at the extreme ends of the beach. Nonetheless, this is a beautiful beach to walk along, and popular with many visitors. On one official site this beach is called Playa de la Cruz.
Playa De La Cera
The next beach is of uncertain name; a cove appreciably larger than those we saw earlier, but much smaller than Playa Mujeres or Playa del Pozo. On several websites, this beach is named as Playa de la Cera, but on others it is unnamed, and seemingly regarded as merely a section of the adjacent Playa del Pozo. Certainly, this cove is quite accessible from Playa del Pozo at low tide, with just some rocky boulders separating the two. However there are significant differences which perhaps merit a unique name. Playa de la Cera is surrounded on three sides by pretty headlands and cliffs, but at the rear of the beach the walk down to sand level is quite easy. (The walk up is a little more tiring!) The beach does attract a different group of holidaymakers and is popular with families, sometimes getting quite crowded. Part of that popularity must be due to its close proximity to the main car park and the only refreshment centre at Papagayo which is found above and between this beach and the next one.
Playa De Papagayo
And the next beach is certainly the most naturally picturesque, and most photographed of all the Papagayo beaches. Indeed it is this beach which takes the name of the whole coastline; this is Playa de Papagayo, and many regard it as the most beautiful beach in the Canaries. The reason? A very attractive promontory on the northern side, a great headland to the southern side, and a sand and rock backdrop to the beach which creates a natural arc of sand, so it looks just like paradise beaches are supposed to look. Playa Papagaya is a cove of about 110 m long and 20 m wide - similar in size to Playa de la Cera - and undoubtedly is worth seeing. I hope the photos do it some justice. Of course, you can’t have everything, and the very beauty of this cove means that it has become the most developed, with a car park, and the refreshment facility mentioned in the previous section and described below. It’s also a family friendly beach, and all these factors together with its relatively small size unsurprisingly make it the most crowded of all the playas. Finally, the nature of the cove also makes it one of the less easy to get down to. It's not dangerous, nor is it difficult for most, but one can gauge the climb in the photos below, and in one later on this page.
The refreshments between Playa de la Cera and Playa de Papagayo must be mentioned. There's two or three adjoining cafes here where simple hot meals, snacks and ice creams can be purchased.
Caleta Del Congrio
After Playa de Papagayo, the coast of Lanzarote reaches its southern most point on the headland known as Punta de Papagayo ('tip of the parrot') Then the coastline turns east and north, and one has to take a short walk east over the headland to bring us to the final two beaches, both of which are large. The first indeed, is similar in length to Playa Mujeres and Playa del Pozo, though very much narrower, and it is quite different in almost every respect to the cove we have just visited at Playa de Papagayo. Though the path down to Caleta del Congrio is quite gentle and sandy, the walk to get here means that only those with a purpose tend to bother coming this far, and the purpose for many is naturism. This seems to be the beach most favoured for this purpose, and certainly during the visit written about here, the great majority of those sunbathing at the beach were nude (though it is by no means compulsory!) Another negative for some visitors would be the rocky outcrops at water's edge. Although these are easily negotiated, they do mean that the portion of the beach over which you can walk straight from sand to sea, is actually quite small. But one must also say something else about Caleta del Congrio - having praised Playa de Papagayo, the beach at Caleto del Congrio is possibly even more beautiful to see. Though not a cove, we have a lovely long arching bay of golden sand - when seen from the surrounding headlands, it is another truly idyllic beach vision.
The final Papagayo beach is Puerto Muelas, which is just a short distance further on. This is quite a wide beach with interesting rocky outcrops at either end, and along the shoreline, and its very distance from the centre of the Papagayo coastal stretch and from the resort of Playa Blanca means that it is a beach where one will be more guaranteed of finding a space to relax and sunbathe in peace, at least during the winter months. There is a mobile home park with shower and toilet facilities behind the beach but this seemed to be completely closed down during the visit of this author. In the summer months a large influx of local Spanish day trippers may crowd the beach. Perhaps one look at the photo below will show the biggest drawback - whilst undoubtedly they add to the attractiveness of the beach, the rocks on the shoreline and under the waterline will surely make this a beach better suited to sunbathing rather than for swimming.
And beyond the next headland? The Papagayo beaches finally give way to several kilometres of sea cliffs, and the last of the sun bathing opportunities on this stretch of coastline have passed us by.
The Landscape and the Walking Routes
Great beaches are not just about clean beautiful sandy stretches and warm seas. They are pre-requisites, but there are other things to consider. Papagayo doesn't have everything. It doesn't have palm trees and coral reefs, but it does have a great scenic backdrop of volcanic mountains and colourful craggy sea cliffs. Included here is a compilation of images of the landscapes and the other features which surround the beaches - the sights to see when sunbathing here.
One of the features which makes the Papagayo beaches stand out is the sheer variety of the options available, both for sunbathing and for getting from beach to beach. Here are a few final tips:
No one should be content with the first beach they see. Stroll along, enjoy the sun and the sights and the different experiences. One can walk all the way from Playa Mujeres to Playa de la Cera without ever rising above sea level at low tide. Alternatively one can walk across the headlands and climb and descend each beach in turn. And when climbing, there are sandy paths, gravel paths and rock routes. Sandy is softest and safest, but more tiring to climb because it gives way under-foot. Rocky is sharpest but easiest. Maybe the best solution is to descend on the sand paths and climb on rocks (but not bare foot, I would suggest!)
A Few More Photos
What sets Papagayo apart is not any one single beach, but the fact that there are so many over such a short distance and with such an attractive route to each of them. The entire walk from the edge of Playa Blanca resort to the far side of Puerto Muelas is no more than about 1.75 km straight, or about 3 km if one chooses to walk the coastal route round the headlands and up and down from each beach.
And within that short distance one can find great stretches of sand like Playa Mujeres, long arching bays like Caleta del Congrio, and beaches of great character like Playa del Pozo and Puerto Muelas. Visitors can sunbathe in large and beautiful coves like Playa de la Cera and Playa de Papagayo and in secluded and tranquil small coves like Caleton del Cobre and Caleton de San Marcial. And there are busy beaches with refreshments on hand, and quiet beaches away from the crowds, beaches for families and children, beaches for unselfconscious adults, and beaches for swimmers and sunbathers.
But what they all have in common is clear blue waters, clean sand and a landscape to dream of.
Perhaps it is a mistake to advertise the Papagayo beaches. The constant dilemma in any travel writing is whether by promoting a delightful setting, one may contribute to destroying it with hoards of tourists. But Lanzarote has shown considerable restraint in managing its tourism, and one has confidence that the Papagayo beaches will be allowed to always retain their charm - a charm which makes them some of the best beaches you could ever hope to see.
THE COSTA DE PAPAGAYO
This Google Map
It has not been possible to find a map which shows all beaches and coves mentioned with the names I have used, but if you like you can have fun using the photos and descriptions to try to identify all of the beaches on this interactive Google satellite image heading south east from the region of Playa Blanca in the top left corner. (In this image, the tide appears to be in.)
An interactive map available at a Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment site does show all the beaches with names (Playa del Pozo named as Playa la Cruz). The page is not in English, but type 'Papagayo' into the search box labelled 'playa' and it will bring up the map.
Just for Fun ...
All photos taken by the author on 1st February and 4th February 2014
My thanks to both of the following for assisting me with the names of the beaches: