Nestled in the hills in the interior of the island is Betancuria, the old capital of the island and, for a time, capital of the Canary Islands. This quaint, picturesque colonial town offers a glimpse into Fuerteventura’s past before hotels and sunloungers took over.
Just to confuse matters, Betancuria is also the name of the mountain range (Betancuria Massif), Natural Park (Parque rural de Betancuria) and the municipality, of which the town Betancuria is the administrative centre. For the purpose of this article, we are referring to the town of Betancura, not the municipality (the smallest in the Canary Islands, at just over 100 KM²).
Founded in 1404 by the Norman conqueror, Jean de Bethencourt (and the lesser known Gadifer de La Salle), Betancuria housed the courts, government, military and religious institutions and their personnel. The site was chosen due to its natural defences; being both inland and in a fertile valley surrounded by mountains. Unfortunately these natural defences did not prevent pirate raids; with European and Berber pirates sacking the capital on several occasions.
Betancuria was once a thriving centre for agriculture, thanks to the fertile valleys in the area. The European settlers found fresh water streams here when they arrived in the 15th Century, however over-exploitation of the land has led to desertification and there is now no permanent running water on the island. It can still become quite green around Betancuria during the winter, unlike most of Fuerteventura. Betancuria slowly lost its power as cash-crops were developed elsewhere on the island and in 1834 it lost its title as Capital.
Nowadays, the village comes to life during the day thanks to the many tourists that visit on day-trips, filling the craft shops, cafes and restaurants. It all comes to an end in the early evening, with most bars and cafes closing early, and it is fair to say that Betancuria is pretty dead at night. If you want to stay the night, there is a limited choice, though we can recommend the rustic Casa Princess Arminda, having stayed overnight ourselves on a number of occasions.
The most impressive sight in the town is the Iglesia de Santa María de Betancuria. This was the first church to be built on the island, though only the bell tower remains of its original form today. The church was destroyed by the Berber pirate, Xabán Arráez, in 1593 and its subsequent reconstruction took almost a century to complete. Consecrated as a Cathedral in 1424 by Pope Martin V (as the bishop from the neighbouring island of Lanzarote did not support the Pope), this title was removed just 7 years later (when the diocese in Lanzarote reintegrated with the papacy).
In the northern part of town is the roofless San Buenaventura monastery, which was built in 1496 and was the first in the Canaries. One of its main aims was to convert the natives to Christianity. It now stands as a ruin. There is a myth, that during a period of famine the monks sold the wooden roof which was made into boats, in return for food and water. This is unlikely, since there is a photograph of the monastery, complete with roof, taken around 1890 – many years after the building had closed and become property of the state. There is also a small church next door to the monastery which has undergone renovations, it is unfortunately empty and remains locked.
The Museum of Sacred Art (Museo de Arte Sacro) is worth a visit as admission is included in the entrance price to the Iglesia de Santa María. The Museum of Archaeology (Museo Arqueológico de Betancuria) has been expanded recently and contains a large exposition of pre-hispanic pottery and other remains.
There are two great viewpoints near Betancuria. The Mirador Morro Velosa was designed by the famed Lanzarote architect and artist Cesar Manrique and offers stunning views along with a number of very interesting plaques and maps detailing the history of the island, its inhabitants and flora and fauna. The Mirador Corrales de Guize is hard to miss with its two large bronze statues of Guize and Ayoze, the indigenous kings who ruled the two kingdoms of Fuerteventura.