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An Expat's Guide to Living in Gran Canaria

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Meredith San Diego
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Who wouldn't adore living the island life for a while? Cobalt blue skies, billowing palm trees, and the scent of sea salt with each inhalation. To be one with this island is to be one with the sea. 

The local culture of each of the Canary Islands is rich with a southern Spanish influence that titillates the senses. And the rough African winds stir up emotions of wanderlust long forgotten. 

Life on Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands means consistent sunshine, plenty of black volcanic sand beaches, and rocks…so many volcanic rocks. 

Welcome to Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands

Although there aren't many canary birds in sight, the beautiful Gran Canaria is one of eight main islands off the West African Coast in the Atlantic Ocean. With fantastic weather year-round, these islands are highly coveted and frequented by Western tourists. 

That’s good news for those who don’t speak Spanish. As English is the universal language of the tourism industry here, many locals on the island understand or speak English well. This makes it easier for visitors and expats to explore the island in depth.

Although, if you've decided to move to Gran Canaria, I urge you to put in the effort to learn Spanish, even just the basics. This will open a lot of doors for you and help you immerse yourself in the local community and will serve you greatly if you visit lesser-known places.

The Main Differences Between the Islands

The stunning scenery that awaits by Joel Rohland

Besides size, tourism, and density, the main difference between the islands is the types of and access to public transport. As it stands, there is no train in Gran Canaria, but there is one available in Tenerife. 

To explain further, the islands are broken up into two provinces: Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

The former consists of the islands of Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, and La Graciosa. The latter controls the islands of La Gomera, La Palma, Tenerife, and El Hierro. La Graciosa and El Hierro are smaller islands and not as frequently traveled but are equally as important.

Of the islands in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria is the smallest, roundest, and most densely populated. The majority of the island is dry and mimics a desert. Tall trees, volcanic hills, and invasive cacti that were originally introduced by foreigners.

The winds are strong and come in gusts all year round but are strongest in the fall and winter months. The wind isn’t the problem so much as the dirt that it carries with it. In the pathway of the natural phenomenon known as Calima, the island is blasted by dust from the Sahara that’s picked up on strong southern winds and carried over the Atlantic to be deposited in the Amazon. It’s quite amazing if you think about but it can be challenging for sinus allergy sufferers. 

Like fuerteventura (strong winds in translation), Gran Canaria has little greenery in the landscape and both island feature dunes made by wind. Lanzarote is well-known for its wine and boasts its own handful of breathtaking beaches. 

But it goes without saying that whichever island you choose to inhabit, you'll live in paradise.

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Navigating Gran Canaria

The only means of public transport in Gran Canaria is the bus, or as the friendly locals say, La GuaGua. It’s fun to say the word and it rolls off of the tongue easier than autobus but can be difficult to remember to say, so take note. 

There are three types of GuaGuas available on the island, long-distance (blue), city (yellow), and inner-city (white). 

Although one main bono (frequent user savings) card exists that works for them all, it is only available to empadroned (registered) residents. Other frequent rider cards are available and can be purchased at the main bus station in Las Palmas for longer visits or temporary stays. 

Otherwise, buses can be paid for in cash or via credit card directly when boarding. Speaking of the bus, allow me to clue you in on the basic rules of etiquette therein. 

Bus Etiquette

Wait in a place where the bus can see you. As it passes, raise a hand to alert the driver you want to board. Buses don’t stop at every stop if there are no passengers for that route waiting, so it’s important to pay attention to the bus number as it approaches. 

If it’s not the number you need, simply shake your head or wag a finger in the air for the driver (who might honk to get your attention) to acknowledge you don’t need them to stop for you. 

Living on Gran Canaria Island

One of the town centers by Joel Rohland

As the third largest island in the Canary Islands, Gran Canaria is popular among European destinations for travelers. Similar to the other Canary Islands, the terrain on Gran Canaria, access to entertainment, and beaches change depending on where on the island you’re located.

Depending on the experience and conveniences you’re seeking, neighborhoods to consider relocating to vary.

I can’t say that Gran Canaria is the most beautiful of all the Canary Islands or even the best Canary Island, as I haven’t had the pleasure of adventuring them all, but I can say that I chose it because:

  • It was not the most popular (meaning fewer tourists)
  • It did not have snowfall during the year
  • Its one of the only islands in the chain with an American Consulate 

As a non-EU citizen, the latter has been a lifesaver in bureaucratic pinches thrice over. Still, if immigrating to the Canary Islands is a preference, know that it is home to hundreds of digital workers and nomadic types.

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A Digital Nomad Guide to Existing on Gran Canaria

The increased popularity of the peripatetic on the island bodes well for coffee shops but all the benefits and cons of island living are yours. That includes the downsides like isolation from the rest of the world, ever-changing climate issues, and the limitations on shipping.

For the best chance at really integrating into your community and making friends with locals, learning Spanish will take you far. I recommend you start learning a few months before your move online with Mondly. This online language platform teaches basic vocabulary, grammar, and even helps you speaking with practice conversations. Start speaking with Mondly today.

Still, bragging that you live in a place where people flock to vacation makes it worth it. 

Money-saving tips for digital nomads and remote workers on Gran Canaria:

  • Avoid food shopping near tourist resorts or resort towns 
  • Elect to spend money in local shops instead
  • Dine out at local restaurants vs. commercialized (and therefore high-priced) fast food chains.
  • Recycle plastic and glass containers for storage
  • Find the local bazaar to stock up on household goods

Visa Options for Long-Term Stay

Photo by Max M

Thinking about becoming a Gran Canaria resident? Mainland Spain is highly sought after as a location for foreign workers, but the Canary Islands is a fan favorite for obvious reasons; it’s a paradise.

The recent approval of the digital nomad visa here has expats taking advantage of the opportunity for permanent or temporary residency in the Las Palmas province of the island chain. But, it's not only possible to live in Spain as a remote worker.

The following visa options are available for those considering relocating to the islands:

  • Digital Nomad Visa
  • Self-Employed Visa
  • Student/Study Visa
  • Non-Working Visa

Each visa option requires non-EU citizens to apply in their home country via a Spanish Consulate. All visas have their own tax (TASA) attached to them and require proof of (private) health insurance, a clean criminal background check, and proof of solvency, among other things. 

For these reasons, be sure to read the fine print during the application process.

Finding a Place to Live on Gran Canaria

Fataga Valley Photo by Jan Brennenstuhl

Finding housing on the larger islands is a breeze. Especially if utilizing digital platforms like Idealista where rental properties are advertised in abundance. Hunting on Facebook isn’t recommended because the majority of listings there are for high-priced private rentals and target big spenders. 

When searching for the right rental contract consider signing one in the following neighborhoods:

The North:

The capital Las Palmas doubles as a municipality and is where the primary immigration office is located, therefore many people moving to Gran Canaria choose to live in the capital.

The capital city supports the large expat community on the island and is also home to Las Canteras Beach (Playa de las Canteras). The latter could be part of the draw but I found the area overly congested to live there long-term. There's also no designated city center in Las Palmas. Instead, the majority of the cultural heritage of the area can be found in San Telmo.

Neighborhoods in the North of the island to consider relocating to include:

  • Agaete
  • Moya
  • Teror
  • Firgas
  • Tejeda

The South:

Resort areas mean higher prices. In fact, the farther south you go, the more expensive everything becomes. Not only for entertainment but for living costs, too. As an affordable EU country, Spain supports evergrowing expat communities. The increase in digital nomads in Spain feeds this trend as more foreign residents occupy the island.

As a result, the south of the island is home to a large digital nomad community comprised of both remote workers and digital nomads. Neighborhoods in the south of the island to consider relocating to include:

  • Mogán
  • San Bartolomé de Tirajana 
  • Santa Lucía

Each of these zones are large and go from the coastline up to the mountains giving you plenty of space to find the right place for you. Prices can get more expensive the higher into the mountains you go. Which is the opposite of what most are used to, with pricey stays typically being on the shore. 

Where Do I Recommend You Stay?

The unique architecture on the island by Joel Rohland

If you want mis dos monedas (my two cents), choose a neighborhood that isn't overly saturated with tourism. It will save you money, frustration, and a ton of pollution. Areas to consider that meet these criteria are:

  • Telde
  • Agüimes
  • Santa Lucía

Telde, the former capital and personal neighborhood choice, is a larger city that offers everything anyone needs to live comfortably. Prices are average and the people are friendly but its location inland means many tourists bypass the town entirely. 

I adored living on the island and it made for dozens of unforgettable moments. But my time on the island was always meant to be temporary. Sure, I miss having a beach a stone’s throw away, but the consistent winds and dust were difficult for my sinuses. Plus, the awareness of the impact climate change will have on that part of the world served as a further deterrent for me to consider a long-term life on the island.

Not sold on Gran Canaria or the Canary Islands? There are plenty of places in Spain popular amongst expats with Cádiz, Barcelona, Córdoba, and Madrid as examples.

Things to Do in Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands

A tourist beach and marina by Miltiadis Fragkidis

Many Atlantic islands boast unforgettable hiking experiences, it's true, but people visit Gran Canaria for the beaches and water sports, the hiking trails, and the food. Adventuring the island is a great way to meet people and make friends.

The truth is that the island is loaded with fun activities for the adventurous or the mellow. Lean into networking websites like Meet Up or join a few Facebook groups dedicated to networking events on the island.

My top 10 recommended activities:

  1. Hike to El Roque Nuble or Pico de las Nieves
  2. ATV/Buggy rides on the Dunes
  3. Stroll the Old Town of Teror
  4. Eat pintxos (tapas) on Thursday night in San Telmo
  5. La Poema del Mar (The Aquarium)
  6. The Botanical Garden
  7. Swim to the La Barra (a parallel bit of reef) in Las Canteras
  8. Natural swimming pools in Ageate
  9. Walk the Paseo de la Playa Garita
  10. Visit the protected National Parks

You can ride bumper cars, attend water parks, or hit up a shooting range, too. There’s also plenty of animal tourism around the island, but as a responsible traveler, I opt out of these and do not recommend them to visitors. 

It can be fun to explore Gran Canaria and the surrounding Canary Islands on your own but to get the best insight and save the hassle of dealing with public transportation yourself, treat yourself to a tour instead.

Best Beaches to Visit

The South of Gran Canaria is where the best beaches and by default, the most density can be found. Beaches worth your time in South Gran Canaria:

  • Playa de Amadores
  • Playa del Inglés
  • Playa de Mogán
  • Playa del Veril
  • Playa de Maspalomas

Some argue that the latter is an artificial beach or manmade but they are incorrect. The Maspalomas Dunes are generated by sea sand and wind which is the reason why the dunes are part of protected land.

The proximity of the other islands is equally exciting. Especially when day trips to other major islands to indulge in great restaurants and guzzle interesting regional wines are so easy to execute. 

Adventuring between the islands can be done by plane or boat. Ferries leave regularly from the ports in the north and can connect you to the other islands as needed. Island hopping is a favorite activity of locals and visitors alike with close to ten different departures available each day.

Enjoy Island Life in Gran Canaria

A peek into your new neighborhood by Joel Rohland

If you're keen on island living, the Canary Islands are a hard place to beat. You'll get all of the perks of EU standards of living yet still get the tranquility and access to nature an island offers.

While living in Gran Canaria made for the perfect temporary homebase before moving back to mainland Spain, it'll be up to you to decide if you want to stay long-term or just for a few weeks or months.

Whatever you choose, I'm sure you'll love it just as much as I did.

Hero photo by Héctor Martínez.

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