It is New Year's Eve, and the black goats have returned to our neighborhood in La Orotava, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain.
In the middle of the paved road, more than a hundred black goats (cabras negro) are trotting down the city street toward a vacant lot of munchable greens. Behind them is the pastor de cabras and two younger lads, both with tall, strong wooden sticks and accompanied by three black dogs trotting along, helping to keep track of the herd. Neighborhood dogs erupt in barking, but the working perros don't even turn their heads. They are only there for the goats -- and for their master's communications of whistles, clicks of the tongue and short-clipped monosyllabic commands.
In addition to the loud crunching sound of the goats feeding, there are the bells attached to their lovely metal collars of gold and red hues. My Spanish is not yet good enough to say much more than "Hola," and "Feliz Nochevieja," let alone that the dialects on the Canaries can be far from Spanish. Click, click, goes my camera. "Gracias, gracias," say I.
The goats ignore me as they go by, but the pastor graces me with a wide grin. With the growing population on the island, there is less and less open land, but a recent law in Tenerife bans construction in certain areas to take care of the goats, which provide tasty goat cheeses and are popular in Canary dishes.
LOVELY WEATHER ALL YEAR
Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands -- off the coast of Morocco but part of Spain --developed a bad reputation over the years of beach partying and pole dancing in the southern resort towns. But there's so much more to do here than lie in the sun -- though there's plenty of that, too.
The Canaries' climate is like a lovely spring or summer all year, and as long as you're not here when the volcanos erupt, not much weather to worry about. The temperatures average in the 60s and 70s all year long, depending upon the elevation.
While there are many Europeans who travel and often settle here, and a large community of ex-pat Germans (most restaurants have menus in Spanish and German) you don't hear many American accents compared to other vacation-destination islands or other places in Spain or Europe.
The highest peak in Spain is on Tenerife, the majestic El Tiede, a sleeping volcano with the look of a moonscape. The tiny town of Garachico, with cobble-stoned streets and white-walled houses, used to be the main port of Tenerife, but in 1706 El Tiede erupted, destroying the port and burying half of the town under lava.
Much of northern Tenerife is made up of little villages connected by narrow roads, many of those former foot paths. A bus ride from Puerto de la Cruz along the coast takes harrowing, winding roads overlooking brightly painted homes of sky blue or pink or golden brown that miraculously cling to the cliffs high above the Atlantic Ocean.
Icod de los Vinos, along one of those roads, is the home of Drago Milenario, considered one of the oldest living trees on Earth. Some literature claims the giant tree is 1,000 to 2,000 years old, though others say it's closer to 800 ("1,000 a 2,000 anos estan para los turistas," jokes one guide).
No matter its age, the tree is impressive. Taller than 65 feet and about 45 feet wide at the base, the tree more than dwarfs human visitors, its gnarled roots a mix of gray and black and brown, the branches twisting out from the trunk like ancient arms.
MOSTLY DOWN, DOWN, DOWN
Beyond Icod is the village of Masca, with native architecture of simple stone houses. It is the vestibule to the rugged and beautiful Baranco de Masca, Tenerife's answer to our Grand Canyon.
Rock walls of the cliffs of Los Gigantes -- in some places nearly 2,000 feet high -- keep the direct sunlight out for most of the day, and little streams trickle nearby vegetation from palm trees to assorted cacti to elephant ears and Canary-Island-unique lavender plants.
The Baranco de Masca path, such as it is, is mostly down, down, down, with some slippery spots and touch rocks to maneuver over, under and, yes, through, but well worth the knee crunching for the swim in the ocean at Masca Bay three hours from the top.
While some brave souls start their ascent soon after they arrive at the Atlantic, I am part of a tour group of mostly Germans who hitch a ride back via boat and then bus.
Another special place on the north of Tenerife is the village La Laguna, filled with 16th- and 17th-century Renaissance mansions, many with lovely wooden balconies and porches, and tiny restaurants with delicious foods like bubbling stews or grilled goat cheese with mojos -- Tenerife sauces sweet or spicy.
During the holiday season, it seems every balcony and window in Tenerife has miniature Santas or the Three Kings climbing up rope ladders with their bags full of goodies.
A KITE-SURFING PARADISE
In the southern part of the island near Medeno, the winds for wind surfing and the more and more popular kite surfing are notorious.
One French couple that lives in a boat in Hyeres, southern France, travels to the best breezes with their surfing kites whenever they can get away from work.
"We live for sport," says Bastien Infante, 26, who adds that to him the most important part of a weather report is the winds.
He even gets a beeping alert on his computer when the wind has reached the knots he is hoping for. Working for a boat company, on his free time he climbs, mountain-bikes and wind surfs, but his favorite sport for the past few years is kite surfing.
"It is fast and so quiet," explains Elise Nardin, 36. "It's hard to explain how quiet it can be way out there."
In Medeno, they drive their rental car from beach to beach looking for just the right conditions. The vehicle is packed with their gear of four kite sails, two boards -- the size of the sail depends upon the wind and one's weight -- wet suits and more.
She says that they don't even carry a change of clothes, because their allotted baggage air space is taken up with the gear.
"I just have these," she says, gesturing to her blue jeans, tank-top and flip-flops. "We don't care about the clothes."
Infante says that choosing a beach means reading the winds, as well as the surface under the water and on the beach's configuration.
"You need to be sure if you are away from home that the wind is one that will bring you back to where you start, or you could be far, far out in the ocean with no way to come back," he explains as they continue their search for just the right place to put in their boards.
Another kite surfer is visiting the Medeno beaches from Finland. He likes the sport because he says you make instant friends through the common interest, adding "nobody asks you your title" on the beach.
"It's democratic," says Vesku Paananen, 40, who calls himself a computer geek and claims kite-surfing friends from 7 to 70. "It's the same for everyone. You can't buy wind."
Infante and Nardin finally select a beach, pull on their wet suits, carefully roll out their kites and make sure the strings are not twisted. Half surfing, half flying, they zip away from the beach, speeding toward the quiet.
Mary Tolan, a longtime Flagstaff resident, is a freelance journalist and an instructor at NAU's School of Communication.