The sport of Lucha Canaria or Canarian wrestling is a sort of gentleman’s sumo. Said to have originated with the Guanches, it has been practised throughout the island’s history.
Beginning as part of folklore and largely confined to festivals and holidays, when Tenerife suffered economic depression and the people fled to Argentina and Cuba, they took Lucha Canaria with them and now it’s almost as popular in those countries as it is here.
In the 1940s the sport began to be played on a regular basis and a Federation of Lucha Canaria was formed.
Each wrestling bout consists of two men pitched against each other inside a circle and by grabbing handfuls of each other’s shorts, the object is to try to unbalance your opponent so that some part of his body, other than the soles of his feet, touches the ground outside the circle. Think wedgies on a professional scale.
Dating back to primitive times and originating from folklore, Tenerife and the Canary Islands have a rich history of traditional games including wrestling, stick fighting and the amazing shepherd’s leap…
Lucha Canaria arenas are housed in large, circular stadiums known as terreros de Lucha Canaria and you can see them in all the islands. The Lucha Canaria League in Tenerife has three divisions and you can watch bouts of the sport in sports halls and terreros all over the island.
Check out the fixtures on the Tenerife Lucha Canaria Federation website and if a bout fires your appetite for more knowledge, pop along to the Museo de La Lucha Canaria in El Sauzal.
Juego del Palo or Palo Canario
Literally translated as the game of sticks, Juego de Palo is another tradition which originated with the Guanches, but not for sporting purposes.
When the Spanish Conquistadores arrived to take their island away from them, the Guanches had only primitive weapons with which to defend themselves and the stick was one of them.
Hardened by fire and used ostensibly as a defence weapon, the Guanches developed great skill in the use of sticks.
Following the conquest, the natives were forbidden to carry sticks and so their skills went ‘underground’ where they were practised in secret up in the hills.
The result of all that clandestine fighting is that still today the Juego de Palo is an art form that is handed down through generations of the same family. The best chance of seeing the sport in action is at a rural fiesta.
Salto del Pastor
Not strictly a game, more a competition and exhibition skill, Salto del Pastor (the shepherd’s leap) is derived from practicality. Traversing volcanic islands which are dissected by plunging ravines and rocky outcrops makes tending the sheep and goats an arduous affair.
In order to negotiate the endless barrancos (gorges) and mountainous peaks, the shepherds and goatherds of the Canary Islands developed skills in pole vaulting canyons with the use of a pole – salto de pastores.
The ‘leap’ has many forms, the most spectacular of which is the dead man’s drop over canyons deeper than the length of the pole by hurling yourself off a sheer cliff, digging the tip into a crevice or ground and then vaulting to the other side.