La Palma exploded into being with the enthusiasm typical of volcanic islands, creating a teardrop shape and an impressive height for a diminutive base. Unlike some of the other Canary Islands it hasn’t experienced a similar explosion of package tourism.
The Canary Islands didn’t feature very highly on my travel list but they should have done. Having spent the past six months on the islands, I am eating snobbish-traveller humble pie. La Palma is a place I’ve visited several times (home as it is to wonderful landscapes and my even more wonderful mum;-) but I’ve been lucky enough to call it home for a good chunk of 2011.
La Palma is a walking island. Whether you consider yourself a walker or not is entirely irrelevant. With volcanic craters and mountain ridges, pine forests and lava flow, ancient donkey tracks and forest paths, you’re putting on your shoes and going for a look – end of.
One walk always tantalises me from the Finca Franceses mirador
: the steep, narrow donkey track to El Tablado, the neighbouring village, which perches atop a ridge on the other side of the ravine. From sea level the track zigzags its way up to the small
settlement, looking leg-achingly difficult and very, very tempting.
Pleasingly, this walk looks far harder than it actually is. The zigs and zags are reasonably gentle and on reaching the village, you will receive a warm welcome from Rosa, the local barkeeper. Rosa takes great pleasure in refuelling you with tapas and a cold drink whilst telling you the history of the village with all the authority and pride that come naturally to an elderly ‘born and bred’.
The best thing about the walk is returning to the mirador at the end of the day, with a cold beer and a self-satisfied ‘I conquered the donkey track’ smile.
Being such a small, scenic island, it is possible to walk all the way around La Palma
, taking in all the varied landscapes and gaining an enormous ‘I conquered the island’ smile. The walk around La Palma is known as the GR 130. Not such an imaginative name but this is an island that has organised its walking. Even the perpetually lost will struggle to go wrong with the signposting, guides and colour coding. Despite this, the island still feels wild – wild enough even for Bear Grylls and Jonathan Ross
to film an adventure/survival programme in the jungle-like interior.
The organised attitude towards walking on La Palma makes it much easier to pick a specific walk if you’re not inclined to showing off and doing them all. One of my favourites is La Zarza, an earthy, sun-dappled walk in the woods. Or there’s the ridge walk along the backbone of the island for spectacular views and a chance to see the island’s famous cloud waterfall – a mesmerising sight of cloud cascading down land.
La Palma has quite possibly cornered the market in cloud-related stunts and it’s possible to be above the clouds even at fairly low altitude. The geography and climate of the island occasionally tricks the clouds into sinking much lower than they normally would and you can find yourself above them at just 400m above sea level.
Heading up the winding road to the peak of the island you may find yourself in misty pine forests, damp and fragrant in the still air, before popping out above the clouds into the warmth of the sun above. From viewpoints at the very top of the island, the clouds below undulate and the tops of ridges peak out, marooned in a sea of clouds.
At the top of the island you can gaze into the mighty caldera. At 10k across and over 2000m deep, this is a crater to inspire awe. You can hike in and around it or drive to viewpoints, passing otherworldly giant telescopes. These telescopes belong to various countries from around the world, coming to little La Palma to take advantage of the clear, unpolluted skies.
The high ridges of the north of the island provide perfect vantage points to look out over the landscape sliding and tumbling, in varying shades of green, down to the sea. Hours could pass as you sit and watch the landscape change dramatically with the light. Caves, tracks, ravines and terraces pop out as they are illuminated then shrink back and seemingly disappear into the shadows.
There is the time to notice such things in the rural north of La Palma. A resident of Santa Cruz (the capital) will likely raise an eyebrow and breath ‘ay, el norte!’ if you tell them you’re heading to Franceses. An unpopulated frontier it might be but barren it is not. The north is green, scenic and widely regarded the most beautiful part of the la Isla
Holiday time in the north is filled with exploring and photography; conversation and red wine in the bodega; digging up vegetables for dinner; reading, sunbathing and cloudspotting… the peace only being broken by the tinkling of goats’ bells and the occasional skirmish between resident lizards.
The perfect contrast to this is some time in the west, renting an apartment by the sea in the small town of Tazacorte
. Set against a backdrop of mountains, the bay of black sand is lined with colourful restaurants serving fresh fish and typical Canarian dishes.
Even the towns in La Palma are tranquil. Santa Cruz is particularly lovely with its small, café-filled plazas, cobbled streets and famous flower-adorned wooden balconies. A metropolitan island it is not, but for those in need of culture there are museums ranging from a maritime museum in Santa Cruz to a banana museum in Tazacorte.
The island of La Palma has many ways to hook you in and the Canary Islands may just surprise you if you take a little time to explore. A few months into my stay in La Palma I went to visit another island and somehow ended up living and working there. Home is now a wonderful yoga and Pilates retreat in Fuerteventura
. More about that
My island top ten
1. Magical views and rural life at Finca Franceses – the best accommodation in La Palma!
2. Camping in the pine forests of El Pilar
3. Walking in the woodland of La Zarza
4. Gazing up at the stars
in the unpopulated north
5. Hiking the donkey track to the remote village of El Tablado
6. Swimming and snorkelling in the sea pools at Las Piscinas de La Fajana
7. Dining on paella at a beach-side restaurant in Tazacorte
8. Driving up to the top of the island to peer into the caldera
9. Strolling along the Avenida Maritima for beautiful, flower-filled balconies alfresco cafes
10.Scrambling over boulders and collecting pebbles on the wild beach of La Fajana de Garafia
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