The sun shone from a clear blue sky, but it was icy cold with glistening frost on the ground. We stood on La Palma’s highest summit at over 2,400m and gazed awestruck at the view into the island’s magnificent Caldera de Taburiente – 8km wide and 1,500m deep. Far across the sea, the islands of Tenerife, La Gomera and El Hierro loomed on the horizon.
Our handsome avian escort on this lofty peak was an attentive shiny-black raven that ambled gawkily alongside, casting a beady eye in our direction every few seconds. This smart bird clearly knew how to work a Homo Sapiens audience, although on this occasion we had no food to offer!
Looking north from the caldera, we were in for another surprise – a view of the world’s premier collection of telescopes and cosmic paraphernalia, including the planet’s largest optical telescope. A combination of height, atmospheric clarity and absence of light pollution make this an unrivalled spot for stargazing.
We had arrived at the summit by car from Santa Cruz, the capital city, and then chose to descend down the lush green northern slopes of the mountain. The north is the least populated and wettest part of La Palma. Much of the moisture comes directly from the clouds that rise up the steep slopes depositing ‘horizontal rain’, i.e. the humidity inside the mist.
Our route continued on winding roads along the rugged north coast through unspoiled forests of Laurel and Canary Pine, eventually leading to San Andrés, the rainiest municipality.
There’s plenty of ground water here so this was one of the first parts of the island to be colonised 500 years ago. Dozens of irrigation channels were created to serve the immigrants’ agricultural needs. One of these, Los Tilos, is close to San Andrés, and located in one of the most important primeval Laurel forest areas in the Canary Islands. It has a fairytale atmosphere and is a place of incomparable beauty with a stunning waterfall reached at the end of a delightful woodland walk.
The superlative Caldera de Taburiente is a National Park and is surrounded by a ring of jagged 2,000m summits. Although of volcanic origin and formed over several eruption periods, the caldera is not actually one single crater. Its lava flows, volcanic cones, cascades of crystalline water, pine and laurel trees, thickets of Canary Willow and many flower species make it one of Spain’s finest ecosystems.
Birdlife includes choughs, ravens, kestrels and the elusive laurel pigeons.
The Barranco de Las Angustias, a deep gorge that penetrates the southwest corner is the one main river exit. We accessed the National Park by driving up a steep, twisty road from the Visitor Centre near the town of El Paso in the centre of the island.
The road ended at the Mirador La Cumbrecita, where there is a great view across the caldera and up to the rocky summits. From here on, it is foot traffic only and we could see hikers, dwarfed by their surroundings, tramping down one of the paths towards the campsite at the bottom of the crater.
La Palma is a walkers’ paradise and trails interconnect the entire territory using traditional paths trodden by its inhabitants over the centuries. All routes are clearly marked and, even better, taxi services operate between the popular start and finish points. South of El Paso, paths ascend into an austere wasteland of lava, coarse black soil, ancient volcanic cones and a scattering of pine trees. We drove deep into this wilderness on one of its few roads to fully appreciate its strange beauty and the joy of its absolute silence – not a sound to be heard except melodious birdcalls. Quite mesmerizing!
A chain of mainly extinct volcanoes, called the Cumbre Veja, runs right down the spine of La Palma reaching the sea at the island’s most southerly point. The penultimate volcano in this chain is called the San António, which is close to the little town of Los Canarios. It erupted violently in the 17th century, and an instructive Visitor Centre has recently been constructed on the edge of its crater.
After learning about two million years of La Palma’s volcanic history at the centre, we enjoyed an exhilarating high-level walk around the rim of San António’s crater.
From the rim’s high point there is a panoramic view down to the Teneguia volcano, which erupted in 1971, proving that the fiery heart of the island is still very much awake. This eruption produced large amounts of free-flowing lava, which ran down to the sea, increasing the size of the island by two square kilometres.
There are doomsters who forecast that a future major eruption on La Palma could cause a huge chunk of the island to collapse into the sea, causing a major tsunami that would swamp the east coast of the USA!
There are many attractive black sand beaches, and perhaps the prettiest and most remote of them all is Playa de La Zamora, on the south coast. It was a long winding drive down from Los Canarios, but it was worth the effort to visit this lovely cove, which is backed by towering black cliffs.
We later drove along the coast through a chaotic backdrop of Teneguia’s frozen lava, to a pair of lighthouses and the Fuencaliente Salt Pans at the very southern tip of La Palma. The black lava contrasts sharply with the white salt and the blue sea in this bizarre landscape. The locals have been successfully extracting salt from the ocean since 1967, and this remote little crystallization complex produces a high-quality product.
For those who love an almighty physical challenge, the Salt Pans mark the beginning of La Palma’s Transvulcania mountain ultra-marathon. This lung-bursting race covers 74km and has an accumulated altitude gain of over 4,300m. The competitors run north along the island’s volcanic chain, circumnavigate the Caldera de Taburiente, scamper down to the west coast at Puerto de Tazacorte, turn and finally struggle exhausted back uphill to the town of Los Llanos. The record time is astonishing – under seven hours!
Puerto de Tazacorte is a particularly charming seaside resort with a sheltered beach and appetising fish restaurants. It also has a great view from its promenade up the Barranco de Las Angustias gorge to the precipitous rock walls of the caldera far above.
Few places in the world are as deserving of their nicknames as the island of La Palma. The Spanish call it “La Isla Bonita” (Beautiful Island). Its 730sqkm are packed with natural wonders that are easy to explore by car, bicycle or on foot. It was no surprise to us to discover that the whole island is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. La Palma really does offer nature in its purest form.
By Nigel Wright
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Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 15 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.