Spectacular seascapes and remote villages
Oceanic islands like La Palma owe their existence to volcanic activity, and their contours are subsequently shaped by erosion, over long periods of time. These erosive forces include wave action around the coast, and it’s precisely at this frontier between land and water, that spectacular seascapes have resulted from the battle between the two elements…
The following route is a circuit of the wild northern half of La Palma, with detours to the shore at a number of chosen locations. If you feel confident behind the steering wheel on narrow, mountainous roads, this trip is definitely for you…
My departure point was the capital, Santa Cruz, on a sunny morning in mid-February, with temperatures already a pleasant 15ºC as I drove out of town. I was leaving one of the most densely-populated parts of the island, heading for some of its least inhabited regions. And along the way, the gentler slopes characteristic of the southern half of the island, would quickly give way to much steeper terrain in the northern half, finally bounded by a formidable range of sea cliffs.
Playa de Nogales
Within minutes I reached Puntallana. To get a taste of what comes later in the journey, you can drive down to the signposted Nogales Beach (Playa de Nogales). This typically deserted beach is suitable for bathing, with caution, but also merits a visit just for the views:
I spent some time taking photographs of the strip of black sand hemmed in between the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and sheer rock faces on the other. In the cliffs, multiple bands of solidified lava combine with belts of vegetation, creating the impression of the layers in an enormous gateau.
From the carpark, there is a well-made path to reach the shore, where you can sample the carefree life of a castaway, leisurely alternating between paddling, sunbathing, and beachcombing… with the added luxury of a cold shower before returning to your vehicle.
Playa de Nogales, which reaches a length of one kilometre at low tide, was recently voted among the top ten beaches in Spain, as a perfect place to enjoy solitude and leisurely walks along the sands.
La Fajana de Franceses
After my brief stop at Nogales, I had a long drive to my next destination. I planned to go straight through the towns of Los Sauces and Barlovento, and then follow the LP-1 around the north coast.
Navigation is mostly straightforward. Once the tunnel beyond Gallegos has been passed, the road continues through the village of Franceses, and here you need to keep an eye open for the turn-off to La Fajana de Franceses. A rustic wooden sign points down to the right, but is easily missed. It indicates a secondary road which winds all the way down to sea-level from this point, and makes one of the most adventurous car routes on the whole island.
The first section is placid enough, running mostly through terraced farmland with patches of heath, and a few fruit trees dotted here and there. Not until the strip of asphalt approaches the cliff tops, and then bears straight for the edge of the gigantic ravine do you start wondering whether you’ve taken the wrong turning. Most drivers get out of the car at this stage to check what lies ahead.
The road just flips over the rim of the gorge, and then snakes its way down its inner slope in a series of hairpin bends, creating a descent which can only be described as “vertiginous”. It’s not often you get the chance to use that word, but this is a place where it comes in handy. So does having a head for heights.
Just before you reach the valley floor, the road passes through a nice stand of native woodland, a remnant of the subtropical forest which used to be more widespread, before large areas were cut for timber. It makes a pleasant stopping area in which to wipe the sweat from your brow, and perhaps take a relaxing stroll in the shade, before continuing down towards the mouth of the ravine.
There is more to La Fajana de Franceses than meets the eye. I spoke to an elderly local woman and learnt how the village had been a bustling trading-post throughout the first half of the 20th century, only to see its population dwindle to a mere handful of permanent residents in recent decades.
The rocky spit poking out into the Atlantic had once acted as a landing stage, providing a strategic loading and unloading point for small boats plying the coast. In those days, vital provisions often reached the north of the island by sea, and La Fajana acquired fame roundabouts for what were excellent shopping facilities by the standards of the times, and considering the remoteness of the place. Back then, there had even been a bar.
In the village square, with its all-round stone benches, fiestas were held which attracted folk of all ages from the outlying settlements. Nowadays, the deserted plaza acts as a silent monument to a bygone era, hardly noticed by the occasional day trippers who arrive by car, or the hikers walking the GR 130 path. As I explored La Fajana on foot, several other traces of the past emerged, including an old wooden wine press:
After my spell of splendid isolation at La Fajana, it was time to zigzag my way back up to Franceses, from where I intended to continue my journey westwards across the top of the island. I was looking for another detour to the coast, this time to a place called Juan Adalid. I found the turning just before the petrol station in San Antonio del Monte.
The drive down to Juan Adalid was child’s play in comparison to La Fajana, yet it provided access to another impressive section of rugged coastline. A few people still live in this remote enclave, in a handful of stone cottages.
I noticed a jeep track leading down towards the base of the cliffs, a favourite spot for anglers to try their luck. From the cliff tops high above, you can watch them casting their lines into the Atlantic swell, or scrambling around, ant-like, on the promontory below. At such a far-flung spot, “Gone fishin’” is a bit of an understatement…
You might feel tempted to hike the dirt track to reach the desolate plains lower down, but all you really need to do, to get the “feel” of this forgotten corner of the island, is to find a comfortable patch on the clifftops from which to contemplate the fabulous seascapes, and then give yourself time to soak up that unique, end-of-the-world atmosphere.
This is pretty much the northernmost point on La Palma, after all, so it really is “end-of-the-world”, in a sense. You could well be the only soul for miles around, with perhaps just a few goats keeping a watchful eye on you, as they graze their home patch.
I might have stayed longer, but there was still another stop on my itinerary. So, after rejoining the main road at San Antonio del Monte, I drove to the intersection at Llano Negro, and then veered right towards Santo Domingo, the administrative centre of the Garafía municipality. Shortly after, I took the road on the right, towards the coastal location known as El Puertito, or “little port”.
El Puertito de Garafía
The way seawards is clearly-signposted and easy to drive, with due care and attention. After first traversing an area of rather stony, eroded terrain, it eventually crosses well-preserved tabaiba scrublands, containing some impressive examples of this characteristic Canary Island spurge (Euphorbia balsamifera). The contorted bushes, with their fleshy, pale-green leaves and smooth stems, are somehow exotic, and can make interesting photos:
It was only a short journey to the carpark on the cliff tops, where I got out to enjoy the view. There are a couple of crumbling stacks just offshore, massive chunks of La Palma that somehow ended up in the sea, where they are being relentlessly broken down by the pounding waves.
Overhead, the raucous calls of Yellow-legged Gulls are occasionally heard, but otherwise, the only sound is the whistling of the wind, an almost constant presence in these parts. To stretch your legs, try following the well-marked path down to the landing stage, which is similar in appearance, and function, to the one seen in La Fajana de Franceses. If you’ve got time, and want to do more walking, a nice section of paved footpath crosses the shallow gorge, and then continues up the opposite bank.
However, the return journey to Santa Cruz was probably going to take me a couple of hours, and it was already getting late. Before leaving the Puertito, I captured one last picture of the imposing wall of cliffs, and then sauntered reluctantly back to my car.
There are so many great places to visit on La Palma that you simply won’t have time to see them all. But a trip round the wild north, with its spectacular seascapes and remote villages, should be on every visitor’s shortlist of things to do on the island…