Thinking of going for a scenic drive on La Palma? You’ve got plenty to choose from: rugged, mountainous terrain in the north of the island, dramatic volcanic landscapes in the south, or traditional farming areas in the centre; you can head for secluded coves, picturesque villages, or local fiestas. La Palma has something of interest just about everywhere you look.
But there is one particular road that you should definitely not miss driving along. It’s only 15km in length, which is pretty short, even for La Palma’s modest scale of distances. It runs from the small town of Barlovento in the northeast, to an isolated hamlet called Roque del Faro, in the remote north: an insignificant back road, if ever there was one. Or at least, that’s what it looks like on the map…
I’d never even heard of Las Mimbreras until I asked for directions in the centre of Barlovento. I was planning to drive to Garafía, and according to my road map, there were two different ways of getting there. One was marked as the continuation of the LP 1, the other as the LP 109. They were shown in red and green respectively, and the peaks and dips of their outlines on the map recalled the erratic tracings of an electrocardiogram.
So I stopped to ask the way, and was told that the Las Mimbreras road, the green one, was the shorter of the two. And off I went, unaware that I was about to discover, amongst other things, just how appropriate its colour on the map really was: the Las Mimbreras route was vibrant green throughout its entire length.
A couple of kilometres from town I passed the turning to the Laguna de Barlovento reservoir. From here onwards, the vegetation flanking the road grew thicker, until the bushes were eventually replaced by full-sized trees, arching overhead. When I got to Las Mimbreras, the narrow strip of asphalt I was attentively following widened into a shady esplanade.
I stopped my car in one of the clearly-marked parking spaces and got out. The atmosphere was noticeably cool and damp, distinctly montane in feel. So, Las Mimbreras was not a village, but a drive-through barbecue area at the foot of a cliff, engulfed in luxuriant forest. With my car engine switched off, all I could hear was birdsong, and the trickle of a nearby spring. There were no other vehicles or people in sight.
It was the sort of pristine nature you’d be lucky to find yourself in after a full-day hike, or a night of wilderness camping. Yet Las Mimbreras had a paved road running right through it, and was only 10 minutes out of town. Below the road to the right I spotted wooden tables and benches beneath the trees; there were drinking-water taps, and other amenities. What a great place for a family picnic!
From Las Mimbreras to the Barranco de Gallegos ravine
I returned to my car and resumed my journey. Two minutes later I rounded a bend and was confronted by a gaping, black hole in the rock-face straight ahead. I came to a halt and tried to get a better look through the windscreen. The road simply disappeared into what looked like a mine passage. According to a sign on the right, this was actually a tunnel. As far as I could tell, it had been roughly hewn out of solid rock, and was completely unlit. It was the first of three underground sections I was to encounter, and looked just wide enough to drive a car through. I turned on my headlights and ventured in.
Unknown to me at the time, not only cars, but also buses had previously plied this route on a daily basis, long before the road was even asphalted. For this former dirt track had once been the main link between Barlovento and Garafía, providing the latter with its very first vehicle access. In other words, Garafía was first connected to the outside world by road from Santa Cruz on the east side, not from the west, as you might expect.
In those days, bus drivers were key figures in the local community, affectionately known by their nicknames. They doubled as mechanics, fixing punctures and carrying out any necessary repairs to their prized vehicle along the way. In addition to the people on board, mail, medicines, and other essential supplies had to get through, and the buses provided a parcel service between villages.
The Barranco de Gallegos ravine
Once in the open again, the road hugged the base of a massive cliff, with a steep drop to the right. I spotted a small parking bay and pulled over: it was time to take a few photos of the landscape. Camera in hand, I duly peered over the edge, and found myself looking down into one of the deepest gorges on the whole island, the formidable Barranco de Gallegos.
This daunting feature had for centuries constituted a major physical barrier for islanders in these parts, and I was about to cross it by car. I could see where the road climbed up the other side, but before it got there, it would disappear underground again twice, through another two tunnels.
From my vantage point overlooking the ravine I contemplated the magnificent scenery. A dark-green blanket of laurel forest stretched over the slopes, while Canary Pines grew on more exposed sites, clinging to ridges and crags. It was all so incredibly green. Once again, I got that lost-in-time feeling which remote parts of La Palma can evoke… with the silence made even more tangible on this occasion by the distant bleating of a goat, roaming somewhere in the forest way below.
Shortly after exiting the third and final tunnel, the road crosses the bed of the barranco via a bridge. There was plenty of space to park at this point, so I left my car and went for a walk up a track ascending the gorge. Almost immediately I flushed a Bolle’s Pigeon, and the bird instantly took flight with a noisy flapping of wings. La Palma still harbours large numbers of these endemic birds, especially in the undisturbed ravines in the north of the island, where this species finds an ideal refuge.
Mirador de las Mimbreras to Roque del Faro, Garafía
I drove up the western side of the gorge to a sign-posted lookout called the Mirador de las Mimbreras, almost at the halfway point of my trip. The road now levelled off and threaded its way between tall stands of tree heather. But a subtle change was taking place. The vegetation was still remarkably lush, but the prime laurel forested areas were being left behind, as the Canary Pine gradually took over.
A few minutes later, the Fuente de los Poleos spring appeared, near the bottom of the barranco of the same name. I parked, and got out for a breath of fresh air. The spring was located at the foot of a gnarled myrtle tree, where the water trickles out from among moss-covered rocks. It was refreshingly cool to drink.
On the far side of the gorge, the municipality of Garafía began. Pastures, isolated buildings, and stables came into view: the first signs of human presence since leaving Barlovento. At one point, where a weather-beaten Landrover stood at the side of the road, a Garafiano sheepdog dashed out to briefly check my passing vehicle. Roque del Faro lay just around the corner…
This northwest corner of the island is well-known for its excellent goat’s milk cheeses and vino de tea, a resinated wine stored in pine barrels. The lovely herding dog known as the Pastor Garafiano, or Garafian Shepherd, also comes from here. Other traditional farm animals can be viewed at a special livestock breeding centre in San Antonio del Monte, such as the black Canary Island pigs:
At the centre, you’ll also find genuine Palmeran goats and cattle like those shown below, shrouded in morning mist:
To get to the northwest, I had negotiated three pitch-black tunnels, vital links in what was once the only overland vehicle route across the top of the island; the road had spanned gorges and meandered through densely-forested mountains, offering fantastic views of some of the wildest and greenest parts of La Palma along the way; and finally, I had landed in the fascinating landscapes of Garafía, mine to explore for the rest of the day, including the spectacular coastline:
The Las Mimbreras road makes one of the best drives on La Palma, and provides an exciting gateway to the rural world of Garafía. If you thought the Canary Islands were just about beaches and sangria, you’re in for a big surprise…