North from Santa Cruz de La Palma
The northbound road dipped and rose again, as it wound its way round headlands, and crossed deep valleys. I shifted into third gear to climb out of the aptly-named Barranco Seco, or Dry Ravine. Mountainsides bristling with coastal scrub whizzed past, the pale green vegetation contrasting with the reddish brown volcanic strata.
From Santa Cruz de La Palma, it’s now easy to travel north. Modern road engineering has conquered an imposing series of natural barriers, connecting even the remotest villages with the outside world. Asphalt has replaced the former cobbled paths, and you can now drive virtually everywhere.
But just imagine what traversing this rugged landscape must have been like in the good old days, when people had to negotiate the deep gorges on foot. Sections of the historic footpaths are still visible, zigzagging up the steep sides of ravines, their former significance mainly lost on the present-day hikers who use them. Musing over such matters, I rounded a bend and continued north.
Through the corner of my eye I could see clusters of Canary Island Spurges spilling down the sides of the barrancos: in coastal areas as dry and hot as this, some native plants have given up with leaves altogether and have turned into stick-like cacti in order to survive.
So it was hard to envisage how different things would be only a few miles north, in the cool shade of Los Tiles.
But my first stop was at San Bartolo, in the settlement of La Galga. The viewpoint is an ideal place to break your journey and get a breath of fresh air. Actually, there are two viewpoints: a lower one, beside the tiny church, and a higher one on top of the nearby hill. I drove up to the latter.
As soon as I reached the top, a statue came into view of a man poised in midair, grasping a traditional goatherd’s lance (lanza). Perhaps “sprang into view” would have been a more appropriate turn of phrase, for the statue represented the “Shepherd’s Leap” (salto del pastor), a once-commonplace technique for tackling the precipitous terrain where goat-keepers used to graze their animals. The use of this 10-12 foot staff goes back to the original Berber tribes once found on the island, and is still maintained as a traditional sport on La Palma by groups of enthusiasts.
There is a legend attached to the statue, and you can read the whole story of the “Lover’s Leap” on one of the information boards.
I spent a few minutes enjoying the impressive panorama. Brightly-painted houses lay scattered, higgledy-piggledy over the hillsides. The rock faces in the gorge were pockmarked with caves, and tiers of abandoned terraces clung to the improbably sheer slopes. Further north, banana plantations were visible on the gentler coastal land, their bright, pea-green foliage sweeping all the way down to the cliff tops to meet the primary blue of the Atlantic.
In addition to its vistas, San Bartolo also has a nice little bar. Doña Flora and her son have been running the place for sixteen years. An interesting selection of black and white photographs adorns the walls inside, depicting scenes from daily life in former times.
“El Recuerdo” retains all the character of a genuine village bar: simple, cosy, and inexpensive. The perfect place for a coffee on your way north.
A taste of the tropics in Los Tiles
A fifteen-minute-drive later, just before Los Sauces, I turned left and headed up the valley of Los Tiles, core zone of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Here was another steep-sided gorge, but this one was carpeted with lush, subtropical woodlands. I continued up the valley, crossed two bridges, and parked my car near the start of the path leading to the famous springs of Marcos y Cordero.
La Palma didn’t get its nickname of Isla Bonita without good reason, and Los Tiles is one of the scenic highlights of the entire island. For serious walkers, the trek to Marcos y Cordero makes a classic, full-day hike. But my plans on this occasion were less ambitious: for a taste of the tropics, I intended to walk the path as far as the Espigón Atravesado viewpoint.
The hiking route began as a dirt track which passed through a tunnel and steadily gained altitude. The vegetation certainly recalled the tropics in its exuberance, with giant Chain Ferns taking the place of the clumps of spurges seen earlier in the day. The air was also decidedly cooler. Every rock face was dripping with moisture, coated with mosses and lichens. After about 25 minutes I passed a stand of impressive “Til” laurels, the trees from which the valley takes its name.
I reached the lookout after a gradual climb of about 45 minutes. Perched on top of a narrow outcrop, and completely surrounded by impenetrable forest, the sensation was unique. It was like being suspended just above the canopy, at the bottom of a huge jungle-clad bowl. There was complete silence, except for the hoarse cooing of Bolle’s Pigeons, and the occasional flapping of wings as one of these shy birds flew across the valley.
Within minutes of arrival, I was joined by inquisitive Chaffinches expecting to be fed. They hopped and fluttered around my feet, frequently perching photogenically on the wooden handrails. They have become as confiding around people as city pigeons, but are actually a unique subspecies, only found on La Palma:
The walk to the viewpoint and back takes a couple of hours. But don’t hurry: stop and look at things: after all, this is one of the best-preserved laurel forests in the Canaries.
San Andrés and the coast
There is a good restaurant near the Information Centre in Los Tiles, but if you fancy a bit of sunshine after a morning in the heart of the forest, do what I did, and head for nearby San Andrés, down on the coast. The village is among the prettiest on La Palma, and contains historic properties belonging to illustrious local families.
For this present-day oasis of calm was once at the hub of the island’s sugar production, and wealthy land owners resided here. The former sugar-cane estates have long since been replaced by banana plantations, which thrive in the balmy coastal climate. A white-washed 16th century church, quaint cobbled streets, and the gently swaying palm fronds create a timeless atmosphere.
I took a seat at the restaurant in the square, outside to enjoy the warm weather. I was in a parallel universe: no longer in the humid tropics, but in the dry, sunny ones. What a difference! And what a great place for a bite to eat, and a chance to plan my next trip.