The high western Canary Islands are well-known for their microclimates: certain areas can be cool and misty, while others are basking in sunshine, on the same day. The determining factors are wind-direction and island relief, especially altitude above sea-level. Yet brochures and guidebooks gloss over this interesting facet of the islands. It's always sunny, right?
The windward side
"Barlovento" translates as windward, in the case of an island, the side exposed to the wind. The prevailing wind in the Canaries is the northeast Trade Wind, and the municipality of Barlovento occupies the northeast or windward corner of La Palma, where the sea of cloud forms. Historically, the island's economy has centred on farming, not tourism, and Barlovento's varied climate is favourable for a number of crops.
The good news for sun-seeking visitors is that the "bad"weather typically occurs at medium elevations: the coast lies beneath the cloud layer, while the summit of the island rises above it. La Palma's subtropical laurel forests thrive somewher in-between, and in Barlovento, you experience the full range of altitudinal zones.
La Fajana de Barlovento
For the best chance of sunshine, head for the seawater swimming pools of the Fajana de Barlovento. The turning off the LP-1 is clearly signposted. The pools fringe a dramatic stretch of coastline, and offer safe bathing on all but the stormiest days. I drove there recently, in the hope of finding calmer seas than on my previous visit in December 2018.
Even with the Atlantic in one of its wilder moods, there's barely a ripple in the swimming pools, as shown in the photo below, taken on the same day.
While you're waiting for the water to warm up, have a look round the surroundings. Close at hand you'll find a couple of restaurants, a block of holiday apartments, a campground, and extensive areas of well-preserved coastal vegetation, set at the foot of impressive cliffs. Following the coast to the left (southwest), the promenade ends at a rocky cove with access to the sea.
In the opposite direction, the trail soon enters dense scrublands, where you need to improvise a way through. Progress eventually becomes tricky, so a bit of backtracking is required. This jagged section of coastline is popular with anglers and features some photogenic rock pools and inlets, as well as native vegetation. Ahead, the lighthouse at Punta Cumplida dominates the skyline. This historic lighthouse entered service in 1867, and was recently converted into an exclusive hotel, the first of its kind in the Canary Islands.
Dragon Trees of La Tosca
Another spot unaffected by the cloud layer is the picturesque hamlet of La Tosca. Most visitors don't get beyond the roadside viewpoint, but it's worth actually going down to La Tosca itself. A path descends steeply from the lookout, or you can turn off the LP-1 road a hundred metres further west and drive to the tiny settlement nestled among Dragon Trees (Dracaena draco). This is one of La Palma's largest groups of this peculiar plant, restricted to the Canary Islands, Azores, Cape Verde, and Madeira, and classified in the asparagus family. The leaves, bark and sap formerly had practical and medicinal uses, but nowadays the species is mainly ornamental.
The ultimate hideaway, La Tosca consists of a cluster of stone cottages, some abandoned and immersed in rampant greenery, others inhabited and well maintained. As elsewhere in the north of the island, emigration has taken its toll on population figures. The Dragon Trees themselves have such a commanding presence, it's hard to say whether this is a hamlet planted with trees, or a group of trees with houses slotted in between them. There's almost a ghost-town silence, and very few people around. The nearest shops and amenities are in the main village of Barlovento.
Gallegos, the unchanging face of village life
Continuing along the north coast from La Tosca, I always stop off at Gallegos. This village holds a special attraction for me, perhaps because of its associations with my first ventures as a hiking guide on the island, when the Gallegos to Barlovento section of what is now the clearly-marked GR 130 was one of my regular routes. At one stage, I came close to buying a rundown property to renovate there, but that's another story. My impression is that the place has changed very little in the last twenty-odd years.
The village bar has moved halfway down the block from its once strategic location on the corner, the local school has closed for want of children, young people are steadily moving out, and the population is aging. Basically what you would expect in such an isolated, rural area. Time to re-invent itself and try new ways of dynamising the economy, you might think.
Think again: it doesn't happen like that in such places. The obvious potential of Gallegos as a hiking hub and centre for rural tourism has never materialised, and clearly never will, due to a lack of vision. The social climate is somehow out of tune with the modern world of travel and outdoor leisure, and Gallegos has remained steadfastly true to itself over the years. Hikers passing through the place still elicit looks of mild bemusement from locals. Any change that does occur in Gallegos relates to farming, such as the present increase in taro production.
The taro plant (Colocasia esculenta) is cultivated in many parts of the world's tropics and subtropics, primarily for its edible corm. Its Spanish name is ñame, which resembles the more familiar-sounding English word "yam", leading to a common mistranslation. In recent years, La Palma has become the leading Canary Island producer, most of the local crop being shipped to the larger markets of Gran Canaria and Tenerife. Sunny Gallegos is one of the main growing areas.
Although most parts of the plant can be eaten (after due preparation), taro is grown on La Palma for its starchy root, which can be used in both savoury and sweet dishes. The corms are harvested by hand, and then taken to outdoor facilities for boiling in large amounts of water over an open fire. This lengthy process is essential to remove the high oxalate content of all parts of the plant.
In Gallegos, you'll see plots of taro at almost every turn, but following the GR 130 towards the coast leads to the largest plantations, and the chance to see farmers at work. If you're curious to try ñame for yourself, it is sold by weight, pre-boiled, in some local supermarkets. At the time of writing, delivery to the Spar supermarket in Barlovento is on a weekly basis, every Tuesday.
Don't miss the greenest parts of Barlovento
As mentioned above, large tracts of this varied municiplaity are influenced by the Trade Winds. With a northeasterly blowing, conditions can be surprisingly cool and damp in the main village and surrounding medianías (mid-elevation farming areas), so choose your day carefully.
That said, no trip would be complete without visiting the greenest parts of Barlovento. For a sample, head for the Laguna, a circular irrigation reservoir. The adjacent park offers camping facilities and cabins, in peaceful surroundings landscaped with native trees and bushes. The PR LP 7.1 hiking path to Los Tilos begins here, one of La Palma's classic laurel-forest routes.
Better still, try driving the Las Mimbreras road (LP-109). You'll find yourself contouring across forested mountainsides towards Garafía in the northwest, passing through three unlit tunnels along the way. Beyond the the shady picnic area at Las Mimbreras, deep gorges and lush woodlands make this "the most scenic highway on La Palma", according to a recent Facebook opinion poll. And, for an island with so many stunning landscapes, that's quite an achievement...