During a recent spell of clear, sunny weather, I decided to revisit one of my favourite spots on La Palma: the Barranco de las Angustias. This gigantic ravine acts as the natural outlet for the Caldera de Taburiente, carrying both surface water from rainfall, and groundwater issuing from the island’s aquifer, into the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of the island.
My trip started from the town of Los Llanos de Aridane, where signs to the National Park led me up through a residential area, and then down into the ravine itself. A few hikers were already milling around in the bottom of the valley by the time I reached the large parking area known as La Viña. This is where walkers intending to do the full “Caldera Route” leave their own vehicles and board shared taxis for the trip up to the starting point at Los Brecitos. A few of the hikers watched eagerly as I approached, in the hope that I might make up the required number of passengers for their taxi ride.
Pillow lavas from a submarine volcano
However, my intention on this occasion was simply to follow the Angustias ravine upstream as far as the popular “Coloured Waterfall” (Cascada de Colores), and then return the same way. The waterfall itself is not really the climax of the hike, but getting there makes for an interesting journey.
The Barranco de las Angustias is an extraordinary feature in its own right, and a trip along its bed provides vivid insight into La Palma’s geological past. At several places, pillow lavas, which were once extruded from submarine vents, have been left high and dry, well above present-day sea-level.
The clusters of clearly-outlined “pillows” create a striking effect, and are virtually impossible to miss. Vulcanologists have ascertained that the further up the ravine you go, the greater the depth at which the volcanic emissions took place, meaning that you are basically walking into the history of the original, submarine edifice. La Palma is one of the few Canary Islands where these ancient materials are exposed, thanks to uplifting during the island’s formation process, and subsequent erosion of more recent, overlying strata.
A geological showcase
Intrigued, I made frequent stops to photograph the patterned surfaces. In addition to pillow lavas, the sides of the gorge are criss-crossed by sills and magma dykes, some of which are dotted with core sampling holes. The ravine is a natural showcase for geologists, and there are even the remains of marine organisms incrusted in some of the rocks, providing further evidence of geological uplifting.
The well-trodden path, which was formerly used by local people and their mules, rises and falls as it switches from one side of the ravine to the other. When conditions permit, you can also walk in the stream bed itself. On this occasion, I chose the path for my upstream journey, and decided to save the stony riverbed for the return.
At one crossing point, I made a detour to the left, along a narrow, canyon-like section. A short distance ahead, a tiny cascade came into view, framed by a massive boulder that had jammed overhead in the narrow cleft, spanning the stream, creating a rock arch. It would have been possible to clamber up to the right and bypass the small waterfall, without leaving the valley floor, but I decided to be sensible and retrace my steps to rejoin the “official” path.
Flora and fauna
The Angustias ravine is not just a grey mineral world: indigenous plants still dominate large tracts of the landscape, despite encroachment by problemtic invasive species. Of particular concern is the advance of the seemingly unstoppable (Crimson) Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum), conspicuous patches of which could be seen on the valley slopes. Formerly-cultivated and introduced plants such as the Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) are also present, since a few families used to eake out a living on isolated terraces, well into the 20th century.
The gorge creates a warm, wind-sheltered microclimate in which small trees such as Canary Willow (Salix canariensis), and Canary Wax Myrtle (Morella faya) thrive, provided sufficient ground water is available.. Colonies of succulents, and the occasional juniper tree (Juniperus phoenicius) cling to rock faces and scree slopes.
As for birdlife, the most representative species is definitely the Grey Wagtail, typically seen flitting along the stream, and often allowing close approach:
After the detour to the boulder bridge, I found myself on an elevated section of path which afforded spectacular views of the distant mountains. This is one of the few places in the bottom of the gorge from where the rim of the Caldera de Taburiente is visible, its jagged peaks reaching heights of well over 2,000 metres.
A training ground for marathon runners
As I continued upstream, I was overtaken a few times by faster walkers and fell runners. In recent years, La Palma has become a major trail-running destination, its most famous race being the Transvulcania ultra-marathon. This multitudinous event is classed as one of the hardest mountain-ultramarathons in the world, and attracts literally thousands of participants of all levels. Serious competitors can be seen training almost everywhere on the island throughout the year, including in the Barranco de las Angustias.
Dos Aguas, the meeting of the waters
After about two hours of gentle uphill walking, I reached Dos Aguas, the confluence of two streams: the one I had been following, and the Río de Taburiente which merges with it at this point. Heavy rains can increase the volume of water considerably, and this is precisely where you have to cross the torrent, via a series of often unstable, sometimes partly-submerged stepping-stones. Chances are, you’ll have an audience as well: Dos Aguas is a favourite spot for hikers to enjoy their picnic lunch and surreptitiously watch others attempt the sometimes tricky crossing.
Vital irrigation water
Although it might appear a modest amount of water to visitors hailing from wetter parts of the world, for the Canary Islands, so much freshwater on the surface is exceptional, and of immense value. At Dos Aguas, most of the combined flow is diverted through a culvert into sedimentation tanks, and from there, it flows along a covered channel to its final destination at the west coast plantations. This highly-productive, irrigated farmland was originally planted with sugar-cane, but nowadays bananas are the main crop.
You’ll notice further evidence of irrigation works all along the ravine, including rudimentary aqueducts, water channels, dams, and pipelines. In this part of the island, the abundant water reserves issue from natural springs and man-made galleries located at the foot of the Caldera walls, at approximately 1,300 metres above sea-level. Consider how much work it has taken to get the vital fluid to where it can be used for agriculture!
The final section to the cascade
From Dos Aguas the route to the Cascada de Colores is well sign-posted, or you can simply improvise and follow the streambed, if conditions allow. However, bear in mind that this is an active watercourse, in which the quantities and distribution of sand, gravel and rocks of all sizes can be drastically modified by winter rainstorms, causing some sections to become unpassable, or virtually unrecognizable afterwards.
As I progressed along the streambed, Roque Idafe could be seen towering ahead. This famous pinnacle held spiritual significance among the island’s prehispanic inhabitants, who used to place offerings at its base.
Directly below the sacred rock, the crystal-clear Almendro Amargo stream meets the ferruginous waters of the Rivanceras (or Limonero) ravine. My visit coincided with a prolonged dry spell, and the flow had been reduced to a couple of meandering rivulets, which I duly followed upstream.
The Cascada de Colores, or “Coloured Waterfall”
This iron-rich water is responsible for the vivid yellow and orangey colours from which the waterfall takes its name. Not wishing to detract from anyone’s enjoyment of the iconic cascada, it owes its existence to a man-made wall which was built across the gorge to act as a dam. Unfortunately, the small reservoir thus created rapidly silted up, making the original project a complete failure, but accidentally creating one of La Palma’s most-photographed attractions.
To be fair, the cascada was not looking its scenic best on the day I was there. The depth of loose materials desposited in the streambed can vary considerably, thereby increasing or decreasing the waterfall’s effective height by two or three metres, and high flow rates can wash away some of the colours.
Back to base
My journey back downstream to the parking area at La Viña transpired without incident, and enabled me to get a few more photos of the type of terrain encountered along the way.
A hike along the Angustias Ravine reveals numerous facets of La Palma’s geology, plant life, traditional land use, and exploitation of natural resources. There is so much of interest that it makes sense to explore the ravine as a separate half-day trip, rather than as the final section of the full-day “Caldera Route” from Los Brecitos.
It is easy to access, requiring no special transport arrangements, and you’re free to walk up the ravine as far as you like, and turn back whenever you feel like it. The sheer depth of the gorge, its feeling of remoteness, and the chaotic, rock-strewn riverbed, create a genuine wilderness experience, despite the fact that civilisation lies just around the corner.
A final tip...
On the way back to town, don’t miss the strategically-positioned restaurant known as the Balcón de Taburiente. It makes the perfect place to round off the day as you look down on the mighty Angustias ravine from its terrace.