If La Palma’s classic, full-day “Volcano Route” hike is too much of a challenge, and you’re looking for an easier alternative with comparable scenery, the mini-Volcano Route described here could fit the bill. It starts from the main village in Fuencaliente (Los Canarios), at an altitude of about 700 metres, and goes all the way to the coast at El Faro, a distance of no more than 7km.
Recently, I decided to do it myself, and began by following the road to Las Indias for about 1 km, until I reached the clearly-marked turning to the first volcano on the itinerary.
The San Antonio volcano
The San Antonio is La Palma’s star volcano. Over the years, it has become one of the island’s major tourist attractions. After paying the admission fee, you can access the crater rim without a guide, provided you stick to the path and generally follow the recommendations of the rangers, especially when there is a strong wind blowing.
I was lucky with the weather on the day I was there. The first part of the rim poses no problems, as it is wide and flat, with protection on one side... just in case. Towards the end of the path there is a narrow rocky section, where adequate footwear makes things easier. But since this is a touristy volcano, almost a drive-in, inevitably not everyone comes prepared for the rough conditions.
Easily-accessible though it may be, the San Antonio is nevertheless one of the most impressive craters on La Palma. It is also one of the most controversial. For years it was believed to have been the source of the 1677 eruption, the one responsible for obliterating Fuencaliente’s famous hot spring, from which the municipality takes its name (fuente caliente, lit. “hot spring”).
However, volcanologists have since determined that it is considerably older, with an age of over 3,000 years. Moreover, its formation is the result of a hydro-volcanic eruption, a particularly violent event involving the interaction of magma with underground water. An eruption of this type in 1677, only one kilometre from town, would have been a major catastrophe. At least, so say the experts...
The crater that really corresponds to the 1677 eruption has been identified as an insignificant depression located about 100 metres from its big brother. The controversy stems from the fact that many locals are not happy with this revisionist explanation. Tradition dies hard.
To find out more, it’s worth spending time at the Visitor Centre, where Canary Island volcanic activity is dealt with from a global perspective. Refreshments are available at the bar, or you can watch an audiovisual presentation. Outside the building, you might be tempted to hop on the earthquake simulator to get a wobbly, real-life impression of a tremor of up to 6.5 on the Richter scale. If you’ve just had an ice-cream or a cappuccino, think twice about this.
From the viewpoint on the crater rim, I could make out the salt pans on the southern tip of the island, the finishing point of my route. And in the middle-distance, another important landmark was clearly visible, the 1971 Teneguía volcano.
To continue my hike, I back-tracked to the entrance gate and descended the GR 131 path towards the west coast. It zigzags down to a dirt track, where I turned left to contour round the base of the San Antonio cone. The wide track made for very pleasant walking after the steep and rather dusty descent.
To the right, not far ahead, the conspicuous Roque Teneguía emerged, a pyramid-shaped outcrop of ancient rock engulfed by the materials emitted from the San Antonio and other nearby vents. The bleached tones of the old Roque contrasted sharply with the much younger ash.
A visit to the Roque Teneguía requires a short detour, and there are two reasons you might be interested in going there: for the rock carvings, and for the unique flora.
Although less distinct than some of La Palma’s other petroglyphs, the geometric patterns etched into the creamy coloured slabs are further evidence of this mysterious practice stemming from pre-hispanic times. No-one knows what purpose they might have served, or what the significance of their particular emplacements could have been. Most of the engravings are quite hard to see, and clambering over the rock to search for them is strongly discouraged, as it causes damage. The one shown below can be photographed without leaving the designated viewing area.
The other unique feature of Roque Teneguía is its tiny population of the endemic Cheirolophus centaurea, an endangered shrub similar to knapweed, belonging in the daisy family, and known from only one other nearby location. Unfortunately, these endemic plants were not in flower when I visited the spot, but they could be easily identified by their thistle-like seed heads. The main threat to their survival is accidental trampling due to careless or uncontrolled human activity.
The Teneguía volcano
Rather than returning uphill to the signposted GR 131, I continued south via a short-cut along an irrigation channel, which eventually rejoins the official path close to the Teneguía volcano.
This recent vent, with its gaunt cinder cone, opened up in what had previously been gently undulating terrain. It was active for over 3 weeks in 1971, from October 26th to November 18th, and is the youngest volcano (on dry land) in the Canary Islands.
It is also one of the few not to have been catholicised by being dedicated to the saint whose feast day it happened to be when it first erupted. Apparently, this was something of an issue at the time, causing disagreement in early newspaper reports. Some journalists opted automatically for the saint day denomination, others for more imaginative proposals.
Finally, an eminent Spanish geologist settled the debate by arguing that the scientific convention is to name new volcanoes after their location, or after a significant landmark in the vicinity. And that was how the Teneguía volcano took its name from the nearby Roque, and narrowly escaped being christened San Evaristo.
Another curiosity connected with this volcano is the fact that the first tremors announcing its imminent eruption were detected by the US Navy, who had a sensitive hydrophone on La Palma at their base in Puerto Naos. This sophisticated underwater detector was supposedly operated by the University of Columbia for scientific research, but was actually intended to pick up possible movements of Soviet submarines around the island. This was the Cold War period, remember.
The Spanish National Geographic Institute (IGN) now has its own network of 11 modern seismographs positioned at strategic locations around La Palma, designed to provide early warning of any future eruptions.
An ascent of the Teneguía cone is well-worth the effort for the spectacular panoramas. But perhaps even more interesting is a brief inspection inside its rocky crater. Along the jagged inner rim I found several fissures where hot air could be felt coming from underground, and a slight whiff of sulphur was noticeable here and there.
From the Teneguía, I returned to the GR 131 which initially follows the edge of the volcano’s main lava flow. During the 1971 eruption, most of the lava crept this way, towards the tip of the island, although another stream spilled over the cliffs to the west, and entered the sea there. In consequence, the island was both lengthened and widened.
As well as lava, the volcano also blasted out large amounts of ash, and occasional lava bombs, some of which landed on the barren slopes of neighbouring cones.
This relatively harmless eruption, conveniently located at a safe distance from inhabited areas, became a festive occasion in the village of Los Canarios, where local bars had difficulty supplying visitors with wine and other vital commodities. People came from far and wide to see the fireworks, and locals themselves would go to check on the latest developments of their volcano in the afternoon, after finishing work.
From the Teneguía volcano to the coast
My path eventually crossed the lava flow to continue seawards on the opposite side. Looking back, the sombre hulk of the San Antonio volcano dominated the view.
Once across the lava, a section over soft ash followed, down an incline resembling a ski slope in everything but colour. The amount of vegetation gradually increased as I progressed downhill. There was even some bird activity among the scattered bushes. I spotted a Sardinian Warbler dashing for cover after emitting its characteristic rattling call.
Soon, the two sides of the island could be seen converging ahead at El Faro, with the bright blue Atlantic in the background.
The plants in this part of the island are almost all native, probably because few invasive species can cope with the extremely harsh conditions. Not even the ubiquitous Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) or the problematic Crimson Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum) have managed to establish themselves here. How anything can grow at all is remarkable.
Alongside the pioneering Tree Sorrel (Rumex lunaria) and the coast-loving salado bushes (Schizogyne sericea) discernible in the above image, I found plenty of White Bugloss (Echium brevirame), one of La Palma’s endemic species, which happened to be in flower.
Not far below, closer to the coast, in the more saline atmosphere, clumps of the fleshy-leaved Canary Sea Fennel (Astydamia latifolia) began to dot the landscape. This species, with its pale green foliage, really stood out against the black ground.
A few minutes later, after crossing the asphalted road a couple of times, the well-signposted GR 131 path led me to my final destination. I headed straight for the café at the salt pans to sit back with a cold beer, and enjoy the sea views from the upstairs terrace. I had just completed one of the best short hikes on La Palma.
This walk gave me a vivid, first-hand impression of the island’s volcanic origins, and highlighted the stark beauty of these landscapes, with their subtle range of rusty brown and blackish materials.
At first sight, such volcanic wastelands seemed hostile to life, yet somehow, suitably-adapted plants had managed to take hold and establish themselves in scattered pockets. Several times I almost trod on tiny grasshoppers lying camouflaged on the gravel-like lapilli. They sprang to safety just in time. Many of the flowering bushes I passed had attracted a few bees or butterflies. And occasional glimpses of birds or lizards indicated that there was life here after all, albeit on a modest scale.
This is a unique kind of terrain for most visiting hikers. Between the Teneguía volcano and the lighthouse, traces of civilization virtually disappear. No houses are visible, or even conceivable, in this lunar world. Hardly any human influence can be detected in the distance, since the horizon is blocked by the surrounding slopes. You find yourself temporarily immersed in a purely mineral environment that seems remoter than it actually is.
The mini-Volcano Route makes a perfect half-day hike, and gives you the chance to experience these fascinating badlands for yourself.