Los Cancajos is the main resort on La Palma’ s east coast, and the following drive takes you to some of the attractions in its rich hinterland, Las Breñas.
Not everything on La Palma entails strenuous hiking, or tortous roads to get to, and the present post focuses on the area directly inland from Los Cancajos, to the west.
This part of La Palma is loosely referred to as “Las Breñas”, and consists of two of the island’s municipalities, Breña Baja and Breña Alta. It is best explored by car, although several sign-posted hiking paths cut across the area and can be used to get to some of the places described below. My suggested circuit goes as follows:
Mirador de La Concepción
From Los Cancajos, get onto the LP 3, the main road across the island, and drive steadily uphill towards Los Llanos de Aridane. After a few minutes, take the turning on the right, along the LP 202 to the clearly indicated Mirador de La Concepción viewpoint. This popular lookout is the ideal place from which to get an overall panorama of the Breñas area. From the top of the ancient volcanic cone, a large swathe of the island’s eastern flanks can be seen stretching south, encompassing the two Breñas and reaching as far as Mazo, the next municipality.
Once you’ve gazed across the fertile green hillsides, a glance in the opposite direction, towards the crater, provides a bird’s-eye perspective of Santa Cruz de La Palma, and its busy harbour.
While you’re enjoying the fresh air, keep an eye (and an ear) open for noisy flocks of Red-billed Chough: this is a reliable location from which to see the symbol-bird of La Palma.
San Pedro de Breña Alta
Rejoining the LP 202, a short distance away lies the next stop on our tour, the administrative centre or “capital” of Breña Alta, the town of San Pedro. The settlement is a colourful mixture of old and new architecture, boasting a surprisingly busy high street, and a farmers' market held every Saturday. Close to the market are two theme museums and a lively bar offering an excellent selection of tapas, both simple and more elaborate ones.
Inside the market hall, head for the machine used for extracting sugar-cane juice, and quench your thirst with a healthy glass of freshly-pressed guarapo.
Palm groves and a Parador
Continuing downhill from San Pedro, along the LP 204 towards San Antonio, you shortly reach an area known as El Zumacal. To the right, the long building above the road is the Parador de La Palma, a smart hotel, purpose-built in traditional Canary Island style.
The surroundings are notable for the large numbers of palm trees, so rather than just driving past, consider finding a place to park, and take time to admire and photograph these fine stands of Phoenix canariensis, or Canary Island Palm.
The sap of these splendid trees was formerly extracted to make palm honey, a kind of syrup still produced as a local speciality on the island of La Gomera.
Of interest to those not traveling by car, the Parador, nearby palm trees, and the next two locations can all be reached via the PR LP 18.1 hiking path, which winds its way uphill from Los Cancajos.
The Dragon Trees of San Antonio
Possibly the most famous of all native trees on the Canary Islands, the Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco), also thrives hereabouts. Just keep on the road towards San Antonio and turn left into the housing estate before you reach the centre of town. On the northern edge of the estate, a group of sizable Dragon Trees acts as the central theme for a landscaped area with paved footpaths and benches. You can wander around freely and get a close-up of the wizened trunks.
As was the case with the island’s palms, these peculiar plants were formerly of economic importance. The sap leaves and bark all had their uses, which accounts for the rather surprising fact that practically all Dragon Trees on La Palma grow in close proximity to houses. In other words, they were deliberately planted there, and carefully looked after, not only for their ornamental value.
A picturesque chapel
Just down the street from here stands the picturesque hermitage of El Socorro, an early 18th-century reconstruction of the original late 17th-century building which was destroyed by flash flooding in the nearby Aguacencio ravine. A safer site was chosen for rebuilding this little gem.
You’ll find information boards around the hermitage giving further historical details.
Finca Amado, a secret garden for wild plant enthusiasts
From the traffic lights in the centre of San Antonio, you should now head south along the LP 3 as far as the fork at Casa Pancho, a conspicuous roadside bar. Here you bear right and follow the winding LP 206 uphill until a sign on the left indicates Finca Amado, the next stop on our itinerary. The main entrance to Finca Amado is via a flight of steps immediately on the right, but there are various side entrances as well. Parking is available in the quiet streets of the adjacent residential estate.
Finca Amado is one of the last strongholds of so-called thermophilous vegetation. The rather technical-sounding name simply means “heat-loving”, and this is the most extensive patch of such woodland on the whole island.
Finca Amado has always been a kind of secret garden, completely off the tourist map, but it was being developed as a visitor site when I was there recently. The old paths had been repaired, benches and information boards had sprung up at various points, and a derelict building had been replaced by a new Interpretation Centre, which is due to open shortly.
This delightful patch of Mediterranean-style dry woodland is a great place for a stroll and offers good bird-watching opportunities: I spotted several endemic La Palma Blue Tits as I walked around, along with Chiffchaffs, Canaries, and even an elusive Goldcrest.
The key trees to look out for include such species as Juniper (Juniperus phoenicia), Wild Olive (Olea cerasiformis), and the much rarer Mocán (Visnea mocanera), a member of the tea family which has edible fruits.
Home to a rare orchid.
Finca Amado is also home to a healthy colony of the endemic Canary Island orchid Habenaria tridactylites, whose species name literally means “with three fingers”, in reference to the three deep divisions of its lip. While perhaps not the most dazzling of flowers, this delicate orchid is the only European representative of the Habenaria genus, which has a widespread tropical distribution of around 600 species.
Spectacular vistas from the Monte Breña viewpoint
From Finca Amado, our route continues up the LP 206 and then turns right at the junction with the LP 202, back in the direction of San Pedro. A couple of kilometres from the crossroads, a sign on the left points to the Monte Breña leisure area, a popular meeting place providing all the facilities for a barbecue or picnic.
Here, I suggest heading for the viewpoint on the top of the Monte Breña hill, which is actually an old volcanic cone. You can either drive up or leave your vehicle at the bottom and walk to the top in a few minutes. From the summit, you once again get superb vistas across the Breñas, but this time facing north, looking back towards Santa Cruz de La Palma and the Mirador de La Concepción viewpoint, the first stop on the tour.
Walkers can get to Monte Breña by following the PR LP 18.1 hiking path from Los Cancajos.
Impressions of rural life
Rather than taking the main road back to Los Cancajos, our route now crosses the network of country lanes located immediuately north of Monte Breña. This area gives vivid impressions of rural lifestyles, both past and present. You’ll come across well-appointed, modern houses with colourful gardens, and elsewhere, tiny, overgrown cottages, gradually sinking back into the landscape from which they emerged, perhaps waiting for the return of their owners, who could well have emigrated to Cuba or Venezuela decades ago.
Wild flowers flourish on abandoned fields, and the occasional threshing floor appears as a reminder of the once widespread subsistence farming, going back to the days when the island grew and milled its own corn.
It’s best to improvise your way across this corner of Las Breñas, stopping to look at whatever attracts your attention. Just keep heading roughly northwards, and eventually you will come out on the LP 301, from where a short drive downhill will bring you back to San Pedro de Breña Alta, and from there, to Los Cancajos down on the coast.
Los Cancajos makes an excellent base from which to tour the island, and within minutes you can be exploring its rich hinterland, Las Breñas.
The driving distances are short, and the straight-line distances so ludicrously short that I could hardly believe it when I consulted the map: the entire route outlined above would fit into a hypothetical rectangle measuring 5km by 4km.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons La Palma is dubbed a “miniature continent”.