In many people’s minds, La Palma is not a beach destination... at least, not to the same extent as some of the other Canary Islands. The Isla Bonita has other things to offer, the argument goes, apart from sun and sand: its incredible hiking country, for example. But, as I hope to show in the following piece, beach-lovers won’t be disappointed either.
Being such a steep-sided island inevitably means that large sections of La Palma’s coastline, especially in the north, are virtually inaccessible from dry land. And due to its mountainous nature, it does tend to attract more clouds than the lower-lying eastern islands. That said, a little forethought goes a long way to making the most of the prevailing conditions.
Due to its sheer height, a kind of weather divide is created, resulting in a bright side, and a duller side. It largely depends on which way the wind is blowing. In the case of La Palma, it comes predominantly from the northeast, meaning that the west is usually clear and sunny, whereas the east can sometimes be windy and overcast. Like all rules, this one also has its exceptions.
So, if sunshine and swimming are high on your agenda, it’s best to be prepared for all eventualities, and a hired car will give you the necessary flexibility. The island has a lot more beaches than those associated with the main resorts and towns, some tucked away in isolated coves, others with good road access and amenities nearby. You just need to know where they are. What follows is a description of my trip around the southern half of La Palma, aimed at checking out the island’s scarcely-publicised coast.
Driving south from the capital Santa Cruz, I took the main LP-2 road towards Fuencaliente, and within minutes, found myself crossing the slopes of the Mazo municipality. A tubular structure soon came into sight to my left, standing like a rocket on its launchpad amid a cluster of houses on the coast. This modern lighthouse is located at the Arenas Blancas (“white sands”) point, and the settlement is known as La Salemera.
From the road signs at the next junction you would never guess there’s an attractive seafront down there. Nor could you possibly know that it boasts an excellent fish restaurant. How come there’s so little advertising for visitors? La Salemera is a real gem. With the existing signage, it tends to be bypassed by just about everyone.
Once at the bottom of the winding descent, I parked at the foot of the lighthouse tower and got out to scan the shoreline. To the south, the view is dominated by the gaunt Montaña de Azufre, its layered structure exposed in the crumbling cliff-face. Erosion by the elements, and by the Atlantic surf relentlessly gnawing at its base, has effectively exposed a cross-section through this ancient volcanic cone.
I went for a stroll. The simple houses were aligned along a strip of low-lying coast harbouring natural rock pools, something of a rarity on such a vertical island as La Palma. A faded interpretation panel likened these pools to miniature oceans, containing life-forms typical of both the shallows, and others found at depths of 200 metres. The organisms mentioned included starfish, anemones, crabs, snails, algae, octopus and fish, some being juvenile forms of species of commercial interest.
A tiny patch of grey sand, with drawn up fishing boats, doubled as the village square, thanks to its central location.
I was impressed by the cleanliness and well-maintained aspect. Most of the properties seemed to be holiday homes or weekend retreats, but some local people obviously lived there all year round, judging by the parked cars. And I saw one elderly woman sitting on a kitchen chair in the street, doing crochet, adding an almost Andalusian touch to the scene.
At various points along the shore, seawater swimming pools have been created by walling-off natural inlets, and then attaching metal ladders to the rocks to enable entry and exit. Further along the coast, I stopped to photograph a solitary angler casting his line from one of the jagged ribs of lave jutting into the ocean.
Scenery apart, when “La Salemera” is mentioned in casual conversation elsewhere on the island, it is usually in connection with seafood. The name says it all: salemera is a purse seine net used to catch salemas, a kind of sea-bream (Sarpa salpa). The eponymous restaurant is one of the best for delicious, traditional cuisine, and for the casual atmosphere in the outside dining area.
From La Salemera, I continued my journey towards Fuencaliente, turning left on arrival in the village, to follow the LP-207 road towards the island’s southern tip. Just before reaching the lighthouse at El Faro, a dirt track could be seen on the left, signposted to Las Cabras. The track led along the southeast coast, usually the breezy side of the island, remember.
Las Cabras can certainly be draughty when the northeast Trade Wind is blowing at full force. The nearby wind-generators were obviously positioned there for good reason. But there are spells when the situation is reversed, with west becoming the windward, and east the leeward side of the island. And, of course, there are days when the sea is calm on both sides. On such occasions, Las Cabras is a great place for a refreshing dip, or just to relax.
The road first cuts through the lava flow of the Teneguía eruption, the youngest volcano on the Canary Islands. I stopped halfway across to contemplate the chaotic badlands created by the river of molten rock emitted in 1971. The reddish Teneguía cone, the source of this wild jumble of slag, was clearly visible to the north.
After passing the wind generators, I arrived at the clifftops. The track wound along the coast for about one kilometre, affording superb views of the island’s southeast flank. In the distance, I could make out the hump of the Montaña de Azufre, and even the lighthouse at La Salemera was visible as a fine white line on the horizon.
The track finally ended at the main cove where Las Cabras beach is found. If you are looking for peace and tranquility, this is the place. When the sea is calm, entry into the water is easy, and plenty of marine life can be observed by snorkeling.
After my short stay at Las Cabras, I headed back towards the island’s other flank, the southwest side. Just past the southern tip, a large expanse of sand came into view on the left, between two headlands. There are parking spaces and well-made paths to reach Playa Echentive, also known as Playa Nueva. From the top of the steps, you can just see the stone windbreaks built near the water’s edge, handy for privacy.
A couple of kilometres beyond, a sign indicated El Aljibe. As it happened, a publicity spot was being filmed on the day I was there, apparently for beachwear. Lots of young people were involved, including the two models. A drone was also deployed for one of the sequences. These unique lunar landscapes are much sought after for all kinds of audiovisual work.
To access this completely virgin section of coast entails a short walk across fields of black ash. As always, the amount of exposed sand in the cove depends on the tide, and on how stormy the sea conditions have been during the previous winter. But what is guaranteed, is an absolute away-from-it-all atmosphere, and the strong probability of having the entire beach to yourself.
Since 2001, the waters off the southwest coast of La Palma have been gazetted as a Marine Reserve, extending out to sea as far as the 1,000 metre isobath. The main reason for creating the reserve was to protect the area’s biodiversity and allow fish stocks to recover from over-fishing. As a result, all potentially-harmful extractive activities are banned. The reserve contains interesting underwater formations, including natural caves and tunnels, making it popular with divers. A fascinating interpretation centre can be visited at the lighthouse (El Faro) on La Palma’s southern tip.
After looking around El Aljibe and taking a few photos, it was time for refreshment. Not far away lies the small coastal development of Punta Larga. Its large, sheltered bathing pool acts as a magnet for families with young children.
Also at Punta Larga is another of La Palma’s remarkably good fish restaurants, El Cenachero, where I decided to stop for a bite to eat. The bar attracts a steady flow of mostly local clientele throughout the day, and food can be ordered on the terrace at all hours. I opted for a portion of fried sardines and papas arrugadas, accompanied by the typical green mojo sauce. No-frills, genuine local cuisine, prepared with top-quality ingredients... simply delicious.
After a shot of espresso, it was time to move on. There was just one other stop on my itinerary: La Zamora. This much better-known beach lies within easy walking distance of the Princess Hotel. It consists of a long strip of sand facing several offshore stacks, and an adjacent cove called La Zamora Chica, or “Little Zamora”. At the time of writing (May 2018), the access path to the main beach was undergoing repairs, but the cove could be accessed via steps.
Perched above the cove is a kiosk offering cold draught beer, tasty food, and outstanding ocean views. Since I’d already eaten, I just took a few photographs from the clifftops before returning to my car.
La Palma might not be a beach destination, but there are plenty of great locations for swimming and sunbathing dotted around the island, and lots of brilliant restaurants nearby. What’s more, beaches never get crowded here, so there’s no stress, and no need to stake your claim by placing a towel on the sand, before breakfast.
Go hiking, mountain-biking, or star-gazing by all means, but do take some time off to enjoy the island’s spectacular south coast as well.