La Palma’s largest municipality offers wide open skies and sunny landscapes to wander in, all year round, with plenty of picturesque back roads to explore.
The municipal area of El Paso, together with the main town of the same name, is located on the sunny west side of La Palma, half an hour’s drive from the capital, Santa Cruz. It includes the Caldera de Taburiente National Park within its boundaries, one of the natural highlights of the island, but it also boasts a number of less-vaunted, but equally worthwhile attractions, including those described below.
If you feel like going for an easy walk along country lanes, rather than undertaking a strenuous hike in the mountains, why not try the route I did myself not long ago? It runs through terrain accessible by public transport (useful if you are not planning to hire a car), and you can make short detours at various points to increase the distance covered, as required.
I set off in the higher part of the municipality, just below the Cumbre Nueva ridge, the island’s central mountain range which acts as a weather divide. Its most characteristic effect is shown in the image below…a photogenic cascade of cotton-wool clouds pushed over from the east, which dissipate when they reach the drier atmosphere in the west. This impressive phenomenon can be observed on many days of the year, whenever the northeast Trade Wind is blowing.
At the very foot of the Cumbre Nueva, partly hidden in the forest, stands the whitewashed chapel of the “Virgin of the Pine Tree” (Virgen del Pino), the pine tree in question being a monumental Canary Island Pine (Pinus canariensis), one of the largest of its kind in the world.
According to scientific tree-ring dating, this giant specimen is around 800 years old, meaning it was already a multi-centenarian when Columbus discovered America! The monster towers to a height of 33 metres. has a girth of 7 metres, and is currently undergoing intensive care by a group of experts, who are attempting to improve its growing conditions and thus lengthen its life.
From the foot of the emblematic pine tree, I enjoyed open views across the nearby farmland, and westwards towards the town of El Paso. There is a network of signposted tracks crisscrossing the fields to the south, the largest area of flat land on the entire island. You’ll find interpretation panels positioned at strategic points providing notes on local history and fauna, amongst other subjects. It is worth spending some time exploring these plains. By the way, despite their almost Mayan design, the suggestive “pyramids” dotted around the landscape are nothing more than neat piles of stones which were formerly cleared from the land to enable crop growing…
My route initially followed one of the island’s signposted footpaths, the PR LP 1, once the main link between east and west. But from the chapel westwards, the path’s original cobbled surface lies hidden under the asphalt of what is now a scenic back road through open pastures and almond groves. The best time of year to be here is in late January and early February, when the almond trees are in full bloom:
Within a few minutes I reached a road junction and continued straight ahead, towards the highest inhabited parts of the municipality. From here onwards, the route led steadily downhill as the density of houses gradually increased, with the lane acting as a kind of backdoor into the town centre.
Camera in hand, I made frequent stops to capture images of gardens and other curiosities. In addition to the brightly-painted houses with their tiled roofs, you’ll see subtropical fruit trees such as avocadoes, exotic flowering shrubs, neat vegetable plots separated by basalt walls, plus numerous vestiges of rapidly-disappearing rural lifestyles.
Also, keep an eye – and an ear – open for those little yellow birds which take their name from the islands: Canaries, ancestors of all the caged varieties which have been bred over the centuries for their song. There are lots of them in El Paso:
Once I got to the town centre itself, I decided to head for the Tourist Information Office. This traditional-design building is located in the main square, and the girls in charge were only too happy to describe the town’s attractions to me. For example, there is an excellent silk workshop-museum in which the area’s former silk manufacturing skills are displayed and preserved. Among the exhibits, you’ll find a pair of high-fashion shoes created by the famous Palmeran shoe designer, Manolo Blahnik, using silk from El Paso.
Other places of interest include the impressive Berber rock carvings shown below, which I visited via a one-hour circular walk. These are some of the best petroglyphs on La Palma, and a signposted circuit takes you to two different groups. Most researchers nowadays consider that the geometric designs were directly related to religious practices associated with water or fertility rites. On-site interpretation boards provide further details.
In the centre of town, well-tended flowerbeds and palm trees add a dash of greenery to the open spaces. There is a reconstructed threshing floor, a reminder of the days when not only El Paso, but every other part of the island produced virtually all its own food, including grain for making bread, and for grinding into that most typical of all Canary Island ingredients, gofio.
Visitors from colder climes can usually be seen sitting on the natural stone walls hereabouts, basking, lizard-like, in the sun, as they discretely take in their surroundings. Local townsfolk cross the square on their daily business, but no-one ever seems to be in a hurry. For refreshment, several cafés are close at hand, and a large supermarket is conveniently located just a few paces away.
I decided to have a coffee at the new kiosk on one side of the square, which has an enormous terrace doubling as a kind of solarium. The sunlight can be dazzling, and you’ll find both locals and visitors chatting at the tables beneath El Paso’s uniquely luminous skies.
After my coffee, I went for a stroll around the centre. A few old-style shops still manage to struggle on in the face of competition from modern superstores in the outlying areas. I entered the glass-fronted premises just across the street from the Tourist Information Office: as well as assorted buttons of all shapes, sizes, and colours, this gem of a store stocks thousands of bits and bobs for clothing alterations.
Need a buckle for a belt? A zip? Want to buy a single pair of socks, rather than a pack of six? Haberdashery stores are something of a rarity these days. The lady behind the counter is always delighted to rummage through her boxes, cupboards, and drawers to oblige customers. You might even get to hear some juicy gossip while you’re waiting…
Above the Town Hall I entered the section of El Paso where most of the large houses are clustered. The previously-mentioned Silk Workshop-Museum Las Hilanderas (“The Spinners”) occupies one of these sedate, two-storey dwellings. A little higher up comes the Post Office and, a hundred metres beyond it, the quaint little church. At the very pleasant café-bar to the left, they serve a good selection of tasty tapas, making this a handy venue for a light lunch.
I had spent an enjoyable morning gradually descending into the town and exploring its environs, stopping to look at whatever attracted my attention along the way. Isn’t that the essence of being on holiday, the fact that you don’t have to stick to a timetable?
Independent walkers will find plenty of scope for improvising their own leisurely itineraries along the back roads and side streets of El Paso, one of La Palma’s most varied municipalities…