Take a look at a map of La Palma, and you’ll see various villages dotted along the north coast. From right to left, east to west, the main ones are Gallegos, Franceses, El Tablado and Don Pedro. With the exception of Fajana de Franceses, none of them are actually on the coast itself, but are perched atop the coastal cliffs, at least 300 metres above sea-level. They can all be reached by asphalted road nowadays, and the one located at the greatest distance from the island’s two main towns – Santa Cruz and Los Llanos de Aridane – is El Tablado.
Since 1987, the whole village and its environs have been classified as a Protected Landscape under Spanish environmental legislation, in order to conserve what is described as a space in which man and nature coexist harmoniously, in an area of spectacular natural beauty and traditional practices. It is the only protected area on La Palma containing an inhabited village.
When I first hiked the old footpaths in these faraway parts of the island, and stopped to ask for directions, local people would sometimes inquire, with a concerned expression on their faces, if my car had broken down, or if I was lost and needed help. Rambling along poorly marked trails was a strange thing for an outsider to be doing.
Things have inevitably changed in the last couple of decades. Hiking groups regularly pass through these scenic parts of the island, and the GR 130 along the north coast is now a well-trodden route. But you can still sense the remoteness, despite the modern road system and relative ease of access. When you look east from El Tablado, this is what you see.
And when you look west, the view is not all that different.
In both images, parts of the old footpaths can be seen winding their way up the sides of the gorges. To the east, on the far side of the Barranco de los Hombres, lies the cluster of white buildings at Fajana de Franceses, where there used to be a jetty for shipping merchandise and occasional passengers. In the past, the journey by sea was the shortest road to freedom for young men off to seek their fortunes. Going west, a longer trek leads across the Barranco de Fagundo to the municipality’s administrative centre, Santo Domingo de Garafía.
Ironically, when the dirt road from the capital Santa Cruz was finally completed in the 1950s, thereby enabling vehicles to reach the northernmost confines of the island, the improved communications did not have the desired effect. Instead of reducing depopulation, they actually increased it, by facilitating the exodus. In 1960, the Villa de Garafía municipality had a total of over 5,000 inhabitants. Nowadays, after prolonged emigration, the figure is merely 1,600 for the whole municipal area.
I decided to return to El Tablado recently, curious to see what changes there had been. It came as no surprise to discover that the village school, like most others in the north, had closed years ago due to a lack of school-age children. Most of the present-day residents in El Tablado, about 30 altogether, are elderly people, and the former school building is now a hostel.
Historically, subsistence farming had always been a vital part of the economy. To create farmland meant terracing the steep hillsides and then improving the soil by adding organic materials such as leaf litter from nearby forests, and manure from stables. Some of the terraces are still cultivated, but the more inaccessible ones have gradually fallen into disuse.
As in other rural areas, there is no influx of new settlers to slow down the decline, let alone reverse it. Outside observers are prone to reflect on the incalculable value of these cultural landscapes, and to express concern over the “priceless intangible heritage” that is slowly disappearing. But what can you actually do to save these precarious communities? It would require enormous investment just to restore the empty houses. In many cases, their owners are not even traceable. And among the younger generation, I see little evidence of a Back-to-the-Land movement.
The only newcomers appear to be resourceful foreigners who have moved to the area, to set up small-scale businesses, such as bed and breakfast accommodation close to the GR 130 hiking path. Even the busy bar in the main square of Santo Domingo, an archetypal Spanish bar if ever there was one, has been in the enterprising hands of an Eastern European couple for several years now. And El Tablado’s modest equivalent, La Garza (The Heron), is currently kept alive by a young woman from the Netherlands. Inside, it still conserves the retro look of what was once the village grocery store.
Various curiosities came to light as I walked around the streets. Due to the close proximity of extensive pine forests, this part of La Palma was formerly renowned for its use of timber as a building material. I found examples of pine planking employed as a roofing material for sheds and outhouses, and occasionally for homes as well. Evidence of this construction technique is fairly scarce, and the buildings themselves can be difficult to find.
My impression was that there are now more deserted houses in El Tablado than I recalled from previous visits. A handful of cottages were being repaired and repainted, destined to become weekend retreats or holiday homes. But the vast majority were simply uninhabited, in many cases because their owners had passed away. In fact, official figures indicate that the population has continued to dwindle from 54 in the year 2000, to 36 in 2017. Even the miniscule chapel had a forlorn look about it.
Despite the obvious difficulties, the handful of people still residing in El Tablado seem to get along well enough in their peaceful, self-sufficient enclave. It all depends on your ambitions, I suppose. They own their houses and produce much of the food they consume. I noticed plenty of vegetable patches and orchards, with fruit trees including avocados, papayas, peaches, loquats, oranges, figs, and even a few bananas. Potatoes could be seen growing on the terraces.
In a steep back-street I came across a compound where a group of frisky Palmeran goats were feeding, under the watchful eye of their owner. I stopped for a chat, and to take a few photographs. During our conversation, the goat-keeper told me he was against using commercial animal feed, and preferred to give his livestock wild plants which he gathered himself. He was dismissive of industrialized farming practices generally, and wary of the dangers of feeding animals with unnatural foodstuffs. This is a common attitude among country people on La Palma, where farming went “organic” long before the expression was coined.
Outside the pen, various bundles of forage plants were stacked beside a well-maintained shredder, used for converting them into bedding material. Here was a true survivor, a man still engaged in traditional husbandry, on the fringes of what could easily become a ghost town.
As I walked around, I saw house walls painted in a variety of colours, steps and alleys leading in unexpected directions. There were old constructions coexisting alongside new ones. Some properties looked like ongoing projects which might never be finished. But rather than focusing on the disorder, the logistics of building in a place like this should be taken into account. Maintenance and repairs require access to well-stocked hardware stores. If you run out of something in El Tablado, you use the next best alternative: there’s no convenient Home Improvement Centre just around the corner.
But perhaps the most conspicuous and iconic features of this protected landscape are natural rather than man-made: the large Dragon Trees (Dracaena draco) dotted around the village. This species was once deliberately cultivated as a source of raw materials: the sap could be used in traditional medicine, the fibres for rope-making, the leaves as goat forage, and the hollow trunks as bee-hives.
It may be a long drive to get there, but La Palma’s remotest settlement, with its fascinating vestiges of the past and its spectacular surroundings, is well-worth a visit.