12 sq km doesn’t sound like a very large area, yet that is roughly the size of La Palma’s smallest municipality, Tazacorte. The vast majority of its surface is taken up by banana plantations, so you might think there can’t be much room for anything else, let alone anything of interest to visitors. However, you would be wrong.
The place has a rich history. For example, it was on the coast of Tazacorte that the Spanish conquest of La Palma began, on September 29th 1492. Not long afterwards, the island’s oldest church was founded in Tazacorte’s main town.
The wealthy Flemish owners of what were initially sugar-cane estates built their sprawling haciendas in this part of the island, several of which still remain. Jumping a few centuries, the British fruit company Fyffe’s formerly exported bananas from local plantations. And then there’s the story of the Tazacorte martyrs, whose tragic fate is briefly recounted below...
If you are wondering what there is to see in Tazacorte, and what you can actually do there, here’s a description of my own visit to the area.
Tazacorte main town
I began my tour in the main town. What first caught my eye were the colourful buildings. They might not all be architectural masterpieces, but their combined effect was striking: a dense cluster of brightly-painted facades completely surrounded by lush green plantations, with a cloudless blue sky overhead.
Bananas, just like most visitors to the Canaries, thrive in warm, sunny weather. And Tazacorte is quite simply the banana capital of La Palma. There are banana plantations on all sides... and some in between as well. There’s even a banana museum. So, if you are looking for sunshine, this is the place to head for. Millions of bananas can’t be wrong.
I decided to explore the old town. It’s best described as having two different parts, separated by the main road. Above the road you find labyrinthine streets and traditional houses, and below, the villas of the former landowners. Both areas are worth visiting, but it is the latter which is sign-posted as the “historic centre” or casco histórico. No matter where you wander, banana plantations are never far away, often visible on terraces high above the streets.
The properties in the casco histórico are on a noticeably different scale. They were designed to be a statement of their owners’ wealth, after all. One of them was recently converted into a luxury hotel, which became the very first Emblematic Hotel in the Canaries. To obtain this distinction requires adapting a historic building, which must then be further enhanced by significant cultural or artistic elements in its interior.
The Hacienda de Abajo hotel acts as the showcase for a priceless private art collection. The rooms feature four-poster beds and chandeliers. It has an exuberant garden and a chic restaurant. If you are looking for somewhere really special to stay, this could be the place.
Nearby stand some of the most impressive 16th and 17th century mansions on La Palma, partly screened by the gently swaying leaves of the area’s main agricultural product. You could almost be in the tropics.
This lower quarter of Tazacorte, known as El Charco, is also home to a unique banana museum. The history, economics and botanical characteristics of the crop are presented in detail, and outside you can get close to the plantations and study the exotic plants themselves.
Puerto de Tazacorte
From the main town, I drove a few minutes towards the coast, to the municipality’s second most important settlement, Puerto de Tazacorte. The port in question is used by commercial fishing vessels and numerous pleasure craft, and also acts as the base for companies offering whale- and dolphin-watching trips.
The harbour has always been popular among locals for a stroll in the evening, or at the weekend. Families and groups of friends saunter up and down the quay, pausing to admire transatlantic yachts, or wooden fishing boats gently rocking alongside the pontoons. It’s the perfect place to go for a breath of fresh air, or to enjoy the laid-back atmosphere from a waterside café.
For a fishing harbour, bird life is surprisingly scarce. Yellow-legged Gulls are fairly numerous, and you might be lucky to see Common Terns, depending on the time of year.
It’s entertaining to watch these agile flyers dipping into the water to catch small fish, and occasionally taking a rest on the boats. The island’s only breeding colony of this species is situated a few kilometres south.
However, the main draw of the Puerto is undoubtedly its beach, where holidaymakers go to lap up the sun, and swim in the sheltered waters of what can only be described as La Palma’s guaranteed suntrap. Some Internet sources claim that Tazacorte has more hours of sunshine per annum than anywhere else in Europe. The unofficial figure approaches 3,000 hours a year, whereas most northern European capitals get about half that much, just to put things into perspective.
Looking at the present-day assortment of parasols and colourful bathing towels arranged on the black sand, it’s hard to imagine Alonso Fernández de Lugo disembarking with 900 soldiers at this very spot in September 1492, to set about conquering the island.
The mouth of the Angustias Ravine is just behind the beach. During rare winter downpours, the year-round dry bed of the gorge turns into a raging torrent. These short-lived flash floods make the offshore waters turn brown for a few days, and at weekends, people flock to contemplate nature’s forces at work.
There is even a roadside viewpoint a short distance upstream, where crowds gather to photograph the muddy waters rolling towards the ocean. The media usually turn up as well, to report on the adverse weather conditions, and share in the excitement. Rain is big news here...
The Angustias church and the Tazacorte martyrs
I continued my trip by driving up the gorge to the picturesque Angustias church, which technically lies a few hundred metres outside the Tazacorte municipality itself. I have included it here because of its close connection with the ill-fated Tazacorte martyrs.
These were a contingent of 40 Jesuit missionaries under the leadership of Padre Ignacio de Azevedo, who, in 1570, were on their way to preach in Brazil. After a short sojourn in Tazacorte, as guests at one of the haciendas, it was at the Angustias church that Padre Azevedo said his last mass, before setting sail for the New World.
Tradition has it that during the course of the Eucharist, the priest had a vision in which the imminent martyrdom of his entire expedition was revealed to him. The impression was so deep that he bit the chalice he was about to drink from, and his teeth left a correspondingly deep impression in its rim. His vision unfortunately came true, and the tale ends with the gruesome deaths of all 40 members of the party at the hands of Huguenot pirates, who were lying in wait for the Jesuits’ ship near Fuencaliente.
In case you are curious, the chalice is on display in the church of San Miguel in Tazacorte, along with other valuable relics.
Playa de Los Guirres beach
The final stop on my tour was at a stretch of coastline that somehow seems disconnected from the rest of the Tazacorte municipality. I needed to drive over 10 km south o get there. Just before reaching Puerto Naos, I turned right at the sign to Playa de Los Guirres, also known as Playa Nueva. The access road runs through another major patch of banana plantations, an important detail for all sun-worshipers, as you will have realised by now.
Playa de Los Guirres is rather a special place. It has all the atmosphere of a wild, virgin beach despite being only a couple of kilometres from one of La Palma’s main tourist developments, Puerto Naos. The sea can be rough at times, and the amount of sand varies with the tides, and according to the season of the year. After heavy winter swells, the sand can disappear altogether and the beach turns into a scenic expanse of pebbles.
It is a popular spot for surfers and get-away-from-it-all couples who just come to relax. A kiosk serves delicious food and cold drinks, and other facilities include showers and toilets. But it is the dramatic setting at the foot of the cliffs that really gives the beach its character.
Playa de Los Guirres is one of Tazacorte’s hidden gems. Apart from the beach itself, there’s a paved coastal promenade which is great for a stroll in the evening, or early in the morning, before the heat builds up.
This southernmost section of Tazacorte’s coastline is fringed with jagged lava, stretching all the way to where the municipality ends at the aptly-named Punta de la Lava, with its modern lighthouse. In 1949, a river of molten rock spilled over the nearby cliffs and went hissing into the sea during the San Juan eruption, forming a so-called lava delta in the process.
From Playa de Los Guirres I drove back to my accommodation, convinced that Tazacorte must be one of the best holiday destinations on La Palma.
For one thing, it has great weather. But that’s not all: it has an excellent selection of bars and restaurants, boat trips for visitors of all ages, an emblematic hotel, a spectacular coastline, and a fascinating history. La Palma’s smallest municipality is definitely more than just a sun trap...