Visitors to La Palma are inevitably impressed by the island’s array of precipitous gorges, craggy summits over 2,000 metres high, and stark volcanic landscapes... with subtropical forests adding an exotic touch to the picture.
But what makes Llano de Las Cuevas remarkable is that it contains none of these features. It boasts neither deep ravines nor soaring peaks. It has few trees, and lacks outstanding landmarks. At first sight, Llano de Las Cuevas is merely an agricultural area criss-crossed by stone walls and tracks, superficially resembling certain parts of the English countryside.
And that’s one of the remarkable things about it: Llano de Las Cuevas is almost unique on La Palma in that it is flat... in a place where flatness is a scarce commodity.
You might have guessed from the name, of course. Llano de Las Cuevas, literally translates as “Plain of the Caves”, and the plain in question forms part of that stunning panoramic view which unfolds ahead of travelers who cross the island via the tunnel and emerge on the sunny west side.
The sudden change in mood can be magical: you leave the gloomy, humid laurel forests behind on the east side, and come out into clear blue skies in the west, the road descending rapidly towards a gently undulating expanse of farmland surrounded by pine forests. After a sharp right-hand bend, a fast section of highway takes you cross the southern end of Llano de Las Cuevas and looking right, you can see the rest of the plain rolling away northwards, towards the Caldera de Taburiente National Park and the pine-clad Mount Bejenado: a stunning view on a clear day...
As to the “caves” in the toponym, more later.
The area is easily reached by private vehicle or local bus, and makes an ideal destination for a leisurely walk, as opposed to a strenuous hike. The most convenient starting point is the National Park Visitor Centre in El Paso, where I left my car and set off along the signposted PR LP 1.1 footpath.
From the outset, the way was flanked by basalt walls, running in parallel lines towards the shady, pine-clad slopes of Cumbre Nueva to the east. Certain paved sections almost recalled the straightness of Roman roads. Fields lay on both sides, some used as pasture for livestock, others planted with forage crops such as the island’s very own Tree Lucerne (Chamaecytisus palmensis), an endemic shrub from La Palma now cultivated in Australia and New Zealand, where it presumably got its English name.
The plant, also known as Tagasaste, is part of La Palma’s native flora, and is widespread on the island. When managed as green fodder, the tender stems and leaves are regularly trimmed off, with the result that the bushes grow very dense foliage and acquire a gnarled, somewhat stunted aspect. The foliage is harvested to feed stabled goats, so don’t expect to see herds browsing in the open.
Another striking element of the landscape are the so-called pyramids. I could see numerous examples on both sides of the track as I walked along. Almost Mayan in style, esoteric hypotheses abound as to the origin of these intriguing structures. Vanished civilizations? Ancient burial sites? Astronomical observatories? At the risk of sounding prosaic, the generally-accepted explanation is that the pyramids are monumental heaps of stones which were painstakingly cleared from the fields by previous generations of islanders, in order to create land for the growing of food crops.
It should be borne in mind that the island was formerly much more self-sufficient than it is nowadays, and people needed to produce a large part of their own food supply. Vital cereal crops such as wheat and barley were once grown in these fields. Every usable patch of land was put to service, but first, the myriad stones had to be neatly piled out of the way.
Bird activity was plentiful alongside the path on the morning I visited the area. I observed flocks of wild Canaries feeding on seeds, and the ubiquitous Chiffchaff flitting among the bushes. The plain is also a classic location for large groups of Red-billed Chough, observable both flying overhead, or foraging on the ground. But perhaps the most characteristic species of the area is a sparrow-sized bird with a speckled breast, a curious creature that has the habit of perching on the walls just ahead of you.
Berthelot’s Pipit is perhaps not the most striking of birds, but then, we can’t all be Resplendent Quetzals, can we?. Every so often, as I walked along, one of these endemic pipits would pop up on the wall ahead, wait till I got within a certain distance, and then hop or fly another few metres away. This is the only resident pipit on La Palma, and is a subspecies exclusive to the Canary Islands.
As for larger animals, La Palma has a number of recognized livestock breeds. One of them is the so-called Palmeran cow, a descendant of the Rubia Gallega, or Galician Blond breed from NW Spain. These hefty beasts can reach weights of 600 kilos, with bulls up to 800 kilos. They are valued for their strength and placid temperament, and were formerly used as work animals for ploughing and threshing. I spotted several small herds as I crossed the fields.
The first section of my route took me east for just over 1km, to a point where the dirt track came out onto an asphalted lane known as Camino de Las Cuevas. This is a popular walking area for local residents, who often go out for exercise in the cool of the late afternoon or evening. I turned left and followed the quiet backroad for a short distance. Now heading north, I had mount Bejenado and the Cumbrecita pass as a spectacular backdrop, with the Virgen del Pino hermitage and it’s legendary pine-tree visible to the right.
Turning left, I took another variant of the PR LP 1, this time in a westerly direction towards El Abrigado. Most of the wayside plants thriving in this cultural landscape were inevitably non-native. True cosmopolitans like bindweed, field marigolds and bugloss, created patches of colour amid the predominant green. But, here and there, I came across isolated clumps of La Palma’s endemic Pericallis papyracea, an attractive purple ragwort similar to florist’s cineraria.
Within about 15 minutes I was back at the road to the Visitor Centre, only a few hundred metres from my starting point. The whole route had taken just over an hour to complete, with frequent stops for photographs, and for looking at things. Longer walks could also be put together in this area, perhaps including a detour to the Virgen del Pino hermitage, or even to the cuevas - the caves from which the plain takes its name.
These are assumed to be a row of natural cavities at the foot of an outcrop found at the northernmost limit of the plain, near the Cumbrecita access road. They now lie on the far side of a busy quarry, but were formerly inhabited by the island’s pre-hispanic people, whose archaeological remains have been found there. Nowadays, they no longer seem to belong to the adjacent plain at all, having been cut off from the rest of the area by developments in recent times. It requires some effort to mentally reassemble what might have been the original picture...
To be honest, you won’t find many mentions of Llano de Las Cuevas in guidebooks and brochures. It’s the kind of place most visitors drive past on their way to somewhere else, which is a pity.
For anyone with an eye for detail and an inquisitive mindset, the Llano de Las Cuevas plain makes a fascinating stop. Local history, agriculture, flora and fauna are just some of its many facets, and there are even information panels in English to help you interpret them.
Enjoy your visit!