Exploring La Palma

Hiking & running in one of the lesser known Canary Islands (December 2018)

Visiting “la Isla Verde”

Our 14th year away at Christmas, since John left us in 2005. We’ve always gone away. I look forward to it, so this time split my time by discovering a new island: La Palma. I’d read a blog by ultra runner Lonan O’Farrell, when he did a famous trail race this year, Transvulcania, and that sparked my interest to explore. So I read up a bit more and was hooked (The Telegraph, Hello Canary Islands, Senderos de la Palma).

All didn’t start well with a runway closure in Dublin causing me to miss my connecting flight, so an unscheduled overnight in Gran Canaria. It’s amazing how great technology is now: I could change my flight and book a room – all from my phone within 15 minutes while sitting on the runway.

The next morning, I’d an early start for a short hop with BinterCanarias to La Palma. It’s a really volcanic island, so the runway is tight. It’s so green – lush forests of pine and laurel, way denser than the other islands. My Airbnb was lovely – close to the centre and overlooking the port.

View from Museo del Platano – banana plantations

Run #1: Santa Cruz to Tazacorte / Los Llanos

28 kilometres, 1900 meters

Today was about dipping my toes in the mountains, to orient myself and check my gear, hydration and transport options (€2 for the bus home). It worked out well, crossing the spine of the island from East to West. A steep climb over 10 kilometres to reach 1,400 meters in the centre. The views are spectacular: lush vegetation, total silence and stunning views of deep gorges, valleys and the rising clouds.

1,400m up after 10km of climbing. Teide in the distance

I could see Teide in Tenerife in the distance and La Gomera to the South. A long descent towards Tazacorte on the coast awaited. Passing through banana plantations everywhere. Lunch on the terrace, overlooking the “Museo del Platano”, which was interesting to explore after. The banana is a key export here.

The moon – check out the seas and plateaus. Shot take on camera phone, through telescope.

Star Gazing

That night I went star gazing. La Palma is famous for astronomy, as it has clear skies, no light pollution and high peaks. The largest optical telescope in the world is there. The astrology tour was excellent. It was cold driving up to Las Ventas observation point, at 1,100 meters. It was less than 5 degrees Celsius, so hats, gloves and jacket were obligatory. Our guide Carmen explains so much (all in Español), so I have to concentrate, but it’s great practice for my Spanish.

The basics of stargazing: how to orient yourself, by finding “la Estrella Polar” (the North Star), which is at 28 degrees above the horizon in La Palma (it would be 53 degrees in Ireland, so higher in the sky, given our latitude). Next the 3 basic questions to ask yourself every time you stargaze: ¿donde? ¿cuando? ¿como? (where? when? how?). We saw a lot of constellations and planets with the naked eye – Orion, Great Bear, Gemini, Mars, the moon and the Andromeda Galaxy. It was fascinating – definitely something I’d like to do again.

A Volcanic Smile

Run #2: Ruta de los Volcanes

31 kilometres, 2200 meters

The most famous route and it didn’t disappoint. Steep climbs through mountain roads leaving Santa Cruz. Passing houses and streets up to 1,450 meters over 14km, at Refugio del Pilar. Still another hour of climbing to reach 1,950 meters. A well-earned lunch stop and then onto the Ruta de los Volcanes (Volcano Route) for the next 15km.

The landscape became so dry. What a panorama – looking down on Santa Cruz, the valleys and across the sea the peak of Teide. There was little vegetation in the volcanic dark soil. The odd pine or plant. No people, just a few hikers. It’s so hard to get there, with no roads near it, so it’s not spoilt.

Underfoot, the loose soil was like sand, so tough to descend on. I was getting tired, yet the small up and down route continued. A huge crater to my left was stunning – a great photo, I think. “A Volcanic Smile” I’ll call it.

It’s amazing to think how all these volcanoes erupted to form this small island out of the deep Atlantic Ocean. Lunch in Fuencaliente was welcome. A cold beer always hits the spot. You drink a lot of water in the heat – I ran short today. You need at least 500ml per hour, so 2 litres for 4hrs today. I munched on fruit, nuts and a cereal bar today. Dinner in “La Placeta” was yummy – pimientos al piquillo and conejo (rabbit).

Descending through the laurel & pine forests

Run #3: Nacientes de Marcos y Cerdero

24 kilometres, 1700 meters

My legs are in pain: quads, calves, soleus. All this descending takes a toll. I’m also getting slower, but who cares as it’s not a race. Today turned out to be tough. I thought it would be easier, when planning on the map.

To start, a very steep climb of 1,000 meters in 5 kilometres, so over 20% gradient, meant walking pace at 100% effort. It took me over an hour. Things flattened out at Casa del Molino – the only hydroelectric plant in Canaries. A lovely aqueduct guided us along a narrow trail through a deep gorge, to the source (“nacimiento”) of 2 streams.

We passed through 12 tunnels, I need the torch on my phone to see the way through. Hard hats for all the tour groups who had driven up. A warning sign advises this route was for “experts only.” The descent was just as tough – very steep, but beautiful going through one of the largest laurel tree forests in Europe. Today was so silent. No traffic, no sounds except birds, flowing water, the crunch of branches underfoot and a light breeze on your face.

I ended up at the sea for lunch, after 1,500 meters to descending. A lovely fish lunch (head and all), with patatas arrugadas (wrinkly potatoes) and mojo verde (green sauce). Then a dip in el Charco Azul (blue pool), these lovely sea water rock baths, with crashing waves from a fierce Atlantic just below. A lovely spot, and oh so quiet.

Back to Santa Cruz for dinner. Some nice tapas: tomates con anchoa y albondigas. Café Melchor was really nice. Tired now, well-watered and fed. Tomorrow an easier day – run on the flat, swim on the beach, good coffee, get a haircut, do a cultural walkabout, have lunch and then over to Gran Canaria for family time.

El Charco Azul

Exploring Santa Cruz

A day of “relax” – time to explore the little city of Santa Cruz. Founded in 1493, its history is tied to Transatlantic exploration. There are some lovely old streets, famous balconies and the beach with black sand. A famous replica ship from the 15th century houses the “Museo Naval,” which was really interesting. It explains how La Palma was a centre for Columbus crossing the Atlantic and how the Canaries were vital to that trade. Emigration to Venezuela and Cuba was also strong. Imported products like sugar cane, tobacco, coffee and bananas.

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