La Palma: beauty and tranquillity in the Canary Islands

by Harry B

A quiet, relaxed lifestyle in a pleasant climate, on a small island with stunning scenery and friendly people. If this sounds appealing, La Palma might be just the place for you

Unlike its larger Canarian cousins, La Palma makes few concessions to tourists. But if you appreciate good hospitality, wholesome food and glorious countryside, with a choice of easy walks or serious hiking, think about a trip to this isla bonita.

La Palma measures just 50km north to south and 25km east to west, at its widest. It’s green and fertile, with a distinctive topography of ridges and mountains that rise steeply from the coast. The north is dominated by the huge crater of the Caldera de Taburiente, while the southern half is divided by the Cumbre Vieja, a volcanic ridge running from the Caldera to the island’s southernmost point.

Although there is a good bus service, the best way to explore the island in a limited time is by car. The road system is good and main roads are generally well maintained. However, with the exception of the dual carriageway from the airport to Santa Cruz, the nature of the terrain inevitably involves twisting roads and hairpin bends.

The capital

Santa Cruz de La Palma is a mixture of ancient and modern; a commercial port and a charming old town. The southern half of the pedestrianised main street, Calle O'Daly, has excellent examples of Spanish colonial buildings dating back through five centuries. Where the street becomes Calle Anselmo Perez de Brito, there’s a pleasant small square called Placeta de Borrero. For refreshment here, try La Placeta Bar Restaurante (Placeta de Borrero 1; tel 922 415273; Mon-Sat 1300-2300; or Habana Café (Calle Anselmo Perez de Brito 27; tel 922 412726; Mon-Sat 0900-2300). Or for a truly authentic experience of La Palma cuisine, look for the accurately described ‘smallest restaurant on the island’: Restaurante Enriclai (Calle Doctor Santos Abreu 2; tel 680 203290; Tues-Sat 1300-1530/1900-2230). It has just four tables; with no menu and a host who speaks only Spanish, ordering is a challenge - but well worth the effort.

Go west

From Santa Cruz, road LP3 splits into two one-way tunnels through the mountain. Los Llanos de Aridane, La Palma’s second largest town, is a 45-minute drive from the capital. In Plaza de Espana, the central square, it’s easy to spend a pleasant hour, enjoying an alfresco drink or meal in the shade of giant laurel trees, while observing the gentle pace of local life.

The road westwards plunges down into the Angustias ravine and a left turn leads to Puerto de Tazacorte, where there is a good choice of restaurants serving excellent fresh seafood. Try Restaurante Casa del Mar, on the first floor of a square building overlooking the beach (Pintor Pepe Torres, 38779 Tazacorte; tel 922 480184). The menu de la casa was €10.75 for starter of fish soup, followed by pargo and piquento (local fish) with papas arrugadas (wrinkled potatoes) and a mixed salad. With two glasses of wine, the total bill for two was just over €25.

For a rewarding diversion before heading back to the capital, take road LP1, which clings to the sheer north cliff face, at times cutting through vertical rock walls, as it climbs to Mirador el Time. Pause here to look back and admire the stunning view over the ravine. Beyond Puntagorda, look for a left turn to the hamlet of Las Tricias, and then go left again into a narrow lane, descending hundreds of feet into a verdant valley where distinctive dragon trees grow. Park where the road ends and walk about 400 metres down a rocky path to Café Finca Aloe, a tiny eco-café where you can sit outside and enjoy delicious freshly made snacks. Drinks on offer include the house speciality, a mixed fruit ‘smoothie’ with aloe vera. More conventional food is to be found in Puntagorda, where the restaurant Parrillada Pino de la Virgen (Pino la Virgen 6, 38789 Puntagorda; tel 922 493228) serves typical Canaries cuisine.

Caldera de Taburiente

The southern rim of this spectacular crater is reached by road LP3 from Santa Cruz (see above). The visitor centre for the National Park lies just to the west of the tunnel exit. From here, a road accessible by permit leads to a small car park at La Cumbrecita. On a clear day you need to arrive soon after the centre’s opening time of 9.00 am to avoid having to go on the waiting list for a permit. The access road is a glorious drive through pinewoods. From La Cumbrecita, there are walks of varying degrees of difficulty. An easy path leads to Mirador Lomo de Las Chozas, affording superb views across to the peaks of the crater's northern rim. You can return by a delightful narrow path, clinging to the side of the crater on its way through the pines back to La Cumbrecita. Allow about 1½ hours for this stroll, including generous stops for photo opportunities. There are numerous longer trails in the National Park, which has a camp site at its heart, accessible only on foot; buy a permit from the visitor centre.

The road route to the northern rim of the Caldera is by road LP4, a left turn off LP1 a few kilometres north of Santa Cruz. Allow about an hour, with obligatory photo stops, to the Mirador de Los Andenes, where a short path takes you to the edge of the crater. A little further on is a road which climbs to Roque de Los Muchachos, the highest peak, through an amazing landscape dotted with an international collection of astronomical telescopes.

Head south to the volcanoes

South from Santa Cruz, road LP2 follows the coastal plain for 20 kilometres or so, while LP206 follows a parallel route below the Cumbre Vieja, in reality a single volcanic site running down the southern spine of the island. The scenery changes to an almost lunar landscape on reaching the region of most recent volcanic activity. From the small town of Fuencaliente, a turn off the main road leads to Volcan San Antonio. An entry fee of €3.50 gives access to the path that runs along the rim of the impressive crater. The walk to the furthest accessible point and back takes about 20 minutes. A short distance to the south is Volcan Teneguia, the most recent volcano to erupt, in 1971. To eat around here, you will find it hard to better the traditional Palmeran fare at La Casa del Volcan, close to Volcan San Antonio (Calle Los Volcanes 23, 38740 Fuencaliente; tel 922 444427; Three courses with a glass of red wine came to a shade under €20 per head.

Where to stay

For self-catering accommodation close to the airport and capital, an ideal choice is Apartments Miranda (Carretera General El Zumacal, 83; 38710 Breña Alta). Eight studio apartments offer simple but spacious accommodation for 2 or 3 people from around €35 per day. There is an outdoor 14-metre pool on site.

Just up the road is one of the reliable Spanish state-run Paradores hotels: Parador de La Palma (Carretera del Zumacal, 38720 Breña Baja). Room rates are from €145 per night, with discounted rates for young persons (20-35 years), seniors (55 or over) and stays of 5 or more nights.