La Palma: hiking, diving and stargazing in the Canaries

by Annie.Bennett

With volcanoes, mountains, forests and waterfalls, La Palma is a paradise for nature lovers in the Canary Islands

It may be small, but La Palma is perfectly formed, with a range of landscapes, beautiful beaches and all sorts of activities on offer. Deservedly otherwise known as La Isla Bonita (the pretty island) or La Perla Verde (the green pearl), it is a UNESCO-designated World Biosphere Reserve.

Hiking

The island has more than 1,000km of well-signposted walking routes which, until relatively recently, were the only means of getting around. Local paths are marked with green stripes, trails that take up to six hours are marked in yellow, and the longest ones, which usually require more than a day to complete, are marked in red.

The Volcano Route

One of the most popular trails, this is a 30km hike which takes around eight hours and guides you through a lunar landscape. You need to be well-equipped, reasonably fit and preferably not walking alone, as there are no villages along most of the route. The trail goes around the rim of the Cumbre Vieja crater, then leads down the middle of the island to its southern tip, passing a string of volcanoes and lava fields along the way. You can also cycle along the route if you prefer.

You end up at the Faro de Fuencaliente lighthouse, where most people strip down to their swimsuits and run straight into the sea for a refreshing dip. Here on the coast the black volcanic sand is dotted with white peaks, which are actually piles of salt. The lighthouse is now the Marine Reserve Information Centre, with interactive exhibits about the seabed around the island.

Diving

After visiting the centre, you’ll probably feel like getting underwater yourself. With the sea temperature ranging from 20 degrees in winter to 25 degrees in summer, and with visibility to depths of 50 metres, you can dive off La Palma all year round.

At Punta Larga, in Fuencaliente and within the Isla de la Palma Marine Reserve, you can expect to see parrot fish, red mullet, bream, bass and the Canarian lobster. At Torre de Malpique, also in the south, the black seabed suddenly drops 25 metres, giving a view of an astounding basalt column. As you swim a bit further, you come upon the astonishing sight of 40 crosses in the sand, which is a memorial to a group of Jesuit missionaries who were killed by pirates here.

Stargazing

Perhaps the most impressive sight is the Caldera de Taburiente National Park in the heart of the island, a vast horseshoe-shaped crater which contains dense woods of Canarian pine, streams flanked by willow trees and waterfalls that crash down the steep hillsides.

The clear skies above La Palma provide ideal conditions for astronomers, who come from all over the world to undertake research at the observatory located on the northern edge of the crater at El Roque de los Muchachos, at a height of 2,400 metres. The lack of industry on the island means there is no pollution, a key factor when monitoring the galaxy. The observatory is one of the most important in the world and can only be visited in organised group tours (and even these are restricted), but you can drive into the complex and have a look at the telescopes – and of course gaze up to the sky. Check the observatory’s website (www.iac.es) for details of visits. For a truly amazing experience, look out for the very occasional nocturnal tours.

Where to eat

In Fuencaliente, El Patio del Vino (Los Canarios, Carretera General; 922 444623) is alongside the Teneguía Cooperative, where the excellent local wines are made. There are daily specials with great fish, grilled meats and stews, and of course an interesting wine list. Expect to pay around €30 for three courses with wine.

El Secadero, in Los Llanos de Ariadne (Las Manchas 90; 922 494028) serves Canarian dishes such as spare ribs with corn on the cob and potatoes with mojo sauce, flavoured with coriander.

Where to stay

The Parador de La Palma is situated in Breña Baja, just outside Santa Cruz, the capital of La Palma and is near the airport. Built in traditional Canarian style, it overlooks the sea and is surrounded by gardens. Rates start at only €60 for a double room, which is a real bargain for a hotel of this standard.

The Hotasa Taburiente Playa is also in Breña Baja, right by Cancajos beach. Most of the rooms have sea views, and there are two large pools as well as a children’s pool. Double rooms with breakfast start at around €85, with good deals on half and full board too.

The Sol La Palma Hotel is a comfortable four-star hotel right by the beach at Puerto Naos near Los Llanos de Ariadne in the west of the island. There are more than 300 rooms in the large complex, which has two pools and a wide range of facilities and activities for all the family. Apartments are also available. Double rooms start at around €80, including breakfast.

 

Annie.Bennett

I specialise in writing about Spain for national papers and magazines, including the Telegraph, Guardian, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Conde Nast Traveller, Elle and National Geographic. This gives me a great excuse to mooch around the country, talking to everyone from Michelin-starred chefs to old codgers in mountain villages.

I have been living in Madrid on and off for the last 25 years, since I went there to improve my Spanish after finishing my modern languages degree. Soon I was teaching English, translating for art magazines and galleries and researching for television programmes. That was only meant to last a year or two, but I had made so many great friends, quite a few of whom were instrumental in the cultural explosion underway at the time, that it would have been daft to leave. Almost without noticing, I started writing about what was happening in Madrid.

I am passionate about Spanish food and wine, and love trying the local specialities wherever I go. In Madrid, I eat out nearly every day in a quest to track down the best restaurants and tapas bars. My UK base is on the Gower coast in South Wales.

My Madrid

Where I always grab a coffee: Pepe Botella in Malasaña (Calle San Andrés 12), with its marble tables and red velvet banquettes, is the perfect place to read El País with a café con leche.

My favourite stroll: I love walking through Los Austrias, the medieval part of the city, for the combination of history, tradition and contemporary life. I always see something I’d never noticed before.

Fiction for inspiration: Benito Pérez Galdós was a sort of Spanish version of Dickens or Balzac. A lot of his novels are based in Madrid - including Fortunata and Jacinta, Miau and Misericordia – and many of the locations still exist, relatively unscathed.

Where to be seen: Le Cabrera for cool cocktails after shopping in the chic Las Salesas area (Calle Barbara de Braganza 2, www.lecabrera.com).

The most breathtaking view: You can see right across the city trom the roof of the Círculo de Bellas Artes (Calle Alcalá 42, www.círculobellasartes.es).

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Madrid is incredibly noisy, but the Retiro Park is perfect for picnics, quiet reading at outdoor cafés, rowing on the lake or just strolling around.

Shopaholics beware!: The outlet shoe shops on Calle Augusto Figueroa in Chueca are difficult to resist.

City soundtrack: Fito & Fitipaldis seem to be blasting out in every bar. 

Don’t leave without...Having a vermut at the Mercado de San Miguel before lunch. It’s the best way to get a handle on what the city is all about (Plaza de San Miguel, www.mercadodesanmiguel.es).