Dragons, Dogs and Cave Dwellers

Jack Montgomery, 08 August, 2016
The natural world on La Palma in the Canary Islands offers plenty of surprises, including an alien-looking tree...

I've seen many drago trees in the Canary Islands but none as surreal as the mini forest of dragos lining the path leading to the petroglyphs at Buracas on La Palma.

Not even my first sighting of Tenerife's grand old Millennium Drago evoked as much of an open-mouthed reaction. The gangly, yet elegant silver trunks topped by punkish, spiky crowns were like alien intruders in the subtropical landscape.

The route wasn't a particularly long one but it was rich in both scenery and interesting curios.

Staying in a dream of a rural cottage in nearby Puntagorda we'd been able to eat a leisurely breakfast of croissants in a café, where locals washed away nocturnal cobwebs with adrenaline-strength coffee, and still get to the few parking spaces at tiny Las Tricias in Garafia before any were taken.

From the moment we set off from the plaza beside the church, to cross narrow agricultural terraces before joining a cobbled path which wound alongside a yawning ravine, we had a feeling it was going to be an exceptional route.

Where you have cobbled paths (caminos reales) you tend to have communities that have been around for centuries. Sure enough, the first section of the route took us past ramshackle stone cottages with soot-blackened, terracotta-tiled roofs and some surprisingly refined colonial houses. For many the cobbled path was the only access. This area of La Palma was virtually cut off from other parts until the first 'proper' road connecting it with the rest of the island was built in the 1960s.

At one house, a small black and white dog scampered onto the path to eye us with interest. He obviously decided we were suitable companions for an adventure as, after a few moments, his tail wagged furiously and he sprinted to catch up before overtaking us to rush off into wild flowers and cochineal-covered prickly pear cacti, every so often pausing from his scuffling to make sure we were still following.

His adventure was a short one. At the next junction we parted company. He trotted back up the hill and we descended to meet our first drago tree, an ancient specimen with a jagged canopy atop a hundred weary branches. In some places there would be excursions to see such a tree. On La Palma we had it all to ourselves.

At the next meeting of paths we took a short detour to a gofio museum, easily spotted as it was marked by a windmill on a hill. La Palma's windmills aren't like those on Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, their unique appearance is down to a local carpenter who came up with the design to harness the wind to grind toasted cereals and grains in order to make the Canarian staple, gofio. It's in a bit of an out of the way place and not ideal for passing trade, but that's in keeping with the unusual ingredients which feature on this route.

While the slopes above the windmill were dotted with cottages, pines and terraces, the land below was more unruly, the path lined by palms and drago tree after drago tree, some with lone cottages beside their bases, enjoying protective shade. Where there were houses there were also mini stalls; one with plants for sale, others had jewellery and books. All were unattended, their owners putting their faith in the trustworthiness of strangers who passed their way.

It was a magical section, the highlight being the marvellous mini forest of dragos. There was a feeling of seeing something special when standing beside such wonderfully strange-looking plants, especially knowing their legendary roots. The story goes the trees sprouted from the blood of the dragon Ladon, slain by Hercules in the Garden of Hesperides.

Beyond the mythical dragos lay Finca Aloe, an eco café with a shaded terrace overlooking a deep ravine and the sea. It was a hot day and a glass of natural fruit juice would have been perfect at that point. But the café didn't open till midday. I guess they didn't expect much passing trade before that time. I'm not sure they'd get much passing trade after it either.

From Finca Aloe, the path descended towards Buracas. Originally home to an aboriginal community, the series of caves provided temporary shelter from the sun. It was a cooling spot to lunch on baguettes filled with Ibérico ham whilst contemplating the path travelled as well as spiral petroglyphs carved into the rock face; a legacy left by the people who once inhabited this Eden of a location.

The road might have linked Garafia with the rest of La Palma in the 1960s, but amidst Buracas' caves and drago trees there still existed an alluring sense of complete detachment from the outside world.
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