The most westerly of all the Canary Islands, La Palma is known as La Isla Bonita (‘the beautiful island’). Why this paradise has been so slow to come onto the radar of many remains a mystery, but because it has, its beauty is all the more intact. There are many wonderful aspects to La Palma waiting to be discovered, some of which may surprise you...
1) IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO SUM UP BRIEFLY
Trying to think of a way to describe La Palma’s seductive landscape to someone who has never been, is a frustrating exercise in seemingly contradictory statements.
I want to describe the spectacular Caldera de Taburiente where waterfalls gush down sheer rock walls to a river on the vast crater floor. Then I want to talk about the science fiction observatory domes and monolithic high point of Roque de Los Muchachos where you stand with the clouds at your feet. But I can’t leave out the flower-bedecked balconies of the Casas de Los Balcones in Santa Cruz de La Palma that provide the ultimate iconic image of the island for thousands of camera lenses and travel articles.
Come to think of it, I’d be doing the island a huge disservice if I failed to talk about the blackened lunar landscape of the south, where many of the feet which now find their way around its perfect crater rims and down its dusty spine to the lighthouse at Fuencaliente, are older than the earth upon which they tread. So instead, I think I’ll just wax lyrical about the rainforest of Los Tilos with its giant ferns, trailing lianas and dense canopy where it feels like you could be the first person in centuries to venture into the heart of this unspoiled utopia.
2) IT HAS A 'SECRET' CAPITAL
Most picturesque town in the Canary Islands, the cobbled streets of Santa Cruz de La Palma are a joy to explore, their 16th-century Renaissance façades concealing trendy boutiques and souvenir shops, and harbouring a landlocked, full-sized replica of the Santa Maria, one of the fleet in which Columbus sailed on his historic voyage. Dotted within the streets are picture-postcard-pretty plazas with pavement cafés, while along the seafront you’ll find those flower-bedecked balconied houses.
But on the other side of the island lies Los Llanos de Aridane, a bigger, more sophisticated and cosmopolitan town set alongside the avocado and banana plantations of the Aridane plains with its own picturesque historic quarter, quality restaurants and bars, and an outdoor gallery of artwork and sculptures. This is La Palma’s ‘secret’ capital, the one the Palmeros keep for themselves and many visitors to the island never see.
3) YOU COULD BE IN SOUTH AMERICA
Of all the Canary Islands, La Palma is the one that feels most South American. Every Canary Island has strong connections to Latin America born of a relationship forged over centuries. When times became hard in the Canaries, it wasn’t to Europe that hungry eyes turned, but rather to the New World, leaving their homes in droves to try to carve out a new life in the Spanish colonies. For the Palmeros, it was Cuba and Venezuela that became second homes to generations.
Today, more than any other island, La Palma retains its Latin American roots, evidenced in its fiestas such as Los Indianos which celebrates the return of wealthy emigrants to their native island; in its cigar and rum industries set up with know-how gained from working in the colonies; in the Havana-esque architecture of the streets of Santa Cruz; and in its love of Latino music and arepas Venezuelan filled corn cakes).
4) IT'S PROBABLY THE STEEPEST ISLAND ON EARTH
I use the term ‘probably’ because there may be some islands which are little more than floating rocks that may be steeper, but most people agree that the measure to use is height to land mass ratio on any island of more than 10 sq km, and by that calculation, measuring just 708 sq km (273 sq miles) in land mass, and reaching a height of 2,426 metres (7,947ft), La Palma wins.
Driving up to Roque de Los Muchachos or down from the viewpoint of El Time to the plains of Aridane, you’re only too aware of just how steep the island is. Luckily, in walking terms many of the best routes on the island traverse lateral paths so, although there are inevitably some ascents and descents, there’s also plenty of time on the flat for enjoying the sort of epic views you only get with an island this steep.
5) ONE DAY IT COULD DESTROY THE EASTERN SEABOARD OF AMERICA
It was during a Panorama special back in 2000 that Dr Simon Day first lit the blue touch paper of his explosive scientific paper in which he concluded that one flank of La Palma’s Cumbre Vieja was unstable and that if it were to collapse, it would create a tsunami so powerful it would destroy the eastern seaboard of the Unites States.
A lot of panic and clarification has flowed under the bridge in the ensuing 15 years but the fact remains that the Cumbre Vieja is unstable, that it could collapse and that if it did, it would take out the eastern US. It’s just a question of when. Reassuringly, Dr Day thinks it’s unlikely to happen within the current century, so no need to panic just yet.