Legends of La Palma Andy Montgomery | Posted: 10 August 2016
You may see locals performing saltos de pastor as you go walking on La Palma
Andy Montgomery

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Andy Montgomery

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Look out for this painting of San Borondon during your walking holiday on La Palma

When a sub-tropical island lies in the Atlantic, far from any mainland, its surface area drenched in dense foliage and its mountain tops shrouded in mist, legends take root as quickly as seeds falling on fertile ground.

Almost invariably, legends contain an element of divine intervention as a precautionary tale but much of their substance can find credence in the customs and practices that continue to thrive in the islands today.

Long before the words ‘pole’ and ‘vaulting’ were uttered in close proximity to one another, the shepherds and goatherds of the Canary Islands were using long poles to negotiate their way across the abyssal ravines, or barrancos, that characterise the islands. Embedding one end of the pole into the ground, they launched themselves over and down barrancos  with gravity-defying ease. Known as the salto de pastor  (shepherd’s leap) the method is still used by some today, including one skilled hiker who we saw last week on the steep descent from Pico de Bejenado, his rapid progress leaving us open-mouthed and in no small measure, envious of his skill.

In the fertile north east of La Palma where the yawning Barranco de la Galga splits open the earth and fills it with ancient laurel trees beneath whose dense canopy vegetation grows to out-sized beauty, a section of the vertical cliff is known as Salto de Enamorado, or Lover’s Leap. Legend tells of a young shepherd who ceaselessly declared his unrequited love for a girl. Tired of his incessant attention, the girl challenged the love-sick youth to prove his adoration by thrice swinging out from the cliff in a semi-circular, salto de pastor  leap. Taking up the challenge, the boy swung out from the cliff. The first time he launched himself, he cried the name of Jesus. The second time, he cried out to the Virgin Mary. Both times he completed his leap and landed safely. But the third time, he cried out the name of his love, and fell to his death.

Did he die because he took the name of the Lord in vain as the legend asserts, or did he simply push his luck?

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In the pretty hamlet of San Andrés, a grisly legend lies hidden behind the brilliant white walls of its picturesque church.

Water-rich San Andrés was once a wealthy and important centre of population where many nobility lived, including Maria Liberata de Guisla who was privileged, opinionated, arrogant, intolerant...and hated by the community. Maria died in 1806, aged 84 years old, and was interred in the family vaults of the San Andrés church. The day after her burial, the priest thought he heard banging coming from beneath the floor of the church but said nothing.

Eight years later, in 1814, the vault was opened to receive the body of Don Ambrosio Arturo de Paz and human remains were found on the stairs, a brick beneath the skeletal fingers of one hand. Maria Liberata de Guisla’s coffin was empty.

As it’s practice in Spain for a body to be buried within 24-48 hours of death, was Maria accidentally buried alive and no-one chose to hear her?

One of the Spanish newspapers refers to Venezuela as ‘the eighth Canary Island’, so close are its ties after generations of immigration and emigration. But according to legend, there’s a real eighth island: San Borondon.

‘Discovered’ by Portuguese sailors in 1525, San Borondon lies in the Atlantic Ocean beyond La Palma – 220 nautical miles nor’-nor’ west of it according to its founders. During the 16th century the island became well known, particularly to pirates who used its strong currents that prevented ships from approaching shore, and its propensity to cloaking itself, as the perfect hideaway. The island received its most detailed reference at the end of the 16th century on a map drawn up by the Italian military engineer, Giovanni Torriani, who confidently describes the island as being 264 miles north to south, 93 miles east to west, carpeted in tall trees that reach right down to its shoreline, and almost carved in half by two major rivers. It sounds fabulous. It would take another century of failed attempts by successive captains to find its elusive shores before San Borondon was finally removed from maps.

But to those of us who look out over the Atlantic almost daily, San Borondon is more than just legend. Last week, huffing and puffing our way from the southern tip of the island to the perfect volcanic rim of San Antonio, we stopped to recover our breath and to admire the silhouettes of neighbouring islands floating on the horizon, we identified Tenerife, La Gomera, El Hierro...and a mysterious eighth island in the furthest distance, its profile very different from any we’ve ever visited...

[*Since this article was published, a 'real' eighth Canary Island has been officially recognised – tiny La Graciosa, lying just off the northernmost tip of Lanzarote.]

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