Considering the talcum powder-fest that is the annual Fiesta de los Indianos had taken place yesterday, the streets of Santa Cruz are looking positively pristine.
The occasional splodge of white, a lonesome reminder of the white-suited throngs of La Palma revellers hurling talcum powder over each other while dancing and drinking to samba rhythms.
This highlight of La Palma’s carnival season is somewhat out of character for an island that, for most of the year anyway, revels in less decadent goings-on. After all with the local nickname of “la isla bonita” (the pretty island) and as UNESCO’s first official Starlight Reserve, it has perhaps a more professional reputation to uphold.
La Palma maybe the third smallest of the Canaries’ seven main islands, but this pocket rocket packs more into its tiny body than any of its bigger neighbours. It is as diverse as it is compact; the soaring peaks and valleys of the lush rainforest in the north to the arid 18-kilometre moonscape of the ‘route of the volcanoes’ in the south.
Perched atop 2,500 metres of mountain, on the ‘balcony of the stars’, lies the Roque de Los Muchachos observatory; a state of the art facility housing the world’s biggest optical telescope. It is, quite literally, nothing short of heavenly.
But there is more.
The Caldera de Taburiente is the largest erosion crater in the world. Its 8-kilometre span and 2,000 metre high walls are filled with pine forest, coloured waterfalls of red, yellow and orange and a myriad of walking trails.
Then there is the food and drink. Thanks to La Palma’s former émigrés who sailed off to the Caribbean in search of fortune, found it and returned armed with the secrets for producing quality cigars and rum, there is more than a touch of Cuba about the place. Rum and cigars are plentiful as are the banana plantations that abound particularly along the steep terraces along the west coast.
Talking of steep terracing, there’s a boom in the fruit of the vine despite the challenges of harvesting vines on steep slopes. Palmeran winegrowers have recently forged admiring glances from European vintners on the quality of their Negramoll and Listan Blanco grapes resulting in some very exceptional wines.
And let’s not forget the new wave of talented chefs who, fortified with a bounty of fresh produce, take us on extraordinary culinary journeys.
So join me as I lift the lid on La Palma and delve a little deeper into what makes la isla bonita so special.
Santa Cruz de la Palma
La Palma’s capital, just a short drive from the airport, will be your first surprise. Cradled on three sides by towering hills there are echoes here of a mini Funchal. Once one of the most important ports in the Spanish empire, it has an air of sophistication about it to this day. The old town is a warren of steep twisty cobbled streets lined with remarkable pastel-coloured Renaissance architecture and ornate wooden balconies offering a glimpse of wealthy merchants’ houses from days gone by. Cafe Tey,
just behind Avenida Maritime, the sweeping kilometre-long seafront promenade, is a fine example and at the same time well worth a pit stop. This 18th century former home of a well to do physician is now a coffee and teahouse, but the interior is original; it’s like having tea in a time capsule. For a real slice of local life, La Recova is a covered traders market teeming with fresh local produce. It is the lifeblood of the city and a glimpse perhaps as to why the island’s gastronomy is so diverse.
Taking a stroll along the pedestrian Calle O’Daly that runs parallel to Avenida Maritime I pass floral balconies that could tell a few tales if only they could talk. This is the main shopping street of Santa Cruz and eventually, I find my way into Plaza de España. Sitting under a shady palm I take in the 16th-century Town Hall on one side and the equally ancient Church of El Salvador on the other.
Another glorious find is the quaint Hotel San Telmo tucked away on Calle San Telmo. This boutique B&B with just 8 rooms is in a 350-year-old beautifully renovated house and has a lovely roof terrace with a view of the ocean and there’s a bubbling fountain courtyard full of birdsong. The owners are welcoming and friendly and offer just the right amount of discreet service.
Right next door is the Cinnamon Gastro Bar run by award-winning chef Serafín Romero one of La Palma’s food wizards. Talking of food wizardry, Restaurant Enriclai is a one-off. It is tiny, just four or five tables squeezed into the front room of an ancient house. Owner Carmen, something of a legend in Santa Cruz, welcomes me like a long lost family member. She sits me down with a glass of something, sits next to me and takes me through that day’s choices before disappearing behind a glass partition to sprinkle some culinary magic dust. Obviously, you’ll need to book but trust me; it will be well worth it.
Fuencaliente and the Volcano Route
A 45-minute drive south finds me in Fuencaliente at the climax to the 18 kilometre Volcano trail named the GR131. For hikers who are not hardcore, this will let you enjoy the last few kilometres of some intensely dramatic scenery and still get to explore two volcanoes. Starting at the Volcano Visitors Centre (worth taking in the exhibition for a few minutes) I walk over to the nearby San Antonio crater and take in the views. Then head for the Teneguia crater, a two-hour trail walk across stunning lava fields.
Pausing for a second, I take a detour to climb up the short path around Teneguia’s crater and then back on the path to continue on down to the black sandy beach at Salinas Fuencaliente. Here, extraordinary salt pans stretch out in sections like a giant Battenberg cake, the white salt a stark contrast to the black basalt. I enjoy a well-deserved lunch out on the terrace at Restaurant Jardine de la Sal amid the sound of the Atlantic surf crashing on the nearby rocks.
The Los Tilos Rainforest
This UNESCO biosphere reserve in the north of the island is a jungle of peace and tranquillity broken only by birdsong and the sound of waterfalls. The upper reaches of the Los Tilos forest have a network of water channels that remind me of Madeira’s levadas. There are many hiking routes to enjoy, some hard, some easy, but if you want just a taster take the 2k trail for an hour up to the first viewpoint and let it all sink in. I find a tree stump and sit munching a tasty sandwich.
Just a few kilometres away from Los Tilos is the mountain town of San Andres Y Sauces which is worth stopping for a coffee and a wander. I take a short drive down to Charco Azul and dip my toes in the natural rock pools. Just near here is the rum distillery of Distillerias Aldea which offers a tour and a small museum about the cultivation of sugar cane and making rum. Remarkably they still use a still that’s over 100 years old.
The west coast and Los Llanos de Aridane
La Palma’s second city is celebrating its carnival and I arrive just in time for the last late afternoon parade. It is a riot of colourful costumes and samba drums that celebrate the island’s South American/Caribbean connections. Los Llanos is the gateway to the rugged west coast; a breathtakingly scenic road that hugs the towering cliffs facing the Atlantic. It’s also one of the entry points to the Caldera de Taburiente National Park and the foothills of that enormous erosion crater.
But my main focus for coming here is to visit the Restaurant El Duende del Fuego, the home of Chef Pedro Castillo, a pioneer in cooking for customers with allergies and intolerances using organic natural ingredients. Fat-free and gluten-free sausages, Indian fig risotto with red cactus juice, three- day cooked beef with herb confit-baked Canarian potatoes. All delicious and nutritious and a million miles away from traditional Spanish cuisine.
Stargazing and the Observatory Roque de Los Muchachos
A fitting finale for any story about La Palma has to be its importance as a world centre for star gazing. There are strict rules regarding light usage on the island to ensure the night skies are not diluted in any way. Of course, one of the pitfalls is the weather and star gazing tours can be cancelled if the cloud cover is too thick, but you are always offered an alternative day if this happens.
There are daily tours to the astronomical observatory (the ORM), some 2,500 metres up Roque de Los Muchachos, a hair-raising drive of twists and turns. There are no shops or vending machines up there so take provisions, hats and plenty of sun cream. It’s also not suitable for anyone with breathing problems or health issues due to the thin air. Another word of caution, it can get very windy and again, some tours are cancelled as a result. That said, this is a unique opportunity to visit one of the world’s biggest telescopes.
Somehow, La Palma has managed to avoid the tourist crowds and up to now has only succumbed to those in the know. I suspect though that if the crowds revelling at Fiesta de los Indianos are anything to go by, it’s just a matter of time.
Tell me more about La Palma
Full details of the sights and tours around La Palma can be found at the La Palma Tourist Ministry
EasyJet operates direct flights from London Gatwick to La Palma twice a week from London on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Restaurant Cinnamon, Calle San Telmo 2, (Plaza de Santa Domingo) 38700 Santa Crus de La Palma
E: firstname.lastname@example.org T: 922 410 224
Hotel San Telmo Calle San Telmo 5
38700 Santa Cruz de La Palma, Islas Canarias – España
T: (0034) 922 415385 E:email@example.com
Restaurant Enriclai Calle Doctor Santos Abreu 2, Santa Cruz de La Palma
T: 680 203 290
Restaurant El Duende del Fuego CalleTeniente.Gral, Glez del Yarro 11, Los Llanos de Aridane, La Palma. T:(+34) 922 401 002 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Getting to London Gatwick
Taking you straight from Gatwick Airport to the heart of London, Gatwick Express’ high-frequency, non-stop shuttle service to London Victoria has real-time passenger information systems, air-conditioned carriages, power sockets and is Wi-Fi enabled, catering to the modern airport traveller.
Currently taking care of 18 million journeys every year, passengers can see improvements at Gatwick Airport rail station too, including an enhanced station concourse, station signage, a new Gatwick Express Lounge and the introduction of Oyster and Contactless payments on the route.
By booking online, you can save the hassle of queuing and save 10% on journeys.