Hiking and Star Gazing in La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain
La Palma is the most North Westerly of the Canaries and is distinctive because it’s been relatively untouched by mass tourism. There are only a handful of resorts, the beaches are black and, because of its position in the Atlantic, it attracts more cloud and rain than the others.
However that also makes it the greenest, with lush vegetation in the north and thick pine forests in the mountainous centre. In fact the whole island was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2002 and is honeycombed with a network of hiking trails. The most challenging is the famous Ruta de los Volcanes, a hike along the spine of the volcanic ridge sitting in the centre of the island.
Santa Cruz de La Palma
The capital sits at sea level and it was a major halt on the way to and from Central and South America from the 16th century onwards. At one point it was the third most important port in the Spanish empire just behind Seville and Antwerp. These days it’s just the ferry to Tenerife and a couple of large cruise ships who moor here, but the historic old town is still remarkably intact.
It doesn’t take long to explore as it’s not much more than a couple of long streets running parallel to the sea, on different levels, Still, they’re lined with renaissance churches, vintage shop fronts and imposing 18th century mansions. Everything revolves round the Plaza de Espana which has the town hall on one side and the fortress-like 16th century El Salvador church opposite. Inside, the ornate canary pine ceiling is a fine example of Mudéjar or Islamic style architecture.
La Palma is an island on the move, with volcanic activity adding land in the south, most recently in 1971. Strong seismic activity was detected in 2017 prompting speculation that another eruption is due. There’s an informative visitor centre here which details the geology and also has footage of the last eruption. There’s also a seismograph constantly monitoring volcanic activity, and today it looks like it’s safe to go outside.
I start by walking round the crater of the San Antonio volcano, formed by a year long eruption in 1677. The edge of the cone is narrow and there are stunning views into the crater, and across to the town of Fuencaliente.
I carry on across the black barren volcanic landscape, aiming for the southernmost point of the island. On my way is the Teneguia volcano, which erupted in 1971 and I can’t resist climbing to the top. There’s a distinctive smell of sulphur and its lower slopes are populated by vines.
I carry on downhill along what is the last section of the Ruta de los Volcanes, a longer trail which starts on the heights in the middle of the island. At the end are a couple of lighthouses and a collection of salt pans, still used for harvesting flor de sal.
Pico de Bejenado
Next morning the mountains are free of cloud so I drive upwards through a complex of hairpins and tunnels to the centre of the island and the Taburiente National Park. I’m planning to climb the 1854m Pico de Bejenado and manage to cheat a little by driving up to 1100m on a primitive dirt road. The path leads through lush Canary pines before reaching a saddle with views down into the Caldera de Taburiente. This was once a volcanic mountain, before it collapsed into itself creating an impressive 8 km wide crater.
The only way is up, so I continue climbing to the summit. From here I can see the rocky lumps of Roque de Los Muchachos, the highest point in the island at 2426m. Because conditions are perfect for star gazing, they’ve sited an observatory complex near the summit, and populated it with some of the world’s largest telescopes. A few days later, I drive up there and the domes of the telescopes, standing clear of the cloud below, are like something from a sci-fi movie.
I move from Santa Cruz to the town of Los Llanos, in the west of the island, and a good base to further explore the Taburiente National Park. Home to thick Canary pine forests, riven by deep ravines, and impressive rock formations, it’s been protected since 1954. The best way to explore is on foot although the hiking trails are pretty demanding. A classic circular hike starts just outside Los Llanos and follows the Barranco de las Angustias, the “Ravine of Anguish”, a deep gash with a fast flowing river at its base.
At the car park, I take a taxi up to Los Brecitos and avoid a long hard slog uphill. From here, the path is pleasant underfoot and winds through pine forests and patches of laurisilva, a green way linked by wooden bridges. I cross the river to reach the National Park’s only campsite before descending on the other side of the ravine. If there’s rain, this route is impassable, but today there’s little water and I follow the river bed back to my car.
GR131 from Refugio de Pilar to Volcan de la Deseada
The toughest long distance route in the Canaries is the GR131. It starts at sea level in the north, climbs up to Roque de Los Muchachos, before descending to the lighthouses in the south. I’ve already done the last part but feel I should hike the rest of the Ruta de los Volcanes.
I join the GR131 at Refugio de Pilar and climb up through pines with glimpses of Montana Quemada which erupted in 1480. The trees give way to a stony ash path, following the ridge of extinct volcanoes, with views of solidified black lava flows to the side. Along the way I tick off Pico Birigoyo, Montaña la Barquita, Montaña de los Charcos and Hoyo Negro.
The mist is swirling and there are sudden strong gusts of wind and it’s tricky to keep upright. I manage to reach the summit of Volcan de la Deseada, the highest point of the route at almost 2000m, but my guide decides it’s dangerous to continue. We drop down and take a forestry path back to the start point, just as the rain starts. One day I’ll return and do the lot.
Although there are day tours of the Observatory at Roque de Los Muchachos, visitors are only allowed during the day for obvious reasons. You can still see the sky at night, either on your own or on a guided viewing. I join Ad Astra, just after sunset, at the Llano del Jable astronomical viewpoint, situated at 1341m, where the guide has already set up her telescope.
Down below I’d been engulfed in mist, but up here all is clear and rather cold, the lights of Los Llanos clearly visible below. As we peer at the immense array of stars, the guide points out constellations, including Orion’s Belt, Cassiopeia and the Great Bear. We take turns peering through her telescope, seeing fuzzy images of binary stars, the Andromeda Nebula and the Pleiades, all invisible to the naked eye. Even if you’re not remotely interested in astronomy, just staring at the heaven when it’s as clear as this, makes it a night to remember.