Walking in La Gomera

There are two stock replies when you tell people you’ve been to La Gomera. “Where?” And, “Isn’t it amazing?” Which pretty much sums up this tiny volcanic outcrop a ferry ride from Tenerife.

Words & Pictures: Tiffany Daneff

La Gomera is one of those hidden gems that walkers, bird watchers and botanists adore while the gritty black sand beaches and vertiginous mountains put off pretty much everyone else.

Having never been to the Canaries I had no idea what to expect. To be honest I thought it was going to be coast to coast beer sodden Brits but my father in law was so determined we would love it he offered to take us out there earlier this year. This was February and after the dark misery of shivery mornings and saucepan lid skies it was hard to believe that only a short plane flight could bring us to sun that not just warmed your back but actually turned shoulders pink.

The island is shaped like a lumpy round potato. It’s not big at 369 square kilometres but because it is so mountainous it does take a while driving from one town to another as you are forever hair pin bending. Thanks to its volcanic origins there are some pretty dramatic ranges and crags, the most famous of which Roque de Aqando you can see here. This is actually the remains of a volcanic plug.

The ranges radiate like horny fingers down from the 1450m high centre of the island to the coast creating plunging gorges – barrancos.

The climb to Benchijigua

You have to get on your walking boots to find the real treasures here. The island is criss-crossed with stone paths. These were laid down by hand – it hurts just thinking how many manhours that must have taken – and were used by locals long before roads were built. You still encounter herds of goats playing follow my leader as they process in single file along terrifyingly narrow paths.

If you are going to walk take water and a bite of food as the weather turns on a pin, as does the temperature. And cafes are few and far between though when you do hit upon one, chances are that you’re in for a treat – more specifically a fishy treat. The fish here is fresh and delicious and the islanders are keen on potatoes – though the thrill of ordering them done in the local way (baked, with a salted skin) soon falls by the wayside as their fries are much more delicious. While I’m on the food make sure you order some prawns in garlic. (The coffee is spot on too.)

Enough of food. The real treat here is the geography and botany, especially if you come early enough to catch their spring.

There are five different climate zones on the island and on one two hour walk up to the abandoned hamlet of Benchijigua we walked past lush grass, chickweed, thistles and other familiar wildflowers and grasses which gave way to aloes, banana palms, oranges, poinsettia, euphorbia, cacti and sempervivum. And that’s far from all. As we reached the top we came across banana palms growing at the same height at the Canarian pines.

Really wild flowers

The most magical discovery I made was finding this little bulb Romuleya grandiscapa syn. Romulea columnae ssp. grandiscapa, syn. Romulea hartungii which looked so exotic and delicate nestled close to the ground in areas of rough grass and even by road sides.

On the same walk I found Canary lavender, Lavandula canariensis, Canary pines and Canary date palms.

Café terraces are filled with thriving aloes and poinsettia trees and it is well worth checking out the gardens in larger hotels as these tend to be planted with all sorts of exotica from birds of paradise to man size agave attenuata. We spotted Coccoloba uvifera, Caesalpinia gilliesii and Roystonea regia just while playing crazy golf.

In the rainforest

Weather forecasting is made a whole lot easier here by the fact that the centre of the island is so high that it is often in cloud and more often than not in mist and/ or rain. If you want sun, stay in the south. It rains much more in the north.

It can be hot and sunny in the south of the island, tempting enough to be swimming in the sea (which is warm enough to swim for 10 mins in late February). Half an hour’s drive inland though and it’s anorak time.

Thanks to this mild wet climate the centre of the island, the national park of Garajonay, is rainforest. Indeed almost a quarter of the island is covered in forest, much of it thick with laurel, wax myrtle (Myrica faya) and tree heather (Erica arborea).

The change of landscape is as breathtaking as the drop in temperature. The laurels are cloaked with moss and lichens while hawksbeard can grow to 12 feet high.

On the road

We found this large clump of Aloe arborescens just beside the road. It gleamed in the misty afternoon. Not long after we ran so low on petrol we had to abandon the sightseeing in favour of an hour’s nail biting detour in search of a petrol station, of which there are not that many.

We stopped for human refueling at a small Spar which concealed a foodie heaven behind the usual frontage. Why can’t British Spar’s have the home produced equivalent of these heaps of chorizos, the best melt in the mouth morcilla (black pudding) and such a variety of smoked hams? Instead its all Bogof cheesy Quavers and poisonous blue energy drinks.

Cesar's view

On the road down to Valle Gran Rey, a largish town on the west coast popular with 21st century hippies of the drawstring cheesecloth baggies and ipad clutching persuasion, is the Mirador del Palmarejo.

This look out point cum café was designed in 1989 by the Lanzarote born architect and artist Cesar Manrique, he of the famous Lanzarote Jardin de cactus. I love his buildings and landscaping but draw the line at his sculptural forms, which are just wrong.

Manrique certainly picked his spot. The café was shut on the day we visited but we walked past the gravel lawns dotted with his favourite roundels of Echinocactus grisonii and reptilian Euphorbia candelabrum to a stone terrace with dropdead views of the valley.

The road winds down through the steep sided gorge faster than Richard Hamilton in a Ferrari through green terraces of palm trees and hamlets of orange tiled whitewashed houses until it reaches the sea front. A great spot for a swim and a bite of lunch.

Beetlejuice

Contrary to what many people believe cochineal (those little grey woodlousey looking creatures on the prickly pear cactus in the photograph) are not beetles. They are a type of scale insect, though a good deal bigger than those that cling, limpet-like, to rose stems. These ones were about the size of my little finger nail.

Cochineal, of course, is used as a dye, most commonly for turning cake icing red and there are still plenty of bakers who haven’t a clue that they are colouring their cupcakes with squished bugs. Which is absolutely fine by me. I cannot understand the point of being squeamish about such things.

In the interests of science and to satisfy my own curiosity I had to squeeze one and, sure enough, out came the deep crimson carminic acid from which the dye, carmine, is made. It takes about 70,000 insects to produce a pound of dye it takes

An island of succulents

There are succulent everywhere. From the tiniest greenovia and monanthes (see photo) clinging to damp shaded rocks to euphorbia, tall as trees.

The agave attenuata were in flower in our hotel garden and Euphorbia milii pop up in airport lounges.

Our exploration of the island was punctuated with shouts of “stop the car” as we (or should that be ‘I’) had to get out for a closer look.

One roadside verge was filled with the jade plant as big as a small car. But up there with the best is seeing how aloes behave in the wild. They are so happy on La Gomera that you find them marching in near straight lines as they colonise the mountainous slopes.

Water courses

It rained quite heavily in the November before my February visit which no doubt added to the wonderfully lush spring growth. That said the island has a temperate climate (around 22 degreees C/70 F in winter and 27 degrees C/80 F degrees in summer) and in the rainforest are streams that flow all year.

Reservoirs are essential but these are a modern way of conserving water. The traditional way was to send water coursing through the hundreds of man made terraces via covered stone aqueducts. (Water pipes only came to the island in the 1970s.) You can still find these stone courses which were closed with metal plates or dividers allowing water to be turned off and on, and farmers were very careful to take only their allocation.