“The thing about Gomera,” said our guide, Javier Chirivella Costa, “is that it’s like having an entire continent on a very small island.”
And it’s true. That morning we had been at our hotel on the coast, with the rocky shoreline, blazing sun and black sand the Canary Islands are famous for. But here in the Garajonay National Park, on a flank of the island’s central volcano, we were in a different world, with cold mist swirling around trees towering 30 meters above us.
We plunged down an old mule track and were soon enveloped by the laurisilva, which literally means “laurel forest” but is a broad term that includes myrtle, viburnum, picconia excelsa and the occasional sweet chestnut. Strangest of all to my eyes were trees of giant heather, erica arborea, which for those used to the moorland variety appear bizarrely out of scale, made even more dreamlike by long bearded strands of Spanish moss hanging down from their branches.
This is one of the best preserved laurisilvas in the world and has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1986. The path through it is well waymarked and you could happily follow it alone but Javier, with whom our small group of walkers would take a series of day hikes during this December week, gave us valuable historical and botanical context. He showed us the sanguino tree that is used to make musical instruments – and more mundanely, a type of viburnum the locals used for toilet paper in the past, an issue, Javier added sternly, “that often gets overlooked by delicate western sensibilities, but was crucial for indigenous communities ”.
We passed a flock of endemic chaffinches – a charm of finches, as they are called generically – before following a stream banked by sparkling emerald green ferns and sweet smelling calamint to reach the La Vista restaurant for lunch. At this homespun walkers’ establishment, we had berry pot (watercress soup), a specialty of the island, together with smoked goats cheese and the powerful almogrote, a rich paste made from cheese ripened for over nine months. Almogrote is a hangover from times when every leftover needed to be used; its strong taste is interesting, although perhaps not suited for a first date.
A few days into the trip, we found ourselves descending the dry slopes of the volcanic badlands above the Valle Gran Rey, one of the dramatic canyons that descend towards the sea from the central volcano. Gomera is split by these canyons, to the extent that when the Spanish first arrived in the early 15th century, they found four separate kingdoms on the small island – the most important, Javier told us, being the one belonging to the Gran Rey, “ great king ”.
I was amused to discover that the taxi drivers still seem to keep the demarcation zones of the old kingdoms – it can be tricky to organize pick-ups from one side of the island to the other (another reason why having the logistical services of Javier worked well, as we almost always needed waiting transport at the end of a walk).
Our descent to the sea saw us losing 1,000 meters’ altitude, and we switchbacked down a basalt ridge, fine views to either side. With perfect timing, we arrived at the beach just before sunset and could strip off and rush into the ocean, before a cold German beer in a bar. The Valle Gran Rey has a large population of German expat residents and visitors (even Angela Merkel has holidayed on the island). The beach resorts there also still have a faintly hippy vibe from the 60s when they were off-grid destinations for many young Europeans looking for sun and low rents.
Our base for the week was Gomera’s main city, the port of San Sebastián, from where Columbus once sailed to reach the Americas, after a much celebrated dalliance with its aristocratic female chatelaine Beatriz de Bobadilla that held up his departure by a month. Not many old buildings survive from their time – although some claim to – and the Parador de La Gomera, our hotel high up on the cliff, is a 20th-century imitation of what a fine historic building might have been. Still, its terrific location looking out over the sea more than makes up for any pastiche, along with the palms and dragon trees in its tropical gardens.
The Canary Islands suffered in that while the trade winds made them the perfect place from which to depart to the Americas – as Columbus proved – the returning winds took the later treasure galleons further north, more directly to Spain. Little of the wealth of the New World returned to the islands and they remained resolutely poor.
As a result, in the centuries that followed, many of the islanders emigrated to follow Columbus. Uruguay, for example, had a large influx from the Canary Islands along its coast, as did both Venezuela and Cuba. But those island exiles who did return by circumspect routes from the New World bought products and skills that were enormously beneficial.
When we descended into the Benchijigua crater below Gomera’s most iconic landmark, the jagged Roque de Agando, I was surprised to see prickly pear cactuses and agaves, making the landscape look more Mexican than African. The gray-green agaves, with their sudden eruption of the stalk before they die, are the more dramatic plant, used as barrier fences for livestock, but it was the smaller prickly pear that proved particularly important as an import, or rather the cochineal beetles that live on them. They provided the red dye that had already brought so much wealth to Mexico and Peru. It proved to be a godsend for the Canaries that, unlike Europe, they had a suitable climate in which the beetles could thrive; as also did the papaya that now graces the hotels’ breakfast buffets.
I found it moving to think of this interplay between the New World and the old. As we walked that day, I was strongly reminded of South American landscapes I have traveled through. Startled partridges flew out of the long pampas grass out at our approach; a kestrel displayed a flash of gold as it dived down past the palm trees; huge euphorbia bushes with their organ pipe trunks, which can reach a size of 300 square meters as even goats will not eat them, littered the slopes.
When we stopped by the little chapel at the crater’s center, we could hear a chorus of wild canaries singing. The native birds are less colorful than those bred specially for captivity but still have a smart yellow waistcoat under the gray morning suit of their wings, and the most captivating of songs. They are easiest to spot near streams.
The towering Roque de Agando dominated the crater and our walk. It’s perhaps no surprise that archaeologists have found prehistoric offerings from the original Guanche inhabitants of the island on its precipitous summit. It’s a mountain that it would be very easy to worship.
Following the path on to Imada reminded me that 25 years ago, when I first came to Gomera, we had taken a precipitous canyon route from there with our two-year-old daughter on my shoulders and my wife pregnant with our first son. Back then, we just had handwritten notes for the route given to us by a fellow guest in our hotel, as there were no walking guidebooks in English – and what greeted us was a dramatically precipitous walk that prompted the odd “is that really the path ? ”
The routes have now been waymarked and there are many excellent guidebooks and maps. But this is still walking as an operatic experience, whether heading up the cliffs at Agulo to reach the glass-walled and glass-bottomed mirador that now hangs over the void or reaching the Alto de Garajonay, the island’s highest point at 1,485 meters above sea level, from where you can see the surrounding islands of El Hierro, Tenerife and La Palma. Standing there, it’s hard not to think of La Gomera as the connoisseur’s Canary Island, comparatively undeveloped (Tenerife across the water has 40 times the population), but with a staggering diversity of landscape within its small compass.
Hugh Thomson is the author of ‘Cochineal Red: Travels through Ancient Peru’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Hugh Thomson was a guest of Headwater. Its seven-night guided walking tour costs from £ 1,779, including accommodation at the Parador de La Gomera in San Sebastián, with departures continuing until April. La Gomera has no international airport; most visitors arrive by ferry from Tenerife. For more on the island see lagomera.travel
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