Las Canarias: Santa Cruz de la Palma
Our first stop in the Spanish Canary Islands was Santa Cruz de la Palma, and the island was a real surprise. One of eight islands in the Canary chain, it was one of three we would be visiting this trip on the Regent Explorer. I did not expect the incredibly dramatic rocky landscape, deep gorges, huge caves, lush vegetation, terraced farming or massive banana farming. My photos do not come close to capturing the beauty here.
We began the day with a walk around the charming capital city and checked out the Castillo de Santa Catalina, the only surviving of 9 forts established in the 1500s to protect the island from pirates. These islands were very important ports, and ships from the New World stopped here before proceeding to the European mainland, these islands were very attractive plunder for pirates of the era. The town had walls and was locked up at 9 every night, a practice that continued well into the 20th century.
The town is very nice, with lots of shops and cute cafes. Brightly colored buildings are interspersed with historic sites, such as the first school and churches. They are famous in the northern Canary Islands for their wooden balconies with the unique feature of having a closed-end built to house a bathroom that would drain directly into the sea. Modern balconies are everywhere, and many are filled with plants and brilliantly colored flowers.
Today the island is clean and the entire island is a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve with much-protected land. I did not see trash anywhere. It’s also a hiker’s paradise, drawing people from throughout the world to its extensive well-maintained trail system. The Spanish government even insures the hikers if they have any medical needs while hiking.
This is a volcanic island, half more than a million+ years old and flat, and half a younger 500,000 years old with a half-blown off crater and a top height of about 7,500’. There is an active volcano on the island. Santa Cruz de la Palma has the steepest incline in the world relative to the size of its base. There are no beaches as we know them, the black rock just drops dramatically down, resulting in very deep water immediately adjacent to shore, and the currents are fierce. We saw Charco Azul, an area of “natural” pools created giving locals their only opportunity to swim. Surprisingly, there is no fishing economy here and seafood is not even a primary food.
Narrow winding roads with lots of curves, switchbacks, and narrow bridges led us to the north portion of the island and the Los Tilos Biosphere. It was a beautiful gut-wrenching ride. At one point I just couldn’t sit by the window any longer (could be why I don’t have such great pics). As the day progressed, clouds rolled in and we were shrouded in misty light rain. The scene was equally beautiful in the clouds. The old-growth forest features pine and four types of Laurel trees including the largest variety with wood that emits a sewer-like odor. Non-native chestnut trees are invading some of the primeval forest territories.
Sugarcane is also grown here, although in a more limited quality than past decades, and we visited a local rum factory to learn about their artisanal, small-batch heritage techniques and taste a few samples.
A big surprise for us was learning the island is also one of the world’s most significant locations for astrophysical research and home to a large number of government-sponsored observatories. In 2012 it was designated a Starlight Tourist Destination and considered one of the best places in the world to view the night sky. You can visit the observatories after a short hike during the day when the telescopes are not in use, and I think that would be fascinating to see. The city is known as El Cielo de las Estrellas (the sky of stars) and now I understand why.
Trivia Fact for the Day: The Canary Islands were named for a type of dog – not a bird.