“It’s the road with all the tunnels on it” I tell my partner as we set off on lovely La Palma around ten in the morning.
We are heading north up the LP-1 out of Santa Cruz in search of a forest we’ve seen on a map. After taking a left at ‘Lomada’ the road begins to narrow and the terrain changes slightly. We’re skirting a damp, dry stone wall with ferns peeping over of it.
“We could almost be in Yorkshire” I say to my partner and for a split second visualise an imaginary flock of Swaledale sheep. This is the only way in and out of the Los Tilos Forest Range, the road eventually terminates with several car parks that serve various walking routes and attractions.
It’s said that La Palma is the wildest, most natural island on the Canaries. There’s beauty on the other islands as well – the desert vistas of Fuerteventura and the jagged, lunar landscapes of Lanzarote for example – but La Palma takes the prize for not giving a damn, for being genuinely unspoilt. It also has some of the friendliest people and as we drive in to the little car park we discover an information centre. There’s some interesting displays and a charming girl who suggests we head down to look at the waterfall.
A few minutes later we’re crossing a little bridge and walking through rocky passages where conduits take water down to the town. When we emerge we’re at the bottom of the cascade which again reminds me of the Dales back home. Think Hardraw Force, except in a forest on the side of a volcano and you won’t be far wrong. At the foot of the falls a rusty handrail gives way to a narrow ledge. I navigate the uppermost section, balancing above the crashing water. All who visit the Los Tilos falls get a feel of its mist and spray, but up close it feels like rain and is a spectacular sight.
We retreat, heading back to the information centre, emboldened by the water. Again we chat to the girl and she directs us to the map boards where the different walks are laid out. We decide to begin with a flight of steps, conveniently right in front of us but just as we’re about to go up we’re met by a group coming down. They’re clearly English, two couples from somewhere in the Midlands perhaps.
“What was it like?” I ask, “is it worth the walk?”
“Definitely worth it” replies one of the girls, “takes about 45 minutes and steep in places but yes, give it a go”
“You’ve got all the proper gear on though” I banter back, looking at all their folding sticks and bags.
“Yes” says the girl “but you don’t need all this stuff!”
We pause, I’m in shorts, training shoes and carrying some extra pounds and my partner’s wearing light trousers and a pair of adjustable sandals that she’s just bought in the Los Cancajos ‘Spar’.
With risers on timber supports and treads filled with wood chips, the stairs feel good at first but soon we’re snaking back and forth on wilder terrain which starts to get steep. After a while we stop to rest amongst the ferns, pine cones and moss. What we’re actually climbing up through, as we continue on, is a layered forest of Canary Island Pine. This is a tree unlike any other. Only Tenerife, Gran Canaria and La Palma have large forests in the Canaries, and big trees are a rarity due to over-cutting. The needles are exceptionally long and spindly. Where other pine and fir trees prick upwards, the Canary Island Pine has branches that droop; heavy, twisted and ancient-looking. Trees shed their needles which carpet the floor, turning brown in the heat with a mild, woody scent.
We continue to climb. There’s branches all around and the landings now become longer walkways. Twenty minutes later, my trainers have turned a clayey colour and my partner’s lagging behind. She catches up and we make the final push. The trees on the outward side have mist loitering in their branches. We realise this ‘mist’ is actually cloud brushing the hillside and along a flat walkway, more stairs up to the walk’s summit. When we emerge we’re on a large square ‘mirador’ that looks out in several directions. There’s a view down on to deep, dark greens punctuated by small puffs of white cloud and far below, trapped on the valley floor, the roof of the information centre and a row of cars like tiny Matchbox toys.
The ‘Los Tilos’ walk is well worth the effort. It’s quite a slog and ankles and knees take another pounding on the way down but I’d recommend it to anyone with a sense of wonder. Back at the bottom we stop for coffee at a second building between the information centre and waterfall. You could easily miss this building as it can’t be seen from the road. There is a sign, which reads ‘Bar-Restraurant Casa Demetrio’ which looks like it was carved on a cigar box in Soviet Russia but this delightful little place was just what we needed. The main building houses a restaurant, not serving food when we were there in October, but with clean facilities and a TV playing in one corner. At the end is an open serving hatch offering excellent coffee and we sit outside with a view down on to yet more trees. Little birds visit our table and smoke from a galvanised chimney wafts up in to the pines. Once again we’ve found an idyllic, other-worldly spot. A hire-car or bus gives access and there are other walks, the Ruta Circular, for example, which doesn’t seem as steep, or you could just do the coffee bar and waterfall if you don’t fancy the climbs.
That night back at base we we decide to take the weight off. You know how it is – you’re in a hotel that’s not all it’s cracked up to be and you’re made aware that there’s ‘evening entertainment’ taking place in the basement bar. I mean, the food was OK and we did eat some nice fish on La Palma but hotels in the Canaries, as with mainland Spain, can be hit-and-miss to say the least. Tonight though we’d had a nice meal and we saw a poster for the ‘Tuhoco Agrupacion Folclorica’, a traditional Canarian folk troupe booked to perform in the basement bar.
Ever the sceptic, I headed down to meet my partner just as the first song was beginning. As I took my seat I knew immediately that this was the real deal. From their professionalism and organisational scale I presumed the group were from Tenerife, the largest, most-developed island in the Canaries. “I expect they flew in this morning on one of those little Binter planes” I whispered to my partner, but no, this group are a local delicacy and one of several on La Palma.
Once again we were treated to a feeling of being back in time via a magical experience which oozed authenticity. The mandolins strummed fast, Formby-esque in places whilst the singers warbled proudly. With musicians and voices in total harmony, occasionally male and female singers sang solo, in conversations about love and loss. Whilst the style was definitely Spanish it also blended other European folk forms. One could have been in Italy, Greece or, looking at the women’s hats, Wales even. It really was unlike anything else – fast, jaunty tunes with vocals that could be soft and distant one minute and chanting in loud unison the next. There were songs about work, the sea and eking out a living when life on the islands was harder than it is today. ‘Tuhoco’ isn’t just a singing group though – there were also dancers who whirled and skipped whilst exchanging partners. We were aghast at the intricacy of some of the sequences. The women passing under the men’s arms in ducking, sweeping motions and in the next dance, their shoulders held high and square accentuated by dolly steps and mime-like actions that represented work being done. The traditional costumes and hats were also an amazing sight and, if you get the chance, do look out for the ‘Tuhoco’ singers and dancers.
This little island – the lovely La Palma – is full of surprises and it’s nickname, ‘La Isla Bonita’ (the beautiful island) doesn’t really do it justice. Whilst it is a beautiful place, it’s also more than that…….it’s friendly and traditional and it offers the unexpected. There’s a waterfall, forest walks, mist and smoke, magic, folk-lore and if mood takes you, you can quite literally walk in the clouds!