Often referred to as the 'steepest island in the world', La Palma is the most volcanically active of the Canary Islands. Relatively little-known, it offers 2000m peaks, subtropical forests and a warm climate. It is perhaps best known for the Caldera de Taburiente - the largest erosion crater in the world - but less well known is that La Palma offers some fantastic volcanic ridge walking. James Roddie reveals all...
"Rock!" I'd lost count of how many times I'd called that to Nicole - another pile of debris on the road greeting us as we turned the car round a hairpin corner. Initially the rocks on the tarmac had only been every kilometre or so, now it was every 20 metres. Between the altitude, the endless steep zig-zags on the road and the low visibility in the cloud, this was no place to burst a tire. Further on things decline dramatically and we are shut down by a recent landslide blocking the road. We don't waste time turning around. The loose cliffs hanging above the tarmac remind me of crossing beneath an Alpine face which is softening in the sun.
Above the clouds on the Roque de los Muchachos
The highest point on La Palma, the Roque de los Muchachos, can almost be reached by this road. Although in the past I would have considered this 'cheating', we intend to try and get above the clouds on a day when the rest of the island is choked with murk and drizzle. It isn't looking promising - the cloud still dense at 2,200m and a thin layer of rime covering rocks exposed to the wind. We start the short ascent up to the summit, passing twisted juniper bushes and spotting birds we don't recognise hopping between branches. I keep glancing into the sky to look for any breaks in the cloud but it doesn't seem to be shifting. The summit doesn't take long to reach and almost immediately we are joined by a pair of curious ravens who's company we enjoy for the next hour, and in our fascination with these noble birds we don't notice that the cloud is moving.
Glimpses of blue appear through the fog above, and ghostly shapes start to emerge in the distance. In a matter of seconds a large 'hole' appears in the cloud, and all of a sudden we are looking down into the Caldera de Taburiente. We begin walking around the western rim of the caldera, elated at what we can see happening below. The cloud top is lowering by the minute and towering mountain walls appear in a wide arc below us, revealing a view as impressive as anything I've seen on mainland Europe. Stands of trees perched on ledges below make brief appearances through the fog, hinting at the thick pine forest that fills the bowl of the caldera. For a short moment we spot a river and waterfalls far below, flowing through lush clearings surrounded by trees. I spend that evening thinking of little else but getting inside the caldera and exploring it from within.
The Laurisilva cloud forests
Laurisilva - ancient relics of the subtropical cloud forest that once covered most of the Canaries.
The dog looks like it means business. It looks thin and unkept but its body language is unmistakable, and it has halted our steep approach up through tired-looking houses and dusty cactus fields. We give it a wide berth and nervously rejoin the track some distance beyond, the sound of the dog's barking joined by that of breaking glass. It is a relief to enter the forest. The abruptness of the change is startling - everything drips or oozes moisture and the air is tangibly thick and humid. We follow a narrow path climbing steadily up between meandering tree roots and swathes of hanging vines, occasionally following wrong turns which end in impassable tangles of green. It isn't long before we enter the semi-permanent cloud which rarely lifts off the canopy. Rays of sunshine occasionally find a way through and cast sunbeams amongst the tree trunks, but only last moments before the mist wins again. We stop frequently as the humidity is beginning to feel suffocating, and our energy levels seem to have plummitted in the space of a few short minutes. I find myself wishing I was back in the mountain air above the Caldera. The ascent keeps coming for some distance, and a hole in the cloud briefly treats us to a view across the deep 'baranco' above which we are traversing.
I'm more relieved than I let on when the route starts to descend. I seem to be producing an unlimited supply of sweat and no amount of water is quenching my thirst. However fatique is quickly forgotten as we enter an achingly beautiful river gorge - a steep descent through lush ferns and thick vines hanging from above. At times we are high above the stream and the illusion is that of being in the canopy itself, laurel pigeons taking flight at eye level and breaking the quiet. The gorge can't seem to last long enough, each turn in the trail seducing me further. But we exit the jungle as abruptly as we entered it, and make our return through the dust and near-dereliction below.
The Cumbre Vieja
A ridge of volcanic summits on the south of the island. Made famous by a (much-scrutinised) year 2000 documentary which claimed that in the future, the western side of the ridge would collapse into the ocean, causing a 'mega-tsunami' which would devastate much of the west coast of Africa and the US Eastern seaboard.
Everything here is black, grey or brown, or so it feels after the lush greens of the cloud-forest. It is a bizarre place of craters, moon-scape slopes and dried lava flows. This time we feel the altitude in the temperature and the wind is bitter, and even the very steep ascent to the summit of Pico Nambroque doesn't warm us up. The cloud is down and a heavy dew rapidly forms on our clothing and hair. "If you close your eyes, it feels just like Scotland", I joke to Nicole. Through the fog we catch glimpses of twisted dead trees, and almost all of those still alive show signs of having been burnt. The summit ridge of Pico Birigoyo proves memorable - formed by the rim of a volcanic crater and everything is crumbling and unstable. Later we ascend the Volcan Teneguia, the scene of La Palma's most recent erruption in 1971. The lava flows are impressive and allegedly you can still feel the heat of the erruption in some cracks in the rocks. But we don't linger, the wind so strong that it is difficult to keep moving.
Inside the Caldera
The air couldn't be more still. Looking into the vast arena ahead I'm bristling with excitment, remembering that extraordinary glimpse into the base of the caldera from the Roque de Muchachos. A narrow track from Los Brecitos leads downhill, the start of a 1080m descent into the base of the Caldera. Nicole gives me an excited smile as we gaze across the arena of 2000m mountain walls and pristine pine forest, and we are silent as we start the descent through dense trees. A dreamy blue haze hangs over the centre of the basin, and distant stands of trees above are rim-lit from behind by the sun which is starting to break over Pico Bejanado. In places the path breaks into clearings to reveal wide views over the canopy. Far below a series of large pinnacles and knife-edge ridges protrude above the trees - a mountain range in miniature in the base of the Caldera. The descent is steady and we make rapid progress. A deep carpet of long pine needles covers the ground everywhere - an attractive but deceptively slippery surface to move over, and the most exposed sections of path are exhilirating.
After several hundred metres of descent the sound of the river starts to make itself known. The path abruptly flattens out and we emerge out of the forest onto the open river banks, disturbing a flock of canaries on the edge of the water. Such a huge, flat, open area seems at odds with its relentlessly steep surroundings. From here the walls of the caldera can be seen in a huge arc around us and the sense of space is immense. We spend an hour sat by the river, enjoying the kind of peace specific to being amongst mountains in the sunshine. I can't help but think of the Coruisk basin on Skye - another place where it can seem like the wider world doesn't exist. After the river the character of the descent changes, and an 'Expert's Only' sign signals a far rockier and steeper track as we start to pass beneath the unlikely pinnacles we'd looked down on from above. Our limbs are starting to get a dull ache after several days on an island where almost everything is steep. After the mineral-stained waters of the Cascade de Colores the ground prickles with the sound of La Palma lizards. Some dart away at impossible speeds while others just bask in the sun, unaware or unbothered by our presence. With the most of the route behind us we continuously look back at where we've come from, still struggling to take in the scale of the place in which we're in. A long, winding river-bed is our route out of the caldera, and we happily take our time.
About James Roddie
James Roddie is a photographer and writer specialising in the wild places and wildlife of the Scottish Highlands. He is an active climber, caver and hillwalker who currently runs the Glencoe Mountaineer facebook page and blog along with his brother (and fellow UKH regular) Alex. For more of James' images and writing see his website www.jamesroddie.com