Europe | Spain | Canary Islands
April 21, 2008
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El Hierro

The forgotten Canary Island

El Golfo - El Hierro's immense crater wall spans 10 km across.
Europe’s final frontier provides a virgin destination for lovers of epic scenery and unspoilt nature...

Footsteps on Atlantis

This was going to take some serious scenic fireworks. I closed my eyes and imagined the end of the world - that last shred of land before the sailing galleons fell off the edge of the old flat earth.

A small and lonely island would make a classic start, a mere dot in the vastness of the ocean. Its furthermost promontory could be a barren plain of lava, knife-sharp and tinkling like glass, profoundly hostile to human habitation. On all sides, towering cliffs of burnished copper would drop to the ocean, streaked rust-red and pock-marked. To celebrate humanity’s resilience of spirit, a storm-lashed lighthouse should doubtless stand sentinel to the fiery final sunset. And, finally, such a mythic location would need a touch of the fantastical: a sandy beach of lurid purple, peppered by boulders of perfect jet - that should satisfy the tallest of travellers’ tales.

And there you have it – an exact description of the western shore of El Hierro, smallest and remotest of the Canaries, and of its spectacularly improbable violet beach, the Playa del Verodal, composed on site as I faced out across the empty leagues of ocean towards the distant Americas.

An island called Hero

For Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians alike, Hero – as the island was then called - was at the uttermost end of knowledge; the last and most mysterious of the otherworldly Islands of the Blessed. Beyond tiny Hero the ancient geographer Ptolemy named only the boundless Tenebrous Sea, a murky place of peril whence no return was known - or even thought possible. (It was 1700 years before the sea’s further shore was finally charted – by one Christopher Columbus, who in 1492, passed the coast of El Hierro and his last sight of land, on his first crossing of he Atlantic.) Fast forward two millennia, and El Hierro still lies way under most travellers’ radar. Even the usually encyclopaedic folk at Lonely Planet grant it only a cursory - and frankly rather dismissive – mention. (In the spirit of perversity, it was this omission that first persuaded me to visit.)

Here lies Atlantis

Having seen for myself, I can report Ptolemy definitely had it better. “Mysterious” and “otherworldly’” remain strikingly apt descriptions. As an island, El Hierro is dramatic, hard-bitten and raw. But, amazingly for such a pimple, the volcanic excrescences of its western end are eclipsed by the remains of something much more mind-boggling. Around 50,000 years ago - a mere tick of the geological clock - El Hierro’s central volcano erupted, collapsing catastrophically into the sea taking more than half the island with it. In a matter of moments over 300 cubic km of rock – more than 12 times the volume of the more famous Krakatoa - slumped beneath the waves in the world’s largest recorded landslide. Yet worse was still to come. A surge of displaced sea travelled west with the speed of a jetliner and, within hours, devastated the eastern seaboard of North America with a wall of water ten times the height of the 2004 Asian tsunami. Not surprisingly, many have since identified this cataclysm with the sinking of Atlantis.

Atlantis or not, El Hierro remains visibly rent in two. A vast semi-circle of sheer cliffs marks the scar, with car-sized boulders still occasionally rolling down the flanks to a doleful echoing rumble, accompanied by the angry hiss of scree. One of my first expeditions was the short walk to the lip of the highest section. From there I stared from one side to the other of “El Golfo”, across 10km of empty space where the missing half of the island used to be. The awesome panorama was reason enough to stop. But before my arrival I had been told that within the next few centuries the nearby island of La Palma - clearly visible as a placid whaleback across the northern horizon – was destined to suffer a similar fate. Scientists can’t yet say exactly when, but they are unwavering in their prediction that El Hierro’s sister will slough a huge chunk of its bulk into the sea, at any moment (geologically speaking). When it does, the monster tidal wave that will follow will be directed squarely at Miami and the low-lying Florida coast. (In apparent confirmation of the geologists’ theories, La Palma’s main volcano has over the last two decades begun to bulge ominously along its upper slopes.) The knowledge tinged my awe with a chill of horror and huge measure of incomprehension at the scale of the forces at play. Life is stubborn, however. Back on El Hierro, El Golfo’s crater floor has become the most prosperous and heavily-settled part of the island.

Round and about

To get a thorough overview of El Hierro, I rented a car for a full circuit. It’s fair to say the underpowered Micra’s long slow grind up to the island crest from the pick-up at the diminutive east coast airport wasn’t the most enthralling motoring I had ever encountered, but the subsequent 1500m hairpin descent down to the floor of El Golfo proved ample payback, with a spectacular succession of helicopter-shot panoramas, as well as enough quick-fire gear changes to hold the attention of even the most ardent amateur rally driver. However, if the journey down into El Golfo had been airily sporting, the absolute pick of the crop was to quickly follow. Scrutinising the map, I had guessed that the recently asphalted route linking El Golfo’s isolated final village of Sabinosa (one of the prettiest on the island) with the settlement of El Pinar might be a plum. And how. After dropping steeply from Sabinosa, the narrow road snaked through a primeval landscape of black basalt boulders and congealed tongues of jagged rust-red lava to circumvent a palisade of high volcanic cliffs and reach the island’s uninhabited western coast. Where the land temporarily began to open up, a rough jeep track ran right for 1km through total desolation to the extraordinary and empty purple sweep of Playa del Verodal. This was to be the site of my musings over a can of anchovy-stuffed olives later in the week on the boundaries of geography. For the present, though, I stuck with the through road as it forked left, climbing a staircase of extreme switchbacks to reach sunny, windswept heights of open savannah.

Taking a breather at the top, I could make out the squat stump of Orchilla lighthouse at the furthest tip of the island, squeezed between more sheer lava cliffs and a hellish blister cone of dusty ash. For centuries, this far-flung outpost had defined the zero meridian, separating the globe into eastern and western hemispheres, the New World from Old, and it was only demoted in 1883 when the British Admiralty patriotically forced a move to the now-familiar Greenwich. Continuing onwards, I followed the road as it looped back east once more for a lonely and scenic grand finale, cutting a sinuous corniche across a series of serene pine-sprinkled mountainsides. As a driver, opportunities for admiring the view were advisedly limited. This single-track route required steady nerves - I was by now convinced that the highway authority had simply asphalted a convenient donkey track – and several times I had to brake fiercely at unprotected and unannounced blind bends, overhanging some shockingly-exposed drops to the Atlantic 1,000m or more below. But at least I didn’t meet the daily bus coming the other way.

Walkers' Nirvana

A dense network of cobbled mule tracks and forest paths criss-crosses El Hierro, and outstanding as the roadside views were, I next set out to discover El Hierro on foot. Because of the range of landscapes packed into the island’s tiny area, over the rest of the week I felt I hiked a different island each day. Monday saw the exotic drama of black basalt lava deserts; while Tuesday had me trekking dry-stone walled cart tracks through lush highland pastures that could have been airlifted from the west of Ireland. Other days brought rugged coastal scenery spiked with agaves and Mexican candelabra cacti, mellow mid-level wanderings amongst pocket-handkerchief vineyards and almond orchards, and a sturdy bushwhack across expanses of sweeping spurge prairie, dotted with twisted juniper bushes already old when Columbus sailed by. But most special was my hike through El Hierro’s primeval tree-mantled upper reaches, now rightly protected as a World Biosphere Reserve.

Into the cloud forest

Easily accessed from the old road into El Golfo, the woodland was strictly stratified according to altitude, rainfall and soil. At the top, the highest parts of the El Golfo cliff wall were cloaked by a cloud-forest of uncanny tree heather, whose writhing trunks interwove to support a densely-matted canopy thick enough to put out the sky. Once I had left the roadhead, I walked in eerily silent calm through a filtered vegetal half-light, beneath locked lichen-encrusted branches. With the vegetation closing together just above my head, the trail became a burrow - secretive and sheltered from storm and sun alike.

As I made my way further down-slope, laurels and evergreen ilex started to crowd out the leggy heathers, until the forest became pure laurasilva. Before the Ice Ages this relict treescape covered the whole of the Mediterranean Basin, but today it’s confined to just a handful of mountaintops in the western Canaries and on Madeira. At this lower level, the path took on an eldritch mantle, fringed above by shaggy emerald mosses hanging beardlike from the tree limbs, and enclosed on either side by water-beaded ferns, leaning in to escape the thick and choking undergrowth. To add to the brew, a swirling mist thickened the air with a chilling dew that condenses onto every surface, feeding a rich earthy smell of well-soaked humus rising up from the ground.

Obeying invisible constraints of topography and temperature, the lower edge of the cloudmass parted suddenly, and the track lead me down into a brightly sunlit zone of well-spaced forest. Here, the dominant trees were stately Canary Pines, majestic specimens of immense height, with characteristic six-inch needles and a deeply fresh resinous perfume. The pine groves used to stretch right down to the coast, but the ramrod tree trunks were greatly favoured by Spanish sailors as ships’ masts (the Hispanic counter to England’s celebrated walls of oak) and forest cover has sadly been much reduced. The residual tracts remained a delight, with trees grouped in groves of two or three, and fallen needles lying as a russet red backcloth in vivid counterpoint to the feathery green pine-crowns. Even in early January, the forest was full of sunlight and the gentle warmth of an English May.

With such outstanding natural assets, El Hierro’s human settlements play a distant second string. Throughout its history, the island has been poor, isolated and (other than to cartographers) profoundly unimportant. Today, El Hierro’s population struggles to reach 8,000 - less than a single Tenerife beach on a busy day. Rough and ready, and often cold and cloud-bound to boot, the island capital, Valverde, at over 2000 feet up in a bleak bowl in the hills, feels much closer in spirit to a hardscrabble Latin American mountain town than to the glossy pleasure paradises elsewhere in the archipelago. Nowhere else on the island got beyond a village.

Parador de El Hierro

But despite El Hierro’s tiny size and homespun character, my lodgings were welcomingly comfortable, thanks to an excellent outpost of the state-run, 4 star Parador hotel chain. Gloriously positioned on the shoreline of a pristine, crescent bay, and set directly beneath a line of beetling cliffs, the intimate 30 room Parador de El Hierro offered near-total seclusion and fabulous uninterrupted sea views from almost all rooms - as well as from the delightful shaded oceanfront drinks terrace and open-air swimming pool. While the Parador’s restaurant serves good locally-sourced meals, for lunch on my final day I chose the Mirador de la Pena. Designed in playful style by Cesar Manrique, the restaurant is perched dramatically on the rim of the El Golfo precipice, backed by gardens of native plants. Although the string of authentic Canarian dishes that came to my table were all delicious, they only momentarily distracted me from the restaurant’s true speciality – magisterial views through floor-to-ceiling windows that reached to the neighbouring islands of La Palma and La Gomera, and even the glistening snow cone of far distant Mt. Teide on Tenerife.

Magic on the curve of the world

Only a 40 minute hop from Tenerife by prop plane, El Hierro at the very edge of Europe remains a wild and mythic place, a different universe to the sun, sea and timeshare Canaries of popular experience. Its volcanic landscapes breathe drama and a brutal otherworldly exoticism, its forests exude spiritual peace and healing tranquillity, and its people go about their daily lives undisturbed by tourism - sturdily self-reliant, cut off from the rest of the Canarian archipelago (let alone the rest of Europe). But yet it remains scarcely visited. Troubled by the island’s undeserved obscurity, at the Mirador de la Pena I had begun to rough out a few notes on a paper napkin to Mr. Wheeler and his cohorts at Lonely Planet whilst waiting for my papas arrugadas with mojo starter. But then again... Two hours and four courses later, I had pushed aside a last slice of the island’s tangy Herrano cheese and deliberately screwed up my now heavily annotated serviette. On second thoughts, perhaps I would just be greedy and keep this magical lost island to myself.

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