La Palma, Canaries – January 2020: Walking Day 1 – The Southern Volcanoes

La Palma is a walkers’ and geologists’ paradise. For my first visit to the Canary Islands I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I knew it contained volcanoes and it was billed in the HF brochure as being very green, but in reality this small island – almost the same size of the Isle of Man, is very dramatic, with old and new volcanoes littering and influencing every tiny part of it and hints of all types of natural change occurring over geological time.

Day 1 walks are generally designed to ease walkers into an unknown terrain and to get the feel of what they are capable of achieving. The other walkers all opted for the ‘harder’ route which involved a small amount of ascent contouring around the side of hills with coastal views and a descent into Los Canarios. I opted for the ‘easier’ route, which meant I would have time to explore the small town, but more importantly I would have time to have a good look at the volcano visitor centre and take a walk along the crater rim. From there, both groups would walk through the extensive lava fields and past the latest volcano to erupt down to the sea.

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The view of the volcanic ridge to the north of Los Canarios, adjoining the Cumbre Vieja ridge. Below the small town to Los Canarios viewed from the San Antonio crater.

If anything, although there are other competing highlights, this was my favourite day. I walked along the San Antonio crater rim following the tourist route, but I was also able to explore the other side of the crater and have it entirely to myself. The light was better on this side and there was a greater sense of isolation and wonder at the achievement of the natural world. This volcano erupted in 1677 and therefore few plants and trees have had a chance to colonise the interior. The circumference of the crater is about 1 km, the depth 100 metres, and it’s height is 663 metres (2175 ft), so about the height of Snaefell.

The island is host to tens of volcanoes old and young, maybe more, and according to the Express in Jan 2019 it is already overdue another major volcanic eruption on a massive scale! It also hosts a myriad of astronomical telescopes on the ridges of many of the volcanoes and there is a miniature one at the visitor centre pointing to the Polaris star, which rather amused me.

Once we were all together again it was an continuous walk steeply downhill for over 2000 ft. In some places, the lava fields were tiny grains of pica, in other areas soft ash or small loose rocks and in others we were stepping over cobbles or bigger stones. We passed the Teneguía volcano which was more rugged than the San Antonio volcano with many more boulders; little natural vegetation has had a chance to grow yet, since this volcano only erupted as recently as 1971, following a previous eruption in 1949.

To the west we were able to see how the locals are making use of the new land created by these magnificent lava flows. Although the soil is very thin its temperate climate lends itself to growing grapes and wine is becoming relatively big business. The vineyards are evident all around the south, which also happens to have the sunniest and warmest weather of the island. There are several places where you can sample their wine, even in Los Canarios.

 

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I sat here, alone with my thoughts, relishing the peace and quiet around me.

The descent from San Antonio was very steep and rocky in places, and always interesting. The next photo shows we have descended a few hundred feet and shows the San Antonio volcano standing imperiously in its environment.

We had stopped to look at some hieroglyphs on the rocks at the suitably named Roque Teneguía. This is an outcrop of rock containing phonolite which is pale and contrasts with the surrounding grey basalt gravel (called lapilli).The meaning of the symbols is unclear, and is thought to be ancient artwork; similar patterns are found on the rocks in other places too, so most likely some form of communication. They are usually positioned near a water source. Some say they resemble Celtic hieroglyphs, other says they resemble water or fertility, but in truth, no-one knows. We do know that they are at least 500 years old, so were there long before the volcanoes in this region.

Ancient Rock Art

From here the terrain changes as we walk along the eastern side of the Teneguía volcano. Large lumps of rock and awkward looking shapes were abundant and the descent here was arduous in places. The paths look deceptively easy, and they have been thoughtfully designed and maintained, but often the rocks are very loose and it was easy to lose one’s footing any day of the week.

 

Compare this with the lunar landscape on the eastern side as we descend further towards at Fuencaliente in the coast, which of course is all  new land.

You can just see the salt pans in the photograph above. It is possible to walk around them, or visit the lighthouse, or have a beer in the cafe. For those who don’t want to walk you can get a bus from Los Canarios and save your knees! Not that I had a problem with knees; my problem was toes, but I will tell you all about that another time.

None of the other walks we did have such a sense of spaciousness. Every walk was beautiful in its own way, but maybe because I am an islander myself and spend a lot of time looking up at the sky and out across the sea, this day will remain in my memory for ever. And of course, we finished at the sea.

Distance – my full day was about 8 miles, much of which was messing about around the volcano; ascent: 600ft; descent 2400ft

To follow: Day 2 was a testing walk in the hills north of Santa Cruz, with a lot of steep ascent and descent with lovely wooded valleys and steep ravines to cross, but well worth the effort. A memorable day.

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