Last month I decided I would do something I hadn’t done in years: visit another Canary Island. I wanted to take Airam to one he had never visited so that left us with only two choices, either El Hierro o La Palma. For no particular reason, we picked La Palma. Last time I spent time in this beautiful island was more than 10 years ago, as a kid, so my memories were rather non-existent. I certainly had zero recollection of it being such a ridiculously good looking island! I have gotten used to visiting only the eastern islands, which are the eldest. They have a lot less vegetation and are a lot more flat. La Palma on the other hand, looks rather young, fresh and green while still boasting of more than 20°C in the middle of December. Also, did you know that the whole island is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve? And it is really easy to see why…
Let me start by saying that apart from the odd flight coming from Europe, the only way to access La Palma is by taking either a ferry or a flight from Tenerife. The local airline, Binter, has plenty of flights leaving daily from Tenerife. The flight is only about 30 minutes long and you get free water and a chocolate, which is a real luxury these days! The only downside is that the airport is tiny and and due to its location among mountains and beside the sea, every time there is any hint of bad weather it gets closed down. This time we had to spend a whole day stranded at the airport in Tenerife.
Also, one day is nowhere near enough to explore La Palma. It may look small when you look at it on the map, but I genuinely don’t think there is more than 500 metres of straight road anywhere. That and many more reasons I won’t be going into in this post. Why am I writing a one day itinerary, you ask? Well, that is because I think that if you are visiting any other island, you should try and escape to La Palma even if you only have one day. One day in La Palma is always better than no days at all!
Finally one word of advice: it is not easy to drive around La Palma. The roads are the steepest and most winding I have ever seen, only beaten by La Gomera, which is actually worse. Unless you are a very experienced driver or can be extremely daring and responsible at the same time, I would recommend thinking very carefully before you embark on a roadtrip in La Palma. And, if you get car-sick, you can flat out forget it. In that case, you are better off on foot. If despite all of this, you are still determined to embark on a roadtrip (and I hope you do), here is what I recommend.
Los Tilos is a sub tropical laurel forest located about 24 km (15-20 minute drive) from the capital of La Palma, Santa Cruz. This was definitely my favorite stop in our last visit. Even when you are still approaching it by car through the characteristic winding roads, it is hard not to get distracted by the sudden explosion of dense green covering mountains higher than a 1000 metres and making you feel like an ant walking among giants. This place is paradise for hikers, and you could easily make this a one or two days stop. There are a couple of marked hiking trails that will allow you to get either high up or deep into the forest. However, even if you have no intentions to go hiking, it is definitely worth a stop. There is a small visitor centre and even a restaurant, as well as assigned areas where you can easily set up a barbecue.
Also this is the kind of place that is just asking to be explored. My parents, who have been to La Palma a couple of times before, were acting as our tour guides for the trip. Even though they had been to Los Tilos plenty of times before, they decided to walk a different way this time. A couple of pitch dark tunnels before we found a beautiful waterfall all to ourselves. That’s just the kind of place this is. And to think we only stopped here to make time before going to the airport!
Roque de los Muchachos
From Los Tilos, you can drive back towards Santa Cruz until you can get on the road towards the Roque de los Muchachos, the highest point of the island at about 2400 m. The drive up is definitely the most difficult in this island, a test for even the strongest of stomachs and certainly not recommended if you suffer from vertigo. However it is also the most rewarding. If you are brave enough to face an hour of uphill road full of constant 360° sharp bends, mostly on the edge of cliffs without fences and big enough for one car at a time, you will be rewarded. You won’t find better views in the island, and I would even dare to say all of the Canary Islands, than those you will find on the hour drive up to the top. In fact, the views from the top are scientifically considered one of the best internationally, that’s why there is an observatory containing some of the largest telescopes in the world.
You will also be able to see the imposing mount Teide in Tenerife, and if you get a clear day, the neighbour islands of La Gomera and El Hierro are also visible. Although one word of advice: make sure to visit before the afternoon, as that’s when it usually gets windy, clouds start rolling in and you can go from amazing views to no views at all in a matter of minutes.
This wonderful place is also part of the Caldera de Taburiente National Park, which is basically a huge crater more than 10 km wide of which the Roque de los Muchachos is the highest point. From the parking, there is a trail that is easy to walk in about 15 minutes that will allow you to take in all of the volcanic landscape as well as see the huge drops of more than 1000 m from the top of the crater to the bottom. Definitely something not to be missed!
Puerto de Tazacorte
After leaving the Roque de los Muchachos there is another slightly easier and shorter (although still challenging) road back down. About an hour to two hours drive away is Puerto de Tazacorte (not to be confused with the actual town of Tazacorte!) which is the perfect place for a late lunch. Also, about 3 km before arriving at Puerto de Tazacorte there is a nice viewing spot called Mirador del Time which is worth a brief stop. From this point you will be able to see across all the small towns and villages located on this side of the island, including Tazacorte. There is also a cafe with a terrace from which the views can be enjoyed (I’ve got a soft spots for cafes/restaurants with views, in case you hadn’t noticed).
Puerto de Tazacorte itself is just a little town by the sea with a nice avenue and a couple of nice restaurants, in which you can have mostly local food while enjoying views over the black sand beach. It reminded me of Gran Tarajal in my home island of Fuerteventura. Although regarding food, I can’t recommend any particular restaurants since we didn’t eat in any of them. In fact we had terrible luck when it came to picking restaurants in La Palma. Most of the ones we ate at were overpriced and not particularly good at all. Also, for reasons I fail to understand, when you ask for green mojo, which is probably the most classic of foods you can find in the Canaries, they serve a completely different version. While the standard green mojo is made mostly with coriander and garlic, the one they make is made with green peppers. I wouldn’t recommend it. So if you have had a great restaurant experience in La Palma I’d love to hear about it!
Parque Natural Cumbre Vieja
From Tazacorte there are two main options; you can drive across the island heading back to Santa Cruz with a slight detour to visit Cumbre Vieja, which is the option I suggest. However, the ideal option would be to keep driving south so that you can do a full drive around the island, visit the Salinas de Fuencaliente and watch how sea salt is obtained, enjoy the distinctive characteristic volcanic landscape of this area, and also walk around the San Antonio volcano. However, to get all of this done in a day, you would have to start off very early, and get ready to finish your day late in the evening. It is definitely not impossible, but ideally to get all that done at an enjoyable pace you would need two days. And do not make the mistake of underestimating distances in la Palma! Distances may seem small on a map, but due to the winding nature of the roads it takes double the time to get to places.
With that said, let’s move on to Cumbre Vieja. Much like the rest of La Palma, this area is also a paradise of nature. Cumbre Vieja is a dormant volcanic ridge part of a Natural Park that encompasses most of the south of the island. Its got a very distinctive landscape composed mostly of pines, which is characteristically associated with La Palma. There is actually a popular hiking route that crosses the whole park from south to north known as the volcanic route. Although bare in mind that when I say popular, I mostly mean it is signed, you can find rural accomodation along the way, and it would be one of the most known routes among those interested in hiking in La Palma. However, hiking in La Palma remains one of those hidden gems that is still only starting to take off.
The drive to the parking from where the hiking routes start is again not easy. Although yet again I hear the views are worth it. I say I hear because we didn’t get to see them since we got there in the late afternoon, and the same thing I mentioned when talking about Roque de los Muchachos happens here. It gets windy and clouds start rolling in covering the whole place in a characteristic midst. Although I must say that it gave the place a distinctive cool eerie look, that I quite enjoyed.
You might be glad to hear that the drive from Cumbre Vieja to Santa Cruz is probably the easiest drive there is in the island with definitely the longest stretch of straight road. Even for someone that doesn’t get car-sick like me, it was a welcomed break. And of course there is no other way to finish a visit to La Palma than stopping at the most beautiful capital in the Canary Islands. It somehow has managed to conserve a characteristic local charm. I completely fell in love with all of the cute colonial houses, all of the narrow cobblestone streets and all of the local businesses. Additionally, it has an incredible location with the sea on one side and yet with these huge steep green mountains growing behind it.
There is always a lively atmosphere with cafes and bars always full of people enjoying some casual after work drinks. Additionally, some of the souvenir shops sell a lot of the local products of the island which include stuff such as prickly pear jam, local rum, as well as some traditional desserts. Some of them usually have a table set up for tasting, which is a nice way of trying it out for free. Also I should give you the heads up about the crisps: if you go out for a meal you will usually be served a complementary small dish of what looks like crisps. They taste funny because they are not crisps, they are dried bananas, which is a very popular snack in La Palma.
And with that, you would end a one day roadtrip in La Palma.