How the island of La Palma bounced back after the volcanic eruption
I stand, trying to take in the scene beneath and beyond me, trying to get a grip on the true scale and grandeur of this landscape. To get here I’d followed a path that had climbed steadily in the shade of candelabra-like pine trees, branches spreading out from deeply runnelled trunks of silver and black, our footsteps cushioned by a thick carpet of their long needles.
The higher I got, the thinner the tree cover, until I emerged onto a slope dotted with shrubs that have taken root amongst a rockery of dark grey boulders, anchoring themselves in the black, sand-like soil. A short, steeper section of the path brought me to the crest and a sign that told me I had reached Pico de la Nieve: Altitud 2,239m.
On the rim of a caldera, I looked down into a deep depression left by the collapse of a volcanic cone 560,000 years ago. The Caldera de Taburiente is massive – 8km in diameter – and is the eroded remains of one of several submarine eruptions that started to form the island of La Palma, the most north-westerly of the Canary Islands, 3-4 million years ago.
These great upwellings from the earth’s crust have created a landscape that on first glance looks impenetrable: a riot of sharp, rugged peaks, rocks and pines, slopes so uncompromisingly steep that it seems the only flat land – and there is very little of it – is manmade.
Even the exquisitely pretty capital Santa Cruz rises away from its black-sand beach in a series of terraces, reached either by steps or steep, narrow streets. There are squares with shady trees, churches and cafes, a small, vibrant market. The houses and buildings are painted in sunshine colours, some with ornate balconies, and against the backdrop of the island’s banana plantations on the slopes surrounding the town, it has an almost Caribbean feel.
The land didn’t look or feel very tropical after my descent from the Pico. I drove on, following the narrow, winding road to the observatory at Rochas de las Muchachos built on the highest part of the caldera rim. Patches of snow lingered amongst sparse, scrubby vegetation.
Barbary falcons – like little peregrines – soared and hovered overhead. The ricochet call of choughs reverberated off the rocks as I left the car and stood among the giant white domes and mirrored surfaces of vast telescopes arrayed above the clouds that have enabled the detection of the most distant galaxy and confirmed the existence of black holes. (La Palma’s night sky is indeed spectacular. Later, when I stood in the garden of the lovely old Canarian house where I was staying, it was as clear and unsullied by light pollution as you could wish for.)
The island, although small, is remarkably varied. North of the caldera I found forests dominated by laurels. These dark, cool, secretive woodlands were the last strongholds of the Guanches, the early inhabitants of La Palma (or Benahoare, as they called it).
Thought to have originated from the Berber tribes of North Africa, it is still a mystery how they reached the island. When the Spanish conquest of the island began in 1405 they found no boats. One theory is that the Guanches were the descendants of troublesome tribes captured by the Romans, shipped off and abandoned to an unknown fate.
Killed, enslaved and assimilated by the Spanish, they were conquered by 1493 and have left few traces. Burial grounds have been found; stone tools and beads, pots decorated with swirling lines scored into the clay and in the woodlands and deep ravines of the north are the caves where they lived, their spiral petroglyphs adorning the rocks.
Their lasting legacy is a food that is still widely used throughout the island. “Gofio” is a powder that looks like flour but is milled from mixed grains that have already been roasted, so it can be used in various forms – I had it as a sort of porridge for breakfast – without further cooking. There is a small, fascinating museum dedicated to it, beneath the windmill and amongst the Drago trees, a short, picturesque walk between houses and flower-filled gardens from the village of Las Tricias.
An hour south, on a road audaciously scooped out of the wall of the caldera and winding down and down towards the gentler folds of the Aridane valley and the western shore, is the island’s biggest town, Los Llanos. It is hard to imagine now, as I sit at a table in the square with glasses of local wine, dunking papas arrugadas – the island’s famed wrinkled potatoes - into sauces of chilli and coriander, that only just over a year ago no one could be sure if Los Llanos would be wiped out: buried forever under an unstoppable river of molten rock.
Just on the edge of the town, perilously close to homes and roads and businesses, looms the dark hulking mass of Tajogaite, La Palma’s newest volcano. It erupted on a Sunday morning in September of 2021 and continued to throw ash and lava high into the sky and tumble it over the land for 86 days. It was, says my guide, who I follow through the wasteland of black ash to get a closer look at it, like being in a war zone. The noise and the smell were apparently unbearable.
There are still trees where we are walking, but many are half-buried in black gritty drifts smothering what were once vineyards and small farms. From this vantage point I can see and smell the yellow sulphur deposits at the mouth of the cone, watch the smoke that still rises, white and seemingly innocuous, into the blue sky to join the whisps of cloud.
What we can’t see is the chaos on the slope below: the tidal wave of lava that wiped out the town of Todoque, left 7,000 people homeless, engulfed farms, banana plantations, swallowed buildings and buried the road connecting Los Llanos to the southern half of the island.
A new road has been hacked out of the debris and it gives me an astonishing insight into the contrary nature of the lava as it made its way down the slope towards the sea. It hadn’t flowed in just one mighty outpouring like a river in spate. Instead, it had meandered, spread out deadly fingers. I saw houses seemingly untouched, but now surrounded on all sides by a lake of petrified lava. In other places it had stopped short for no apparent reason, devouring half a banana plantation before stopping, leaving a wavering forest of leaves entirely unscathed.
But the people left behind to cope with the aftermath are not unscathed. Although no one died, they were given no advance warning. I heard accounts of people having minutes to grab whatever they could from their houses and fleeing with the few things they could carry. One woman told me the trauma is only now beginning to make itself felt. She and many others have banded together to sue the Spanish government for not giving them any advance warning.
“We may not have been able to save our homes,” she said, “but we may have been able to save our possessions; the things we’ll never be able to replace.”
In the island’s south I walk through the aftermath of two eruptions: San Antonio in 1677 and Teneguia in 1971.
Hard though it must be for the inhabitants of Todoque to imagine life ever returning to their land, here is the evidence that it does. Vineyards cling to the dark slopes, flowering shrubs are colonising the ash, butterflies flitting amongst them.
Chaffinches hop and twitter. I wind my way down to the salt pans that were constructed in 1967 and miraculous escaped unscathed. They are still in operation today. Beneath the red and white lighthouse that marks the island’s southern tip, we sit on the sun-warmed pebbles of the little beach, watching the Atlantic waves break, throwing up foaming spray that reflects the pink-orange light of the setting sun.
The ghostly outlines of the neighbouring islands fade into the descending darkness. The first stars appear above our heads. The air is warm. We are lulled by the rhythmic sound of the sea. All is calm. The restless rocks of La Palma are still.
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