In the northwest of the Canary Islands, 85 kilometres from Tenerife, is the island of La Palma. It is often called Isla Bonita (pretty island) or Isla Verde (green island) because of its lush green forests and incredible natural beauty
The Spanish conquest of La Palma began on September 29 1492 when troops under the command of Alonso Fernández de Lugo landed on the beaches at Tazacorte. It finished six months later, on May 3 1493.
The original inhabitants called their island Benaohare and it was divided into 12 cantons or feudal estates. The last of the feudal lords to give himself up to the invaders was the indomitable Tanausú, whose kingdom was that of Aceró (Caldera de Taburiente).
After a number of failed attempts by the Castilians to enter La Caldera and overpower him, Fernández de Lugo sent in Juan de Palma, a relative of Tanausú who they had converted to Christianity.
He was to persuade Tanausú to come out via the Adamacansis mountain pass and make a gentleman’s agreement with the Spanish. Like a true gentleman, Tanausú did emerge, only to be ambushed in the place now called El Riachuelo, near to La Cumbrecita.
Once the conquest was over and the island of La Palma was brought under Castilian rule, the immigration began. Castilians, Mallorcans, Catalans, Portuguese, Italians, Flemish... all attracted by the land’s riches.
These peoples, along with the few remaining indigenous inhabitants, are the stock from which the present-day population came.
By the 16th century the island’s economy was very strong, thanks to the boom of the sugar industry. La Palma was also exporting large quantities of Malvasía wine, honey and other products.
The first shipyards appeared and the port of Santa Cruz de La Palma became a hub of commercial activity, with shipping routes to mainland Europe and America.
This prosperity attracted famous pirates and corsairs, such as the French pirate Jambe de Bois (Wooden Leg) who in 1553 looted and burned down Santa Cruz de La Palma, destroying important monuments and municipal archives.
In the 18th century Santa Cruz was one of the major ports in the Spanish empire, after Antwerp and Sevilla. Ships left there destined for America and the first Juzgado de Indias was set up in the island’s capital.
This entity undertook, among other duties, the inspection of ships bound to and from the Americas, to assure compliance with Spanish laws.
Shipbuilding benefited from the abundance of wood in the island’s forests – the first yards opened soon after the conquest and shipbuilding was a buoyant industry on the island until the 1940s.
In the 19th century, cochineal production was introduced to make dyes, and this became a significant source of income for rural Palmerans. The dye is obtained from a scale insect that lives its life sucking on certain prickly pear cacti.
At the same time, sugar production, which had been abandoned, made a comeback, and the first banana plantations were laid. In the 20th century the banana production underwent a massive expansion and now the fruit is the mainstay of La Palma’s economy, with annual exports in excess of 130 million kilos.
Other important industries on the island are goat farming, a small tobacco enterprise, wine and avocado production and a young tourist industry.
Over the years, the local farmers have made superhuman efforts to convert barren lava landscapes into fertile irrigated land, drawing water out of the bowels of the earth and transporting soil from faraway places.
Their renown as expert farmers is well deserved, not only because of how they have worked their own land but also due to the lasting impression made on distant soil by those who have emigrated.
The climate of the island varies from region to region. In places, the island is over 2,000 metres above sea level, towering above an area of only 706 square kilometres. There are two very distinct zones, the northeast visited by the rain-laden trade winds, and the southeast which has drier, sunnier weather.
In general, in all the coastal areas under 200 metres the average temperature is 20 degrees. As you go higher, however, the temperature starts to fall, especially in winter when it can drop as low as zero degrees at the summit.
Of all the Canary Islands, La Palma is the one most blessed by rain. Because of its particular geography, Atlantic storms bring the most frequent downpours. In the northeast of the island so-called horizontal rain is common.
This phenomenon is produced by moisture trapped by the dense laurel forest which then acts as a sponge, condensing moisture in large drops. This ‘rain’ is very important for the water tables. The southeast coastal area receives the least rain of the whole island.
In spite of the predatory hands that have laid siege to the island ever since the conquest, La Palma still has large swaths of its vegetation intact, most importantly the laurel forests in the north, for example El Cuban de La Galga and El Canal.
The Los Tilos laurel forest has been declared a biosphere reserve and as such is protected by UNESCO. Canarian pine trees cover a large part of the island’s surface and for years now there has been a ban on their logging. This has meant that the tree, which grows even in very poor soil, is coming back to reclaim land that was previously taken from it.
There are 70 native species of plant on the island, 104 others that are native to the Canaries in general and 33 that are Macaronesian, that is from the wider region including the Azores, Cape Verde Islands and Madeira.
The rest of the 774 species found on the island have been introduced or are spontaneous.
The most noteworthy of the indigenous plants are the various kinds of Aeonium: milk thistles, violets and echium. There is a larger number of the legendary native Macaronesia dragon tree left on La Palma than on the other islands. You can see large old dragon trees in Las Breñas, Garafía, Punta Gorda and other spots, but the most spectacular are in La Tosca (Barlovento) and Butacas (Las Tricias).
La Caldera de Taburiente
In the very centre of La Palma, La Caldera de Taburiente is a large crater surrounded by sheer, rugged 2,000 metre-plus walls. Here is the Roque de Los Muchachos, the highest point on the island at 2,426 metres.
In the 4,690 hectare Caldera, declared a National Park in 1954, the island’s landscape takes on a unique importance.
Covered in pines, cleaved by ravines with pure crystal clear streams, it is a constant source of inspiration for geologists, vulcanologists, botanists and zoologists.
Water has moulded this singular landscape over the centuries. The view from inside the crater is spectacular, but the sight from the natural viewpoints (Cumbrecita, Bejenado and Los Andenes) around it is just as breathtaking.
La Caldera is a prime example of a Canarian pine ecosystem, but also of great importance are its rock landscapes where you can find many of the island’s native plant species.
Apart from its flora, the National Park has other noteworthy treasures: the stunning scenery, with its 8 kilometre diameter circle of summits. There are sheer drops of up to 2,000 metres and a network of brooks and mountain streams branching out from the summits that have left massive erosion in their wake.
Fascinating geological formations, ranging from base elements – pillow lavas, plutonic magma, basalt dykes, agglomerates and boulders – to more recent formations, including lava flows, basalt dykes resembling chimneys, volcanic cones and the colourful explosive remains of pyroclastic flows.
The clear skies above its summit make it a perfect place for star-gazing, with an observatory housing one of the largest telescopes in the world.
Archaeological remains, mainly rock carvings (petroglyphs), are worn down by earthquakes and fire.
Water flowing from natural springs and along narrow channels creates cascading waterfalls as it descends from the heights. The free-falling water is in sharp contrast to the erosion caused elsewhere by the gushing mountain streams.