Travel: Adrift in the Atlantic

Marooned somewhere between the Sahara and South America, it's easy to lose yourself in La Palma, writes Simon Calder

You cling to the edge of the known world, feeling like a player in the most hellish Wagnerian drama. Above, dark anvil-like clouds hammer against each other as they jostle for the privilege of drenching the tourist. Below, the steely Atlantic reaches the end of its unfettered run from the Americas by crashing angrily against impassively mighty rocks. Any minute now, you fear, the volcano that sprouts from the centre of La Palma is going to want to join in. Better get back to the bar. Luckily, there is a nearby scattering of spruce pastel dwellings beneath sturdy red roofs that remind you that you are still adjacent to civilisation, Hispanic style.

Whatever universe this island occupies, it has extraordinary properties. Often, you cannot tell when the ocean ends and the heavens begin, nor where the molten lead of the surf transmutes to the solidified lava of the shore, nor identify the point at which the rocky terrain melts into a weary farm building. Land, sea and sky; nature and artifice - these merge together miraculously in Isla de La Palma, a forgotten little sister of the Canaries.

Imagine that a geological cataclysm has bestowed the Isle of Wight with a string of 7,000ft mountains, arranged in the manner of a question-mark through the centre of the island. The remodelled isle is then transported to a point 150 miles west of the Sahara, the furthest-flung of a family of seven. You can't get much more marginal than that. The second-smallest of the Canary Islands hangs to the volcanic skirts of its larger, more popular siblings. La Palma feels cast adrift - which, for the visitor, is a wonderfully liberating feeling.

But first, you need to get there. You know the feeling when a journey has been such an ordeal that you just know you're not going to enjoy the destination? That was how I arrived in La Palma. You can't fly direct from Britain - which, say some, is part of its charm. So I flew from Gatwick to Tenerife's southern airport, and tried to connect with a flight departing from the northern airport.

After a horribly early start, a couple of cancelled buses and a pounds 40 taxi ride, when I finally boarded the (inevitably delayed) plane to the island, I was fully expecting La Palma would feel more like a stress- related illness than a paradise island.

The final approach sorted that out. The pilot came in from the north, providing a splendid flypast of an island that seemed to protrude from the sea like a giant, ragged emerald. A sharp U-turn swung us around for the landing, on a runway that sticks out from the side of La Palma in the manner usually reserved for aircraft carriers. This was clearly no ordinary island.

"Next time, you may want to take a taxi," smiled Gregorio as I climbed out of the car. He handed me a card that showed he was an off-duty cab driver. By day two, the unexpected drain on my finances had left me in no position to take taxis around the island, and I was hitching (embarrassingly successfully) to supplement the sparse bus service around the island.

The buses, though rare, are cheap and reliable: between the capital, Santa Cruz, and the second town, Los Llanos, the cost is pounds 2. The thousands of migratory birds that pause here would cover the journey in eight miles, but by tortuous road the trip takes more than an hour. If you want to make a success of a career selling power steering, set up in La Palma. The airport runway is the only straight stretch of Tarmac on the island.

You soon get the hang of knowing instantly where you are with a single glance. Windswept plains tumbling into the sea means Wagner country, the exposed west coast. More sheltered and gentle terrain, with the grey outlines of Tenerife and La Gomera rising offshore like whales, implies the east coast. And when you can't see beyond the end of your nose, you must be in the mountains.

La Palma's catchline is "The Green Island". In tourist-speak, "green" invariably means "wet". Bearing the brunt of 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean makes La Palma the dampest of the Canaries. Even if it's not raining at sea level, you can easily go upwards and check in to a cloud. I spent considerable time trying to reach the various miradores recommended as affording the finest views. But those argumentative clouds always came along for the ride, and I would return to Santa Cruz for the company of humans rather than cumulus.

La Palma has fewer people than the Isle of Wight, with just 80,000 inhabitants - a number exceeded on most days by tourists in neighbouring Tenerife. There are occasional charter flights from Germany, but as a tourist you are a relatively rare species in La Palma. So expect a more than usually generous welcome.

And once you start talking to people, you realise that you're not in Spain at all. For a start, the language has a winningly lazy pronunciation, with none of the Castillian lisp. The suspicion that in fact you're on a misplaced speck of South America is increased when you leaf through the Canary Islands newspaper. Each of the seven islands is covered in turn, all the way down to the toddlers of La Palma and neighbouring Hierro.

The next page is marked "La Octava Isla" - the eighth island - and shows a map of Venezuela.

Since 1492, the Canaries have been part of the New World, spiritually rather than geographically. You can fly direct to Caracas and Havana, the two cities with the largest Canarian communities. And towns like Santa Cruz de La Palma have picked up Latinesque touches, like the exquisitely elaborate galleries ambitiously applied to tall, handsome homes. A main street is named, in the Latin manner, after an obscure Irish adventurer: O'Daly (in Spanish-speaking America, O'Higgins and O'Reilly get namechecks). A replica of the Santa Maria, Columbus's vessel of discovery, is the closest that La Palma gets to a tacky tourist attraction. Walking around Santa Cruz is like rambling through a version of Old Havana where things actually work. There is an energy, an intensity, that you rarely find outside the inner core of Latin American capitals.

The wayward vibrance of La Palma is easier to reach than any of these distant lands. But only just.

Getting there

The easiest way to reach the island is on a charter flight to Las Palmas, changing to a local flight or ferry. Simon Calder paid pounds 230 for a five- day holiday in Tenerife with Thomson, including charter flights from Gatwick; he travelled on to La Palma on a flight operated by the airline Binter, which has frequent links between the Canary Islands. Fares, though, are high; the one-way ticket cost pounds 40. The inter-island ferries are much cheaper; he sailed back to Tenerife for pounds 10, including a berth. To hire Gregorio Diaz's taxi, dial 44 44 62.

More information

The best books about La Palma are the East and West Walking Guides by David and Ros Brawn. Spanish Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (0171-486 8077; brochure-line 0891 669920).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

Year 2 Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Bognor Regis!

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Year 2 Teacher currently need...

Primary Supply Teachers needed in Cambridge

£21552 - £22552 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

DT Teacher - Graphics

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Part time Design and Technology...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world