El Hierro: Forecast for the edge of Europe

For almost three centuries, the inhabitants of the smallest Canary Island have taken part in a religious pilgrimage to ask for rain. Aaron Millar sets out along the route to experience this remote outpost

I was walking at what was once the end of the Earth. Before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, El Hierro – the smallest, least developed and most secret of the Canary Islands – was as far west as Europeans had got. Even now, the feeling of remoteness was still palpable.

As I hiked up to the summit of Malpaso, the highest peak on the island, I saw more goats than people (a fact that is borne out in population figures: almost two to one) and, at the top, with the thumping resorts of Tenerife only 100 miles to the east, it was silent enough to hear waves crashing on the Atlantic almost 5,000ft below. Life, here on the periphery of Europe, has created a satisfyingly sparse brand of bliss. But isolation also has a price: for the story of El Hierro is not told in numbers of tourists, but in drops of scarce and precious water.

It begins with drought. In 1741, after months without rain and with many of the islanders already dying, shepherds carried a statue of the Virgin Mary from the pasturelands of the south-west, over the highlands to the capital Valverde, which lies in the north east, to ask for rain. As they arrived, the heavens opened and spared the population a terrible fate. Since then, every four years, the islanders have repeated the Virgin's arduous 18-mile pilgrimage – the Bajada de la Virgen de los Reyes (Descent of the Virgin of the Kings) – accompanied by music, costume, much solemnity and celebration. For a small island (El Hierro is home to fewer then 11,000 people) it's a big occasion: the 2013 procession purportedly attracted 25,000 revellers, across five weeks of festivities.

The capital Valverde The capital Valverde (Aaron Millar) I had arrived on a new self-guided walking trip that uses detailed route notes to follow much of the Virgin's journey, veering off (via a few strategic taxis) to take in many of El Hierro's highlights along the way.

I set off in reverse, walking from the bright, windswept capital, Valverde, the end of the Bajada, along the wide path of the procession, following it south on to higher ground, where black volcanic scree and arid desert shrubs were replaced, suddenly, by lush, mossy forests of cypress and heather. I was heading to the sacred Garoé tree: symbol of the island's struggle for water, and – because divine intervention was a little erratic – also its solution. "We call it horizontal rain," Monica, a local guide, explained, and I was in the thick of it. When humid north-eastern trade winds, dense with moisture absorbed from the ocean, hit the mountains of El Hierro, they are forced to rise and cool, forming a cloud that leaves tiny drops of water on the surrounding vegetation.

The island's early settlers survived, she explained, by digging holes in the impermeable clay soil beneath bushes and trees and simply waiting for them to drip-fill. As I hiked down to El Garoé, sacred because of its water-tank-like efficiency, the logic was clear, but the tree, sadly, was not: a dense white void of wind and cloud swirled between the spiral branches, obscuring its leaves as surely as it worked its magic.

Signpost along the route Signpost along the route (Aaron Millar) Leaving Malpaso the next day, I descended through ecosystems as rich and contrasting as layer cake. From the moon-like red summit textured in black scoria and dust, where almost nothing could grow, I passed through a sea of clouds to the laurisilva forest, dripping in lichen and ferns and with tangled tree limbs clambering for light. I was heading for the Balneario Pozo de la Salud, a dramatic spa hotel on the edge of the Malpais: the badlands, where white Atlantic breakers crash against cliffs of black pumiced lava. Based here, I spent the next couple of days exploring El Golfo: an enormous natural amphitheatre, encircled by 3,000ft-high escarpments and filled with family allotments, slumbering white-washed villages and plantations bursting with pineapple, mango and banana.

At the Mirador de Bascos – the southernmost lookout point in Europe – I crawled on my belly to the edge of the cliff as kestrels hovered in the breeze beneath me; at the spectacular 2,000ft restaurant Mirador de la Pena, I felt like I was dining on a cloud; at Charco Azul, I dived into natural sea pools, protected from the ocean by borders of slippery volcanic rock.

Then a highlight: dinner at Noly's House, the "Casa de Comidas", a restaurant held in the front room of the mother of the Mayor of Valverde. Surrounded by pictures of her grandchildren and with the sounds of Noly cooking happily in her kitchen next door, I ate a traditional Canarian feast of puchero, a seasonal stew, with fresh figs and apple cake for pudding. "If I'm cooking for my family," Noly told me, "whoever knocks on my door is welcome to share." Less than 50 years ago there were few buildings with electricity on the island. Houses were built and water collected in much the same way as they had been for centuries. Shepherds today still move their flocks according to the seasonal needs of water. Sustainability isn't a progressive attitude here – it's the echo of an ancient way of life that's still present.

"Even the young people are connected to the land," Paolo, a local guide, told me. "In one hand they may have a smartphone, but in the other they are still cultivating potatoes in the field."

This year El Hierro is set to become the world's first sustainable island, its power drawn from a revolutionary new wind and hydroelectric scheme. Those same trade winds will drive the desalination plant and provide water once again. It may soon be one of the most progressive places to live on the planet.

The end of my trip coincided with the start of the pilgrims' journey: the small stone chapel that houses the statue of the Virgin. Nearby is El Sabinar, a wild juniper forest that has been ravaged by centuries of north-easterly winds. The entire grove was bent double at the hip, twisted horizontally along the floor by the force of the gale. At first I saw only deformity – a mangled forest of bleached, dry bark and lonely, broken trees – but there is a stoic beauty too.

From here I gradually made my way east, where the island's most luxurious hotel, the Parador De El Hierro, welcomed me with wild, windswept beaches and a swimming pool splashed by storms from the sea.

The most spectacular day was saved for last: in the darkness before the dawn I took a taxi to the top of the island and then descended through parting clouds and tall Canarian pines to watch the sun rise over the east coast.

The colour of the new day warmed my face, but my mind was drawn back west, to that blue void of seamless sea and sky. Only a few hundred years ago a voyage to El Hierro was a journey to the edge of the known world.

Today, the island still possesses an air of adventure, remote natural beauty and rare Canarian tranquility that simply cannot be faked. Not bad for the end of the Earth.

Getting there

Aaron Millar travelled as a guest of Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk) which offers a week's self-guided walking tour called "El Hierro – The Last Outpost" from £798pp, based on two sharing, including flights from Tenerife North to El Hierro, seven nights' B&B, five dinners, three picnics, luggage transfers between four different hotels, maps and notes.

International flights to El Hierro are not included. Operators including Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) offer flights from many UK airports to Tenerife South.

Eating there

Restaurant Mirador de la Pena (00 34 922 550 300) serves exquisite traditional Canarian dishes in a spectacular setting. Mains from €10 (£8.10) per person.

Noly's House (00 34 678 350 300) is located just off the main square of Sabinosa. Follow signs for the "Casa de Comidas" from the bus stop. A three-course meal costs less than €10 per person.

More information

elhierro.travel

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people Ex-wife of John Lennon has died at her home in Spain
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
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.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

    Guru Careers: .NET Developers / Software Developers

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: our .NET Developers / Software Dev...

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?