17 Feb 2016

La Gomera Adventure

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In 1990, a giant lizard was discovered on La Gomera, the second-smallest and one of the most unspoilt of the Canary Islands, a 45-minute ferry ride west of Tenerife. The lizard, called Gallotia bravoana, lives on the cliff tops – you are unlikely to encounter him in the flesh. But he wriggles his way onto the local ceramics and has become the island’s motif, its trusty celebrity.

I had not been on La Gomera long before reflecting that the image of a lizard – if what you picture is a reptile basking on a rock – is the least appropriate of symbols. For idleness is not a feature of the place – not, at least, if you have signed up for a Headwater walking tour. La Gomera is a walker’s paradise. You can walk, said our guide Neil Flynn (who has a comprehensive knowledge of the island), for two weeks and never retrace your steps.

We were staying in the island’s Parador, looking over Gomera’s main town, St Sebastián, and the sea. It is, in the best tradition of these Spanish state-owned historic hotels, at once severe and luxurious. It has red stone walls, a Moorish inner courtyard and a spectacular yet unheated swimming pool. The distinguished bedrooms have high wooden beds and stiff linen sheets, like Christmas tablecloths. I particularly admired the mahogany fan that made my bedroom feel like an ancient flying machine. It gave me the feeling that I was about to take off – as, in a sense, I was.

Our first walk launched us from Las Toscas, in the south of the island. We were 200 miles from the coast of Africa. Released from the harsh British winter, I felt like an insect that had crawled out from under a brick, and could not stop exclaiming over the dazzling quality of the light. It had that clarity you see at the beginning or end of a perfect summer’s day – a gift to photographers. On La Gomera, though, it was like this all day long. Our first walk was dramatic – in less perfect weather, it might even have seemed sinister. For this is a volcanic island, and the landscape has a prehistoric look, as if one were about to run into a dinosaur (or the giant lizard). “When were the volcanoes last active?’ I asked nervously. “Between seven and 12 million years ago,” was the reply.
La Gomera is shaped by its explosive past. The story of ancient eruptions is written in stone: there are curious chimneys of solidified lava with nicknames such as “The Plug” or “The Sombrero”. The palm trees have evolved sensibly: they are fire-proof. At this time of year, everything was more rocky than green, but enlivened by plants such as aloe vera, euphorbia and tiny orchids. At one point, Neil paused to inspect a small white bubble on a prickly pear. He squeezed it between his thumb and forefinger and maroon blood flowed ghoulishly out. “The cochineal beetle,” he explained.

Neil also pointed out four canaries – a modest flash of yellow on each of their breasts – welcoming us. He told us that La Gomera has no snakes and almost no insects. I wondered if that contributed to the deep peace on the island – a quiet unlikely ever to be interrupted by mass tourism, as international flights can’t land at its tiny airport.

Our first walk ended at the village of El Cercado, in Bar Maria, a charming eccentric cafe whose mauve walls aredecorated with cigarette lighters and key rings. There, we had an ideal, late lunch: a gloriously miscellaneous picnic ofalmogrote, a cheesy paté laced with chillies, and potaje de berros – deliciously sharp homemade watercress soup. We drizzled palm honey onto goat’s cheese and helped ourselves to rabbit stew. A special treat was guarapo, made from palm sap, which tasted like liquid marrons glacés. As we drank, Maria showed us vertiginous snaps of her husband, Manolo, balanced at the top of a palm tree on a long blue ladder, collecting sap for this sweetest of drinks.

Once upon a time, this quiet island was loud – with whistling. La Gomera is the only place in the world to have developed whistling into a language: Silbo Gomero. Documented since Roman times, whistling helped Gomerans resist the Spanish conquistadors in the 15th century. And as part of our “whistlestop” tour, we met two masters who, before demonstrating their skills, performed a sort of national anthem on castanets and drum. The song, somewhere between lament and rallying cry, explained how proud the singers were to be Gomeran. Then came the whistling – the men sounded like gossiping birds – and a lesson.

Stick the middle knuckle of the index or middle finger of one hand on the tip of your tongue, push it to one side of your mouth and whistle through the other side (the tongue controls intonation). Try it – it is impossible. I felt ridiculous – I made no sound at all. But Gomerans can whistle fluently about anything: births, marriages, deaths. The price of a goat can be negotiated between cliff top and valley. A whistled message can encircle the island in an hour. There are even whistling accents (the northern and southern whistles sound different). But whistling is fighting for its life – against the mobile phone. To keep tradition alive, whistling is now on the primary school syllabus. Evening classes are available too. “You can whistle for it…” must be a popular retort on La Gomera.

Our second day’s walk, in northern Vallehermoso, was sublime. Like mad dogs and Englishmen, we climbed 600m in the midday sun. It was a strenuous five-hour walk, but it never felt precarious thanks to kindly man-made steps in the mountainside. At the top, I sat and listened to a sheep’s bell and felt a faint breeze scented with wild, strangely bitter lavender. The landscape here was more sumptuous, less prehistoric. The mountain ahead was perfect in the way the peak of a meringue is – a delicate point wrapped in haze.

The Headwater trip is organised so that guests do not have to do any tiresome or unpicturesque walking, thanks to Neil’s tirelessly obliging chauffeuring in his dependable minibus. He drove us to and from the hotel at the beginning and end of each of our walks (if you were going to La Gomera for a week’s walking, you would be, as we were, based at the Parador throughout). At the end of the second day, Neil kindly agreed to give me a lift down to the beach for an unscheduled swim just before nightfall (the sun in December goes down at 6.15pm). The volcanic sand in Gomera is black, which is quite a novelty. On your way into the sea, you feel like a chimney sweep stepping through a hearth. And because of the timing, the sea was black too, with flashes of reflected white light from the promenade alongside it, and surreal glimpses of its Christmas decorations. I loved the strangeness of this swim and will always associate Gomera with light and blackness (it seemed right, on the last night, to be served squid risotto).

It was only on my return that I discovered La Gomera was Christopher Columbus’s last port of call before he crossed the Atlantic. He had planned a four-day stay in August 1492, to take on provisions, but fell in love with the island’s governor, the superbly named Beatriz de Bobadilla, and couldn’t tear himself away. Even without the holiday romance, I understand how he must have felt. The Gomerans know what they have, too. Neil recently asked some locals in a bar what they would like to change about their island. They thought hard for a moment, then said: “Nothing.”


Headwater) offers a seven-night guided walking holiday on La Gomera from £1,249, staying at the four-star Parador de la Gomera, with all breakfasts and evening meals (including wine), five picnic lunches, regional information booklet, local maps and ferry crossing from Tenerife but not flights. Packages including flights from Gatwick start from £1,443. Best place to stay for weather is Valle Gran Rey but make sure you have a head for heights, as the road down the valley is vertiginous to say the least. A mixture of hippies and locals make it a hugely entertaining location to stay with good apartments

Phone 0505 21992 for further information and prices.