Travel Guide to La Palma

Best things to do and see in La Palma

La Palma: Why go

Of all the Canary islands, this is the least developed and the most scenically spectacular. There are wild black-sand beaches, jagged-peaked volcanoes which still breathe wisps of smoke, huge tracts of pine forest, and plenty of those pretty pastel villages which the Canarians do so well. Best of all, there is very little development, apart from a couple of resorts around Puerto Naos. The pace of life is slow and very friendly, but with a welcome layer of orderliness from the now-grown-up German hippies who escaped there decades ago, and these days live in handsomely restored stone houses while their kids go to local schools.

Like most of the Canary islands, La Palma's climate is pretty warm and sunny all year round, but with a chance of localised cloud cover, rainstorms or even occasional snow over the high ground (the tallest peaks reach nearly 2,500m / 8,000 ft which is quite something for an island just 5 miles wide). The sunniest part tends to be the south, with clouds most likely over the breathtaking cirque of the 'Caldera de Taburiente'; but that can occasionally switch round with the prevailing wind.

Its capital, Santa Cruz (de la Palma), has a quite unexpectedly sleepy and tranquil charm, despite being the island's main port for passenger and commercial ships. Overlooking the fertile west coast - most of it dominated by banana plantations - Los Llanos (de Aridane) is the island's largest town; if you penetrate its modern suburbia, you'll find a charming colonial centre of rainbow-coloured houses and pedestrian lanes which (like most of the island) comes noisily alive at carnival time (February).

Sadly, the wildfires of 2016 destroyed much of the fir forest covering the southern third of the island's uplands. But there are still wonderful forests and tropical flowers in the centre and north, with great hikes on waymarked trails. Do bear in mind that, in winter, it can be cool and cloudy, with occasional snowfall on the summits; while summers can be blisteringly hot. Also, the sea is not always swimmable due to incoming breakers and swell; but there are some sheltered beaches (e.g. Tazacorte) and sea-fed pools (e.g. La Fajana) for safe swimming at any time. Finally, as on most Canary islands, the food is not perhaps as exotic and varied as you might hope - think fried fish, meaty stews, all served with papas arugadas (local new potatoes) and mojo (variants of aioli).

If you can't find a direct flight, you may have to overnight in Gran Canaria or Tenerife on the way; and, if the latter, bear in mind that the domestic airport is 2 hours drive from the international one.

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The secret beaches In the south

Though not ringed with classic blond beaches, La Palma has some lovely black-sand coves where you can cool off in the swell of the Atlantic. We loved tranquil Playa de Zamora, a pirate-like cove backed by sheer cliffs and reachable only by steep steps; and also the tiny hidden beaches en route to Fuencaliente lighthouse - the best of which are not signed, so just park the car where you can and hike across the lunar rocks to explore.


4 great hikes

The 2016 wildfires sadly put paid to the classic Cumbre Vieja hike along the crest of the southerly volcanoes, but here are 3 great trails which remain as breathtaking as ever.

1. The Caldera de Taburiente. From Los Llanos, take the small road leading north until you reach the valley floor. Park here and jump into one of the jeeps that shuttles up to the trailhead 5km further. A path threads through pine woods into the heart of the caldera, where you are surrounded by dark and jagged 2000m peaks, often shrouded in mist. It continues steeply down, past thickets of prickly pear, into the ochre-coloured Angustias ravine which gradually opens out into a river gorge. Some of the walking is in the boulder-strewn riverbed, but there's nothing technical, and most of it is on good paths. About 6 hours after leaving the trailhead, you emerge at the car park feeling as if you've visited another planet!
2. A gentler walk (2 hours) takes you from Fuencaliente (Los Canarios) village, past the volcano of San Antonio, and down to the smaller Teneguia volcano, where jagged rusty rocks and occasional wisps of sulphuric smoke greet you on the summit. You get stunning views over the southern tip of the island and out to sea; paths lead down to the Faro de Fuencaliente, where you can admire the grid of white salt pans and buy excellent flor de sal, before catching the little bus back up to Los Canarios.
3. Ruta de la Cresteria, a spectacular ridgewalk culminating in the 2,426m Roque de los Muchachos, whose observatory is sometimes the only bit of the island poking up above the clouds. With the help of a car and friendly driver, you can make this as long or short as you wish - a high altitude road runs nearby.


Lucky dip In the north

If the sea is too rough for swimming, head to La Fajana in the north, and jump into the tiered, salt-water-fed pools. Avoid afternoons, which can be popular with small tour groups.


Seeing stars Ruta de la Cresteria

The observatory atop El Roque de los Muchachos is one of the best places in the world (certainly in Europe) for star-gazing, which can be booked with Astrotour.