Fans of the rock band Genesis will recognise the title of this blog as the opening track from their album, “Trick of the Tail”. Why “Dance on a Volcano?” We have recently returned from a close encounter with some dormant volcanos in La Palma in the Canary Islands. Where Phil Collins et al danced on their volcano, we walked. A tenuous link at best but I like the title!
Think of the Canary Islands and they often conjour up images of young Brits partying and dancing in the bars and clubs of downtown Tenerife or Lanzarote. But there is another side to these islands. All the Canary Islands were born out of volcanic eruption. Many volcanoes are extinct but some occasionally burst into life. Nestled on the north western edge of the group is the small island of La Palma or as the locals know it, La Isla Bonita. Remember the song by Madonna in the 1980s? …..this is it!
La Palma is an island with developing tourist industry, and not so popular as its larger relatives nearby, but is probably all the better for that. It means it is quiet (apart from its Fiesta days – more of which later). The coastline is undulating but the interior is dominated by a number of volcanoes and forests.
We had joined a Ramblers Holiday for a week of winter warmth and walking. What we did not know, until about two days in was that the islanders were enduring one of the worst winters in years. Temperatures were below average and although the sun shone most days on the coast, the mountains, unusually for February, were frequently shrouded in cloud. Mist, drizzle and cold were our frequent companions when walking the volcanic paths. It also meant that a number of walks planned for the north of the island could not be done because there was no point; there was no view! So our walking was limited to the centre and south of the island. Nevertheless this did not stop the group being led on some excellent walks by our leaders, John and Gillian.
Our first encounter with a volcano, or the remnants of one was on our first days walking. We were dropped off at a small village named Montes de Luna and made our way up through woodland and steep paths passing numerous old lava flows from previous eruptions dating back to 1585. Underfoot was the fine black ash that makes up much of the ground in these parts. It is amazing how the trees survive. We saw many with scorched black patches but with their normal bark showing through.
From top to bottom: Early blossom; Coastal view through the pine forest; Scorched bark of a Birch Tree; Panorama view of Fuencaliente – a village in the south of the island.
Lava flow from an old eruption circa 1600
Our lunch stop was just outside the village of Fuencaliente, at the visitors centre for the San Antonio eruption in 1971. At this stop we were able to walk around the rim of the volcano and peer over the steep sloping sides to the vegetation covered base. Our route from here took us south and around the site of the 1971 eruption of Teneguia. Here the back ash covered almost everything and the vegetation was sparse, although there was some evidence of recovery.
Lyn just outside the village of Fuencaliente – the locals are reclaiming the land covered by a 1971 eruption to grow crops.
Three views of the caldera (bowl) of the San Antonio volcano which erupted on La Palma in 1971
Top: The pale rock is the original stone. The black ash from the last eruption did not cover it entirely; Centre: Vegetation starting to reclaima foothold in what is left of the soil;
Two images of the lighthouse at the southern most tip of the island, and the end of our first days walk in La Palma.
Us on the first La Palma walk
La Palma has one other unique feature. The atmosphere above the island is unusually stable, which means that it is an ideal location to site astronomical telescopes. One walk took us up to the observatory at the top of Roque de los Muchachos which is the site of an observatory of the same name. The “fleet” of telescopes features some of the largest in the Northern Hemisphere and have been established at this location since the 1980’s. At nearly 8000ft it was cold but sunny and scattered banks of snow dotted around the observatory site let us know we were high up. The observatory sits close to the Caldera de Taburiente and a previous walk a few days earlier saw us take a route up the other side of the Caldera on to the Pico Bejenado where the telescope domes could just be seen nestling in the peaks. Both of these walks had spectacular views as can be seen from the images.
From top: The start of the walk to Pico Bejenado; One of the climbs; View of the Caldera; Still a way to go.
Above: Three images of the view from the summit of Pico Bejenado looking towards Roque de Los Muchachos, the site of the observatories.
Illustrative map showing the Caldera de Taburiente
1-4 above – Views of the Observatory site on Roque de Los Muchachos – the other side of the caldera
The walk to the observatories was on a different day and involved a long drive to the start point up a narrow twisty road.
The scenery was stunning but we encountered variable weather as we walked in and out of cloud as can be seen from the following four images from the start and first phase of the walk to Pico de La Nieve. Our route took in 3 summits, Pico de La Niece, Pico de La Cruz and the final walk/drive up to Roque de Los Muchachos.
Views en route to our first summit, Pico de La Nieve
At the summit of Pico de La Nieve
Views from the path between Pico de La Nieve and Pico de La Cruz, including a shot of the Observatories.
The last leg from Nieve to Pico de La Cruz – shortly after this point some of the group (including me) met our but for a short ride to the Observatories.
Top: Misty view into the Caldera de Taburiente Bottom: The path towards the Observatories – it goes around that mountain peak!
As with all Ramblers holidays we get a day off walking to do our own thing. It gives the leaders a break and us a rest. We decided to walk the 3 miles to the island’s capital Santa Cruz de la Palma. As we strolled along the harbourside promenade the parking spaces were filled with camper vans, cars with people spilling out into the morning air in various states of dress. The closer we got to the edge of the town more and more people were heading in. They were all dressed in white. We stopped at the tourist information and they told us that it was Fiesta Day. It celebrates the return of Spanish sailors from their trades in Cuba over 300 years ago. They sailed west to trade and came back very rich merchants, hence the celebrations. What the significance of white is I am not sure. As we walked up the main street looking for an open coffee shop it became evident that this was going to be a big party. Oddly the ground was quite slippy and we found out that a big part of these celebrations is folk chucking talcum powder over each other and any passer by. They had already started judging by the state of the footpath. The town square was packed with people dressed in white dancing to the samba beat; even at 1030am the party was in full swing.
Early morning at Fiesta Santa de La Cruz – the locals gather
It is 1030 and there is already dancing in the square – it’s time to PARTY!!
We decided that Fiesta was not for us and headed down to the promenade and a walk to the bus stop for our short ride home. I did not escape a dowsing in talcum powder though from an old man lurking nearby. The bus ride back to our hotel was exciting too. We were the only passengers which gave the driver license to drive like the rally driver he probably was in his previous job. He was in a desperate hurry as he threw this single decker all over the road. He paused very briefly to let us off at the stop our feet barely touching the ground before haring off to collect more passengers going to Fiesta!
To get our breath back after that bus ride we walked along the cliff path near the hotel. These are the views looking towards Santa Cruz
Lyn takes time out to recover from the bus ride from hell!
Us on the road to Santa Cruz
Volcanic eruptions on La Palma are rare but devastating when they happen. The most recent incident was in September 2021 when the Cumbre Vieja ridge cracked open and started one of the most destructive eruptions on the Canary Islands in the last 500 years. The evidence is still clear to see. Black ash covers most of the paths in the mountains around the eruption.
Top: What is left following the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja ridge: Centre: Wider view showing the path of the lava flow: Bottom: View towards the coast showing the ash field. The white objects on the right of the image are barn roofs.
This is the luckiest home owner in La Palma! This house escaped the lava flow you can see blocking the road about 50m further down the road! Note the debris all around the house.
Us by the lava flow
At the end of our last days walk we were able to travel a short distance from the town of El Paso to the remains of a small village, most of which had been buried under the lava flow. It had been a dull wet day and the low cloud and mist added to the sombre atmosphere as we walked up the road to see where the lava flow had cut it and the village in half.
Three other villages were buried under the lava and ash which poured out from the split in the ridge and the view we had from the end of the road showed the destruction was spread about 5 miles wide and all the way to the coast, a distance of about 3 miles. The lava flow passed within about 50m of an occupied house and across the main road through the village.
The walk itself was through forest and woodland and the dull, wet weather made for a less than buoyant atmosphere, probably also in the knowledge that it was our last day together as a group.
Five images from the last day’s walk through the woodlands around Municipal de Arena Alta.
Releasing my inner Ansel Adams, the noted American landscape photographer of the 1930s
We had travelled south for some winter warmth and sunshine. Yes we had seen the sun, even sat out in it for a while with fleeces on but come away having had a wonderful week experiencing walks around volcanoes and lava fields. We had met some lovely people in our group and together with our leaders Gillian and John had seen some of the island. We may be back to the Canaries in future, who knows.
Below: Two random images of us out walking in La Palma.
One Comment Add yours
What an interesting place! I knew nothing about the Canary Islands until reading your blog post. I hope we can travel there some day.