By Linda Wainwright
I arrived in La Gomera in October, eager to walk but unfit, and looking at the guides I’d bought, my heart sank, and I understood why I saw so many folk sitting, weary, by the roadside. There were scarcely any “easy” routes.
The island is a tangle of walking routes first trodden by the island’s original inhabitants, the Guanche. After the Guanche, the routes were extended by the early settlers of the 15th century, when communications between the steep hillsides and valleys was challenging. So difficult was travel and communication that Gomerans developed a unique whistling language, Silbo, which UNESCO declared in 2009 A Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Sometimes, you can still hear the old guys, sitting on a bench under the shade of a tree, whistling to their pals down the street.
As recently as the beginning of the 20th century, transport of the important banana crop from the hillsides of Hermigua and Vallehermoso was by boat, since there were no fit roads to take the produce to market. Loading stations were built on the edge of the bays where the valleys empty into the ocean, and huge cranes lifted the loads onto boats.
More than in other islands in the archipelago, life in La Gomera and neighboring La Palma is dictated by their topography. To drive through any of the tunnels, which burrow through the hillsides, is often to emerge in what seems like another world. Leaving the sunshine on one side of the mountain, you emerge to grey, swirling mists in the next valley.
To walk the island’s pathways is definitely to walk with history, to step back into simpler and harder times as you follow the old thoroughfares.
Because of its topography most walking in La Gomera falls into the “difficult” or “very difficult” category. Certainly hiking here is for reasonably fit and experienced walkers. Peak season begins in October, as temperatures begin to drop and summer visitors from the larger islands have gone home. It continues into late spring.
By the beginning of June most walkers have hung up their boots until the summer heat has abated.
At the heart of the island lies the Garajonay National Park, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here lies a slice of history almost without comparison. Some twenty different species of trees, laden with lichen, seem to be straight out of “The Lord of the Rings.” This is one of the last surviving examples of Tertiary Era laurel forest. Once the countries around the Mediterranean were all clothed with thick woodland like this. Walking here is strictly controlled, and routes through the Park are marked separately on walking maps. In summer the fire risk is high, as whole swathe of the western flank of the forest attests. There you will see the blackened skeletons of trees destroyed in a massive wildfire in 2012. The undergrowth is at last beginning to recover, but many of the trees never will.
In winter the danger comes from another source. Watch out then for rock falls. You will see evidence on every road, especially in high season, when the chances of rain are higher, and the ground also becomes sometimes treacherous underfoot and slippery. Hopefully, it goes without saying that you should go prepared. In summer you should have sun protection and plenty of water, in cooler months protection against the rain, and a first aid kit.
Many routes seem almost perpendicular, and the less fit often take a bus or taxi to the higher point, and walk back down to the coast or the village where they stay or leave their car. Even so, it can be stressful for the knees, following one narrow pathway last year my friend remarked that it reminded her of walking Machu Picchu. On that occasion we’d taken a much easier route to our destination, the Ermita de San Juan, by following the narrow country road, which winds through the upper part of the Hermigua village. Since we met only a couple of cars, it was much quieter than it might sound, and there are, happily, a couple of bars along the way. The tiny ‘ermita’ (chapel) sits on a hilltop overlooking the bottom of the Hermigua Valley and out to the Atlantic Ocean, a pretty impressive view. We began to follow the hiking trail down, but it proved too much for my knee, and we diverted to follow the road back.
After developing the knee problem, I found a couple of easy routes, more by chance than by design. Having driven down the narrow road from Vallehermoso to its beach, I realized that it would make an easy walk, despite that I’d picked up a couple of hitchhikers who’d found the uphill return more than they’d bargained for. It’s a pretty walk, following a green, cultivated valley, punctuated by palm trees. From the beach at the end there are walks up into the surrounding hills if you’re fitter than I was.
The couple I picked up, I figured, had gone unprepared, without water, and one with no hat. Both of which are rather silly when walking in early autumn on La Isla Columbino, as the island is nicknamed after Christopher Columbus.
This was the last place Columbus laid his head on this side of the Atlantic before leaving on his most famous voyage.
Remembering Columbus, I should mention that the Tourist Office in San Sebastian has a walking map of that small town, taking in the historic sites, which is excellent, and perhaps the only flat route on the entire island.
Following one of the country roads isn’t a bad idea if you’re, as I was, unfit or unsure. So prolific are walking routes that using any of the island’s towns and villages as a base, whether you go by car or by bus, you can always find a walk, even if it means turning around to follow the same route back. There is also an easy and well marked route from Laguna Grande on the edge of the National Park, but beware of tourists around there, which is a stop on the bus tour routes.
Many walkers take a taxi to a starting point, say El Cedro at the top of the Hermigua Valley, on the edge of the Garajonay National Park, and walk back to the village. Although paths are generally well marked (better than roads in fact!), it pays to take careful note of your route, especially through the forests. Walking closer to the coast has its own rewards, with sometimes spectacular vistas of cliffs and ocean.
I hung on in La Gomera for longer than planned, hoping to get fitter and do some “real” walking, but it wasn’t to be on that trip for me, but the few walks I did, and the drives I took, have left me thirsting to sort out my knee and return to do the island justice.
Linda likes to say that she is “re-inventing herself for her third age” these days. She transplanted to the Canary Islands more than 20 years ago. Now with kids grown up, leaving behind the 9 to 5, she studies writing and photography and is beginning to scratch a living from them, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. She blogs at www.islandmomma.wordpress.com