La Palma is one of the islands of the Spanish Canary Islands, which geographically lies off the shore of Africa, west of Morocco. Canary Islands have always been popular as a winter getaway for Europeans, since it is practically the warmest European territory in the months of December – February. La Palma is the farthest island off the mainland, and is the least touristy one of the big islands. It also has its own airport and a direct connection from Amsterdam, which was why we decided on the island as our winter escape last February.
The island was a beautiful sight since the time we landed. The mountain rose not far from the coastal towns below, and the sky was clear. Once we drove the serpentine road up the mountain, went through a tunnel and emerged on the other side of the island, however, we were all awed at how we were suddenly embraced by the lush valley of Aridane, with the sparkling sea in the distance, and the sun set low on the horizon (it was almost sunset when we arrived).
Where we stayed:
We rented part of a house on the western side of the island, around the small village of Las Manchas. The house was nestled almost halfway up the mountain, and can only be reached by a single unpaved road.
In February, while the coastal temperature can get as high as 22 degrees in the afternoon, the nights can be pretty chilly in higher altitude (our house is around 600m above sea level). The house had an old-fashioned iron wood-burning stove in the corner of the living room, which is the only way to heat the whole house. We could have bought firewood at the shop for it, but we found it more fun to chop our own wood or gathering pine cones for kindles. The Kid was always enthusiastic in helping out to chop wood, but she loved it even more when we were out on a mission to collect as many pine cones as we can for the night. I’m not used to burn wood for heat myself, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the stickiest pine cones (which means they have more resin on them) make the most wonderful fuel to the fire. We all loved to throw some in the oven, and hear the mini-explosion it made inside the oven.
There was a pool by the house, but only hubby was brave enough to use it (and only after a session of serious sunbathing) as it was still too cold for a plunge.
What we ate:
Eating out in La Palma is mainly a local affair (especially on the side of the island we’re at), which was not a bad thing, but one should not be too choosy. Grilled fish is the most common menu, served with papas arrugadas, which are boiled baby potatoes with salt-crusted, wrinkly skin. They are good together with the traditional pepper sauce called ‘mojo verde’.
The Kid loves fish, but after a while she got tired of them and wanted something else, and we were so happy to come across a German-owned pizzeria called Pizzeria Evangelina just south of Las Manchas. We don’t usually look for a pizza place when we travel, but we’ve got to admit that they served up really good stone-oven pizza, which are large enough to be doggy bagged for our lunch the next day.
Once you arrived at the island, you would notice the amount of banana plantations growing on the island. I love the island’s bananas, the are a bit more squatter in shape than the usual Chiquita bananas ubiquitous in Dutch supermarkets, with thicker skin which prevents them getting bruised on the slightest pressure. I think they tasted better and fresher too, being grown locally. It’s a shame that they didn’t export it anywhere else but mainland Spain.
What we did:
For a small island, La Palma offers a lot of things to do, especially for the active type. All over the island you see people walking, running, cycling, riding dirt bikes, and when we were on the beach we could see paragliders hovering above us (didn’t see many swimmers, though, the water was still rather cold). It was quite difficult to decide what we wanted to do in the space of one week we had.
We realised that the weather in the island depends on which part of the small island the clouds are on. We’re lucky to be staying on the western side of the island, which means we got the sun moving in our direction at the start of the afternoon. We learned to watch for the clouds’s position and movement and drove away to avoid them and chased the sunny spots all over the island (the clouds could move pretty fast!). This was how we made our itinerary of the days, which was not such a bad idea since we managed to squeeze in quite many things to do on the islands:
- Beach and bathing: there are many beaches to choose from, to the most secluded like Playa Nueva of Fuencaliente, to well-provisioned town beach of Porto Naos, to the natural (but protected) rock pools on the northern side of the island, such as Charco Azul.
- Mountain and hiking: La Palma is a hiker’s paradise, but not all hiking paths are suitable for children. Hubby took The Kid for a short hike up De Cumbrecita, but not all the way to the caldera. We also drove all the 2400m way up to Roque de los Muchachos, past the tree line and got to snowy ground. The view was breathtaking, and it’s a nice surprise for the Kid to see snow on the ground when she were just on 20-degree weather 2 hours earlier.
- Something scientific: Roque de los Muchachos didn’t only offer a fantastic view, it’s also home to an observatory and several telescope. It’s also a good place to show the Kid the two MAGIC mirror telescopes and explaining to her how the work (compared to lens telescope). There’s also plenty of opportunity to learn about volcanoes. The visitor center of Volcán San Antonio (Fuencaliente) gave a good idea of how one works. There was a path along the caldera where on one side you could see inside the (now dormant) caldera, and the other side went all the way to the sea where you could see the solid remain of lava flow from its last eruption in 1677.
- City sightseeing and shopping: We didn’t have the time to do anything cultural, but we did spend a day by the capital, Santa Cruz de La Palma: a charming old town with colourful terraced houses with the distinctive ‘pop-up’ balconies. It was difficult not to be tempted to do a bit of shopping there as well, since I found prices are very affordable, even for brand name items (no VAT is added to any sales in the Canary Islands).
Just because there were still many other things to do, didn’t mean we had to do all of them. Out of a week, I opted for 2 days to stay at our house to explore the surrounding area. (In the meanwhile, Hubby decided to go on a ‘proper’ hiking on his own). The Kid and I spent it roaming the surrounding bush land. There were trees, mostly junipers, which we climbed and plucked pine cones from. We watched rock lizards scurried around. We licked nectar off hibiscus flowers. It was blissful.
- If you don’t speak Spanish and don’t get by with English, try German. It got us further in some places, such as restaurants and rentals. I don’t speak German (hubby does), but speaking Dutch even worked some time (basic sentences are pretty similar in the two languages).
- A car is the best way to explore the island, but driving will involve going on serpentine mountainous roads with hairpin turns everywhere on the island, in every direction you go to. It is very easy for children (even adults) to get car sick after an hour of driving. Children are not required to be in a child seat in a hired car after the age of 3, but I wish we would’ve brought The Kid’s booster seat. It would’ve allowed her to see out of the car better and not get so car-sick.
- We didn’t encounter many children along the way, and there wasn’t a lot of things aimed specifically for children. Unless your kids are nature enthusiasts, it might be a challenging place to entertain them.
- Shops are generally closed on Sunday, and on siesta time (between lunch and around 4pm). Luckily, the shops by petrol stations are usually open everyday until late at night (depends on the size of the station). They’re usually well-stocked enough for emergency supplies.