The Ballards - Spain La Palma


England, Summer 2008.
Weather: Awful.
Petrol prices: Spiralling spurred on by idiotic levels of Duty.
Inflation (always double the Government's stated rate): 10%.
Time to escape.

La Palma is the Westernmost Canary island; governed by Spain but geographically closer to Morocco. Like all of the Canaries it's a volcano, so geographically very young which means all the rocks are sharp and clean; erosion has had little time to round the edges.
The last eruption was in in 1971, close to our chosen hotel (eek!).

Until early 2008 there were no direct flights from the UK; you needed to change in Madrid, Tenerife or Munich (Munich....?).
The island is very popular with Germans (watch out for those sunloungers!) and at the weekends, with the population of the more built-up Tenerife, who visit on motor-bikes and scooters by ferry.

The island rises very steeply from the ocean and reaches 2,421m (that's 7,942ft for Americans and the Old); this means that very few of the roads are straight or level, making for rather frustrating driving. Only one piece of proper dual carriageway exists on the island: the main Santa Cruz Airport road.
Whilst the roads are narrow they are extraordinarily well-surfaced for such a small island, evidence of vast quantities of EU investment.
In the North West of the island we drove along a beautiful newly-tarmaced and white-lined minor road from nowhere to nowhere, hacked out of the sides of hills, for an hour without meeting a single car (or roadsign, indeed). This was a very minor road leading from nowhere to nowhere.
There is not a bad surface to be seen anywhere, even in the very minor villages. You get the impression they went to a great deal of trouble to import a tarmacing machine and whilst it was there they were damned if they weren't going to reach every hamlet. Not dissimilar to Oman, actually.
Part of the EU largesse (and we all know where the majority of the EU money comes from, now don't we?) extends to a series of tunnels taking all through traffic around the whole of the capital city, thereby turning a 2 hour grind through the houses in to a 3 minute blast in and out of modern tunnels.
Worth every penny, I say!

One of the very few beaches, West coast

Part of the reason for the investment is the world-famous observatories on the summit of the Roque de Los Muchachos, the highest mountain on the island, and clear of any atmospheric pollution (well, apart from my farts...).
This, for some strange reason also hosts a hotel at which International leaders meet for summits.
Why there, I ask? They have to be ferried up by helicopter, adding to the air pollution, and as for all the hot air generated, well.......

Precipitate view, West coast

Windy mountain road near Los Llanos de Andane

A little research shows the area around the observatories to be protected airspace from FL70 upwards, in a cone, and as they are 7,900ft AMSL you aren't going to be able to fly close enough to get any pictures.
But of course the bigwigs are flown up there by helicopter anyway, thereby I suspect buggering up any observations for the next week until the atmosphere cleans up.

Serious civil engineering

Banana plantation

Many of the roads show extensive civil works: there are many tunnels and spectacular lookout points as the roads traverse the wrinkled landscape.

Parrot fish

Apparently this is SpongeBobs friend Patrick

The steepness of the island makes the scenery change very quickly from the coastal banana plantations to pine forests to bare slopes.
These conceal water catchment systems designed to funnel water down to elaborate reservoir and irrigation systems for the banana plantations.

How bananas grow

Banana plantations West coast

The bananas grown are the wrong type for the EU (EU bananas are grown in the Caribbean) so are sold in Africa at an EU-subsidised price; many of the bananas are also pulped, and the whole enterprise is heavily funded by the EU's CAP as an employment mechanism for the locals.
That's not to say the bananas, once peeled, aren't absolutely delicious, but they ripen green, not yellow, and the skins look dirty and discoloured, inappropriate for the average EU urbanite who buys food on looks, not taste......
The whole thing is emblematic of the Western world's consumers' disconnection from the sources of their food: people think meat comes from the supermarket, farm animals are fluffy-wuffy friends and farmers are cruel.

New lighthouse Southern tip Old lighthouse Southern tip

The Canaries are "Duty Free", which in practice, as the term has been so abused, means you will pay a price about half way between the Duty Free price of the item and it's Duty Paid counterpart.
The difference goes in profit to the retailer, and means the actual consumer saving is very small.
But it means greater volumes of spirits, cigarettes and chocolate (not even Dutyable!) get sold and brought home by Northern Europeans thinking they've got a bargain.
What a crazy world.

Looking up the West coast

The architecture is Spanish, appropriate to an island that has been under Spanish ownership since 1479. Logically, though, the entire archipelago should belong to Morocco. I suspect the populace, mainly retired Spanish, might reject that.
If and when Morocco (huge natural gas reserves, massive areas of sunshine for solar power) gets its act together and becomes a global superpower, maybe we'll see a change.

Doors, Fuencaliente

West coast looking North

The populace is concentrated around the towns of Santa Cruz De La Palma and the capital on the Eastern side of the island clustered around the only harbour (and now the airport); and Los Llanos de Andane on the Western side of the central mountain spine on the only relatively flat area of land.
Linking the two towns is a winding road that approximates to a dual-carriageway in parts but keeps dropping back to just 2 lanes: very frustrating.
It winds upwards, seemingly for ever, from Santa Cruz before suddenly disappearing in to tunnels driven through the volcanic rock. The porous rock dribbles water constantly on to the roadway, and as the weather usually differs hugely on either side of the mountain, these tunnels are known as the Surprise Tunnels.
Emerging on the Western side, the weather is usually better and the level at which you emerge is flat. Very strange.

Los Llanos de Andane

Sinuous road

Sea spider

We dived off the South West coast of the island and the visibility was very good. The fish were not as plentiful as the Red Sea, and a little more wary of divers, but still interesting.

Moray eels


Santa Cruz
Ravine, from the main road running North from Santa Cruz

The North-Eastern side of the island is also quite heavily populated, although quite what everybody does for a living eludes me. They can't all be growing bananas.
One surprising addition is the second highest bridge in Europe at Barranco del Agua. The bridge is very impressive and seemingly too slender to support traffic. Built with EU money, it spans only one of the many gorges the road must negotiate on its way North. The other gorges are no more precipitous, I still can't quite work out why this gorge was chosen to be bridged.

Barrance del Agua bridge, Los Sauces

Near San Andrees

San Andres, near the bridge, is probably the find of the island, home to a really nice church square with a superb open-air restaurant and unspoiled architecture. Worth a visit.

Bird of Paradise plant

The year-round temperate climate makes for effusive plant growth, except at 2,400m where absolutely nothing grows....)

San Andres aquare 

Occasional oddities present themselves, such as this crash barrier on the wrong side of the tree...

Don't undershoot this one!

Santa Cruz de La Palm\

The airport at Santa Cruz resembles an aircraft carrier; one approach you really don't want to undershoot. A consant stream of inter-island ATR72s went in and out; I don't think anyone seriously uses the ferries any more.
The old airport is in the hills above Santa Cruz: it's still in reasonable condition despite having a road laid across it around one third of the way along: I reckon you could still get a 182 in there if you absolutely needed to.

Las Indias

Male lizard

The whole island is infested with small lizards: the males have the blue puff beneat their jawline. They are quite sweet.

Electric ray