The island of La Gomera is also known as ‘La Isla Mágica’ (The Magical Island), due to its changing landscapes, magical natural surroundings, rich history and legends. The only way to truly understand the reason for this nickname is to spend some time in Garajonay National Park, the heart of the island.
Garajonay National Park covers 3,986 hectares and is home to one of Spain’s most extraordinary forests. The laurel forest (or laurisilva forest) was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1986 and covers approximately 70% of the national park. The national park is often enveloped in fog and the constant moisture this provides gives life to the forest.
The southern slopes were an area of degraded vegetation and plantations of exotic trees when Garajanoy was declared a national park. Since the mid-1980s, a prolonged restoration programme has been running, with the intention of returning the national vegetation to the five hundred hectares of land. When the programme commenced, 13% of the original vegetation had been replaced by Canary Island pine trees, California pine trees and even eucalyptus. This exotic vegetation is now being gradually and carefully replaced using a technique called the ‘shelterwood system’.
We set off from Pajarito and follow the trail to Altos de Garajonay, the highest point on the island at 1,487 metres. The name Garajonay is said to come from the names of two young lovers, Gara, a young girl from La Gomera, and Jonay from Tenerife. The girl’s family opposed their relationship and, unable to be together, they escaped to the top of the peak and decided to commit suicide by placing a stick, sharpened at both ends, between them and embracing each other. On a clear day visitors can see the islands of Tenerife, La Palma, El Hierro and Gran Canaria. Today we can only see Tenerife but the view is magnificent, with Teide’s snowy peak showing above the clouds.
El Alto was one of the holy mountains of the ancient people of La Gomera. A stone building at the peak is a reproduction of the ceremonial grounds on which the aboriginal peoples of La Gomera would communicate with their god, ‘Orohan’. They used this site as they felt they were closer to heaven and therefore could communicate better. Excavations of the archaeological site, which is situated just below the ‘mirador’ (lookout point), show that the stone construction was a sacrificial altar, known as ‘pireos’. It has been dated back to the 6th century and offerings including the bones of goats and sheep and the remains of plants have been uncovered. During the invasion of the Spanish in the late 15th century, the last of the free people of La Gomera took refuge in this mountain, probably seeking divine protection.
The trail from Altos de Garajonay leads to El Contadero. It begins with a paved path leading into the park’s ecosystem. We enter the forest and find ourselves in a mystical and enchanting place. This is one of the best examples of a laurel forest, a sub-tropical forest made up of evergreen trees that are exceptional at capturing water from mist. This forest ecosystem covered the Mediterranean area millions of years ago but disappeared due to climate change. The park now shelters a large number of species, many of which are exclusive to the area and so conservation of its floral biodiversity is of high importance. We occasionally pass other hikers on the trail but for most of the time we hear nothing but the sound of the birds in the trees above us.
Soon the sound of a river breaks the silence and we find ourselves following the El Cedro stream, through the thick vegetation among some of the 2,000 plant species that can be found within the national park. We continue past the Chapel of Lourdes and around mid-way through our hike we reach the hamlet of El Cedro.
We climb a rickety staircase that leads to the small bar/restaurant and campsite of La Vista, meaning ‘The View’. At the top of the stairs the reason for the name becomes apparent. We are at the very peak of the cliff that separates El Cedro from the village of Hermigua. We enjoy a well-deserved baguette of local goat’s cheese and a ‘tapa’ of almogrote, a traditional spicy cheese paste.
Having replenished our energy we are ready to continue our hike to Hermigua. We set off on the path that leads down the cliff, towards the valley. The steps are uneven, steep and at times quite slippery. The way down is turning out to be much more complicated than the path from Garajonay to El Cedro.
Slowly and carefully we follow the hairpin bends. We stop for a moment and realise that the 200 metre-tall waterfall, El Chorro de El Cedro, that cascades from the top of the cliff has come into view. This waterfall is the highest in the Canary Islands and, although it has less water just now than at other times of the year, it is still quite spectacular.
The path continues steeply winding downwards towards the valley. The fog is lowering over the peaks behind us and the sun is beginning to set. Two hikers carrying large backpacks are climbing up the steps and stop when they see us. They look tired and ask us if they are heading in the right direction to reach El Cedro. We nod and look back up the cliff to point out their final destination only to see that the fog is about to envelop the hamlet. We are now about half way between the valley and the peak and decide that pointing out the little dot that is La Vista will not be encouragement for the couple. We wish them luck and continue on our way.
Over an hour after we set off from La Vista we finally reach flat terrain. The path remains rocky and we are still following the river, meaning that the stones are wet and slippery at some points, however we are glad to be on reasonably level ground.
We follow the trail through overgrown fauna, past wild goats and towards the town of Hermigua. In the early 20th century, a team of meteorologists defined Hermigua as the place with the most beneficial climate in the world. It never drops below 18 degrees celsius in the winter or rises above 27 in the summer. The town’s economic activity is based on banana growing, wine making and rural tourism.
The rocks of Pedro and Petra, also known as Roque Chico and Roque Grande (Small Rock and Large Rock), that were mere dots a short while ago, are now towering above us. We reach a tarmac road as our adventure comes to an end and we enter the hamlet of El Convento.
Our final challenge is to find a way back to San Sebastián de la Gomera, where we are staying. We ask in a local bar and find that we have just missed the last bus by a few minutes. We continue to walk in the hopes of passing a taxi but see none. Eventually we reach a small grocery store and are able to call a taxi. Our taxi speeds along the winding road and we watch as we leave the valley behind. Pedro and Petra shrink to the tiny stones they were when we set off from El Cedro.
Around six hours after we set off from San Sebastián we return to the Parador Hotel, exhausted but exhilarated after a wonderful hike through the prehistoric forest on ‘la Isla Mágica’.
- B. Domínguez, Travel Guide La Gomera, Ediciones A.M.