Cycling in La Gomera, Tenerife's plucky little cousin
Tenerife is one of those places that lures Brits and others for its fairly reliable winter sun. It also attracts racing cyclists to its many early season training camps. But how does it suit the cycle tourist and what to make of La Gomera, a small, much-forested, long-extinct volcano off Tenerife's west coast? I and companion Chris spent a week on these two entrancing Canary isles sensing that they had more to offer than glitzy resorts and sun-soaked beaches.
Tenerife is the largest of the seven-island Canary archipelago. Its population is approaching 900,000, by far the highest of any island in the group. It draws around five million tourists each year, mostly to a huge, sprawling and in some ways surreal resort which smothers the south-west corner. Monstrously fascinating Teide National Park is another major attraction. At 3,718m Mount Teide is Spain's highest point. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.
La Gomera, in contrast, is barely known outside of an adventurous community of hikers for whom it is a big draw. It is the second smallest Canary island with a population of just 24,000. Christopher Columbus could be its best known visitor – he called in for supplies during his search for the New World in 1492. Our own quest began back at Tenerife's southern airport where we reassembled bikes after the 4.5-hour flight.
The steep climb from the terminal was a sign of things to come. The smooth access road sliced a parched and dusty hillside where an occasional prickly pear cactus and the twisted, spindly stems of brittle shrubs snagged small plastic bags blown in on the headwind into which we were riding. Post-flight cycling, with fatigue and dehydration still in the legs, can be tough. The flatter road to Los Sinderos brought a little respite.
Power lines mounted on the shaved trunks of conifers lined the road through the colourful town’s outskirts where rows of new terraces were coloured burgundy and pale peach. Some resembled architecturally-challenged eco-homes, others the huddled houses once full to bursting with workers in Britain's former industrial cities. The balconied high and low rise buildings of the town centre looked older. Here we turned onto a long downhill leading to coastal El Médano, a kite-boarders' lair. Waves buffeted the resort's shoreline where remnants of volcanic rubble tumbled from beneath overhanging promenades. Ringed plovers and sanderlings scuttled between rock pools finding crustaceans and insects to sate their appetite. Our hotel looked out on Montañas Roja and Pelada - the red and bald mountains. The protected area encircling these two summits hosts more than 100 specialist plants. It's also a refueling post for migrating birds.
From the blustery top of Roja I saw vast brown plateaus which were clearly manmade but impossible to identify. It was not until the following day, on our dawn ride to catch an early ferry, that I could see what they were: nets shaped by huge rectangular frames protecting swaths of banana trees or crops of tomato and basil. There were wind farms nearby, their whirring blades savouring the generous gusts. We passed industrial sites and the stately buildings of small towns where whitewashed walls and tiled shallow roofs hinted at mainland Spain which seized Tenerife in 1494. At Los Christianos, the largest town in the south, we freewheeled to the port to be waved on board the La Gomera-bound vessel.
A handful of yachts, small trawlers and an elegant cutter were dwarfed by the ship which ploughed from the harbour into the North Atlantic. Their backdrop was white and yellow apartment blocks jostling for space on the slopes of a long-inactive volcano. A much larger flotilla bobbed close to San Sebastián de La Gomera, the older island's capital and entry point. Flat-roofed apartments painted royal blue, ochre and coral pink climbed steep hillsides beyond. We glimpsed the jaded facades of an old quarter where wooden lunettes topped panelled doors. Nearby was Torre del Conde, a striking cuboid tower once plundered by a succession of foreign pirates. In 1488, grandee Beatriz de Bobadilla, an acquaintance of Columbus, barricaded herself inside the Gothic tower after her Governor-husband’s murder. It has since served as a prison and barracks.
Our picnic supplies were probably more modest than provisions gathered by Columbus but were just as essential as we headed north-west across a dry river bed for nearly 1,600 metres of climbing. Thanks to a succession of looping hairpins, the road’s gradient was kind, bar short steeper stretches near the top. Small terraced fields scaled the first valley before a 180-degree turn revealed the distant grey-blue outline of western Tenerife and imposing Teide. Next to the road, the first of several excellent information boards identified the rocky outcrops Blanco, Garcia and Magro, the result, it said, of “frantic geological activity” up to 10 million years earlier. A distant vegetated prominence with the outline of a round, straw-roofed hut stole the eye. Roque del Sombrero was “the most perfectly shaped volcanic plug I have seen,” Chris exclaimed.
We gratefully replenished water bottles at a roadside restaurant where concrete plant pots balanced on smooth, canon ball-sized stones. From a layby beyond, off the Degollada de Peraza mountain pass, we drank in spectacular Barranco de la Laja, one of the network of steep-sided ravines chiselled by rainwater cascading from the centre of the island. Across the valley streaked Degollada de la Cumbre, our return route the next day. As we continued, bush daisies and lilac vetches gave way to the vegetation for which the island is best known: the ancient laurel forest of Garajonay National Park.
The park is a World Heritage Site for its array of species of which around 150 are found no-where else. Continuous mist engulfs much of this region and the upper part of the island, feeding springs and streams and creating the lush conditions on which wildlife thrives. More than two thirds of the park is laurel forest but not the laurel hedgerows over which neighbours have warred in the UK. These were 15m tall trees with compact leaves and canopies that dripped moisture. Lichens and mosses encased their twisted trunks; signed footpaths navigated their murky depths.
The long climb had taken its toll and we opted for the shorter route down via the Juego de Bola visitor centre. The temperature was much lower here, the sun blocked by the mist, and we huddled inside a small café offering hot drinks, fresh, sweet biscuits and palm honey, a thinner flavouring than bees' honey and made only on La Gomera from the sap of palm trees. The sun was still absent on the sweeping bends of the Barranco de las Rosas which led into an impressive tunnel negotiating a near vertical cliff face. We emerged to the north-east coast where banana trees reached the shore. At our overnight stay in nearby Hermigua, palm honey, breads, savouries and fruits formed a filling breakfast feast which powered us past bleached volcanic monoliths on the steep, weaving climb of our return. Descending, finally, to San Sebastian, we overlooked more spectacular ravines whose eroded slopes resembled the imprints of fingers.
Inquisitive dolphins accompanied our ferry back to Tenerife where on and on sprawled Playa de las Americas, a concrete-burdened, party-goer's conglomeration of intertwined resorts. It throbbed with humanity, much of it drawn to a huge beach of Saharan sand. Yet unlike busy towns elsewhere, the area's cobbled thoroughfares, regular pedestrian crossings and ample street furniture created surprisingly good conditions for cycling. Drivers were unhurried; the songs of blackcap and chiffchaff pierced the hubbub.
We left incessant traffic further up the west coast to climb the 14k to Santiago del Teide a succession of hairpins in oven-humid conditions. But once on the plateau on which Santiago stands, a chilly northerly wind sent the temperature crashing. The first hints of blossom brightened roadside almond trees. With tired legs we finally turned towards the excellent La Casona del Patio hotel but not before glimpsing mighty Teide and its snow-feathered shoulders. It is barely more than a century since the volcano last erupted. It looked a dauntingly long way off.
We had another call to make, however, before turning towards the peak. A well-maintained road rises from Santiago over a low col then snakes down steeply to tiny Masca. This honeypot village perches precipitously on the spine above two deep ravines. Beyond, the road winds around a palm and almond-filled valley over another climb and on to the coast. The village itself seemed self-contained. Farming will once have been its mainstay but now it swells with tourists.
Even half-length coaches struggled on the steep turns where our triple chainrings earned their keep as we retraced. Back outside Santiago's domed and beribboned San Fernando Church we picnicked on fresh bread and local cheese, warily eyeing the route towards Teide. When the volcano erupted in 1909, terrified worshippers are said to have placed a religious figure in front of the volcano’s seething lava and halted its flow on hillsides above the town. Between Santiago and Teide itself, the landscape is a monument to volcanic devastation.
On its lower slopes little grows, even now, bar isolated pines and single-stemmed plants whose bulbous leaves looked made for an arid life. Occasional vivid almond groves enraptured photographers but mostly the scene was of tumbling earth and rocks that had churned all before them before running out of steam. At 1,000m we reached the island's remaining Canary pine forest, an early coloniser of the lava and ash rubble. Taking no heed was a string of fast-moving cyclists clad in lime green. The Tinkoff-Saxo team was in training, with Alberto Contador at its head.
He, and we, were heading to the park's one hotel, located at the volcano's foot. To reach it we passed an expanse of volcanic debris: huge lava bombs, volcanic plugs and the remnants of earlier eruptions from the succession of smaller volcanos the road bisected. Suddenly the route flattened and we entered a plateau of earth and rock – the Las Cañadas caldera at the base of Teide. It resembled a huge field tilled with a giant plough. Teide white broom grew sparsely at the base of the Roque Cinchado, a symbol of Tenerife that once graced a Spanish bank note. Cinchado is one of a group of bizarrely shaped rocks, the Roques de Garcia, which have been eroded over centuries leaving striated layers in shades of pink, red and yellow.
Information boards here and throughout the park offered a geological tour of the landscape's history. Spectacular too was the thick cotton wool cloud snuggling up to the mound's eastern hillsides. The gleaming telescopes of the Teide Observatory towered above us before we dropped into the cloud, snaking through its freezing temperatures and pummelling wind for more than 20km. My arms shook so much I thought the bike's headset had come loose. With huge relief we reached bustling La Laguna, staying on the edge of its attractive old town. We scurried into a friendly café and took ages limiting our cake selection to just two each. La Laguna was built in the late 1490s on the site of a lake, a sacred place for the native Guanches people. The city was Tenerife's capital until 1723 and is another World Heritage Site.
Pedestrians and cyclists mingled amicably on cobbled car free avenues lined by grand houses painted in pastel hues and once belonging to wealthy merchants. Outside the Catedral Santa Iglesia grew strapping dragon trees, canopied plants related to yuccas whose resin has coloured Stradivarius violins.
From La Laguna, we spent our last day speeding along Tenerife's east coast crossing steep-sided dry gorges and returning the cheery greetings of hundreds of local cyclists doing exactly the same. Volcanic cones shared the coastal plain below with the messy housings of industrial farming. From 17th century Arico village we spied the distinctive outlines of Montañas Roja and Bocinegro and were soon sweeping through the dusty outskirts of San Isidro on route to El Médano. Our instincts had been right: more than one type of holiday beckoned on these two challenging yet alluring islands.
Credits - Many thanks to Chris Beynon & Cath Harris for the fabulous photos taken during the trip. Riders interested in more travel stories will find lots to enjoy over at Cath's site: www.cathharris.co.uk
Chris and I flew with BA from Heathrow to Tenerife Sur Airport. We packed our bikes in a cycle-specific plastic bag. We used these rather than anything more sturdy because we were cycling from the airport and could not have carried anything else. We left the bags at the first hotel, to which we returned before leaving. Very little dismantling was required – pedals removed, handlebars turned and strapped to the top tube, and tyres deflated. Arguably, the latter is unnecessary and can increase the chance of puncture, but airlines insist. Wrap the tubes in pipe lagging if you’re concerned about paintwork and definitely protect vulnerable bits – the derailleur for example – and anything that sticks out, such as brake levers, with foam, bubble wrap or cardboard, or a combination. I also removed the front wheel and strapped it to the frame so that I could get the bike in the car. That also made it easier to carry through the airport. I put a plastic fork protector between the fork tips (ask in your bike shop – they come with new bikes), and taped down anything that could fall off – pump and water bottle. There is inevitably a risk transporting bikes with seemingly little protection but the theory is that if baggage handlers can see what they’re carrying, they will take more care…
We booked hotels through www.booking.com Yes, you pay extra but it’s much less hassle.