El Hierro: Incredible Hiking Trails At The End Of The World
Pineapples, bananas, vines and almonds thrive on the El Golfo floor where most of El Hierro’s population live – along with the critically endangered El Hierro giant lizard. These reptiles can grow to more than a metre long and had been thought extinct when in 1974 a German naturalist discovered a surviving colony living in the crater wall. However, the only ones I came across were at the Lagartario, in the village of Guinea, where they are bred in a greenhouse, for release. Something that was dawning on me by degrees was how Latin American – as opposed to Spanish – El Hierro feels. Partly, this is the influence of returned emigrants: for instance, the minibuses connecting villages are known here as guaguas (pronounced ‘wah-wahs’) as they are in Caracas; and arroz a la cubana (rice with fried eggs and tomato sauce) is ubiquitous on menus. But I was also discovering that El Hierro’s remoteness protects some traditional Canarian ways that have been lost or diluted elsewhere in the tourist-swamped archipelago.
The El Golfo village of Sabinosa, where I spent an evening, could be in colonial Colombia with its courtyards and balconied houses compressed into a cliff. I was a guest at Senora Noli Casahas’ Casa de Comida where she offers (by prior arrangement only, this is her home not a restaurant) traditional Herreho hospitality. With three others I sat around her front room table scoffing gofio, the local staple of mushy maize meal with vegetables, and a jug of rough justice in the form of local Baboso Negro red wine.
Our hostess told us: “We Canarians are settlers, same as our cousins who went further across the Atlantic to America after leaving ‘La Peninsula’.” The latter term is a mildly derogatory reference to mainland Spain, which I have also heard used in South America. Still, human habitation here goes back centuries before the Europeans, who first settled on El Hierro in the 15th century. This is evidenced by petroglyphs engraved by the Bimbaches (the Canaries’ original inhabitants) on rocks above the lava-scaped pools of La Caleta, near the airport. Archaeologists have failed to decipher their meaning, or even agree on when the Bimbaches arrived and where they came from. However, along with their rock art, scraps of mythology have survived the familiar story of a people wiped out by violence, disease and sale into slavery.
One of these myths surrounds a sacred 15m-tall Garoe tree, worshipped by the Bimbaches on account of its ability to distil water on its leaves. In fact, the phenomenon of water condensing on trees and plants as mist disperses is not all that rare but, on an island where people have always had to struggle for water, the tree has become an emblem. The spot near San Andres, to the island’s north, where the tree (not the original obviously, but who cares) shades a cool, clear pool still felt touched by magic.