After having spent two weeks on Sardinia in May 2004 with its beautiful but low mountains I had anticipated a stay on La Palma, where the highest summits almost reach 2500m. I was aware of the elevation but not of the fact that all those high summits are aligned along the crest of a huge crater, the world’s largest erosion crater, Caldera de Taburiente. On the flight from Germany to the Canarias I had enough time (4h) to prepare for the island and I got hooked by the last 20 pages of my guidebook which described the breathtaking region around the crater.
Consequently my main goal immediately became to see as much of it as was possible. The inside, framed by 1500m walls, the lookout peaks and saddles and of course the mountain on the rim, especially the highest one, Roque de los Muchachos. As it turned out the goal was far easier to set than to reach. I had counted on the usual Canarian weather with low clouds in the east but clear skies in the west and on the mountains. Little did I know that I was in for a period of fierce western rainstorms of epic proportions. Little did I know that even in Canarian standard conditions you had to outsmart the clouds, always on the lookout for the next patch of blue sky but generally trudging through fog and rain.
Here is an account of the seven attempts we started to reach the Caldera de Taburiente – some of them successful, some not, but all leaving lasting impressions. And – as it should be – we left the best for last – with Roque de los Muchachos and the crater rim on the last day of our two week stay.
Feb. 20th 2005: Knee Deep (Barranco de las Angustias)
On the first two days low clouds forced us towards the coast so that the goal seemed far away and in fact I started to get a little nervous. There was lots of rain during the nights and during the days the humidity evaporated from the ground, only to create new heavy rain clouds. Moreover the apartment offered a view of Punta de los Roques to the south-west of the Caldera and Pico Bejenado to its south and at no time we were able to see the upper parts of these impressive mountains. Having crossed Barranco de las Angustias on our way to our Feb 19th destination we had decided, however to go for a try on the inside of the caldera as soon as possible.
The centre of the crater is called Playa de Taburiente and can be reached on two routes, both starting at a parking lot at Barranco de las Angustias, 5km from the city centre of Los Llanos. One of the routes climbs to Mirador de los Brecitos before lowering itself into the caldera centre. The other is a scramble through the narrow Barranco de las Angustias, supposed to be one of the most beautiful but demanding scrambles of the island. We decided to do them both, starting with the Barranco.
Those who can read sure do have advantages over those who don’t! The guidebook clearly stated that after rainy days Rio Taburiente, which flows through the Barranco, carries so much water that the scramble gets dangerous or outright impossible. And it had rained the previous day and night so the level of the river was accordingly high. Still we set out, doing the first crossing over a high irrigation channel bridge. The trail, however, forced us down into the Barranco and the next crossing was only 20m away. With the river carrying so much water, crossing barefoot didn’t seem an option and we left our boots on.
Ankle deep it was, just high enough to flood our boots from the shaft. And these Meindl Perfekt Boots are water tight, I can assure you! Once inside there is no way to get rid of the flood, only by pulling off the boots with a lot of sock and sole wringing on the side.
Three crossings (some knee deep) within 150m convinced us that the Barranco was not an option on this day and we returned - boots filled to the brim. All this, especially drying boots and feet took so much time, that Playa de Taburiente couldn’t be reached in any way that day and we refocused for Mirador de los Brecitos as the new destination. We reached it but by the time we did, the Caldera was shrouded in clouds with only a small circular patch of blue sky in the middle.
Feb. 21st 2005: Outsmarted by Clouds (Reventon Pass and Cumbre Nueva)
After the disaster in Barranco de las Angustias the next day offered a cloud free view in the morning with both Punta de los Roques and Pico Bejenado visible for the first time. We hastened through our breakfast and headed for the Ermita de la Virgen del Pino (which was very close to our apartment). At 7:30a.m. we set out for a climb to Reventon Pass and a ridge traverse to Punta de los Roques and maybe onward to Pico de la Nieve.
Though beautiful because of the great Canarian Pines the first part of the climb to Reventon Pass doesn’t offer any views. Every now and then an opening would show us Pico Bejenado, the Cumbrecita Saddle and some of the Caldera Summits but it soon became clear that the day wouldn’t remain cloud-free. We hastened up the steep Camino Real but almost immediately that we reached it the further trail (Ruta de la Cresteria) became covered by trade wind clouds and our Canarian experience of the previous years told us that there would be no chance of any views, rather the danger of getting drenched to the bones.
We turned the other way, along Cumbre Nueva, decided to climb Volcán Bernardino, mistook our way, ended up on Volcán San Juan an infinity away from our trailhead at the Ermita. At San Juan a nasty fizzling rain started and we got drenched to the bones anyway.
Feb. 22nd 2005: JIT - Just in Time (Pico Bejenado)
Never one (or two) to give up, we took the next opportunity, which opened the next day. Rather than heading for a longish climb we decided to climb Pico Bejenado, which – as the look out of our apartment window proved – was fully visible with no cloud in sight anywhere. The climb was supposed to take two hours so that reaching the summit was possible by 10a.m.
Again a hasty breakfast and 8.a.m saw us at the trailhead, south-east of Bejenado. There are two possible routes (again) and we decided on the northern one because it climbs the caldera ridge and thus should have offered good views. Only we didn’t find the trail!! So we climbed the normal southern route, again falling in love with the beautiful Canarian Pines. The weather was fine still, but it seemed obvious, that yesterday’s experience would hit again, if we didn’t hurry.
At 9:30a.m. we reached El Rodeo, a saddle, some 200m below the Bejenado summit. Roque Palmero already was in the clouds but the remainder of the Caldera was visible. This was what we had come here for! I shot a lot of pictures from the saddle (one of which you can admire as a panorama on the main page), but then hastened to catch up with Judith who was already heading for the summit. The pines got sparser and consequently the views towards the south opened. Cumbre Nueva was already clouded and Pico Birigoyo on Cumbre Vieja barely topped them.
But when we reached the Bejenado summit everything was still fine! We drank in the gorgeous view, I shooting all the while like crazy, never bothering about the tiny little cloud to the west of the summit. Five minutes later and this cloud had grown into a monster, rain started to fall and we had to retreat hastily.
But still – this time we had won! Were the tables about to turn?
Feb. 22nd 2005: Lowdown on the Beach (El Time South Face)
Even after getting down from Bejenado it was still not quite noon and so we mused about starting Ruta de la Cresteria from the other side, from Puerto Tazarcorte on the west coast of La Palma. We could (and did) take our lunch on one of the benches near the beach and then head through the impressive El Time South Face. And down we went (from 1844m to 0m in 2h).
The El Time South Face is a near vertical wall towering above the port and beach of Puerto Tazarcorte. It drops vertically to the south and west for almost 300m and is the westernmost outpost of the Caldera de Taburiente. Here the trekking trail Ruta de la Cresteria ends (starts) and a couple of days before we had seen lots of hikers/trekkers go up through that wall. It didn’t seem difficult but from our standpoint near the beach it wasn’t possible to see why.
After lunch we headed for the town centre and the trailhead of Ruta de la Cresteria. Here a Camino Real (cobble-stoned) started and zigzagged through the lower parts of the wall. The higher we got the more we had to admire the construction and layout of that ancient trail. Using every possible notch and bend in the face the trail actually reaches the top without requiring anything from the hiker / trekker but stamina. Near the top it reaches the western face of El Time, which drops vertically into the sea. But never even dream of diving down from there. The sea is too shallow with 5m at most.
The day was crowned with the view of an invisible Pico Bejenado (and we had been there with almost perfect views a couple of hours before!) and the possibility to watch a Kestrel hunting for prey.
Feb. 28th 2005: Save Our Day! (Mirador de la Cumbrecita)
But we had to pay for these two successes dearly. On Feb 23rd the western winds set in and from then on fierce rainstorms kept rolling across the western coast of La Palma. For short periods, sometimes even a day, the winds died down and we were able to hike something more interesting than banana plantations. We had tried to reach the caldera ridge summits via the mountain road LP-22 but found that it was closed due to snow. Moreover the rains chased us down. We almost didn’t make it back because a mudslide had almost blocked the road.
One of these better days was the last of Febuary, where we tried to the northern part of the Ruta de los Volcanes trekking trail. We actually did but due to fog nothing (really nothing) could be seen. Only when heading down we saw that Caldera de Taburiente had been cloud-free all day! And we had been on Cumbre Vieja trudging through the clouds!
To make a success out of that day I single-handedly decided to drive to the Cumbrecita Saddle and at least take a few shots of the caldera. There were only two days left from our vacation and though I was sure that I wouldn’t reach the rim summits I at least could take some more photos, couldn’t I?
There is a short loop trail at Cumbrecita, which unfortunately is very popular among the tourons. But we were pretty late and so the trail was not that populated. And yes, the name Mirador de la Cumbrecita is justified. It sure is a golden view of the Caldera, halfway up with equal distances to Playa de Taburiente in the centre of the caldera and the mountains on the crest.
This day was saved!
March 1st 2005: I Wish I had Crampons! (Pico de la Nieve, Piedra Llana)
The next to last day finally offered, what we didn’t hope for anymore: the possibility to go up to the crater crest and have the top view of the Caldera. Maybe even a couple of summits could be bagged!
We put all sportsmanship aside and drove up to the trailhead to Pico de la Nieve (300m below the summit). We found out, that LP-22 had been opened again, so access was easily possible. We hadn’t accounted for the amounts of snow we still found up there. This was La Palma! Yes there could be snow – but certainly not more than to just barely cover the ground!
We were wrong once more! Though the ascent to Pico de la Nieve was relatively easy with not too difficult snowfield traverses we soon found out that the huge amounts of rain which had come down the three days before had added a 5-10mm layer of ice to a 1m snow layer. And it was ice-cold up there. No chance that the ice would melt anyway soon.
From Pico de la Nieve we (again) headed for Ruta de la Cresteria in the direction of Pico de la Cruz. The Ruta passes the summits on the outside of the caldera and thus there were always north-west faces and slopes to cross. And these 30° ice-covered snowfields on the north-western sides of the summits almost stopped us in our tracks! Without crampons it turned out to be a helluva slippery affair. And who would bring crampons to the “Island of Eternal Spring”? I did my best to break the ice with my boots but after having reached Piedra Llana we had to turn around.
Still this was what we had been hoping for!
March 1st 2005: Finally – the highpoint! (Roque de los Muchachos)
After returning to Pico de la Nieve and side-stepping to the cloud-covered Punta de los Roques we returned to the car but decided to take the north-western exit from the mountain road LP-22. But when turning the caldera to its northern side the weather again looked absolutely perfect. I put the brakes on the car near the observatories around Roque de los Muchachos and we decided to give the highpoint of La Palma a try. This was the second to last day!
The European and Spanish Space and Astrophysical Associations maintain a large number (about 8) of telescopes between Pico de la Fuente Nueva and Roque de los Muchachos. Being a physicist myself the sight of those white and silvery domes popping up above the blindingly white snow sure rang a bell within me. It sure looks spacey, science fiction-like. Anyway, the observatories are the reason for the mountain road LP-22 in the first place and from it (the road) you can head up to Roque de los Muchachos within an hour.
The downside of it is that the road actually reaches the summit – there is a parking-“lot” 30m below it. But due to the snow conditions the road was closed (but free of snow) so that a hike towards the summit of Roque de los Muchachos was easily possible. Imagine a deep blue sky, a whole lot of telescope domes and a beautiful set of rocks. The rains of the week before had added a layer of 5cm to the western side of every rock so that the summit of Los Muchachos looked strange indeed.
On the summit you find a Stonehenge like ring of rocks (natural though). And these rocks were covered with rime several cm thick! A curious highpoint of the island and for our vacation!
In the end I can say, that I have been everywhere I wanted to be though in the days in between I almost had despaired.