El Hierro is probably the least visited of the Canary Islands. Certainly it is the smallest and the most remote. Until recent times there was no regular ferry service linking it to the rest of the archipelago, and there is still no airport. However, do not be deluded into thinking that this means that El Hierro is entirely rustic. It is certainly rural and it is surprisingly green in parts, but it is not the “peasanty” pastoral place that we imagined it to be.
Twenty years ago El Hierro must have been pretty much untouched by modern civilisation, and the people really will have lived much as their ancestors did – getting their livelihood from the land and from the sea. Even ten years ago it must have been a quaint place, but the superfluity of wealth generated by Spain’s membership of the European Community has ended all of that. For better or for worse, the population of El Hierro is now as affluent as any other within Western European, and the island is now blessed with an abundance of modern conveniences. These include electricity and water – which are things that one would not wish to deny to any people – and a broad tarmac road which winds all the way across the green and pleasant slopes, from the port of La Restinga, in the south, to the one-horse capital town of Valverde, in the north.
Travelling along the road are a few cars (all of them shiny and nice), and a small fleet of enormous city-style buses, each with half a dozen passengers aboard.
Does a tiny island, with the population of a village, really benefit from having its precious acres despoiled in this way, we ask ourselves?
If you want to see donkeys being driven along the bumpy lane by bare-footed boys, and grizzled old men in straw sombreros working the terraced fields with a hoe… well, you have left it too late. (Try the museum of ethnography and culture. Or try Cape Verde.)
On the other hand, if all you want is a very quiet time doing more or less nothing in a tranquil, very attractive location, then El Hierro is right up your street.
The channel between La Gomera and El Hierro is reputed to be wildly windy. Once again, we didn’t find it so – the Canary Islands acceleration zones all seem to fizzle out when Mollymawk rocks up – but we did enjoy a super-fast passage in a good breeze.
Having left Valle Gran Rey just after sunset we expected to arrive off the north-eastern corner of El Hierro at daybreak. On finding ourselves at this point before midnight we reduced sail and continued south along the coast under well-reefed genoa. Even so, we continued to bowl along at over four knots through the water.
Rant (A Slight Digression…)
We had been told that there is no settlement associated with the port of La Estaca, and from the way in which the place was lit it would seem that this information is correct: there appeared to be no houses but the wall was illuminated by a string of disgusting sodium lights which vomited their orange glow down onto the sea.
Why, why, oh, why do port authorities still install these most hideous lights, when they could just as easily fit something a little less foul – such as a string of relatively harmless white lights?
And if they must fit them, why must they use them all night, almost every night, even when no shipping is expected?
The port in Valle Gran Rey (La Gomera) is lit in the same fashion – with a row of Betjeman’s “gallows” belching out that same nauseating glow – and so too is the one in Lajes (Flores, Azores). In each case, what might be a perfectly lovely night in a perfectly lovely anchorage is utterly ruined.
More importantly, in each of these three instances the bright lighting upsets the shearwaters nesting in the cliffs opposite.
Fearful of discovery, these birds visit their nests only at night, but because of the port lighting the night is now hardly darker than the day. Some of the birds have simply abandoned their ancestral nest sites. Others begin the routine, perhaps on a night when the lighting happens to have been turned off for some reason, and then abandon their eggs when they lose their nerve.
Even those young whose parents are bold enough to see the thing through are not guaranteed to survive. Nature intended that the fledglings should launch themselves into the air, one moonlit night, and glide down onto the sea, but the bright sodium lights cause many of the young to become so disorientated that they set off inland, crash into the trees or the houses, and subsequently die.
Why – in this day and age, when we know better – do we still have to put up with these stupidities?
Back to the plot
The entire eastern coast of El Hierro was unlit except for one small patch which lay towards the top of the island close to the southern end. This, as we later discovered, is the village of El Pinar.
El Hierro boasts two ports: in the north lies the aforementioned port of La Estaca, whilst in the south we find La Restinga.
La Estaca is the ferry terminal – a bleak place, lurking under the cloud which clings to the northern end of the isle, with bleak grey concrete walls and a wind which almost never ceases to blow. Everbody we have ever spoken to has who visited La Estaca came away hating El Hierro; so we gave it a miss.
One glimpse, from the seat of the above-mentioned bus making its thrice-daily journey the length of the island, was enough to confirm that it is a drab modern place with nothing to recommend it.
We are told that the way from La Estaca up to the town of Valverde is long and steep but that visitors who don’t like exercise can make use of the bus which meets the ferry.
The town we have visited. We set out from sunny Restinga with the intention of spending a day here, seeing the sights and doing a bit of shopping, but on arrival we discovered that – once again – we had been misled by a naiive flight of fancy. To call the place a dump would be slightly unfair, but it has nothing to offer to the tourist. We couldn’t even find a decent supermarket or an attractive bar. Nor is there anything here which is of architectural interest; there are no scenic buildings or pretty views.
Valverde is wind-swept and rain-swept. Within twenty minutes we had explored it from one side to the other and were chilled to the bone. We spent half an hour sitting in a nasty plastic bar – with formica tables, a wide-screen TV nattering away to itself, and a naff picture on the wall next to a naff gilded clock – while we waited for the bus to take us home again.
Arriving off La Restinga well before the break of day we stood off. Dawn unveiled a small, compact settlement hidden behind an impressively tall and robust sea wall. The coast on either side was entirely bare with no other settlements or buildings in view.
Entrance to the port is perfectly straightforward.
Vessels under 45 ft or thereabouts may make use of a tiny marina which occupies the shoreward side of the port, but we were directed to berth Mollymawk on the seawall.
This happens wherever we go in the Canary Islands: whether in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, La Graciosa, or Valle Gran Rey, if we want to go alongside we are told that we are too big and heavy to take up a berth in the marina; we must moor on the sea wall. In theory this is not a problem; and, after all, there are no facilities on the seawall, so it ought to be cheaper…
In practice, however, the authorities always want to charge us more than twice as much for this “commercial” berth!
We have found that if we complain, very politely, against this injustice then the port captain is invariably kind and understanding. Indeed, if you can address the man in his native Spanish then you might even get a night’s berthing for free.
La Restinga is billed as the “main tourist centre” of El Hierro, but during the three days of our stay we only saw two other tourists; namely, an English couple who were back-packing.
Admittedly we were not here in the peak seasons (late December and early January for the northern Europeans, and August for the Spanish) but we couldn’t help but notice a remarkable lack of infrastructure. There were several diving schools but, that apart, there seemed to be nothing much for a tourist to do; and we didn’t notice any hotels.
The village is home to perhaps 500 souls and it is so sleepy that you could almost call it a ghost town. During the siesta there is just nobody at all on the street.
Somewhat surprisingly, (and disappointingly, for the ship’s artists) there appeared to be no old buildings; the place consists entirely of modern concrete apartments.
“Have the old houses all been rebuilt?” we asked.
“No,” was the reply. “There was no old village here. There were no houses at all at La Restinga until about fifty years ago.”
In past times there was no seawall of any sort at La Restinga, and so the fishermen kept their little boats hauled out on the small sandy beach. (Restinga means sand-bar, and this is presumably a reference to the tiny strip of sand lying on either side of the marina.)
The land at this end of the island is entirely barren, with bare brown volcanic rock lying in coils, like fossilised rope, or in strange jagged piles. Only the local spurge and the house-leek can put down roots and flourish in such demanding conditions. There is no soil on which to grow crops or pasture any cattle. More importantly, there is no fresh water here.
Unable to set themselves up on this sun-drenched but hostile shore the people of the past made their homes a few miles further inland and aloft, in the aforementioned village of El Pinar.
On the Trail from the Lonesome Pines
El Pinar means The Pines, and the village is perched beside a large stand of endemic pine trees – one of the last remaining “pine forests” in the Canaries.
Here, where the cloud caresses the island, blessing the land with moisture, the peasant people grew grapes and figs, guavas, oranges, almonds, lemons, avocados, and other fruits and vegetables. They also kept a few cows and made cheese. Living principally from the land, when they wanted to add fish to their diet the men would jog down the hill to the beach.
Some of the older people of El Pinar still grow their own fruit and vegetables and still make wine from the fruit of their vines and cheese from the milk of their cows; and the path which the fishermen used is still well-trodden – but nowadays, for the most part, it is trodden by back-packers.
Beginning on the eastern side of the village of El Pinar – opposite the home of the old basket maker (whose creations are still in daily use in the homes of the local people) – the path heads down past the old Roman Catholic church and the brand-new tanatorio (where the dead are laid in state). It then meanders down the mountainside between flower-decked stone walls and over grassy cobblestones.
The fishermen, galloping down to their boats, are said to have taken two hours to get from their homes to the sea. We Mollymawks, idling along admiring the view, took almost twice as long to complete the course.
Money For Nothing (Another Rant)
As I have said, the Canary Islands have benefited greatly from Spain’s membership of the European Club.
Like the French Overseas Territories, the Canaries would rather like to be independent. If you should happen to say, “You Spanish people” (or something of that kind) to a Canario he will quickly correct you: “I am not Spanish!”, he will say.
In order to retain the people’s interest in continuing their relationship with the parent company, the Spanish government has used bribery. Huge sums of money have been spent on “developing” the islands, and – if we have understood correctly – a number of people get by very happily on the Canary Islands equivalent of Supplementary Benefit.
(The large numbers of fishermen waving their rods about on the islands’ seawalls are beneficiaries of this scheme. Whereas in England angling is a weekend pastime, in the Canaries the very opposite is true. Doubtless there are still some men in the cities who fish for a hobby, but you will not see the professionals dangling their lines in the water on Saturday or Sunday, because – like everyone else in the world – they like to have the weekend off.)
The benefit scheme seems to work very well. Those enjoying the hand-outs do not appear to feel demeaned, and because they are “employed” they cannot be labelled scroungers. Everyone has a house and a telly; nobody wants for a clean designer-label T-shirt; and everyone seems to be perfectly happy and fulfilled.
But the system of pouring in develpment aid is another matter altogether. As we see it, it is becoming increasingly destructive – not so much to the fabric of society, but to the actual fabric of the islands themselves.
The Canary Islands are now covered in super-smooth superfast highways. In some cases they are needed. Journeying from one end of Gran canaria to the other on the coastal motorway is a fairly appalling, mind-numbing experience, but the old road, a little further inland, is simply not big enough to accomodate today’s volume of traffic; so that motorway is obviously a necessary eyesore.
However, the thick black tarmac rivers which have been laid down on the empty hillsides of La Gomera are an abomination. The unmade tracks of yester-year were perfectly adequate and were far more appealing to the greater part of the traffic – which consists of a few back-packers.
Likewise the tarmac carpet unrolled onto the mountainside in El Hierro is quite out of place.
Likewise, those ghastly orange lights in the port.
And likewise the seafront lighting in La Restinga. The European tax payers very kindly paid 18,000 Euros for this 50 yard stretch of uneccesary illumination. Just think what that money could have done for families living on the streets of Rio or Delhi!
The EC tax-payers have also coughed up the money for an uninspiring playground – in which not one child was seen playing during our stay – and I dread to think what they paid for the massive sea walls which protect the port.
Clearly, some kind of seawall was needed here. Without it there would be no port. But does a cute little marina, housing two dozen pull-em-up-the-beach type fishing boats, three RIBs, and four or five small yachts, really deserve a set of walls taller and stronger than the ones which shelter the fishing fleets of Mousehole and Lyme Regis (to name the first two historic English fishing villages which come to mind)?
Maybe it does. Maybe the new port will nurture an eco-diving tourism industry which cannot thrive without such splendid year-round protection… Or maybe the wall will encourage the young men of the village to take up the trade of their fathers’ and go fishing. But one thing is for certain – whether or not the walls are needed, they certainly did not require to be embellished. And yet they have been.
The shoreward face of the seawall is adorned by concrete stucco reminiscent of the icing on a child’s birthday cake.
Surely, nobody could possibly think that it looked attractive…? If I lived in La Restinga I would have to board up my windows or close my curtains to shut out the view.
And this artwork cost the EC taxpayers 800,000 E.
What to do in La Restinga
Most visitors come here to dive in the national park. Fishing is not allowed within the limits of this place, and so sealife within the park is abundant. This, I suppose, is what the whole of the sea in this region must have been like before mankind began the great work of rounding up everything which swims.
One cannot help but be disturbed by the comparison.
Walking is another pleasant way to pass the time. If you don’t fancy the hike down from El Pinar take a stroll on the volcanic slopes just to the west of the village. Stout shoes are recommended, because the rock is very abrasive and carves up flip-flops in no time at all.
If all you came here to do is just hang out, be sure to stroll around from the marina and watch the fishermen unloading their catch.
Because the coast here shelves very steeply the men can catch deepwater fish within a few yards of the port entrance, and the big-eyed red fish which they bring ashore (alfonsino and tableta) fetch a nice price in the markets in Las Palmas and Tenerife. You can buy them for about half the price here – but that still isn’t cheap.
Those on a tight budget will prefer to opt for a chunk of wahoo (also called Spanish mackerel, and known here as peto). If you show sufficient interest someone might be persuaded to show you the life-sized lure with which these fish are attracted, and the strange harpoon with which they are speared.
Don’t be tempted to start fishing for the free grub which you will see swimming around your boat. The port is within the park and fishing here is not allowed.
The Necessary Facilities (Provisioning and Bunkering, and so forth)
The bar on the seafront behind the marina offers a free wifi service to its customers. If your aeriel is big enough you can pick it up from the boat, but you will need to go and have a drink first to get the password.
There are a couple of small supermarkets close to the seafront. Prices here are slightly higher than in La Gomera and much higher than in the Mercadona supermarket in Las Palmas. I would not want to have to stock up for a crossing in this port – but it would be possible.
Fuel: Fuel is almost always cheaper in the Canary Islands than anyhwhere else in Europe. It is supposed to be the same price throughout the Canaries, but we founded it to be slightly cheaper here than in Valle Gran Rey, La Gomera.
If you are moored on the seawall then the only way to take on water is by lugging your jerry cans to and from the tap in the boatyard.
A friend who slipped his boat here claims that it is the cheapest place in the whole archipelago – but another friend, who slipped in Agaete (Gran Canaria) says that it is cheaper there; and another swears that Puerto Mogan is cheaper still.
All of these ports are equipped with huge travel-lifts which were provided for the benefit of local fishermen. (Yes, they were probably paid for by the EC.) Slipping seems to cost about 80 Euros each way, but the cost of remaining on the hard varies.