The quiet Canary Island with beautiful spring walks that wants tourists to return

On Sunday 19 September 2021, the sleeping elemental forces of Macaronesia burst awake. One of the world’s most volcanically active islands erupted. For 85 long days, lava, ash and gas swept over swathes of La Palma, one of the greenest of the Canary Islands known by locals as “la Isla Bonita”.

The emergency was finally declared over on Christmas Day, but it was just the beginning of the recovery that continues today, with tourism at its heart.

“There is no understating the damage the volcano caused to La Palma in so many ways”, says Jonas Perez, whose company Isla Bonita Tours has, like every island business, had to weather tumultuous volcanic headwinds.

“Nothing today is better than it was before the volcano, nothing at all,” Perez adds.

EL PASO, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 20: Mount Cumbre Vieja continues to erupt in El Paso, spewing out columns of smoke, ash and lava as seen from Los Llanos de Aridane on the Canary island of La Palma on September 20, 2021. - The Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on Spain's Canary Islands today spewing out lava, ash and a huge column of smoke after days of increased seismic activity, sparking evacuations of people living nearby, authorities said. Cumbre Vieja straddles a ridge in the south of La Palma island and has erupted twice in the 20th century, first in 1949 then again in 1971. (Photo by Andres Gutierrez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
September 2021: Mount Cumbre Vieja erupting in El Paso (Photo: Getty)

Looking back to my first visit to the fifth largest of the eight Canary Islands over a decade ago, I was acutely aware of being on a seriously seismically active island, its landscape thrillingly active. Over the years on La Palma, I’ve heard dire predictions that were the vast volcanic spine of La Palma to collapse it could lead to a “mega-tsunami” that would only spare Europe if – as predicted – it took out swathes of the North American eastern seaboard.

Mercifully we still await the “Big One”, but the Cumbre Vieja ridge – where the new Tajogaite volcano erupted in 2021 – has form. La Palma also opened its fiery window into the earth here in 1949, with volcano San Juan, and then again with Teneguía in 1971.

There may have been no apocalyptical tsunami in 2021, but the eruption was devastating, affecting more than 10 per cent of the island’s landmass (it is the second highest of the islands after Tenerife, but almost three times smaller). There were no direct fatalities, but the longest recorded eruption in La Palma’s history – the third longest ever in this turbulent archipelago – wrought havoc through the Aridane Valley. 7,000 residents were evacuated. The Tajogaite volcano – a native Benahoarita name chosen by the Palmeros – spewed a suffocating blanket of lava and ash and destroyed more than 1,600 buildings: homes, schools and countless small businesses. Vital banana plantations were wiped out.

The volcano that went on erupting on September 19 in Cumbre Vieja mountain range, spewes gas, ash and lava over the Aridane valley as seen from Los Llanos de Aridane on the Canary Island of La Palma, on September 22, 2021. - The vast wall of molten lava creeping down the slopes of Spain's La Palma island has destroyed 320 buildings and over 154 hectares of land, Europe's volcano observatory said today. The Cumbre Vieja volcano, which erupted on September 19, 2021, straddles a ridge in the south of La Palma, one of seven islands that make up the Canary Islands, Spain's Atlantic archipelago which lies off the coast of Morocco. (Photo by DESIREE MARTIN / AFP) (Photo by DESIREE MARTIN/AFP via Getty Images)
19 September, 2021: Cumbre Vieja mountain range, spews gas, ash and lava over the Aridane Valley (Photo: Getty)

The total direct damage was estimated at €843m (£720m). Tourism ground to a halt. Before the pandemic La Palma received around 250,000 visitors a year, but that number only touched 81,422 in 2023 at a time when its neighbours were seeing healthy recovery of their visitor numbers.

Tourism made up a significant chunk of GDP, but around 1,000 tourist hotel beds were lost, along with 75km of road and damage to tourist businesses that created aftershocks for the island’s economy that the island authorities and Madrid have struggled to contain.

In the immediate aftermath, as people still mourned the loss of their homes and livelihoods, a wave of journalists swept in alongside a sprinkling of “disaster tourists” craving to survey the smouldering scenes. Volcanic tourism is nothing new on La Palma. The Teneguía 1971 eruption came within metres of creating a whole new island, which later drew a slew of fascinated divers.

On land, the Caños de Fuego exhibition centre was set up following the 1949 eruption to teach about “geological formations that develop during and after volcanic eruptions and …highlight the environmental importance and fragility of the ecosystems and the value of conserving them”.

LA PALMA CANARY ISLANDS, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 14: Tourists walk along a path affected by lava from the Tajogaite volcano, in the Sierra de Cumbre Vieja, La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain. After 85 days of activity, on December 25, 2021, the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano, which began to roar on September 19, came to an end. At least 1,241.1 hectares were destroyed by lava and 2,988 buildings were destroyed. Some 1,170 families lost their only home. The Canary Islands Government put the losses caused by the volcano at 842 million. (Photo By Kike Rincon/Europa Press via Getty Images)
Tourists walk along a path affected by lava from the Tajogaite volcano (Photo: Getty)

I’ve also walked the Route of the Volcanoes, beguiled by the craters, strikingly coloured deposits and the jet-black lava. I tasted why volcanology can be so thrilling. The stark, wildly beautiful landscapes of a hike you can still do today remain seared onto my frontal lobes.

While few islanders would advocate disaster tourism, it is clear that visitors have an appetite to learn more about Macaronesia’s newest volcano, as Perez acknowledges: “It’s natural that people want to see the volcano that hit the headlines, but also important that we show them what happened in a sensitive and educational way.”

While some of the day trip operators who whisk tourists across from Tenerife risk being accused of verging on volcano voyeurism, locally-owned Isla Bonita weaves the new landscapes into its existing tours and offers more in-depth experiences. It has guides specially trained for the 5.2km Tajogaite hike, which delves into the exclusion zone just 300m from the new volcano.

Like other companies it also offers a taster bus trip of the volcano and its aftermath that takes in the Aridane valley, the Las Hoya viewpoint, where you see the new Cumbre Vieja volcano. There’s also a window into developments in Puerto Naos resort, whose beach finally re-opened in January.

The highest point on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands is the Roque de las Muchachos, at an elevation of 2,423 metres. Here you look into the Caldera de Taburiente, a National Park. The island in the background is el Hierro.
The highest point on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands is the Roque de las Muchachos (Photo: Getty)

Infrastructure is being repaired too. The coastal road connecting the island’s northwest and southwest reopened last May.

Juanjo González, of the Parador de La Palma, says: “La Palma has shown unwavering determination in its efforts to rebuild and highlight the island’s natural beauty, emphasising the crucial role of tourism in its recovery.”

The signs are also promising for UK-based operators. Martin Hunt, of Ramble Worldwide, is upbeat: “We were delighted to be able to support the island when it was safe to bring groups back, with many clients saying they were keen to return to see how the eruption had reshaped the landscape. We had our largest number of passengers ever travelling to the island this winter season.”

Visitor numbers began picking up noticeably this winter and are continuing to rise. Cruise ships are calling at the island again and hikers are back out on the trails that are open.

As Tajogaite tourism adds another string to La Palma’s bountiful tourist bow, it also serves as a unique shop window that will surely snare new fans. The National Park Caldera de Taburiente is arguably Macaronesia’s most spectacular, and Unesco has proclaimed its entirety a Biosphere Reserve.

The highest peak of The National Park Caldera de Taburiente, at 2,426m, is close to double the height of Ben Nevis. La Palma is the world’s steepest island. It is also an oasis of dense forests, sturdy pine, and subtropical laurel, where the flora is brighter, bigger, and more spectacular. La Palma is more Jurassic Park than theme park.

“It will take 5-10 years for La Palma to really recover, and tourism has become an essential part of that,” concludes Perez.

“If one good thing comes out of the eruption it is that people come to spend more time on an island where I could take you walking for five days and show you a new world every day.”

Travel essentials

Getting there
Tui Airways flies from Gatwick and Manchester.
Isla Bonita Tours and Ramble Worldwide offer packages.

Staying there
Parador de la Palma is a stately, old-world hotel peering over the Atlantic on a hillside above the capital of Santa Cruz de la Palma. Doubles from €90.

More information
visitlapalma.es