Wednesday, January 25, 2012

La Palma Days 5 & 6: Caldera

Caldera, Caldera, Caldera...always this Caldera in view.  The Caldera is a giant hole in the middle of La Palma, created by the collapse of one of the volcanoes that formed the island.  Originally, this volcano was around 4000 meters high, then it just imploded, leaving a couple thousand meters of mountains. 

The Caldera is such an ever-present feature of this island that it warranted visits 2 days in a row.  Originally, we planned a hike from a high point down into a valley where you can walk through a riverbed and back to civilization.  After the drive up the the starting point of the hike, which involved, oh, at least 15 kilometers of winding, narrow, pretty much one-lane mountain streets with hairpin curves and bus and taxi drivers driving like they're on the Autobahn, I pretty much said, and I quote:  "(Insert expletive here) this.  This trail is crap and I'm not walking down because my knees already hurt."  Anyway, it was too late to start the hike.  The signs at the top said specifically, DO NOT start the hike after noon because you will get lost,  fall off the mountain and die.  It was about 12:01 when we got to the top, so that was enough adventure for one day for me.  We opted instead for a fun drive back down the 10 kilometers of hairpin curves where I knew my certain death was lurking around every corner and a hike in the riverbed which would have been the goal of the first, much longer and much more treacherous original hike.  Unfortunately, at this point my camera's battery had opted to off itself rather than risk falling off the side of a mountain, so I couldn't take any pictures of the truly cool riverbed where we actually did take a little walk.  It was full of giant boulders and actually quite scenic.  It was also not without its challenges, a lot of the walk involved balancing on stones to cross the river, which also robbed the whole affair of fun for me.  I am not so well-balanced and don't like we turned around after a while and headed back.  Enough fun for one day!

Look at those streets and look at those paths!

The next day a certain someone was full of gusto and decided to hike around the rim of the Caldera. I didn't join this hike, though eyewitnesses told me that even I could have handled it, even considering my fear of heights and occasionally questionable sense of balance.  Instead of challenging myself even more, I relaxed on our rented balcony and read a book about Chernobyl.  Two days of Caldera are enough for me, the next installment is the Cumbre!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

La Palma day 4: Santa Cruz and Salt

At first we thought this was just a creatively built parking spot in front of our apartment.  I regularly threatened my friendly driver should he even consider parking there.  Just being a passenger in a car maneuvering into that spot would be enough to give me a heart attack, big whimp that I am!  Finally we discovered that this was not a parking spot.  It took us three days to see what it really was:

It's where somebody changes their oil!  Notice the bucket of oil and the pliers on the right side.   I love the fact that rather than just crawling under the car or driving it up on ramps (or having the mechanic change the oil as a whimpy non-mechanical person like me would do), they went to all the trouble of pouring cement to build this crazy oil change apparatus. 

On day 4 of our trip we decided to head out to the markets and look for some local produce and fresh fish. Our first stop was in the capital city of Santa Cruz.  We strolled around town and enjoyed the traditional Canarian architecture and also found the small market hall.  Unfortunately, we were a little disappointed:  the market was not bustling, hectic, and packed full of sights, sounds, smells and people like markets we've experienced elsewhere, it was pretty laid back and there wasn't anything that really piqued our interest.  
Here's a church in Santa Cruz, I particularly liked the gargoyles which you can see below:

After leaving Santa Cruz empty handed, we continued on to Mazo, where there was supposed to be another market.  We found this one easily, because there are signs on the main streets of the bigger towns directing you to the mercado municipal.   The farmers' market in Mazo was also small, but more to our liking, there was slightly more action and lots of fresh fruits.  There were even some German expats there selling their wares:  whole grain baked goods, tofu burgers and seitan patties.  We stocked up on local avocadoes, squash, bananas, tomatoes and lettuce and feasted on delicious produce for lunch.  Of course we saved the squash and tomato seeds to plant in our garden this year!  Only later did we discover that fish is sold on La Palma from trucks, much like ice cream trucks in America with a loudspeaker on top.  They drive around and announce they're selling fresh fish, I guess.  That might explain the truck we heard driving around twice in the week that we were there announcing something like "Wap wap wap WAP, wap WAP wap..."
 After pigging out on fresh fruits and vegetables,we went down to the southern tip of the island, as you can see above.  You can see the Fuencaliente lighthouse in that photo.
In Fuencaliente they make sea salt using the basins you can see here.  The salt from Fuencaliente is produced in a traditional way with no additives or chemicals.  Above you can see the evaporation basins, big basins where the whole salt making process starts.  


 In the next step the water is moved to the crystallization basins, where more water evaporates and salt crystals form. 

The salt crystals looked kind of like ice.  But they tasted very salty.

That street is paved in salt!

Winter is the off season for salt making, so we didn't see any salt being harvested, but there was still loads of salt everywhere.   If you're interested in some more information about this process, or some pictures of salt being harvested and the salt pyramids among the basins, then visit this site.

 After our visit to the salt pans, we stopped a little to the west and went searching for a lonely beach.  The only accessible lonely beach we could find was already occupied by a naked man and his girlfriend, so we continued on and settled down on the rocks.

We would have really liked to go down there, but that would have involved some pretty acrobatic climbing.

As always, we spotted some hungry crabs.

And to end the day, we watched the sunset.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

La Palma, day three

Here's a papaya tree in the garden across the street from

the place we were staying. 


On our third day of vacation, we decided to be active after a couple of days of relaxing and not exerting ourselves too much.  Since we are fans of the humid, green laurel forests on the Canary Islands, we decided to visit the region of La Palma with a laurel forest.  The area near Los Tilos also happens to be a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, but we only found that out from our guidebook on the road to our hike.  The landscape on the way to Los Tilos was truly breathtaking:

 This guy was hanging out with some other sheep eating cacti on the steep side of the canyon below the street pictured above.

Above are a couple of views into the canyon in the laurel forest.  Unfortunately, we weren't so impressed by this forest.  We visited the neighboring island of La Gomera a few years ago, and preferred the spooky, foggy laurel forest there in Garajonay with its smaller, twisted, mossier trees.  In the end, maybe it was just the same, and we are just jaded now because we've seen this type of forest a few times on La Gomera, Tenerife and now La Palma.  All in all, we weren't so enthused by the hike, the trail and the scenery were much like that which we can see in the Saxon Switzerland just a 30-minute drive from home.  Oh well, it was still great to be able to go outside and walk around without any snow gear!

Here's what the valley looked like as we were leaving, even though we didn't like the hike so much, the valley itself was really beautiful!

The same day we drove through a couple of these cool, creepy, unlit one-lane tunnels.  That's not something you get to do all the time!  German tunnels do not look like this!

 After leaving Los Tilos, we drove all the way around the north of the island to get an idea of what the whole island looks like.  This is one of the views of the coastline that we had.  The drive itself was long, it took much longer than we expected:  the streets were narrow and winding and we went through lots of pine forests and little villages--just the right thing if you are looking for a break from civilization!

We also spotted these guys grazing by the street.  Always a funny sight!

Friday, January 13, 2012

La Palma vacation, part 1: days one and two

Following an incredibly horrible spell of gray, dark weather and absolutely no sun that lead me to hole up in the apartment, do nothing but read books and knit and nearly lose my mind, we hopped on a plane and flew to La  Palma, my 4th of the seven Canary Islands.  Previous trips have taken me to Tenerife twice, Gran Canaria and La Gomera.  The minute the plane landed and I saw the beautiful golden sunshine, I relaxed and came back to life.  Aaaah.  Too bad I nearly puke every time I get into a car on one of these islands because of the winding mountain streets.  Oh well.  That's just a sacrifice you have to make.

We went from skies this color:

To skies this color:

That makes a big difference in your mood, even if you do feel like you have to puke because your friendly driver is driving like a bat out of hell on winding mountain roads.  And no, I'm not pregnant with all of these references to vomiting.

On our second day, we left our apartment in Los Quemados and drove just a short way to take a walk in the volcanic landscape in the south of the island.  Here you can see a nice panorama of the area, with the Atlantic Ocean on the left, the brown rocks are a cliff that the natives of La Palma considered holy, to the right you can see the mountains and volcanic formations.

The holy cliff is famed for the petroglyphs that the natives carved into it, here's one example.  These were kind of hard to spot, so several vandals have carved their own names into these rocks to make up for the small number of actual petroglyphs.  Or supposed actual petroglyphs, as my kind companion would say.

The Lizard Whisperer

Way cooler than the petroglyphs, however, were the lizards!  Those who know me know I love wildlife, and I was absolutely thrilled to hear these guys rustling around, and then see them racing around.  I was wondering on the whole boring walk to the holy cliff where the lizards were, the weather was perfect for them, and as we got closer, I heard the sound of their darting around.  At first I was busy searching for petroglyphs when I noticed my kind companion standing suspiciously still by the holy cliff.  I wondered if he was peeing on the holy cliff because he was mad about the petroglyphs, but no, he was lizard whispering.  At one point, there were at least 20 lizards gathered around his feet!

Later on the same day, we drove over to Los Llanos, one of the bigger towns on the island.  I don't remember our exact motivation for the trip, maybe it was to look for a fish market, maybe it was to shop for sunglasses (my kind companion lost his while gathering mushrooms in the fall, but that's another story).  Whatever the reason, we were wildly unsuccessful doing whatever it was we had originally planned.  But we did luck out and happen upon an interesting cultural event.  On the way to Los Llanos, we were stuck driving behind a number of cars, all of which were behind this truck and couldn't pass, due to the winding mountain streets.  After 20 minutes or so, I noticed that there were three CAMELS in the back of this truck.  That doesn't exactly look like the kind of truck you should be transporting camels in, but hey, why not?
After consulting one of our guide books, I realized that this day (January 5) was the day before Three Kings' Day.  It just so turns out that on the evening before Three Kings' Day there's a parade in the bigger towns of La Palma with some floats and with the three kings riding in on camels. 

The floats had a Disney theme, which reminded me of parades during my childhood.  Here you can see Tinkerbell and Mickey Mouse.

Here are Beauty and the Beast.  The characters from Toy Story were also marching, as were Aladdin and some other characters I don't know the names of.  

There you have it, there's old St. Nick on a camel!  While we didn't need jackets due to the approximately 70 degree temperatures, St. Nick was wearing his regular heavy cloaks.  He must have been warm.

This one's pretty blurry, but if you look closely, you can see all three of the three kings and the three camels.  So that's why they were hauling the three camels halfway across the island.

January 6 is the day when the kids in Spain get their Christmas presents, so this ritual is pretty important.  It also explains the connection of the three kings to this whole event:  they are the ones who bring the presents.  Now I can see the sense in the decorations that we see every year hanging from lots of windows and balconies on each of the Canary Islands that we've visited, and that I've never really understood and therefore found really funny, but also slightly disquieting:

Here are the Three Kings, climbing up their handy rope ladder into someone's window.  But it's okay!  They're bringing presents! 

On the next day, it was obvious that lots of presents had been given, because we spotted some grinning kids loading their new stuff into the car to head to their relatives' houses or outside playing.  But the really impressive thing were the mountains and mountains of trash next to every dumpster we passed.  Packaging for giant cars and trucks and slides and playhouses--every plastic toy you can imagine was given generously on this Epiphany!  My poor kids, all they got were a couple of books and some CDs that I copied from the library.  But we don't make a big deal out of Christmas.  We prefer to get the hell out of Dodge for it!

More soon about the rest of our vacation!