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LA GOMERA - SAN SEBASTIAN, GARAJONAY AND MIRADOR DEL PALMAREJO

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The second smallest of the Canary Islands (370 sq km or 144 sq miles), La Gomera looks like a giant lemon juicer. The round island is only 23 km or 14 miles in diameter.

Walking along San Sebastian street, La Gomera
Walking along San Sebastian street, La Gomera
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The high pointed part is Garajonay National Park on the central plateau. Deep ravines radiate down from it like the grooves on the juicer.

San Sebastian

We visited the capital city of La Gomera, San Sebastian, on a shore excursion during our Canary Islands Variety Cruises trip. Located on the east side of the island, San Sebastian is home to 12,000 people, half the population of La Gomera.

The city spreads out along the banks of La Villa ravine, which opens out to San Sebastian's port. Ferries from Los Cristianos, La Palma and El Hierro dock here.

600-year-old city

As the first Castilian settlement on the island, San Sebastian dates back to the mid-15th century.

From the yacht-filled harbor, we strolled along a cobblestone street to the bell-topped Our Lady of the Assumption Church (Iglesia Nuestra Señora de la Asunción). Artists painted the frescoes inside in the mid-18th century.

 Our Lady of the Assumption Church (Iglesia Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion), San Sebastian
Our Lady of the Assumption Church (Iglesia Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion), San Sebastian
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Wooden beams stretched across the church's ceiling. In the Chapel of San Sebastian, we viewed the statue of the saint that the conquistadors brought here from Spain.

Casa Colón

Nearby is the yellow Casa de la Aquada. Christopher Columbus replenished the water in his three ships from its well before he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.

Columbus was supposed to stay on La Gomera for four days. Legend claims that he had a love affair with the widowed landlady, Beatriz de Bobadilla y Ossorio, the Countess of La Gomera, so he stayed one month. He returned to Isla Colombina, as it was later called, before his 1493 and 1498 expeditions.

Dragon tree in Casa Colon (Columbus House)
Dragon tree in Casa Colon (Columbus House)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Casa de Colón (Columbus House) is now a museum (free admission) that commemorates his stay in La Gomera. According to our guide Meike, it was built in the 17th-to-18th centuries, so Columbus couldn't have stayed here. "It's just a typical house from that period," she said.

Dragon tree

Inside the courtyard, Meike pointed out a dragon tree. The Dracaena cinnabar looked like a bunch of broccoli with sword-like leaves on top of a palm tree trunk.

"The sap turns red when it is exposed to oxygen," said Meike. Called dragon's blood, it was historically used to heal wounds.

"You can estimate the age of a dragon tree by the number of branches," she explained. "The older the dragon tree, the more branches it has."

Garajonay National Park

The distance from San Sebastian to Garajonay National Park is 15 km (nine miles) to the east. Our tour bus stopped at a lookout, Mirador de Roque de Tajaqué.

We gazed out over clumps of canary-yellow sow thistle flowers into the mist-shrouded Benchijigua caldera and furrowed ravine. Our guide explained that Alto de Garajonay was 1,487 meters (4,877 feet) above sea level, making it the highest point in La Gomera.

Garajonay National Park view from Mirador de Roque de Tajaque
Garajonay National Park view from Mirador de Roque de Tajaque
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ancestral forest

Occupying more than ten percent of the island, Garajonay National Park shelters more than 20 species of trees. This Canary cloud forest, also called monteverde (greenwood) and laurisilva, has survived millions of years from the Tertiary era.

"These are the only evergreen laurels that remain from the forest that once covered the Mediterranean region," said Meike. "Elsewhere in the world, they are only found as fossils." In 1986, UNESCO made this botanical relic a World Heritage Site.

It is usually misty here. And cold (14 degrees C in the park, when it's 22 degrees by the sea), so hikers need jackets as they walk along the many trails in Garajonay.

Most of La Gomera's water is squeezed out of the mist as it sweeps through the laurel forest, propelled by trade winds. "Moisture from the clouds condenses on the leaves and eventually becomes ground water," said Meike. "It doesn't have to rain."

Terraces and palms in Valle Gran Rey viewed from Mirador del Palmarejo
Terraces and palms in Valle Gran Rey viewed from Mirador del Palmarejo
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Mirador del Palmarejo

A good paved road twists and turns down from the park through Arure to Mirador del Palmarejo. The viewpoint overlooks the palm trees, houses and terraced sides of Valle Gran Rey.

"Farmers used to grow vegetables on the terraces and irrigate them with ground water from aquifers," said Meike. "After it rained, torrential waterfalls replenished the reservoirs. Most of these cascading terraces have not been used since the 1960s, because they've collapsed from erosion."

Palm honey (miel de palma)
Palm honey (miel de palma)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Palm honey

Avocado, mango and thousands of palm trees grow in the ravine. "La Gomera has more than 150,000 palm trees, more than all of the Canary Islands together," said Meike.

She recommended that we try palm honey (miel de palma), sold in shops across the island. "Even though it is called honey, it's more like maple syrup in consistency, and the taste is different. It's delicious on ice cream and puddings."

To make palm honey, a worker climbs up a Canary palm (Phoenix canariensis) at night, cuts a bowl-shaped hole in the top and collects the sap (guarapo) in a bucket.

"You can't tap the tree during the day because the heat would ferment the sap," explained Meike. "They boil the sap for hours, just like maple syrup, to make palm honey."

Whistling language

Looking across the steep ravine, we could understand why it was difficult for the Guanches, the original inhabitants, and shepherds, years ago, to communicate across the deep gullies. They developed a unique whistling language called Silbo Gomero.

"It is an actual language, not coded words," said Meike. "The whistles imitate spoken words, using different pitches and spacing for vowels and consonants. Depending on the wind, the sound can travel up to four kilometers (2.5 miles)."

El Silbo Gomero whistling language
El Silbo Gomero whistling language
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

She demonstrated using her bent middle finger between her lips to create piercing whistles. "Both men and women communicate with El Silbo," she said.

With modern communications, the language was in danger of extinction. Some elderly people remembered it, but few middle-aged people learned it. In July 1999, the Canary Islands government added Silbo Gomero to the primary and secondary school curriculums to teach the younger generations.

Tourists can hear demonstrations of La Gomera's whistling language. Visitors on the Variety Cruises shore excursion listen to El Silbo at Restaurante Las Rosas near Vallehermoso.

In 2009, UNESCO recognized Silbo Gomero with the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Contact GLP Worldwide for brochures, bookings and information about Variety Cruises Canary Islands trips.

More things to see & do in the Canary Islands:

Valle Gran Rey Walking Tour - La Gomera, Canary Islands

Lanzarote, Canary Islands - Wine, Volcanoes and Cesar Manrique's Home

Las Palmas Gran Canaria Tour to Teror and Santa Brigida

Fuerteventura, Canary Islands - Beaches, Surf, Dunes and Aloe Vera

La Laguna, Tenerife - Shore Excursion Walking Tour