This mysterious Canary Island of plunging ravines and ancient traditions doesn’t draw the crowds that flock to neighboring Tenerife or Gran Canaria—and that’s just part of its magic.
Photographs by Fred Ellis.
Don Isidro Ortiz places the knuckle of a forefinger between his lips and begins to whistle. The sounds rise and fall in cadence, sharp staccato phrases followed by longer notes that echo across the valley before us. A few moments later I hear another whistle, clear and piercing but some distance away. It sounds like birdsong.
A stout 88-year-old with weathered features and a deep, melodious voice, Don Isidro smiles at my nonplussed expression. “I asked my friend Doña Estefanía when she’d be home for dinner and she replied ‘in an hour,’ after she’s finished milking the goats!” he tells me in Spanish. This seems unlikely, since Estefanía Mendoza Barrera (to give her her full name) is a schoolteacher. But then, this is just a demonstration of Silbo Gomero, the world’s only whistled language and a fixture on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
It’s my first full day in La Gomera, the second smallest of the seven Canary Islands. Scattered off the coast of northwest Africa, this sunny Spanish archipelago is Europe’s southernmost territory and a popular destination for tourists from more northerly climes, particularly Britain and Germany. Most head to the bigger islands of Fuerteventura, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, and Lanzarote, leaving La Gomera to a niche market of nature lovers drawn to its rich biodiversity and spectacular volcanic landscapes. But it is the island’s reputation as a unique repository of millennia-old Canarian culture that has brought me here.
While you can fly into La Gomera from neighboring Tenerife, I, like most visitors, arrived by ferry. The 40-minute passage from Los Cristianos Harbour in Tenerife’s arid south to the Gomeran capital San Sebastián is a study in contrasts: high-rise resorts set against a semidesert backdrop replaced by a pretty, pastel town spilling down a steep hillside to the sea, with great volcanic ridges rising behind it.
Silbo—the word comes from the Spanish verb silbar, meaning to whistle—evolved thanks in large part to La Gomera’s rugged topography. A series of deep barrancos (ravines) created by volcanic eruptions over the last 20 million years divide the now-dormant island into segments, soaring toward a central massif that reaches 1,487 meters at its highest point: the Alto de Garajonay.
“The original people of La Gomera were the Guanches,” Doña Estefanía tells me an hour after our demonstration. “They used whistling to communicate across gorges and valleys because actually meeting someone just a couple of kilometers away might mean a day’s travel!” It’s late morning and we’ve just made our way down from a mirador (lookout point) with views of La Fortaleza, a tabletop mountain where the Guanches once made sacrifices to their pantheon of gods. Now, we’re sipping milky coffees in an empty café in Chipude, a highland village that’s thought to be the oldest settlement on the island. It’s also a favorite departure point for trekkers.
Distantly related to the Berbers of North Africa, the Guanches inhabited the Canaries for thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 15th century. A Neolithic people, they lived in caves, wore goatskins, and mummified their dead in a manner similar to the ancient Egyptians. But Spanish rule soon eradicated their culture, including the Berber tongue they once spoke. And though their whistling tradition survived, it was adapted to correspond to Castilian Spanish—two “vowel” sounds and four “consonants” forming a sort of whistled shorthand with a vocabulary of some 5,000 words. Rarely used for practical purposes anymore, Silbo Gomero still thrives and has been a compulsory subject in local elementary schools since 1999.
This isn’t the only living relic on the island, though. La Gomera is sometimes described as the Canary Island that time forgot—a characterization that’s more than a mere marketing hook. A laurel forest of the kind that once covered much of Europe and Africa millions of years ago dominates the central highlands. It accounts for more than 70 percent of the Parque Nacional de Garajonay, making it the second largest such forest on the planet and another of La Gomera’s UNESCO-protected endowments.
That afternoon, I head into the park with Yurena Méndez, a Gomera native who works with the island’s tourism board as well as representing the tiny local film commission. It turns out that La Gomera is a popular location for films and photo shoots thanks to its spectacular and diverse landscapes. “The remake of Clash of the Titans and the Ron Howard film In the Heart of the Sea were both shot here,” she informs me.
The laurel forest has its own microclimate, and within 10 minutes we’ve gone from sunbaked mountain roads to a mist-shrouded avenue of trees, their tangled bows creating a latticed roof above us. In early June, growth seems to be at its peak, and the winding forest paths are garlanded with spring flowers, many of them—like the flame-colored Canary bellflower and delicate yellow ixanthus—endemic. There are great banks of fern and the laurel trees themselves are covered in iridescent moss and lichen. I half expect to see Hansel and Gretel skipping through the mist.
In fact, Garajonay National Park takes its name from a Guanche folktale, the legend of Gara and Jonay. Gara was a Gomeran princess; Jonay was a prince from Tenerife. The pair fell in love when Jonay attended a festival in La Gomera with his father the king. Alas, Gara had earlier visited the laurel forest to learn who her future husband would be by drinking from a magical spring, the Chorros de Epina. But when she looked into the pool, she saw instead a seething wheel of fire and water—an ill omen by anyone’s standards. Sure enough, within a few months of their courtship, Tenerife’s Teide volcano exploded and the seas turned red and treacherous.
The star-crossed lovers’ families forbade them from being together. In desperation, Jonay crossed the churning ocean to be with his lover, clinging to an inflated goatskin. With both of their families in pursuit, the couple fled into the forests and realizing they’d soon be caught, chose instead to die in each other’s embrace, driving a sharpened laurel branch through their hearts. Romeo and Juliet had nothing on these guys.
The Chorros de Epina are still there. We find the spring late in the day in a cool, deserted glade, where seven briarwood pipes (chorros) send streams of water into a shallow stone pool. “The first two are for love, the second two for health, and the last two for good fortune,” Yurena tells me. And the seventh? “That’s strictly for witches.”
Arriving back in sunny San Sebastián, I feel like I’ve emerged from some mythic hemisphere. I also feel somewhat rejuvenated despite a lack of sleep; could it be the quick sip I took from the spring’s “health” pipe?
Yurena drops me off in the town square. Before walking back to my hotel, I take a quick look at the Torre del Conde, a 15th-century stone tower that’s the oldest building on the island. Legend has it that Christopher Columbus had a secret tryst here with the beautiful Countess Beatriz de Bobadilla in 1492 during a brief stopover en route to “discovering” the New World. Most Gomerans give short shrift to the story; in their version, Beatriz rejected the smitten Italian’s advances.
Entering the lobby of the Parador de La Gomera, I note that time has forgotten the local hotel scene as well. The Parador is arguably La Gomera’s finest accommodation, a sprawling finca-style property set on a ridge above the ocean. Its rather grand colonial charm is softened by a Moorish inner courtyard and lovely poolside terrace. Dinner has a bygone feel to it too, from the presentation of the dishes to the elderly serving staff who wheel the food out on trolleys. The fare is tasty, if traditional; I opt for tuna in a rich sauce of mussels and caramelized onions. Dessert is a leche asada, or baked-milk pudding drizzled with date-palm honey.
Intrigued by the latter, I head to the island’s dramatic northwest coast the following afternoon to visit a village called Alojera, where a lunar landscape of shattered mountains and steep scarps is punctuated by tall Canary date palms that are said to produce the sweetest honey on the island. After lunch at a tiny family-run restaurant on Alojera Beach—fresh fish, wrinkled skin-on potatoes with a delicious Canarian green pepper sauce called mojo verde—I meet up with Ruben Ramos, a guarapero who’s here to harvest his palms.
Guarapo is the name given to the palm sap, which Ramos extracts by shinning up the tree trunk till he reaches the crown, where he carefully chisels out a small hole in the palm’s heart. He then inserts a bamboo shaft attached to a plastic pipe that feeds the sap into a bucket. “We leave it overnight and collect it early in the morning before it gets hot,” he tells me as he uses a pulley to get the bucket into the treetop. “Then we boil it down. You need around four liters of guarapo to make one liter of honey.”
Locals use the palm honey primarily as a folk remedy for colds and sore throats, or simply as a tonic. But tourism has boosted the market considerably and there are now a handful of palm-honey factories on the island. It’s tough work, though—tapping the palm is a delicate process that can kill the tree if done wrong. It took Ramos a couple of years to become a competent guarapero, learning the skills from his father.
So much of La Gomera’s culture speaks of knowledge and traditions passed down orally through the generations. One of the purest distillations of this exists in the island’s songs and dances. I get to witness one such performance in the pretty village of Agulo, where a local troupe demonstrates a traditional drum dance called baile de tambor. Three men clad in white tunics beat out a rolling bass rhythm on wooden drums accompanied by the clack-clack of chácaras, a kind of castanet. Two women perform a light-footed dance in front of them, whirling their dresses occasionally as one of them sings in a high-pitched keen. While it is unmistakably Hispanic in character, the drums, the repetition, and the vocal tones have a primitive quality that harks back to a much earlier time … an echo once again of the bygone Guanches.
I’ve yet to visit La Gomera’s most iconic landmark, the Roque de Agando, so I head up there the next morning with Yurena. The pictures I’ve seen of this granite monolith near the center of the island do little to prepare me for the actual encounter. It’s the scale that hits you. Reaching an elevation of 1,250 meters, the rock itself protrudes some 180 meters above the surrounding forests—almost the height of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Mirador del Morro de Agando lookout point is part of an exposed ridge that skirts the north side of the rock, with views all the way to the island’s south coast. It’s exhilarating, not least because of the seemingly gale-force wind whipping around us —a more or less permanent fixture, according to Yurena. Within the space of 10 minutes, the entire tableau before us—rock, forest, ocean—disappears, swallowed by a thick fog. “We got lucky,” Yurena laughs. “Sometimes you come up here and this is all you see!”
Twenty minutes to the west along a twisting ridgetop road, another Gomeran icon awaits us: Casa Efigenia, the restaurant and lifelong home of an octogenarian lady named Doña Efigenia Borges. Nestled among eucalyptus trees in the mountains above the western municipality of Valle Gran Rey, her kitchen has been serving guests for more than 50 years, before tourism was even a thing here. Doña Efigenia is as generous with her stories as she is with her portions, barely finding time to take a breath as she regales us with tales of her father, who taught himself how to read and write at a time when the entire village was illiterate, and her younger sister, who recently completed an art history degree at the tender age of 78.
We sit at a long wooden table as a succession of traditional Canarian dishes are placed before us, all of them vegetarian. There’s fresh bread with almogrote, a highly addictive Gomeran paste of hard cheese, chili, olive oil, and garlic; a steamed vegetable stew known as puchero served with gofio, a starchy flour made from corn and other root vegetables that was a Guanche staple long before bread arrived on the island; and more leche asada with palm honey. It’s all good, hearty country fare of the sort that local farmers have been eating for generations, with most of the ingredients plucked from Doña Efigenia’s organic gardens. Our hostess tells us that her restaurant counts Angela Merkel among its many fans; the German chancellor is a regular visitor to the island, seeking solace here whenever she needs a break from the demands of running Germany and keeping the European project alive.
Nature will probably always be La Gomera’s biggest draw. The island’s wild landscapes are extremely easy to enjoy up close and personal thanks to more than 675 kilometers of beautifully maintained and mostly signposted hiking trails, most of which date back many hundreds of years—another relic of pre-Hispanic times. Each barranco has a different feel and sometimes a distinct microclimate too. A single looping trail can take you from beaches to terraced mountainsides to forests to rugged gorges studded with a wild variety of cacti and succulents.
The offshore environment is just as engaging. On my last day on La Gomera, I head out with Yurena and some of her friends in a 12-seat Zodiac in search of dolphins. Our captain, José Manuel, seems pretty confident we’ll find them—these waters are frequented by 26 different cetacean species, including a number that are permanent residents. Thirty minutes after leaving the harbor in Valle Gran Rey, we’re out in the open ocean speeding across Atlantic rollers. José Manuel points at what appears to be nothing to my untrained eye and abruptly changes direction. And then I see them: a pod of spotted dolphins careening through the waves with what looks suspiciously like joy. We catch up to them and spend a blissful 20 minutes surrounded by the sleek animals as they leap, dive, and spin across our bow. “There must be 500 of them,” says José Manuel. “And look, whales!” Sure enough, there’s a gaggle of rather more sedate pilot whales among the dolphins, looping lazily through the water and occasionally revealing their bulbous heads.
In June, La Gomera is relatively quiet; high season is January through March, when the majority of tourists head to the Canaries to escape the cold north European winter. But you get the feeling that the island will never even come close to the hectic bustle of its nearest neighbor, Tenerife. The food, the hotels, and the people here are all resolutely traditional. And that’s just fine. Without the homogenized accouterments of 21st-century travel—hip cafés serving Instagram-friendly food, self-conscious boutique hotels, selfie-ready “experiences”—La Gomera’s atavistic charms have the space to work their magic. And they cast quite a spell.
Several ferries and jetfoils arrive daily at San Sebastián’s busy port, mostly from Los Cristianos on Tenerife, whose main airport is well connected to cities across Europe.
Where to Stay
Part of a state-run chain of Spanish heritage hotels and done up in Columbus-era style, Parador de La Gomera is San Sebastián’s—if not the island’s—top accommodation, with a cliff-top perch overlooking the town’s marina and ferry port. 34-922/871-100; doubles from US$180.
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Allure of La Gomera”).