Walking at the end of the world

Discover a less-visited side of the Canary Islands on El Hierro


I’m trudging over a desert of black ash, surrounded by mist, visibility zero. It feels like I’m marooned on some remote planet far away from earth. In fact, this is El Hierro, the smallest and most westerly of the Canary Islands — thought to be the end of world until Columbus set out from here and discovered America in 1492.

Now it’s a Unesco Biosphere Reserve and Geopark with crystal-clear waters, stark volcanic terrain, and rich laurel forests. It aims to become the first island in the world to be 100 per cent sustainable by 2028 and already all its energy is renewable, generated by wind and waterfalls.

Being the most remote Canary Island, it’s not as straightforward to reach as the more popular winter sun destinations. With no direct flights from the UK, you have to change planes in Tenerife, La Palma or Gran Canaria, or take the ferry over from Tenerife.

Of course, the advantage is that it’s easy to isolate here, with fewer tourists and with self-catering stays rather than high-rise hotels or sprawling resorts. Its Unesco Biosphere Reserve and Geopark status means there aren’t likely to be any moves towards mass tourism in the future either.

EL Hierro is only around 30 miles long and has the highest volcano density in the Canaries, with more than 500 extinct craters, and another 300 covered by more recent lava flows. The last eruption was back in 1793 and, although there was volcanic activity under the sea as recently as 2012, there’s nothing to worry about.

Valverde, the capital, sits in the north and is often shrouded in mist. A tall volcanic spine runs down the centre of the island; on one side steep cliffs tumble down to the sea, while on the other are the fertile flatlands of El Golfo, with vineyards and plantations.

The south and west are the volcanic badlands with spectacular black lava flows contrasting with white flecked waves, whipped up by the strong winds.

A good road runs around the island and narrow twisting switchbacks take you over the top. Fortunately there’s little traffic if you fancy hiring a car to explore, but you do need to keep your nerve, as you’re often shrouded in mist.

In the far south, near the fishing harbour of La Restinga, the island’s marine reserve is one of the world’s dream diving sites, home to turtles, stingrays, groupers, dolphins and barracudas. If you just want a dip in the pristine waters, head for Cala de Tacoron where there’s a simple café on the black rocks.

The best way of exploring is on foot, although a car is essential if you’re going to reach the more remote parts. That means circular walks are the order of the day, which is a pity, as the two-day pilgrimage route, the GR131, runs the length of the island and has spectacular views.

If you’re determined not to miss that, it’s possible to do it in sections using the local bus service.

I start with an easy circuit which follows the coast in El Golfo, in the north. Punta Grande has a tiny hotel with just four rooms; Hotel Puntagrande was once listed as the smallest in the world in the Guinness Book of Records.

The trail from here has been boarded so it’s easy underfoot and you’re right next to the crashing surf as you cross lava flows to reach La Maceta.

There’s a basic beach café here and numerous rocky pools where it’s possible to swim. Further on, the most spectacular of these is Charco Azul (“Blue Pool”) a turquoise swimming hole sheltered by an impressive basalt rock arch.

It’s protected from the open sea by a lava wall, buffeted by the waves sending spirals of white spray skywards.

The path then turns inland, past plastic banana greenhouses, to reach the Ecomuseo de Guinea. Inside, there are depictions of early life on the island and a project to conserve the native giant lizards of El Hierro.

They grow up to 60cm long and were almost extinct but are now being reintroduced. From here, a quiet road leads back overland to Las Puntas.

Next day, I decide to venture off the beaten track and set out to the remote unpopulated western end of the island. My walk begins at the Ermita de Nuestra Senora de Los Reyes where, every four years, the statue of the island’s patron saint is paraded, accompanied by most of El Hierro’s 10,000 inhabitants.

A dirt road leads me upwards, through pine trees, following a sign to El Sabinar. Here there’s a collection of spectacularly twisted wild juniper trees, bent double by the trade winds sweeping in from the ocean.

I leave the most strenuous walk to last. From Tigaday in El Frontera, the path climbs past fields of vines and old wine presses, so steeply that I pause to catch my breath.

Below me is the fertile plain of El Golfo, an amphitheatre stretching to the sea, created by collapse of a volcano thousands of years ago. I enter a laurel forest and lose the view, before I’m again out in the open, trudging over black ash to reach the spine of the island at 1,300m.

From here, I turn right to follow the GR131 west, an undulating trail crossing extinct volcano craters, its brilliant green shrubs contrasting with the dark earth. Suddenly the mist descends but I trudge onwards to reach Malpaso, at 1,501m.

Visibility is zero. At the top of the island, it really does feels like the end of the world — I’m lost in time until the spell breaks, when the cloud lifts to reveal 21st century communication masts.


Like this? Sign up for more with our JC Life newsletter here.

From fabulous recipes to parenting tips, travel and West End entertainment; insightful interviews and much more: there’s more to the JC than news!

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive