La Isla Bonita: exploring La Palma’s natural wonders

La Palma locals like to call their island 'La Isla Bonita' (the Pretty Island), and the minute you get that first glimpse of its pine-clad peaks, you start to see why. The northwesternmost Canary Island packs a lot in, mixing lush rainforest, stark volcanoes, verdant mountains and barren desertscapes.

This island is an often otherworldly place, where you might find yourself traversing lava-scarred wasteland, passing through damp clouds on a plateau, or driving through unlit tunnels hewn from rock. La Palma feels as remote as you're likely to find in Spain – sure, up at its highest peak you’ll see a few hikers, but not the crowds of tourists you’d find elsewhere; and you might have a forest waterfall all to yourself, rather than jockeying for position with excitable selfie-takers.

Spend a morning exploring the capital, Santa Cruz (an unmissable Renaissance beauty), but make no mistake – you’re here for the scenery.

Roque de los Muchachos

Put a visit to the island’s highest peak, Roque de los Muchachos, right at the top of your La Palma wishlist. The drive up there is half the fun: you wind through pine trees and orange groves on a hair-raising road, occasionally passing a bus trundling precariously up. At one point, about halfway to the top, a viewpoint reveals Santa Cruz unfolding below – the cruise liner in the harbour that looked huge when you passed it half an hour ago is now just a toy ship beneath you.

Once at the top, the views are as spectacular as you’d expect: serene forests compete with rocky outcrops and vertiginous drops. But just as compelling are the telescopes of the island’s astronomical observatory, which resemble little round spaceships dotted over the peak. La Palma is one of the world’s foremost destinations for stargazing, thanks to its remote location far from bright city lights. You can tour the observatory by booking through the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (iac.es).

Bring your coat and sunscreen, because you’re at the mercy of the elements up here. Be aware that in January the road can sometimes be shut due to snow and ice.

 

Stargazing

If the observatory has primed you for staring up at the night sky, you can book a stargazing tour through companies like Ad Astra La Palma (adastralapalma.com). Put your eye to the telescope and listen as lovely Elena explains various fascinating sights: highlights include a clear-as-you-like arm of the Milky Way stretching out across the sky, and the dimpled craters of the moon in astonishing detail. But the highlight is the sense of tininess that blanket of stars above gives you: stuck on a windswept mountainside on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, peering upwards, you’ll have never felt more insignificant and overawed.