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.
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.
Los Tiles forest and the Caldera de Taburiente
La Palma is a riot of greenery and nowhere is that more apparent than the Los Tiles rainforest – an adventure playground of cool, moist laurel forest. Make a hike here as long or short as you want; within minutes of parking the car you can be stooping through damp tunnels or clambering up to misty waterfalls.
Swap the wet jungle of Los Tiles for the huge, sun-baked expanse of the Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente. This massive depression is 8km wide, carpeted with thick Canary pine forest and surrounded on all sides by imposing rock walls. The Mirador de la Cumbrecita, jutting out over the caldera, offers a great spot from which to take in the silent enormity of the park.
The leafy national park feels a world away from Fuencaliente in the south, where a striking terrain flooded with volcanic waste tells the tale of eruptions throughout the last century. Take the short but stunning walk along the rim of the desolate black Volcán San Antonio from its interesting little visitor centre.
Afterwards, make the short drive down to the southern tip of the island where you’ll find Las Salinas de Fuencaliente, 35,000 square metres of salt flats. There’s a lovely lunch spot here, too: Jardín De La Sal (facebook.com/El-Jardin-De-La-Sal). Tuck into expertly-done fish or a flavoursome Canarian stew while you gaze out at the ocean and the lunar spectacle of the flats.
Beaches and pools
La Palma has a diverse climate that means, depending on where you are on the island, you might encounter sweltering sunshine, bitter wind or driving rain. Generally, the west of the island sees the best of the weather, which makes for a great excuse to plonk yourself down on one of the striking black-sand beaches that punctuate this stretch of coast. Playa Puerto de Tazacorte is a good option, with decent facilities, inviting waters and an easy-on-the-eye backdrop of coloured buildings huddling beneath imposing cliffs. For a really quiet spot, though, go further south near Fuencaliente and try one of two neighbouring coves, Playa de la Zamora and Playa Chica. They rarely get crowded and if luck’s on your side you might be the first visitor to arrive that day.
Over in the northeast, the weather is far more changeable and beach options scarce. Instead jump in one of the saltwater pools right next to the ocean, where you can swim in safety out of reach of menacing-looking rocks. Treading water at the deep end of the Piscinas Charco Azul, waiting for the next wave to crash over the concrete barrier, is thrilling and fun.
Making it happen
A bus network connects Santa Cruz with the rest of the island, but realistically, the best option for exploring is hiring your own car. There are agencies at the airport and throughout the island; a reliable local operator is Oasis (oasis-la-palma.com). Car hire and fuel are good value, and roads are decent and quiet.
On the east of the island near Santa Cruz, the Parador de la Palma (parador.es/parador-de-la-palma) makes for a characterful base, with understated period features and lovely Atlantic views. In the west, Hotel Hacienda de Abajo (hotelhaciendadeabajo.com) is a genuine repository for art and antiques, with Ming vases and Flemish paintings at every turn. A secluded pool in leafy grounds makes the most of this side of the island’s long, sun-filled days.
Tom travelled to La Palma with support from visitlapalma.es. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.