Canary Islands in late January








Seeking an escape from the numbing dreariness of late January 2023, I took a trip to the Canary Islands. I’ve never heard anybody I know talk about them. A lot of folks will guess that they’re somewhere in the South Pacific. In fact, they are just off the coast of Morocco. Americans don’t go there much. As it turns out, the place is swarming with winter vacationers, seeking refuge from the damp, gray climates of Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and northern sections of the UK. The largest island in the chain of seven is Tenerife, where the beach-going party animals coexist with the denizens slower-paced retirement communities. There are boardwalks filled with restaurants, bars, and funky stores where you can buy corny beach stuff. Volleyball in conspicuously played by strapping young men and bikini clad young women. Wake from the ferry to La Gomera Higher up into the mountainous interior however, you will encounter a whole different kind tourist. These are the tree hugging lovers of truth and beauty. The beachfront in Tenerife was just a brief two-day stopover for me, insofar as my main destination was an island just to the west. 

                                                     
 The ferry from Tenerife to La Gomera leaves from an impressive terminal in Los Cristianos where you can catch a boat to La Gomera, La Palma, or El Hierro, the three westernmost islands in the chain. The Fred Olsen Express ferry was a sleek, mid-sized boat that carries cars, bicyclists, and foot passengers. There is a bar onboard where some folks started drinking right from the start of this 8:30 AM departure. The sun was warm, and the sea was a deep blue. La Gomera is characterized by jagged volcanic mountains and gray, rocky coast lines that are pounded by the unfettered sea. La Gomera has a relaxed and wide-open feeling to it. A gentle soul can leave the swarming masses of tourists behind. My fundamental project here is to go on a weeklong trek that circumnavigates the island, lodging each night at “rural hotels” in the quaint villages that populate the hills by the shore. The villages have just the right amount of funkiness, and disrepair for a nonconformist to feel at home. There is also enough low-key sophistication to attract nature-loving visitors around the world. Hundreds of miles of trails go up, down, around, and over the lush green, volcanic peaks. (a welcome sight in late January) I will stay in Hermiqua, Vallehermoso, Chipude, and finally San Sebastian for two nights each. Hermiqua was the first stop on the tour. I stayed in an elegant “rural” hotel that had an outrageous, 3-course, haute cuisine breakfast. Each delicious course was presented by a tuxedoed waiter, who gave a long-winded treatise on the preparation of the food. The chef himself visited every table seeking feedback from the guests. 

                  


 On the second day in Hermigua I took a long hike though groves of banana trees down to the rugged coast. Most interesting was Pescante de Hermigua were there was ruins from an ancient shipping center and a large, square, cement pool; about 4 feet deep, fed by waters from the wild sea. A few brave souls disrobed and bathed in the salt water. My principal activity there was to gaze out at the endless sea, breathe in the salty air, and feel the warm sun on my face. Pescante de Hermigua 


                                               

 The next morning, I took the long and arduous hike from Hermigua to Vallehermoso. The trails were strewn with volcanic rock that wears on the bottoms your feet after several hours of walking. It entailed ascending 3000 feet and then descending another 3000 feet. The ascent was a dogged huff and puff, but the views of the mountains, vast ocean, villages on the hillsides, palms, aloe, and the beautiful, green vegetation everywhere was worth it. I continued to be enthralled with the endless expanse of ocean. Try to imagine it. To the west there’s nothing between you and the Caribbean but 3000 of miles of ocean; deep, blue, and mysterious. The descent into Vallehermoso was more of an effort than the ascent from Hermigua had been. I descend carefully. I’ve had a few too many scary slips, in my long career as a hiker. I’ll go slowly if there’s any kind of loose gravel, rock scree, or ice that will make me slip and fall down the side of a mountain or off a steep traverse. There were many steeper-than-I-like switchbacks and lots of wet, muddy rocks. I came upon the enigmatic Roque Cano and traversed around it. Roque Cano The Canary Islands have many of these upright rocks. They look like the heads of religious leaders from the past - like the giant kings of the mountains. 

                                                        


 The small town of Vallehermoso is, as the name implies, situated in a beautiful valley that leads down to the sea. The hillsides are steep. Brightly colored houses are impossibly perched along the slopes. The downtown has a square and a Spar market. Europe is dotted with Spar markets - as prevalent as Stop and Shops are in America. You can buy all the same stuff at a Spar market. There are the familiar American brands. You’ll have no trouble finding a Coca-Cola or a Snickers bar at these locations. There are myriad varieties of European junk food as well. The Germans call it sheisse essen. European potato chips and cookies that have the same unhealthful caloric content as their American counterparts. It’s the very worst of American culture that catches on the most in the rest of the world. People everywhere have eagerly embraced, junk food, reality TV, over-caffeinated news people, Ziploc bags, and bad rock ‘n’ roll. Nearly every country, no matter how inappropriate, seems to have come up with a version of American Idol. Although there are English-speaking tourists from all over Europe, the locals speak mostly Spanish. A waitress, store clerk, or cab driver is likely to know only a few words of English, and so I am fortunate enough to have learned a few words of Spanish before I got here. Between my lousy Spanish, and their barely existent English we’re able to get business done. The dwellers of the island are consistently cheerful and friendly, always offering a pleasant “hola” to a passing stranger, no matter where they come from. It took a long time to find the hotel where I would be spending the next two nights. It didn’t really show up on Google maps because it doesn’t really exist on a street per se. I had to ask at a bar. The bartender and a few of the patrons went out onto the street with me and pointed their fingers up the hill, “Ahí!” They described how I would have to go slightly up the street from where we were, and then take a sharp right onto an extremely steep pathway, which then turned into an even steeper set of stairs. At the very top of this set of stairs was my hotel, a gated colonial mansion. The owners were surprised that it took such an effort to find the place. I didn’t argue with them. They set me up in a beautiful, two-bedroom apartment, which was way too much for just me. The place was adorned with big arched windows, and high ceilings, although it was freezing cold, and I had to pay for heat. The next day I took a €20 cab ride up into to the steep hills, zigging and zagging on a steep mountain road, going much too fast. I could hardly hold onto my breakfast. At the top of the ridge, we arrived at the Alto Lomo del Flores trailhead where he dropped me. There had been a storm the night before and the first part of the hike was downhill on a wet slate path. I thought for sure I would fall on my tender buttocks, but fortunately did not. If it had been a restroom floor certainly, they would’ve had one of those little yellow warning signs that said, Peligro! piso mojado! The going got tougher as I began to descend steep switchbacks and thrash through what barely passed for a hiking path. It was so grown over in places that I had to use my hiking stick as a machete so as not to become entangled in the thick vegetation that encroached from all sides. The tangled jungle of weeds was wet and with each step I took, my pants and sneakers became more and more drenched, as if I had worn them in a swimming pool. The water in my shoes went squish, squish, squish. Thankfully, the swampy path was only in the low sections of the hike, and eventually led precipitously uphill to Saint Clara from where you can gape at the immense ocean, and the isles of La Frontera and La Palma to the west. Rather than take the squishy path back I opted for a road that took me slowly up another thousand feet. I had to hug the side of the road, which had a railing on one side and a cliff on the other, to let a car pass, or in the worst-case situation, a delivery truck or an RV. The road continued upward and upward. I enjoyed cardiac exercise more than I did slogging through the overgrown, muddy pathways. Eventually the road lead back to the trailhead where I began, and where the taxi had dropped me off. There was a restaurant across the street, and I had the bar keeper call me a cab. I rested there for about 20 minutes enjoying a piece of banana bread and a Coke Zero. Finally, to my amusement, the same cab driver that brought me up up Vallehermoso in the morning had come back up just to pick me up to take me down again. 


                                            

 As with all my past trekking adventures, I brought along an old fiddle in a light case. This was not lost on the hotel owners who left this note in room. The hotel restaurant specialized in vegetarian cuisine made with locally grown ingredients. The food was amazing. A couple of middle-aged Irish guys invited me over to join them at their table. They graciously shared their red wine with me and after a nice meal and a few belts, I took out the fiddle and played a variety of tunes to the loud applause of my fellow diners. Someone asked if I wrote my own music. I played a quiet, pensive invention of my own and, remarkably that is what they connected with them the most. The room was silent, and the crowd was transfixed. I left the place glowing. 

   The trip from Vallehermoso to Chipude is beautiful but strenuous. Basically, it’s a lung-busting, three-hour climb up endless switchbacks until you get to the timeless, old-world, mountaintop village Las Hayas. From there it becomes mostly a downhill climb with some short, uphill sections just to keep it aerobic. It’s only 1.7 km to the next town of El Cercado but you must go deep, deep, down a treacherous path into a verdant, cavernous valley. I reached a point where there was large yellow sign. In bold letters it said, Peligro! (dangerous). Sometime in my mid 60s I gave up on paths that say Peligro! Forgoing the Peligro path meant taking a circuitous route on the narrow-paved road to Chipude. This augmented the length of my trip by at least 3 km. I also had to dodge the buses, taxis, and RVs carrying people who had little interest in hiking this crazy terrain. Most of road was downhill and I was making good time until I got to the foothills of Chipude where I asked an old man sitting on a stone wall how I get to the Hotel Sonia. Excitedly he directed me up a primitive path with stone steps that went upward at a 45° angle. Ahì! he said, in an exasperated voice pointing his finger to the sky. I climbed another 200m upward until I finally got to the Village Square Which was dominated by the hotel Asonia with its restaurant, bar, and modest hotel rooms. 
 My 40-pound, Northface expedition bag was waiting for me in the lobby. There was no elevator and the hotel clerk put the heavy load on his back and strained up the stairs huffing, puffing, moaning, groaning, and looking like he deserved a big tip. The room was about as basic as hotel rooms get. I’m still mystified as to how one opens the sliding door that leads on to the terrace. I’m pretty good at figuring things like that out, and yet I was flummoxed. There was water leaking in the bathroom and I guessed correctly it would continue all night. But still the bed was soft, and there was a portable heater (no extra cost) I could use to dry my clothes and warm the humble space. It. was raw, windy, and raining outside with a temperature of about 50°. In the restaurant I ate a strange kind of potato omelet that I washed down with a half-liter of generic red wine. The next night I ended up having dinner with a fun couple who were 70ish and from Derbyshire in England. We sat up for a long time drinking red wine and then grappa, chatting with increasing excitement about the royal family. After all, I recently became a dual citizen with stake in these matters insofar as I have pledged allegiance to His Majesty the King. The next day I had breakfast with the same couple and continued to enjoy their company immensely. 

                                              

With my bags on the way to Saint Sebastian I caught ride to Mirador de Igualero, and hiked up to Monte de Garajonay, highest point of the La Gomera hike. Mirador de Igualero has a chapel that overlooks the sea. The view was obscured by clouds that hung in the high mountains. Ironically the Spanish word mirador means a lookout. Similarly, Alto de Garajonay, a half an hour up the hill and high point on the island of La Gomera, was muddled in mysterious mist. Onward and downward; down steep rocky paths interspersed with steps made from mud and logs. The damp from rain during night before made all this slippery and when it’s slippery I go slow and use my hiking poles (Let me amend that in any event I go slow). Up the muddy steps, down the rocky slopes, up the rocky steps and then down the muddy slopes. In some places the trail ran alongside the road, and you could hear the cars, buses and trucks all speeding along the perilous, curvy road. Unlike curvy roads in South America, Africa, India or Nepal, the roads here are impeccably well-maintained as I have noticed in Corsica. That doesn’t relieve them from the burden of having hairpin turn after hairpin turn as the roads zigzag up and down the steep hills. By the end my feet were sore through the wearing soles of my Inov8 G grip hiking shoes. The last 2 kilometers were thankfully a smooth dirt path except at the very end, just bust my balls, the path went 45° down, down, down ancient steps that reminded me of the slippery stone paths of Nepal. The knee-cracking, steep staircase finally came to an end when it reached the main road. As always, the road itself was the scariest part. My final destination in Degollolada was a gas station/restaurant, what musicians would call a basic B-flat kind of joint. I celebrated the end of the trek sitting in the outdoor café with a Coke Zero and a delicious Snickers bar. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get the next 12k to the city of San Sebastian. It turned out that I was on my own. The trekking company would provide no transportation from the end of the trek in Degollolada to the final hotel in San Sebastian down on the coast. For about a half an hour I sat in the bus stop shelter trying to decipher the bus schedule (in Spanish) and waving desperately at a few of the buses that sped by indifferently. “A la mierda con esto”, I said to nobody in particular, and went back into the B-flat restaurant where I asked the Señora there to call me a taxi. She did so gladly. I told her that she was muy guapa, which she was. She gave me a flirtatious wink to indicate that she appreciated the compliment and no, I wasn’t just some creepy old guy. 
All was forgiven when I got to the hotel Parador in San Sebastian. There, I entered the old-world elegance of the aristocracy. The place oozed charm with old, elegant furniture, beautiful libraries, and dining rooms everywhere. The hallways were filled with ancient paintings and arched passageways. My room at the end of the hall had a massive door that must’ve been 12 feet high and 8 inches thick. The place looked Medieval like a Diego del la Cruz painting. My room was massive with a thick, round dining table, a velvet couch, and a high ceilinged, marble bathroom. There were two huge beds and a patio 20 meters from the sea. That night the wind would whisper through the palms, and I could sit for hours in a blissful reverie. The next morning, I took the ferry back over to Los Cristianos in Tenerife. I stood at the stern of the boat with a small group of passengers. We were all gasping with the delight of watching a small whale frolicking in the boats’ wake. 
A driver from the trekking company held up a handwritten sign with my name on it (I always feel important when they do that) and whisked me up the hill to my hotel in Los Cristianos which was heavily populated with people even older than me. Old men and women with portly bellies and wide hips were all hanging around the pool. Some women were topless but those were mostly under 50. It was a good day to do my laundry. I love the Spanish word for laundry (lavanderia). The washing machines were in the hotel basement. I would leave at intervals and return to my wash every half an hour or so. During one trip down to the basement, I had to stop and let a woman go by. She was looking deep into her phone, and I had no idea whether she would see me, go left, right, or straight into me. At the last minute she looked up and with an English accent she said, “I’m sorry I’m a little drunk.” I said, “Have a good time. “She asked me where I was from then told me she had been a bartender at South St., Seaport, downtown NYC for four years. She asked me if I was divorced, I said no. Did I have a girlfriend? No but I was married. She told me if I wasn’t married, she would be all over me because, “You’re gorgeous.” This doesn’t happen very often, and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t flattered. I saw the same woman an hour later leaving with some other guy upstairs in the elevator saying “I’m not sure. Are you sure? “

                                            


 
 The next morning, I dragged my 40-pound, Northface expedition bag uphill for about six blocks to get to the bus station where I could catch public transportation to Vilaflor, a wonderfully rustic town in the middle of the island, on a hillside overlooking the sea. I lugged my 40-pound Northface, expedition bag up one long, steep driveway only to find out from the neighbors that my hotel was in fact on the next long, steep driveway over. So, I towed my 40-pound, Northface expedition bag down the steep driveway, down the steep sidewalk, then up an even steeper driveway to where I finally arrived at the Alta Montaña. It was noon and there wasn’t a soul around. The grounds were elegant like a modern Mediterranean villa. A handwritten sign on the door said that reception was only open from two until five in the afternoon. This left me in a quandary. Should I just sit here twiddling my thumbs for two hours or should I take a chance and leave my 40-pound, Northface expedition bag by the front door and take a walk around town. I left it there. Luckily there was a Cafe down the hill where I refreshed myself with red wine and cookies and then returned to this ghost town of an accommodation, taking a nap and one of the comfortable outdoor couches. At about 1:55 in the afternoon a harried man came to the front door of reception and opened it with his key, said “just a few minutes sir”, then disappeared inside, locking the door behind him. No “come on in, have a cup of tea and I’ll be with you in a minute”. He just walked in the door and locked it from the other side leaving me forlorn and waiting for the clock to strike two. At the top of the hour he opened the door, did my registration, and led me to my room. In most hotels there would be someone to help a 68-year-old man with his bags. This dolt had no intention of doing anything of the sort. He stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking at his watch impatiently, waiting for me to hobble down the stairs with my 40-pound, Northface expedition bag. When it came to cordiality, this place sucked eggs. He dropped me off at the room but didn’t do anything like they do in most hotels, like show you how the lights and TV work or anything cordial like that. He just rushed off and I didn’t see him for the rest of the day. At one point, about an hour later I went to the front desk and rang the bell a couple of times but there was nobody there. I could’ve stolen everything. I wanted to reserve dinner at 7 o’clock in the restaurant. No hope. I left a message on the WhatsApp number that they had posted in the room. No response. Finally, I saw the guy leading some other unwelcome couple to their room and I confronted him. I showed him the WhatsApp messages that I had sent to him. He said, “That’s not my number, that’s the number of the other guy that works there who’s on vacation.” It turned out that he was the chef, and he was trying to do everything while the owner was away. He pointed down the hill and said, “There’s a nice restaurant down there.” I walked down there, and it was closed. Maybe the Alta Montaña should have also closed while the owner was away. 
 
In the morning I had breakfast in the restaurant. It was the typical complimentary breakfast you might get at a highway-exit, Comfort Inn in the Midwest someplace. I managed to find some yogurt and Choco Charms cereal along with a couple of the tiniest muffins you ever saw in your life, and a half-reputable cappuccino. They were not the usual workers there restocking and asking you if everything is OK. There was no smooth jazz or light classical music. It was quiet, like breakfast at a funeral. Everyone, and I mean everyone, spoke German. To their credit, the Germans are pretty good with the English language. They can be taciturn and reserved. However, there are always exceptions. I also met delightful people from Germany along the way who were both gracious, friendly, and even playful. The best way to unfold the mysteries of bus travel in Tenerife is to hold up your phone to the QR code that’s on every bus stop. This will lead you to a website that can give you detailed information, in English, about the bus you need to take and where it stops and goes. There isn’t a city in the world where bus schedules aren’t oblique and obtuse. It becomes even murkier when there is a language barrier. I found exactly the right bus to take me 23 kilometers up steep and winding roads from Vilaflor to the National Parks center. My first ambition of the day was to hike up to the top of Mount Teide. Teide is the 12,000-foot volcano the towers above the island of Tenerife. There was an overwhelming number of tour buses from Santa Cruz and Los Cristianos that brought hordes of tourists up to the national park to walk a half a mile or so, take a bunch of selfies, eat a bit of over-priced lunch, and head back on the bus to their resorts. They dutifully walk the grounds and collect their impressions. The whole video/selfie phenomenon has become international. The smart phone has become another sensor that we have to supplement sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. We have a new digital sense that takes our impressions and records them in a convenient digital format. That information will be shared on social media. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the actual human being ever really showed up. When my bus arrived at the park center, I quickly did my best to separate from the masses. I found the path that led up to the summit of Teide. As with most crowded national parks, you get a mile from the trailhead and there is hardly anybody left to breathe in the solitude. 10 or 15 minutes could pass, and I would not see another human being. The trail winds upward over volcanic rock: sometimes large slabs that you must scramble up and hope that your shoes can grip enough to keep you from slipping. Sometimes the volcanic rocks are small and round like little ball bearings. I slowly made my way up to nearly 9000 feet. Then it began to snow. First there were pretty, little flakes. Then it became steady. The flakes turned into hail. It’s never good to have balls of ice falling onto the trail. The wind started to roar, and the snow/hail came in heavy, horizontal waves. It didn’t take years of mountaineering experience to know that it was time to descend. I gave up all hope of summiting. After all you could take the chairlift up to the top in about 20 minutes, take all your selfies and be with the regular schmoes that go up the easy way. The other thing was that you need a permit (which I didn’t have) to go the last 200 meters to actual cone of the volcano. There’s no big hole there, it’s covered up. You can’t just jump in the hole and offer yourself as a human sacrifice. I went slowly, carefully back down the mountain until I reached flat ground once again. I only had about 40 minutes left before the last bus would head back down to Vilaflor. Just enough time to get a tuna sandwich and a Coke Zero. 

                                               

 Adventure and adversity have the same prefix. The adventure is in the adversity. Without mishaps and challenges, I get a little bored. I have a Russian friend who often tells me, “Theese ees not vaction. Vacation ees wodka, cigar, boat, and bikini.” My time in the Canary Islands included plenty of good food, wine, entertaining company, and serene times spent listening to and gazing at the sea. It didn’t rain once, and the daytime high temperature was consistently in the high 60’s and low 70’s. There was always the possibility of having my Russian buddy’s kind of vacation. But that is perhaps for later in life.

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