El Hierro is Spain's greenest island
Feb 12, 2008, 8:13 GMT
Valverde, Spain - Tenerife and Gran Canaria must have looked like this 30 years ago. The fine view from from Mirador de Jinama takes in the El Golfo valley on the island of El Hierro. Rising among the vineyards and banana and pineapple plantations is a hill topped by the distinctive bell tower of the parish church in Frontera.
A fear of pirate raids prompted the locals to build the nave of the church below the hillside so that the magnificent structure could not be seen from the sea.
Life on the smallest and most westerly of the Canary Islands is relaxed and quiet. There are no large towns, no industry and no motorways either. The 10,500 or so inhabitants live mainly from fishing or by growing pineapples, bananas, mangoes, papayas, potatoes, figs and vines. The mass tourism which has engulfed the other Canary Islands, with all the negative fallout that goes in hand with it, has left El Hierro virtually unscathed.
Only around 60,000 tourists a year come to the island which can boast just 10 medium-sized hotels. The local inhabitants have resisted package tourism so vehemently that there are no direct flights to El Hierro - not even from the Spanish mainland. Residents often refer to their homeland as the 'forgotten island.'
This could change soon since El Hierro is due to be marketed as 'a green destination' and not only because of its huge pine forests. By the end of 2009, El Hierro should be the first of the world's larger inhabited islands to generate its entire power requirements from renewable energy sources. Three windmills and two hydro-electric power plants are all that is needed to achieve this aim.
The energy project fits in well with the kind of image which tourists bosses want the island to project. For years now the local administration has been trying to sell El Hierro to tourists and businessmen as an 'ecologically-sound' island.
'We don't have the wide sandy beaches of Grand Canaria and the island is a difficult place to reach,' said Javier Morales, deputy mayor of the capital Valverde. 'That's why we have to try and exploit niches in the market such as eco-tourism or compete against mass- production on Teneriffe with our eco-friendly fruit.'
Over the past three years, the number of hiking routes on the island has been increased. Pineapple and banana farmers have been encouraged to switch to more ecological cultivation methods and the few public services buses which ply the island use hydrogen for fuel.
El Hierro was recognised as a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2000. There are five nature reserves along with the protected ocean region of Punta de La Restinga.
The protected seaboard, one of the first in the archipelago, has been so successful that authorities are currently examining whether over the next two or three years other stretches of coastline can be accorded such special status.
Other Canary Islands such as Gran Canaria and Tenerife are keen to follow El Hierro's example. The island is regarded as a diver's paradise with plenty of rays, barracudas and even sharks, dolphins and whales being spotted.
The El Bajon, a nearly 100-metre-tall pinnacle of underwater rock attracts hundreds of divers a year. The riff lies directly in front of a bay where explorer Christopher Columbus anchored before setting off to discover America in 1492. Back then El Hierro marked the end of the western world, which is why for many years the island as known as the prime meridian before the British Empire adopted the Greenwich meridian in 1884.
Until the Spaniards arrived in 1405, life among the ancient natives, the Bimbaches - descendants from the African Berbers - had changed little since the Stone Age. Many of the villages such as Tamaduste, Taibique or Echedo still carry their Bimbache names.
One attraction is Guinea in the El Golfo valley, an open-air archeological village designed to show villagers how El Hierro residents lived in past centuries. The crescent-shaped bay of El Golfo was created nearly 50,000 years ago when a third of the island was swamped by the ocean following an earthquake.
Above the craggy rocks and cliffs which rise to heights of up to 1,000 metres are several viewing platforms such as Mirador de Bascos and Mirador de la Pena which offer excellent panoramic views of the valley and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
El Hierro's beaches are in the west of the island. Playa del Verodal with its reddish-black sand is a product of the last volcanic eruption in 1793 which coated the south-west in particular with fields of black lava.
The high plain of La Dehesa is characterised by juniper trees twisted into bizarre shapes by the trade winds. A single dust-blown trail leads to this mysterious landscape.
The rest of the island is not so bare and rocky as the southern part. There are pine-clad high plains and gentle rolling countryside, yet the backbone of the island are its mountains.
Hiking paths take visitors through moss-encrusted laurel forests which appear to be like something out of a fairytale. Walkers can explore a network of pathways for hours on end without seeing a single other person. That is not likely to change either.
'We have learned from the mistakes of the other islands, especially when it comes to tourisms,' said Javier Morales.
Tourist guidelines for the next eight years include a pledge to allow new hotels in only a limited number of coastal areas and that these should be of at least four of five-star category with the maximum number of beds not exceeding 2,000 overall.
INFOBOX: El Hierro
BEST TIME TO GO: El Hierro is the most westerly and smallest of the Canary Islands which are Spanish territory. The island is 165 square kilometres in size.
GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights to El Hierro. Visitors fly to either Tenerife or Gran Canaria, both of which are well-served by regular flights from European cities. Flights to El Hierro are operated by the carrier Binter Canarias (www.binternet.com). An alternative is to use the ferry. The Fred Olsen shipping line runs services to El Hierro from Los Cristianos on Tenerife, the journey takes around five hours.(www.fredolsen.es).
BEST TIME TO GO: Thanks to the mild climate El Hierro is a all- year-round destination The average coastal temperatures are between 19 and 23 degrees centigrade and bathing is nearly always possible. The best time to go is from October to April.
ACCOMMODATION: There are only a handful of hotels on El Hierro and most guests stay in rented holiday cottages.