A small rock in the Atlantic

All about the island of La Palma, in the Canaries.

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Friday, 27 June 2008

On Top of the World

Looking east towards Tenerife.

The highest point of the island is the Roque de Los Muchachos, at 2,426m (8,000 ft) above sea level. Most days of the year, the view is spectacular. Even when it's raining at sea-level, the summit is nearly always above the clouds. In fact, you can often look down on a sea of clouds surrounding the island. Of course that's one reason why the observatory is up here.

North towards the observatory. Telescopes left to right: Herschel, Dutch Open, Mercator, Swedish Solar Tower, Newton and Kapteyn.

You also get a wonderful view into the Caldera de Taburiente. I believe the patch of bright green at the bottom here are fields near the water-manager's house, some 1,600 m (5,280 ft) below.

South, along the central ridge.

The Roque is just inside the Caldera de Taburiente National Park, and part of the municipality of Garafía. When I came to La Palma, seventeen years ago, the place was as nature made it. But now that there's a road, they got enough visitors here to cause a serious problem with erosion. Now they've built paths out of local stone, and they've done a really good job of making it look natural, except for the occasional fence. It's best to keep tot he paths. If you slip on the lose gravel it's a long way down.

Roque de Los Muchachos
means Rock of the Boys. The name comes from the stone pinnacles at the summit, which look vaguely like giant people.

And these are the "boys" themselves.

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Wednesday, 25 June 2008

San Juan

The feast of San Juan (St. John the Baptist) is June 24th.

Many people light bonfires on St John's Eve. In the days before municipal rubbish collection, it was a practical way of having a clear out. But in Puntallana, there is a long-held folk belief that the bonfires keep away witches. Jumping over the fire is supposed to protect you from disease and the Evil Eye. It's also a great night for fortune telling, using earth, air, fire and water.

I'm sure hte people celebrating would insist that this is a Catholic festival, and nothing at all to do with the Wiccan Midsummer celebrations, which also feature bonfires.

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Monday, 23 June 2008

The Lover's Leap

A long time ago, a young goatherd in Puntallana fell in love. Nothing unusual about that of course, especially since the girl was very beautiful.

The trouble was that she didn't feel the same way. He was tall, handsome and athletic, but she hoped to marry someone richer. After all, a goatherd's wife worked fourteen hours a day and went hungry in the bad years.

But he wouldn't take "No," for an answer.

In the end she got so tired of his pestering that she said she'd marry him if he performed an impossible task.

Because the Palmeran Terrain is so steep and rough, the goatherds followed their flocks with the help of a long wooden pole. In fact, the pre-hispanic Awara used much the same technique and some shepherds and goatherds still do, although it's more often a local sport these days. Some of the leaps they make are spectacular.

So the girl told the goatherd that she'd marry him if he made three semi-circular leaps out over the edge of the cliff at La Galga. This was a very difficult technique, in a very dangerous place.

To her astonishment and dismay, he agreed!

The agreed day arrived, and of course at least half the village went along to watch.

"In the name of Jesus!" cried the young man, and swung out over the void.

Amazingly, he landed safely on firm ground, to everyone's relief.

"In the name of the Virgin!" he cried, and swung out again.

Again he landed safely.

"And in the name of my beloved!" he cried, and swung out for the third time.

Some say he was simply tired after the first two leaps. Some say that Heaven was offended that he put a rather vain young woman on the same standing as Jesus and the Blessed Virgin. Regardless, as he swung back towards safety, he missed his footing and dropped to his death on the rocks far below.

They also say that the girl went mad with grief and never married at all.

Today a statue marks the site of the tragedy. Take the road north from Santa Cruz, towards Los Sauces, and turn off at the village of La Galga, following the sign for San Bartolome. There are two viewpoints. The lower one, beside the church, has a fantastic view of a bridge over a ravine. But if you carry on the top of the mountain, you get a view of all Puntallana, plus the statue.

And here's a short video of the technique for getting down a steep hill, using the pole.

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