LA GOMERA

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ON ISIDRO OR­TIZ places the knuckle of a fore­fin­ger be­tween his lips and be­gins to whis­tle. The sounds rise and fall in ca­dence, sharp stac­cato phrases fol­lowed by longer notes that echo across the val­ley be­fore us. A few mo­ments later I hear an­other whis­tle, clear and pierc­ing but some dis­tance away. It sounds like bird­song.

A stout 88-year-old with weath­ered fea­tures and a deep, melo­di­ous voice, Don Isidro smiles at my non­plussed ex­pres­sion. “I asked my friend Doña Este­fanía when she’d be home for din­ner and she replied ‘in an hour,’ after she’s fin­ished milk­ing the goats!” he tells me in Span­ish. This seems un­likely, since Este­fanía Mendoza Bar­rera (to give her her full name) is a school­teacher. But then, this is just a demon­stra­tion of Silbo Gomero, the world’s only whis­tled lan­guage and a fix­ture on UN­ESCO’s In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage list.

It’s my first full day in La Gomera, the sec­ond small­est of the seven Ca­nary Is­lands. Scat­tered off the coast of north­west Africa, this sunny Span­ish ar­chi­pel­ago is Europe’s south­ern­most ter­ri­tory and a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for tourists from more northerly climes, par­tic­u­larly Bri­tain and Ger­many. Most head to the big­ger is­lands of Fuerteven­tura, Tener­ife, Gran Ca­naria, and Lan­zarote, leav­ing La Gomera to a niche mar­ket of na­ture lovers drawn to its rich bio­di­ver­sity and spec­tac­u­lar vol­canic land­scapes. But it is the is­land’s rep­u­ta­tion as a unique repos­i­tory of mil­len­nia-old Ca­narian cul­ture that has brought me here.

While you can fly into La Gomera from neigh­bor­ing Tener­ife, I, like most vis­i­tors, ar­rived by ferry. The 40-minute pas­sage from Los Cris­tianos Har­bour in Tener­ife’s arid south to the Gomeran cap­i­tal San Se­bastián is a study in con­trasts: high-rise re­sorts set against a semidesert back­drop re­placed by a pretty, pas­tel town spilling down a steep hill­side to the sea, with great vol­canic ridges ris­ing be­hind it.

Silbo—the word comes from the Span­ish verb sil­bar, mean­ing to whis­tle—evolved thanks in large part to La Gomera’s rugged to­pog­ra­phy. A se­ries of deep bar­ran­cos (ravines) cre­ated by vol­canic erup­tions over the last 20 mil­lion years di­vide the now-dor­mant is­land into seg­ments, soar­ing to­ward a cen­tral mas­sif that reaches 1,487 me­ters at its high­est point: the Alto de Gara­jonay.

“The orig­i­nal peo­ple of La Gomera were the Guanches,” Doña Este­fanía tells me an hour after our demon­stra­tion. “They used whistling to com­mu­ni­cate across gorges and val­leys be­cause ac­tu­ally meet­ing some­one just a cou­ple of kilo­me­ters away might mean a day’s travel!” It’s late morn­ing and we’ve just made our way down from a mi­rador (look­out point) with views of La For­taleza, a table­top moun­tain where the Guanches once made sac­ri­fices to their pan­theon of gods. Now, we’re sip­ping milky cof­fees in an empty café in Chipude, a high­land vil­lage that’s thought to be the old­est set­tle­ment on the is­land. It’s also a fa­vorite de­par­ture point for trekkers.

Dis­tantly re­lated to the Ber­bers of North Africa, the Guanches in­hab­ited the Ca­naries for thou­sands of years be­fore the ar­rival of the Span­ish in the early 15th cen­tury. A Ne­olithic peo­ple, they lived in caves, wore goatskins, and mum­mi­fied their dead in a man­ner sim­i­lar to the an­cient Egyp­tians. But Span­ish rule soon erad­i­cated their cul­ture, in­clud­ing the Ber­ber tongue they once spoke. And though their whistling tra­di­tion sur­vived, it was adapted to cor­re­spond to Castil­ian Span­ish—two “vowel” sounds and four “con­so­nants” form­ing a sort of whis­tled short­hand with a vo­cab­u­lary of some 5,000 words. Rarely used for prac­ti­cal pur­poses any­more, Silbo Gomero still thrives and has been a com­pul­sory sub­ject in lo­cal el­e­men­tary schools since 1999.

This isn’t the only liv­ing relic on the is­land, though. La Gomera is some­times de­scribed as the Ca­nary Is­land that time for­got—a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion that’s more than a mere mar­ket­ing hook. A lau­rel for­est of the kind that once cov­ered much of Europe and Africa mil­lions of years ago dom­i­nates the cen­tral high­lands. It ac­counts for more than 70 per­cent of the Par­que Na­cional de Gara­jonay, mak­ing it the sec­ond largest such for­est on the planet and an­other of La Gomera’s UN­ESCO-pro­tected en­dow­ments.

That af­ter­noon, I head into the park with Yurena Mén­dez, a Gomera na­tive who works with the is­land’s tourism board as well as rep­re­sent­ing the tiny lo­cal film com­mis­sion. It turns out that La Gomera is a pop­u­lar lo­ca­tion for films and photo shoots thanks to its spec­tac­u­lar and di­verse land­scapes. “The re­make of Clash of the Ti­tans and the Ron Howard film In the Heart of the Sea were both shot here,” she in­forms me.

The lau­rel for­est has its own mi­cro­cli­mate, and within 10 min­utes we’ve gone from sun­baked moun­tain roads to a mist-shrouded av­enue of trees, their tan­gled bows cre­at­ing a lat­ticed roof above us. In early June, growth seems to be at its peak, and the wind­ing for­est paths are gar­landed with spring flow­ers, many of them—like the flame­col­ored Ca­nary bellflower and del­i­cate yel­low ix­an­thus—en­demic. th d i There are great banks of fern and the lau­rel trees them­selves are cov­ered in iri­des­cent moss and lichen. I half ex­pect to see Hansel and Gre­tel skip­ping through the mist.

In fact, Gara­jonay Na­tional Park takes its name from a Guanche folk­tale, the leg­end of Gara and Jonay. Gara was a Gomeran princess; Jonay was a prince from Tener­ife. The pair fell in love when Jonay at­tended a

Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left: Lau­rel trees em­bower a road through Gara­jonay Na­tional Park; baile de

tam­bor per­form­ers; a can­tilevered view­ing plat­form above Agulo; a set of chá­caras, the Ca­nary Is­lands’ an­swer to cas­tanets.

fes­ti­val in La Gomera with his fa­ther the king. Alas, Gara had ear­lier vis­ited the lau­rel for­est to learn who her fu­ture hus­band would be by drink­ing from a mag­i­cal spring, the Chor­ros de Epina. But when she looked into the pool, she saw in­stead a seething wheel of fire and wa­ter—an ill omen by any­one’s stan­dards. Sure enough, within a few months of their courtship, Tener­ife’s Teide vol­cano ex­ploded and the seas turned red and treach­er­ous.

The star-crossed lovers’ fam­i­lies for­bade them from be­ing to­gether. In des­per­a­tion, Jonay crossed the churn­ing ocean to be with his lover, cling­ing to an in­flated goatskin. With both of their fam­i­lies in pur­suit, the cou­ple fled into the forests and re­al­iz­ing they’d soon be caught, chose in­stead to die in each other’s em­brace, driv­ing a sharp­ened lau­rel branch through their hearts. Romeo and Juliet had noth­ing on th­ese guys.

The Chor­ros de Epina are still there. We find the spring late in the day in a cool, de­serted glade, where seven bri­ar­wood pipes ( chor­ros) send streams of wa­ter into a shal­low stone pool. “The first two are for love, the sec­ond two for health, and the last two for good for­tune,” Yurena tells me. And the sev­enth? “That’s strictly for witches.” Ar­riv­ing back in sunny San Se­bastián, I feel like I’ve emerged from some mythic hemi­sphere. I also feel some­what re­ju­ve­nated de­spite a lack of sleep; could it be the quick sip I took from the spring’s “health” pipe?

Yurena drops me off in the town square. Be­fore walk­ing back to my ho­tel, I take a quick look at the Torre del Conde, a 15th-cen­tury stone tower that’s the old­est build­ing on the is­land. Leg­end has it that Christo­pher Colum­bus had a se­cret tryst here with the beau­ti­ful Count­ess Beatriz de Bobadilla in 1492 dur­ing a brief stopover en route to “dis­cov­er­ing” the New World. Most Gomer­ans give short shrift to the story; in their ver­sion, Beatriz re­jected the smit­ten Ital­ian’s ad­vances.

En­ter­ing the lobby of the Parador de La Gomera, I note that time has for­got­ten the lo­cal ho­tel scene as well. ll The Th Parador P is ar­guably La Gomera’s finest ac­com­mo­da­tion, a sprawl­ing finca- style prop­erty set on a ridge above the ocean. Its rather grand colo­nial charm is soft­ened by a Moor­ish in­ner court­yard and lovely pool­side ter­race. Din­ner has a by­gone feel to it too, from the pre­sen­ta­tion of the dishes to the elderly serv­ing staff who wheel the food out on trol­leys. The fare is tasty, if tra­di­tional; I opt for tuna in a rich sauce of mus­sels and caramelized onions. Dessert is a leche asada, or baked-milk pud­ding driz­zled with date-palm honey.

In­trigued by the lat­ter, I head to the is­land’s dra­matic north­west coast the fol­low­ing af­ter­noon to visit a

THERE ARE GREAT BANKS OF FERN AND LAU­REL TREES COV­ERED IN MOSS AND LICHEN. I HALF EX­PECT TO SEE HANSEL AND GRE­TEL SKIP­PING THROUGH THE MIST.

vil­lage called Alo­jera, where a lu­nar land­scape of shat­tered moun­tains and steep scarps is punc­tu­ated by tall Ca­nary date palms that are said to pro­duce the sweet­est honey on the is­land. After lunch at a tiny fam­ily-run restau­rant on Alo­jera Beach— fresh fish, wrin­kled skin-on po­ta­toes with a de­li­cious Ca­narian green pep­per sauce called mojo verde— I meet up with Ruben Ramos, a guara­p­ero who’s here to har­vest his palms.

Guarapo is the name given to the palm sap, which Ramos ex­tracts by shin­ning up the tree trunk till he reaches the crown, where he care­fully chis­els out a small hole in the palm’s heart. He then in­serts a bam­boo shaft at­tached to a plas­tic pipe that feeds the sap into a bucket. “We leave it overnight and col­lect it early in the morn­ing be­fore it gets hot,” he tells me as he uses a pul­ley to get the bucket into the tree­top. “Then we boil it down. You need around four liters of guarapo to make one liter of honey.”

Lo­cals use the palm honey pri­mar­ily as a folk rem­edy for colds and sore throats, or sim­ply as a tonic. But tourism has boosted the mar­ket con­sid­er­ably and there are now a hand­ful of palm-honey fac­to­ries on the is­land. It’s tough work, though—tap­ping the palm is a del­i­cate process that can kill the tree if done wrong. It took Ramos a cou­ple of years to be­come a com­pe­tent guara­p­ero, learn­ing the skills from his fa­ther.

So much of La Gomera’s cul­ture speaks of knowl­edge and tra­di­tions passed down orally through the gen­er­a­tions. One of the purest dis­til­la­tions of this ex­ists in the is­land’s songs and dances. I get to wit­ness one such per­for­mance in the pretty vil­lage of Agulo, where a lo­cal troupe demon­strates a tra­di­tional drum dance called baile de tam

bor. Three men clad in white tu­nics beat out a rolling bass rhythm on wooden drums ac­com­pa­nied by the clack-clack of chá­caras, a kind of cas­tanet. Two women per­form a light-footed dance in front of them, whirling their dresses oc­ca­sion­ally as one of them sings in a high-pitched keen. While it is un­mis­tak­ably His­panic in char­ac­ter, the drums, the repetition, and the vo­cal tones have a prim­i­tive qual­ity that harks back to a much ear­lier time … an echo once again of the by­gone Guanches.

I’ve yet to visit La Gomera’s most iconic land­mark, the Roque de Agando, so I head up there the next morn­ing with Yurena. The pic­tures I’ve seen of this gran­ite mono­lith near the cen­ter of the is­land do lit­tle to pre­pare me for the ac­tual en­counter. It’s the scale that hits you. Reach­ing an el­e­va­tion of 1,250 me­ters, the rock it­self pro­trudes some 180 me­ters above the sur­round­ing forests— al­most the height of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Mi­rador del Morro de Agando look­out point is part of an ex­posed ridge that skirts the north side of the rock, with views all the way to the is­land’s south coast. It’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing, not least be­cause of the seem­ingly gale-force wind whip­ping around us —a more or less per­ma­nent fix­ture, ac­cord­ing to Yurena. Within the space of 10 min­utes, the en­tire tableau be­fore us—rock, for­est, ocean—dis­ap­pears, swal­lowed by a thick fog. “We got lucky,” Yurena laughs. “Some­times you come up here and this is all you see!”

Twenty min­utes to the west along a twist­ing ridgetop road, an­other Gomeran icon awaits us: Casa Efi­ge­nia, the restau­rant and life­long home of an oc­to­ge­nar­ian lady named Doña Efi­ge­nia Borges. Nes­tled among eu­ca­lyp­tus trees in the moun­tains above the western mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Valle Gran Rey, her kitchen has been serv­ing guests for more than 50 years, be­fore tourism was even a thing here. Doña Efi­ge­nia is as gen­er­ous with her sto­ries as she is with her por­tions, barely find­ing time to take a breath as she re­gales us with tales of her fa­ther, who taught him­self how to read and write at a time when the en­tire vil­lage was il­lit­er­ate, and her younger sis­ter, who re­cently com­pleted an art his­tory de­gree at the ten­der age of 78.

We sit at a long wooden ta­ble as a suc­ces­sion of tra­di­tional Ca­narian dishes are placed be­fore us, all of them vege­tar­ian. There’s fresh bread with al­mogrote, a highly ad­dic­tive Gomeran paste of hard cheese, chili, olive oil, and gar­lic; a steamed vegetable stew known as puchero served with gofio, a starchy flour made from corn and other root veg­eta­bles that was a Guanche sta­ple long be­fore bread ar­rived on the is­land; and more leche asada with palm honey. It’s all good, hearty coun­try fare of the sort that lo­cal farm­ers have been eat­ing for gen­er­a­tions, with most of the in­gre­di­ents plucked from Doña Efi­ge­nia’s or­ganic gar­dens. Our host­ess tells us that her restau­rant counts An­gela Merkel among its many fans; the Ger­man chan­cel­lor is a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to the is­land, seek­ing so­lace here when­ever she needs a break from the de­mands of run­ning Ger­many and keep­ing the Euro­pean project alive.

Na­ture will prob­a­bly

al­ways be La Gomera’s big­gest draw. The is­land’s wild land­scapes are ex­tremely easy to en­joy up close and per­sonal thanks to more than 675 kilo­me­ters of beau­ti­fully main­tained and mostly sign­posted hik­ing trails, most of which date back many hun­dreds of years— an­other relic of pre-His­panic times. Each bar­ranco has a dif­fer­ent feel and some­times a dis­tinct mi­cro­cli­mate too. A sin­gle loop­ing trail can take you from beaches to ter­raced moun­tain­sides to forests to rugged gorges stud­ded with a wild va­ri­ety of cacti and suc­cu­lents.

The off­shore en­vi­ron­ment is just as en­gag­ing. On my last day on La Gomera, I head out with Yurena and some of her friends in a 12-seat Zo­diac in search of dol­phins. Our cap­tain, José Manuel, seems pretty con­fi­dent we’ll find them—th­ese wa­ters are fre­quented by 26 dif­fer­ent cetacean species, in­clud­ing a num­ber that are per­ma­nent res­i­dents. Thirty min­utes after leav­ing the har­bor in Valle Gran Rey, we’re out in the open ocean speed­ing across At­lantic rollers. José Manuel points at what ap­pears to be noth­ing to my un­trained eye and abruptly changes direc­tion. And then I see them: a pod of spot­ted dol­phins ca­reen­ing through the waves with what looks sus­pi­ciously like joy. We catch up to them and spend a bliss­ful 20 min­utes sur­rounded by the sleek an­i­mals as they leap, dive, and spin across our bow. “There must be 500 of them,” says José Manuel. “And look, whales!” Sure enough, there’s a gag­gle of rather more se­date pi­lot whales among the dol­phins, loop­ing lazily through the wa­ter and oc­ca­sion­ally re­veal­ing their bul­bous heads.

In June, La Gomera is rel­a­tively quiet; high sea­son is Jan­uary through March, when the ma­jor­ity of tourists head to the Ca­naries to es­cape the cold north Euro­pean win­ter. But you get the feel­ing that the is­land will never even come close to the hec­tic bus­tle of its near­est neigh­bor, Tener­ife. The food, the ho­tels, and the peo­ple here are all res­o­lutely tra­di­tional. And that’s just fine. With­out the ho­mog­e­nized ac­cou­ter­ments of 21st-cen­tury travel—hip cafés serv­ing In­sta­gram-friendly food, self-con­scious bou­tique ho­tels, selfie-ready “ex­pe­ri­ences” —La Gomera’s atavis­tic charms have the space to work their magic. And they cast quite a spell.

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