El Hierro: Lost in the Canaries

by Cassandra Ward, The Guardian, February 12, 2016

El Hierro, the smallest of the Canaries, is not the most promising island to sail up to. As the ferry pulls in, the first things you see are two power stations. One is now redundant, the other is a state-of-the-art turbine built to harness the power of both water and wind. The government’s plan is that soon the island will be self-sufficient and its 10,000 residents will live, in effect, off-grid.

Another goal is to get everyone driving electric cars, so there are charging ports across the island. On a drive into the mountains I found myself manoeuvring through a flock of sheep while a shepherd in a hi-vis tabard played on his mobile phone. You might not expect phone signal at such altitude, but the government provides free WiFi across the island.

What’s odd about all this techno-modernity is that in other ways El Hierro’s charms are very traditional. Its remoteness and ruggedness mean that unlike Lanzarote or Gran Canaria it remains almost untouched by tourism. Numbers were further hit in 2011 after a nearby volcanic eruption, and now the island only receives about 20,000 visitors per year, mainly other Canarians.


A scuba diver and sea star

Star struck: diving off La Restinga. Photograph: Franco Banfi/Getty

Its handful of quiet bars do not offer two-for-one cocktails or karaoke. In fact Guachinche Frontera, the island’s “number one restaurant” according to Tripadvisor, doesn’t even appear on the faded A4 photocopy, available from tourist information, that lists the island’s places to eat and drink. The restaurant is simply three tables in a farmyard lean-to, nestled into a mountainside where it commands spectacular views of the gulf. Like the other restaurants on El Hierro, the food is entirely without pretence: when you order queso y tomate, that’s what you get – a plate of sliced cheese and tomato, without garnish.

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You don’t have to travel far from the port, along a road covered with dense overlapping blankets of purple laurels, ferns and mossed rockery, before you start to understand why Unesco has designated the island a biosphere reserve. A two-hour drive took me through the island’s rapidly changing terrain – from barren coastal paths and crumbling cliffs to thick juniper forests – until I arrived in La Restinga, a colourful fishing village and a popular diving spot.

It was late afternoon; the fishing and diving had finished for the day and in near silence the locals and tired divers were sat at roadside tables drinking wine and beer. The only sound was the ocean washing up against the red and blue fishing boats that were tied up in the harbour. I asked a waitress if I’d arrived during siesta. “No,” she said, “this is just Restinga.”


An ancient olive tree.

Twists and turns: an ancient olive tree. Photograph: Alamy

Next I headed to the Los Lomos vineyard in El Pinar, towards the south of the island. It wasn’t easy to find, but it was worth the effort. I arrived unannounced and the owner didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t curtail her hospitality. She poured glasses of wine and we sampled last year’s vintage, communicating in nods and smiles.

A truck pulled up and several men jumped out to join us. The owner brought them out a case of wine each. I asked, in faltering Spanish, if they were customers. No, she said, they were the workers who had harvested the grapes. “No money changes hands for the work… wine, produce, skills are used as currency.”

Further up the road I met a carpenter and souvenir peddler who said it was quite common for him to trade furniture for a car repair or haberdashery. (A keen reader of English newspapers, he asked me how I felt about Jeremy Corbyn.) I asked him if he’d like to see more visitors, but he shrugged.


Dried lava from a recent volcanic eruption.

Rock solid: dried lava from a recent volcanic eruption. Photograph: Getty

El Hierro has a zero crime rate and there is no official police presence. Locals don’t just leave doors unlocked, they’ll happily leave their car keys in the ignition. Life is good.

The owner brought the men a case of wine each. I asked if they were customers. No, she said, they’d harvested the grapes

At the end of the week I stumbled across the mountain village of Sabinosa. Its streets were lined with colourful bunting as its residents celebrated the San Simon Festival, sharing their wine and whatever food they could muster in a vibrant street party. Gathering around an ancient wine press, they toasted the year’s harvest with a cheer then retreated to the village hall, where a folk band struck up. A glass was thrust into my hand – a more traditional source of energy.


Fly from London to Tenerife North with British Airways (britishairways.com) from £124 return, or to Tenerife South with Monarch (monarch.co.uk)from £102 return. The Armas ferry (navieraarmas.com) from Los Cristinos to Valverde is £75 return and runs once a day except Saturdays, or fly from Tenerife North with Binter Canarias for £62 return (bintercanarias.com). A double room at the Parador de El Hierro starts at £59 (parador.es)

For more inside tips, advice and holiday ideas, go to theguardian.com/travel

This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk


This article was written by Cassandra Ward from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.