Alternative Gomera, a guidebook to walking in La Gomera (one of the Canary Islands), is out of print. It is available online, but hasn't been updated since 2004. These pages are not maintained.

La Gomera - An introduction (Chapter One)

From the 7th edition - Last updated in 2003

Do you fancy a week or a fortnight's break from the British winter (or summer come to that) walking around a delightfully exotic island (out in the Atlantic at the same latitude as the Western Sahara), with each night a cheap pension in a different village - all at a total cost, for one week, including plane, insurance, train to Gatwick, ferry, accommodation, food, drink, presents, postcards, taxis, etc. of about £400? If so, this booklet could be for you, since there is no other guidebook in English to the island of La Gomera near Tenerife which details such a circular walking tour or which details places to stay - or which is kept so up-to-date.

If you knew of a small unspoilt paradise such as this one, would you tell all and sundry? With much hesitation I decided to do so, since future tourist development of the island is inevitable and already underway, and the more that this development can be oriented towards relatively harmless walkers staying in small pensions and people's homes, rather than towards the present plan for multi-storey hotels in tourist complexes, so much the better.

I am a lover of islands and have visited many of the Greek, Italian, French and Spanish islands of the Mediterranean, but La Gomera, in the Canaries, 40 minutes by hydrofoil ferry from Tenerife, is the most beautiful and varied of them all.

Those visitors who do spend more than a day trip there are mostly young Germans, who are the world's most perceptive tourists in my opinion, but even they miss out on the island's delights. They head straight for the main tourist trap town in the West of the island, Valle Gran Rey, with its black sand beaches and juice bars and restaurants, and they rarely explore the walks outside that valley. We have walked on recognised paths for days at a time in other parts of the island without meeting any other walkers.

Gomera's characteristics

For eight of the last eleven Januaries and twice in February and once in March, I have been for a one-week walking holiday in Gomera. Gomera is the poorer traveller's substitute for Nepal, with its ravines covered with terraced farming and its mountains peeping up into the clouds - yet the walking is hardly more demanding than in the Lake District and requires no special equipment.

The island is 25 kilometres wide and 23 kilometres from North to South, and has been compared to a cake cut into a large number of pieces, with deep barrancos (ravines) between the pieces. The cause of the cake cutting was a series of volcanic explosions over the last 20 million years or so (none for the last two million years), which have left the island with a vast filled-in crater at the centre, where the climate is different to the rest of the island - here the central cumbre laurel forest, now a national park (the Parque Nacional de Garajonay), sometimes feels a bit like a tropical rainforest, with wet and bearded trees, often in the clouds, but exhilarating to walk through.

The variety of landscapes on La Gomera is part of the island's delightfulness. You cross over the ridge from one barranco to the next and it is at times as if you had changed country. Barrancos have not only their own characteristics, but sometimes also their own weather, from the arid abandoned terraces and deserted villages of the Barranco de la Negra in the South to the thousand and one date palms of the more lush Vallehermoso ('Valley Beautiful' in English) in the North. Adding to the exotic flavour are the very sexy over-endowed banana trees, the cacti with their edible red prickly pears, the groves of bamboo (or rather Arundo donax, a kind of cane, not really bamboo), the vineyards, and the many almond, avocado, papaya, orange trees. There are also hundreds of species of plants and trees unknown outside the Canaries.

The island is warmed by the gulf stream and cooled by the winds, with a climate that is mild the year round - often shirtsleeves weather even in January, seldom ising above 25 degrees in summer or sinking below 12 degrees in winter (although the weather changes fast, is sometimes too windy or very occasionally too hot for walking, is relatively cold at nights, and in the high centre of the island can be very cold and wet). The Spanish-speaking inhabitants are friendly and there are no poisonous animals or insects (although the towns can have biting flies in summer). There are fine birds and butterflies, but apart from the domestic animals - the ubiquitous dogs and goats, a few pigs, chicken, fewer still mules and donkeys, bullocks and a couple of cows and horses - there are hardly any animals at all (since I first came, the total I have glimpsed is three wild rabbits, one half-dead rat, any number of lizards and a family of wild dogs. On several trips a dog seems to have got very attached to us and has wanted to follow us for days. It might be kind to shoo such dogs away at an early stage if you do not intend to provide for them - your pension will almost certainly not welcome them). In 2000, six giant 18in lizards (four females and two males of the species Gallotia gomerana) believed to have been extinct for 500 years were found in the cliffs of Valle Gran Rey, were taken to the University of La Laguna in Tenerife for study and were later replaced in a safer and unreported location.

Re this relative lack of wildlife in the Canaries, see Fauna de las Islas Canarias by Jose Manuel Moreno, Ediciones Turquesa, 1992, ISBN 84 604 3599 7, available from the Visitor's Centre on La Gomera, or from bookshops on the island. The Canaries have no foxes, deer, badgers, hares - and hedgehogs only because they have been introduced to some of the islands (but not La Gomera). There are seven species of bats (but only four so far have been spotted in La Gomera), none of which seem to have been introduced. All the other mammals have been introduced: rabbits, three sorts of rat, a wild goat from North Africa and what seems top be a ground squirrel (Atlantoxerus getulus) also from North Africa. There are also sea mammals: dolphins (Delphinus delphus and Tursiops truncatus) and whales (Physeter macrocephalus and Globicephala macrorhynchus) and something called in Spanish Zifo comun (Ziphius cavirostris).

Of birds of prey, the most common are the kestrel - in La Gomera, an endemic subspecies, Flaco tinnunculus canariensis, and the common buzzard (Buteo buteo). There are also sparrowhawks and a few ospreys and even fewer peregrine falcons.

The large birds that fly out from rocky paths with a whirr from their wings are likely to be partridges (Alectoris barbara koenigi) -  often in pairs.

The best time to go walking there (and often the cheapest time for airplane tickets, and the time when you can most easily find accommodation in the pensions) is when it is both cool and out of peak season - for instance in January (it is fun to be there for the big Three Kings' Festival on January 5th, when the children give their present requests to the passing floats). February is lovely with the wild flowers. February is ideal - there is less chance of storms and very windy weather than in January. By March it is already getting a little too sunny by the middle of the day.

You can check the next few days' weather forecast for the Canaries (or at least for Tenerife) on the Internet (for instance the weather section at

The language of La Gomera nowadays is Spanish. Some of the older inhabitants can still use the intriguing Gomeran whistling language, 'el silbo', useful for conveying quite detailed information from mountain-top to mountain-top, such as 'meet you in the cafe by the plaza for a drink at 12'. Some whistlers can make themselves understood up to five miles away, with a following wind, it is claimed. The whistle is demonstrated at some of the tourist restaurants, is recognised by UNESCO as a language whose survival is threatened, and is taught to 9 and 10 year olds in specialised classes in school. The whistle compresses all spoken sounds to four consonants and two vowels, using varying tone and length. Some experts say that the whistling originated from the Berbers in the high Atlas in Morocco, although the Turks near the Black Sea in the Kuskoy valley do a similar form of whistling.

A good German booklet with colour photos and Latin and Spanish names for about hundred specimens of the island's flora is Planzenführer Kanarische Inseln by Andrea and Thomas Müller, available from the craft shop in Hermigua and from various shops on the island and perhaps from a German bookshop on the web. Or a similar number of specimens are covered in less detail, with their English and Latin names (not their Spanish) in La Gomera Plants and Flowers Guide (two folding posters) available for a £2 cheque from Discovery Walking Guides, 10 Tennyson Close, Northampton NN5 7HJ. For a website with a few photos of plants to be found in La Gomera and a long list of Latin and English names for flowers and fruit trees (and other interesting material about Gomera), see

Gomera's past

The generally accepted theory is that the Canary islands arose through volcanic explosions from the sea. Some scholars, however, believe that Gomera and the Canaries may at one time have been connected to the African mainland. The island's original Guanche inhabitants were mainly very tall, sturdy and with blue eyes and fair hair, although intermixed with various shipwrecked others. The Guanche may have had Berber connections (in Tenerife, 'Guan' meant 'man', but each island had its own language, with similarities between the islands. The languages are now lost, although some Guanche surnames and place names and about 3000 words survive). The Guanche buried the mummified bodies of their dead in bricked-up caves in as inaccessible spots as possible, and they followed a Stone Age way of life (without even the use of the potter's wheel) into the middle ages. They had no bread, using a gofio barley flour instead. They had no chisels or metal instruments. Supposedly their only way of fishing was to jump into the sea so as to frighten the fish into their reed nets. On Tenerife island even the art of swimming is said to have been unknown. None of the Canary Islands except Hierro discovered how to produce alcohol by distillation, so that water and palm juice were the only drinks. They had no cotton or flax, only chamois leather. And no needles, only awls made of fish bone or palm thorns. They used cattle as a symbol of wealth, and the nobility had slaves or commoners as servants. Shields were made from the bark of the dragon tree.

There are many theories as to the origins of these people - the fact that only Peruvians, Guanche and Egyptians mummify their corpses perhaps argues for a common origin for these peoples, with one theory being that civilization spread from the Canaries to Egypt rather than the other way around. (The Guanche method of mummifying a body was to remove the entrails, to wash the body in cold water mixed with salt twice a day, to rub it with grease, resins and lards, and to expose it to the sun for a fortnight.)

The land is fertile, producing, inter alia, bananas, mangoes, dates, guavas, apricots, potatoes and barley. There are only 69 rainy days a year, and these are normally only intermittently so, often with another part of the island still rain-free, there is no dampness at night nor even at sunrise or sunset. There is no winter.

It is hardly surprising that in classical times the Canary Islands were associated with Elysium and the Garden of Hesperides and with the remains of a lost Atlantis, and they were dubbed 'The Fortunate Isles'.

At least on Gran Canaria, polyandry was practised, with a woman often married to three husbands, who enjoyed their marital rights in monthly rotation. Divorce was normally without rancour and by mutual agreement. Guanche kings listened to plaintiffs under dragon trees, which is also where the princesses danced. (Dragon trees are of the lily family, a sort of asparagus or spurge. There is only one dragon tree in Gomera - north of Alajero on the colour country map.) Guanche people were generous and friendly if not provoked but 'capable of terrible reprisals if attacked'.

Inevitably these islands attracted visitors. There were Arab visitors (from the 10th century onwards), a Genoese expedition (1291) and a Portuguese one in 1341 which reported to King Alfonso IV about Gomera's 'good number of streams and deliciously tasty pigeons, which feed on laurel berries and cherries'. Most of the Canary Islands were conquered for the crown of Castille in the 15th century by Juan de Bethencourt, a Norman nobleman, but he was unable to subdue Gomera, which did not become part of the Spanish crown until 1488; and, even then, it was as much through contact and trade as through armed conquest. 1488, however, was the date of a Spanish atrocity in Gomera. Herman Peraza, of Andalusian ancestry, was assassinated by Gomerans whilst carrying on an affair with Yballa, a young Gomeran woman. Peraza's widow, Dona Beatriz de Bobadilla, took refuge in the San Sebastian tower (which still looks very defensible in San Sebastian - it is worth a visit, in the hinterland behind the far end of the beach). She sought help from another Andalusian nobleman, Pedro de Vera, who came with 400 veteran soldiers and executed Guanche captives, some by chopping off their hands and feet, some by hanging, some by dragging with horses. Captured Guanche children became slaves.

In 1492, Gomera and the neighbouring smaller Hierro islands were the last landfalls for Columbus on his voyage towards America. Gomera defended itself successfully when besieged by the British fleet under Admiral Charles Windham in 1743 (see the triumphalist mural in the church of San Sebastian). The Canaries were involved in the Spanish Civil War, with the rich tending to side with the fascists, but they shared Spain's neutrality in the Second World War. To this day some Gomerans hanker for their island's independence from Spain, as the occasional lively wall graffiti bear testimony. Local people all seem to talk of the politicians presently in power as being corrupt and unimpressive.

Gomera was badly hit by the demise of the cochineal industry (red dyes processed from female scale insect bugs living on the prickly pear cacti which were imported from Mexico for the purpose. These dyes have now been largely replaced by aniline ones). There has been an attempt to develop banana plantations as an alternative. The bananas are rather on the small size for the world market, but are mainly bought up by Spain. There are several closed tuna factories in the South West of the island, abandoned because of over-fishing. The population of Gomera has fallen from a peak of 30,000 to just under 17,000 today (it is stable at this level). Many have left to look for work in Spain, Britain and Venezuela.

For further details on the history of La Gomera, see 'The Canary Islands' by Salvadoz Lopez Herrera, ISBN 84 400 4705 3.

The walks levels of difficulty

The walks in this booklet vary from an all-day marathon with constant uphills and downhills through steep barrancos (Day 4), to an easy seven hour walk which is for the first part a stroll downhill along wide and gently undulating paths (Day 6). There is one walk (Day 3) which involves twenty metres of fairly easy scrambling up a rockface. You need, in other words, to be generally fit, able to walk an average of 18 (up to 28 kilometres) each day, uphill and downhill, and to be of a relatively adventurous and independent disposition. However, for each of the walks an easier and shorter alternative is also detailed.

I love the feeling of walking off into the mountains on an epic adventure within 24 hours of leaving London, but Bob, my walking companion one year, says that he thinks most people would prefer to acclimatise more gradually, to have a day or two's rest before starting walking, or do only the shorter versions of the walks to begin with. The main suggested walk on Day 1 is a long one. For readers who share Bob's persuasion, the best solution might be either to do a shorter version of the Day 1 walk (either just the shorter first part or the longer second part) or to take a bus at mid-day on the first day in La Gomera to Alajero, and book into the pension there for a couple of nights (phoning first to make sure there is room), and to start off with the very easy first part of the mainly-downhill Day 6 walk (probably leaving out the afterlunch uphill slog) and then the easy and very beautiful Day 5 Alternative A walk (Alajero to Santiago, perhaps thumbing a lift once you get to the tarmac road).

For those who have time to do only one walk in this guide, my recommendation is the Day 5 one to Imada. My favourite walk in this guide is, however, the Day 4 one, but this is truly a long and arduous walk with many barrancos, and many readers may prefer the shorter alternatives that are suggested for that day.

There are enough alternative walks in this book for a second circuit of the island. See the section at the end of this guide for a suggested second week of walks.

When you walk on the old tracks of Gomera, you are using the road and path systems of the pre-industrial, pre-automobile age. The largest old paths are only about three metres wide and the smallest less than one metre wide, along with steep steps cut into barranco sides.

In the mountains, some find that a long stick (for instance 8 to 10 ft of bamboo) is useful for reducing jarring of the knees and for moving fast and keeping balance better - you sometimes see local people using one to leap their way downhill. There is a bamboo grove you come to on the Day 1 walk in this guide.

I have described each of the walks in enormous detail. For UK walks this can be unnecessary, as the Ordnance Survey maps are reliable and there are often houses or people within range that you can consult if you get lost. In La Gomera, you could be days on some of these walks without someone else coming upon you, and often the routes are in the middle of nowhere or the nearest hamlet has long since been abandoned. Furthermore, the maps are unreliable and the sides of some of the barrancos are so precipitous that there is only one way down and you have to know where to find it. From years of experience of using other Gomera guides, I know that the details they give tend to be inadequate, and that one can end up tired and bad-tempered and even dangerously lost late in the evening. My aim has been to provide enough details so that, for example, if you come to a house where you are supposed to take a fork, the house is described sufficiently for you to know which one it is, or, if the house has since changed its appearance, that there should be enough other details and compass directions to keep you on the right path. Nevertheless, because so much detail will most of the time not be needed, and is there to refer to only if you get confused, I have put the principal directions in italics. For the most part, these will be sufficient on their own.

The timings given for these walks are very slow, and allow for breaks and even for getting lost occasionally (despite being relatively unfit, born 1948, with a deskbound job and having to stop all the time to write notes, I tend to knock a third off the times in this book). Very fast walkers may be able to do these walks in half the time specified. But then, what would be the point of rushing through so much beauty?

What to take

What you take with you depends on the degree of risk with which you feel comfortable. I have an extreme aversion to walking up and down steep ravines in the heat encumbered with a rucksack, so normally all I take with me for the week are the following - and note that one reasonably cheap place for walking and camping equipment is Tarpaulin & Tent Ltd, PO Box 350, Esher, KT10 8DZ (credit card orders, tel 020 8873 3797); other mail order places include CRM (tel 0800 413635;, Bourne Sports (tel 01782 410411), Complete Outdoors (tel 01442 873133; and Field and Trek (tel 01268 494444;

In this multitude of pockets, or in my money pouch, I carry:

My own more eccentric extras include:

For those who really do not mind going up and down ravines all day in the sun with a heavy pack on their back (you will! you will! By the end of the first day you will regret every unnecessary ounce of weight. Bob resisted all my sneering in London and insisted on coming with a pack weighing 3.5 kg. He dumped as much of it as he could after the first couple of days of walking), the ultimate protection against pensions being full or against getting caught on a cold mountain for the night, would be to take a tent and sleeping bag. You may camp in La Gomera on any terrace or piece of land that is 50 metres or more from a house, as long as it is not within the Parque Nacional boundaries and as long as you light no fires. (There are certain places in the park where you can camp if you have a permit - the park offices are Icona, Carretera General del Sur 20, San Sebastian, tel 922 870105.)

Back-packers could include other luxuries such as a towel. In Gomeran pensions, on the occasions where towels are not supplied, I use my bed sheet for a towel in the morning.

A luxury for a group walking together might be to book their pensions the day before by phone, where possible, and then to send their heavy luggage ahead of them by taxi, but you would need good Spanish and compliant taxi drivers and pensions.

A safeguard would be to have or to rent a mobile phone which works in the Canaries. We have found that a mobile phone functions OK on walks near to San Sebastian, but not in the deeper barrancos near Chipude and Alojera, nor on the Day 6 walk through the central forest.

Another safeguard is to take travelling companions (or to join up with other walkers once there - you might have to go to Valle Gran Rey to have the best chance of finding them). I think four is the ideal number - any more and you may have difficulty finding rooms for the night in the smaller villages. With four people, if one person is injured, a friend can stay with them whilst two others go for help. But my wife and I have walked happily in La Gomera as a pair, and I have enjoyed solo walks, and have met several solo travellers, the most intrepid being a British retired coal miner of 65 who was running 20km a day over the mountains with a pack on his back, and who came running up to us when we were lost in the clouds. He was like an angel of mercy, redirecting us on our way.

A final safety precaution is always to remember to look out for your onward path in the distance, often on the other side of a barranco. Sometimes the way in to a path can be clearly seen from afar but is very hard to find once right on top of it.

The first year I went in gym shoes with an insole, which were fine as it so happened, but it is probably better to have a pair of very lightweight boots which do not slip on rocks, and which, from long previous experience, do not give you blisters and which have plenty of bounce in the soles. You shouldn't need to pay more than £15 for a good pair of boots from a chain such as Shoefayre (tel 020 8951 4028). I add a bouncy insole.

The best guides map & websites

The practically essential companion to this guide is the Discovery La Gomera Tour & Trail map available from the Institute for Social Inventions for £7 inc. p&p (6 Blackstock Mews, Blackstock Road, London N4 2BT; credit card orders to 020 7359 8391 or securely online). The walks in this present booklet assume that you have this map.

Most of the other Gomeran maps on sale are to be avoided, as they are far less detailed and less up-to-date, and contain more errors.

For those planning to stay on La Gomera for more than a fortnight, or to walk on Tenerife too, it would be worth consulting not only this present guide and the above map, but the excellent guide I used myself on earlier visits, 'Landscapes of Southern Tenerife and La Gomera' by Noel Rochford, published by Sunflower Books (£8-99). My only quibbles with this guide are that it does not give places to stay, or even which villages have places to stay; it assumes you are staying in fixed places rather than taking a circular tour; it says you can follow its walks in reverse if necessary, although I have got hopelessly lost when trying to; its walks are not detailed enough - we got lost very often; its maps look authoritative but seem slightly less so in practice - nor are they related to the 57 walks in the map referred to above.

A very basic and not very useful Lonely Planet guide to the Canaries as a whole is available. Two other walk books seem of limited usefulness, confusing to try to use and already out of date: La Gomera for Walkers and Walk! La Gomera.

The most widely available walking books for La Gomera are in German and are relatively thorough. If you can read German, the best of the bunch for walkers, although out of date, is 'Kanarische Wanderungen auf La Gomera, El Hierro und La Palma' by Ursula and Adam Reifenberger, published by Wander Handbuch at 22DM (Conrad Stein Verlag, Andreas-Gayk-Str. 7-111, D 2300 Kiel 1, Germany, tel 00 49 431 93377). There is also a German guide based on the German map that I recommended above - it is called 'La Gomera', published 1993 by the map's publishers Goldstadverlag (address above). This guide too is not detailed enough. I met one walker who said she kept wanting to throw it down the ravine in frustration.

Two fairly useful websites, both offering general information on Gomera are: (which also has ferry times and various apartments) and (which offers hiking tours, mainly for German speakers).

There is a German Gomeran tourist newspaper called Der Valle-Bote, (tel 922 805759; which contains useful local news, information and small ads.

A vision for Gomera's future

If only more of the millions of pesetas being poured into the island by the European Community could be spent, not on prestige projects such as the underused inter-island airport near Santiago (started in 1964, finally completed in 1999, but slower for tourists to use than the hydrofoil ferry) or on asphalting yet more roads, but rather on small 'intermediate development' projects of more long-term benefit to local people, or for the encouragement of small-scale tourism. Desirable ways to spend this money include: tax breaks and subsidies for local people opening pensions, repair of the water aqueducts, subsidised rehousing in the derelict villages, a small hospital in Valle Gran Rey, training local people as walk guides, marking the footpaths more thoroughly with marker dots (this is beginning to happen), clearing brambles, bushes, fallen trees and rocks from the most impeded footpaths (without over-'improving' them, as has happened in the Parque National, which takes away their character), improving the island's rubbish dumps, removing sewer outlets from the Valle Gran Rey beaches, even collecting all the wrecked cars that litter the island's roads. It might even be worth printing a basic tourist training leaflet for local pensions and for restaurants which want to attract tourists, explaining, for instance, that although local people are hardy and may like the restaurant's front doors open all night, the average foreigners may appreciate more warmth - and that pensions may like to supply more than one blanket per bed.

My best vision for Gomera's future is that it could go in the direction of Skyros island in Greece, where one restauranteur gathered together all the businesses on the island into an association that successfully helped fight off the development of huge package holiday hotels. Another far-sighted political move would be the bringing in of planning controls to rule out any pensions or hotels of more than two storeys or for more than twenty guests. In Skyros, visitors stay in the rooms of local people's homes - this way the money goes straight to the inhabitants rather than to some foreign hotel chain, and the development of a uniform package holiday experience is discouraged. God forbid that the nightmare development of Tenerife should spread throughout Gomera.

The signs are not good though, with another large hotel (for near La Dama) planned by the Fred Olsen Hotel Tecina people.

Gomera needs development to renovate the ghost villages and abandoned houses and terraced farming, and to prevent further depopulation. This will happen anyway. Land in La Gomera is already shooting up in value, and will continue to do so, with perhaps a brief lull as the euro puts an end to untaxed money from Germany. One factor pointing in the direction of higher prices is the development of satellite phones and solar-powered computers, which mean that many self-employed and business people can work in rural areas, however remote. Island paradises such as Gomera within range of cheap flights will become very sought after.

More and more Germans are also likely to buy land in La Gomera. They risk eventually squeezing out local people, since foreigners pay far over the local price. In 1997 I saw an isolated not-very-attractive house in El Cedro (a hamlet in a picturesque barranco on the fringes of the rainforest near Hermigua in the NW) advertised in a Tenerife estate agency as 3 bedrooms with 6,000 sq metres of land, at the very high price of 26,250,000 pesetas (£128,000) - and still for sale in 2000. Local people would normally pay between 2 and 3 million pesetas for a house and garden, plus between 1,000 and 1,500 pesetas per square metre for extra land, a likely total in this case of under 10 million pesetas.

Despite this, I would love to be involved in a project to purchase and renovate one of the ghost villages in Gomera in a sensitive way (my favourite such village was La Manteca and the houses in the barranco below it, just SE of El Drago, but I may have missed my chance - a couple of houses there have now already been renovated. See my account of it in the Day 4 walk below. Another beautiful empty hamlet is the one at El Azadoe near Imada - see the Day 6 Alternative walk below - although this only has donkey path access).

Incidentally, Gomera, though officially administered by Tenerife, has its own governing cabinet (Sr. Casimiro Curbelo Curbelo, c/ Real 31, 38.800 San Sebastian, Gomera, Excmo. Cabildo Insular De La Gomera).

Suggested La Gomera guidebooks

These walking guide books are recent editions. Check the customer reviews before making your choice.

The Rother is best for serious walkers and the Sunflower for leisure walkers and hire car explorers. Alternative Gomera itself is long out of print.