This Remote Island Off the African Coast Is Spain’s Best-Kept Secret
A tropical wonderland of hikeable volcanoes, black-sand beaches, and sumptuous boutique hotels awaits in La Palma, whose nickname, “La Isla Bonita,” rings truer than ever.
This is the latest in our twice-a-month series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
I had almost given up on writing about the Canary Islands. Year after year, pitch after pitch, the party line from editors was, the archipelago was intriguing but ultimately impractical for American travelers. And truth be told, I grudgingly agreed: When Americans need a dose of the tropics, the Caribbean has us covered—in less than half the flight time. For desert landscapes, we go out West. And when we daydream about the Spanish seaside, we’re usually thinking about Ibiza and the Mediterranean. The Canaries, with all of those natural wonders but no direct flights, were simply too tough a sell.
But I’m here to tell you that I was dead wrong. Little did I know, there’s a sleeper-hit Canary island that flies under most travelers’ radar, one worth flying all the way across the Atlantic to experience. In this secret Eden, you can wander pristine rainforests, sunbathe on powdery black sand, taste perfumy local wines, and sleep in a century-old lighthouse fringed by banana trees—all in a single day. Welcome to La Palma, the island Spaniards rightly call “La Isla Bonita.”
La Palma is the northwesternmost of the Canaries and one of the remotest of the eight islands, sparsely populated and plunked some 300 miles off the Moroccan coast. In my seven years living in Spain, I’d barely heard of it—peninsular Spaniards often forget it exists altogether, confusing it with Las Palmas, the capital of Gran Canaria. Of every 500 international visitors to the archipelago, only one makes it to La Palma, and those who do aren’t the poolbound lobsters you see in Tenerife but primarily nature lovers seeking culture and solitude.
In other words, La Palma sounded like an idyllic place to stretch my legs after being cooped up in quarantined Madrid. And the promise of no crowds, clean air, and few foreign tourists allayed my hypochondriacal jitters. So I drew up a basic itinerary with my partner—a day hike here, a wine tasting there—and flew three hours to La Palma (currently there’s one direct flight to and from Madrid each day operated by Iberia), unsure of what to expect.
The plane touched down in Santa Cruz, a charming city known for its colorful colonial houses and creaky old churches that tumble down to the beach. But craving the countryside, we’d save it for the next trip. I plugged Puntagorda, our home base for a few days, into the GPS, and it spit out a route that looked like tachycardia on an ECG—zigzags so tight there was no oxygen between them. I took a Dramamine and we shoved off. Rain pummelled the windshield as the car revved up the near-sheer switchbacks into the clouds. Ahead of us, it was thick gray soup; out the window, steep rock faces blocked out the sky, their glistening surfaces sprouting with succulents and moss. The going was getting tougher and tougher until we reached a short tunnel, a break from the downpour. Then, miraculously—upon reaching the other side—dazzling sunny skies.
Climatically La Palma feels like several islands in one. Its steep interior is wreathed in laurisilva, a type of misty subtropical forest endemic to the archipelago that’s older than the Ice Age and lush with ferns and laurel trees. Beneath it, as elevation dips, tropical plants give way to scrubby cacti, citrus orchards, and banana plantations in what’s called the thermophilic zone; closer yet to sea level are parched badlands and, in the south of the island, otherworldly red-and-black lava fields.
The varied terrain makes for picturesque driving, but after all the brain-joggling turns, we were ready to be motionless and pampered. Enter Villa Gran Atlántico, a rentable Bauhaus-style villa built by German architects with two suites, a heated lap pool, and a wrap-around deck with stunning ocean views. Gasps turned to giddiness the next morning when we threw open the drapes and glimpsed the unspoiled countryside backed by deep-blue water: We couldn’t wait to explore.
Villa Gran Atlántico is so secluded that you could be Beyoncé and nobody would come knocking, but it’s also a quick drive from sights one shouldn’t miss. Ten miles south is the cave village of Porís de Candelaria, a clutch of whitewashed houses hewn into the cliffs of a cove. It was founded as a hideaway for fishermen fleeing pirates in the 17th century and has preserved its rugged charm. A 10-minute drive through almond and orange groves takes you to Quesería Las Cuevas, a family-run cheese factory where you can pick up smoky Canarian-style goat cheeses made from the milk of Palmera goats. And then there’s Puntagorda itself, a sleepy mountain town with a weekend farmers market and several good down-home restaurants. (El Jardín de los Naranjos ladles out a mean braised goat.)
Puntagorda is the Wild West compared to the busy little town of Tazacorte, our next outpost. We’d made a booking at Hacienda de Abajo, a 17th-century estate-cum-hotel, but the room was still being made up when we arrived. This would’ve been a real pearl-clutcher were it not for the doily-lined saucers of homemade almond cookies, which we ate like popcorn on the terrace while plotting the day’s adventure, a six-hour trek through Caldera de Taburiente National Park, an 18-square-mile biosphere rippling out from a caved-in volcano. At its center is the deepest volcanic crater on Earth.
Nobody knows Caldera de Taburiente like Jonás Pérez of Isla Bonita Tours. A native Palmero, Pérez has led thousands of hikes in the reserve, and today he’d be our guide. He met us in the lobby with a breathy ¡Buenoh díah! (Canarian Spanish sounds more Cuban than Castilian), chucked us in a van, and whisked us off to the trailhead. “It was supposed to be sunny, but it looks like rain up there,” he said, pointing to the cloud-capped mountain straight ahead. It was proper London weather by the time we reached the start of the trail, which sits at 3,300 feet. We all had goosebumps from the penetrating cold. “The trail is mostly downhill, so the quicker we get below the cloudline, the sooner you’ll be warm and dry,” he said. I’d never been told to hurry up so politely.
As rain turned to mist turned to clear blue skies, the trail slalomed downward through dense Canarian pine forests and deciduous woods veined with trickling rocky brooks. We stopped for lunch—hefty chorizo and queso fresco sandwiches—by one of these in the center of the crater. We cooled our bare feet in the water as we ate. The remaining several miles unspooled through fields of conical indigo tajinaste flowers (Echium gentianoides), volcanic rock formations, and canyons sluiced with mustard-yellow streams. You all can keep your psychedelics—Caldera de Taburiente blessed me with some of the trippiest hours of my life.
Back at the hotel, we promptly flung open the balcony doors and drifted off into a siesta to the sound of ribbiting frogs and click-clacking banana leaves. Hacienda de Abajo is almost entirely surrounded by banana plantations, which lends it an exclusive, oasis-like feeling. The property is so church-silent that I caught myself whispering in the halls. But the Hacienda’s main draw is its art collection with some 1,300 priceless works—Dutch Golden Age paintings, gleaming inlaid marble tables, thousand-year-old Chinese figurines—inheritances of the owner carefully placed throughout the grounds. Wake up before the other hotel guests, and you essentially have a museum to yourself.
La Palma had already wowed us with its food, hospitality, art, and nature, but my research pointed to three remaining boxes to tick: architecture, wine, and beaches. Sadly, a gale blew in and mucked up the third, but the first two we’d tackle handily in the last leg of the trip. From Tazacorte the coastal highway looped us down to Fuencaliente at the southern tip of the Island. There, beneath craggy black lava fields, salt flats jut into the surf, their square pools glistening in shades of pink and white like a watercolor set meant for a giant. We bought dainty bags of salt as gifts for friends.
After a stroll through the sun-scorched landscape, we were parched—in Fuencaliente, you can almost feel the salt entering your system by osmosis. No better way to quench our thirst, as it happens, than a sampling of sublime natural wines at Bodegas Matías i Torres, a winery located 20 minutes away. Victoria Torres, the fifth-generation owner, explained that on La Palma, winemaking stretches back over half a millennium. Indeed, before the island was covered in banana plantations, it was planted with sugarcane; before that, grapes were the cash crop. Canarian malvasía was once so prized in Europe that Shakespeare wrote that it perfumed the blood. Victoria’s wines—in particular her malvasía, incidentally—so perfumed our blood that we left with half a case.
The grand finale to our La Palma adventure was a weekend at Faro de Punta Cumplida, a 19th-century lighthouse built from black basalt ashlars that a German hotelier transformed into a luxury retreat just before the pandemic hit. As a kid, I loved reading about lighthouse keepers in fantasy novels, but I never thought I’d get to moonlight as one. Blissfully removed from society once again, we spent our final days by the pool and our nights by the fire. The rhythmic waves and gibbering shearwaters were potent sleeping pills.
On the last night, we carried a bottle of Victoria’s malvasía to the top of the lighthouse, where a gallery encircles the (still-functioning) lantern room. The perch affords 360-degree views: of the volcanic landscape in one direction and the open Atlantic in the other. As the sun dipped beneath the banana plantations, we clinked our glasses. The toast was a no-brainer: “Viva la Isla Bonita.”