“This was the end of the world”

We didn’t get enough sleep, especially Justin.  We had the epiphany that just because all the booze on the ship is "free" doesn’t mean that our bodies can handle all of that.  So we were a little slow to get going today.  It was pretty dark when we got up; it seems like the sun comes up late and sets late in the Canaries.  This is another good selling point.  We left the boat around 8:20, and it was a short walk from the boat to the port entry.  The place was totally empty, which is not surprising since El Hierro is the least populated of the Canary Islands and very few cruise ships visit it.

At the end of the marina area we ran into Paolo and his wife.  We were introduced to Paolo by Ignacio at Cantour.  Justin ran across Cantour because they do day trips from Tenerife to El Hierro, and Justin surmised that Cantour might know of guides on El Hierro, which thankfully they did.  [For people reading this who want an easier route, here is the website for Atlantidea, where Paolo works].  So, after a long, circuitous route, we were one of the only folks on the ship with the ability to go around the island.  The ship’s tours were all very limited, and the narrow roads on the island are not really conducive to large buses.  Paolo’s wife is also a guide, and we found out she was also giving a tour to some of the ship’s guests today, 8 Spanish guests.

Right off the bat, Paolo struck us as very energetic and enthusiastic, telling us we had only 8 hours and a lot to see, and that he loved it here and wanted to share it with us.  We had docked at Puerto de la Estaca in the northeast, one of only 2 working ports on the island, but not especially close to any of the “main” sites.  Before leaving the port area, Paolo showed us the planned itinerary on a map – Puerto de la Estaca to Valverde to Mirador de la Pena to Las Puntas to Charco Azul to Lomo Negro to El Sabinar to Santuario de Nuestra Senora de Los Reyes, then east to El Pinar to La Restinga (for lunch), then back up east coast to Valverde and the ship.

The road out of Puerto de la Estaca was quite windy, on a steep hillside, but in great shape.  Paolo mentioned that most of the roads were quite new, and with so few people, they don’t get worn down too much. He told us that there are 10,000 people on the island technically, but only 6000 in reality – the rest are property owners who don’t live on the island, students, etc.  The town of Valverde is the capital, and the only capital in the Canary Islands not at sea level, but the town has little of interest, at least comparatively.  So we just drove through, past some of the government buildings and the hospital.  Like Madeira and Tenerife, the prevailing winds are from the north, and with Valverde being on the north, it was fairly cloudy.  Paolo move to El Hierro from Italy a little after 2000, after he met his wife and they really enjoyed a trip to El Hierro. 

We meandered west across the top of the island, and made our first stop at Mirador del Pena, which had great views to the southwest (of the El Golfo coast).  There had been a massive landslide long ago, leaving a huge void and steep hillsides.  The Miarador was another Cesar Manrique designed building.  He’s famous for a bunch of stuff on Lanzarote, but did buildings on other islands as well.  The surrounding area had a bunch of native plants, including Echiums and Aechmeas.  It was cloudy to the east, but rest of the coast was visible.  Paolo showed us a tunnel at the bottom, and said we’d be driving through that momentarily.  He also showed us the smallest hotel in the world, which we’d be driving down to after we made our way through that tunnel.  We discussed a BBC show from several years ago about landslides in the Canary Islands and how that might impact the Atlantic Coast of the US, one Justin had actually seen.  In short, it’s theoretically possible that a massive chunk of one of the islands could break off and send a huge tsunami towards US east coast, but it’s also possible that if a big piece were to break off, it would break into a ton of smaller pieces and the tsunami wouldn’t be near as large.

After leaving the Mirador and heading back downhill, we went through the big tunnel.  It was massive, and must have cost a fortune relative to the size of the island and its GDP.  Before we could even ask, Paolo explained that the EU paid for it, as a means of helping infrastructure on the island.  The tunnel does make it much easier for banana and pineapple farmers to get their crops to the airport and port, avoiding switchbacks going up steep hillsides.  There is no way that anything like this would ever happen in the US, as we’re too busy spending money on walls, warfare and other giant wastes of money.

The Hotel Puntagrande is renowned for being the smallest hotel in the world, and was in the Guinness book of world records for some time.  Around the hotel, the shoreline was black lava rock, very much like the coastline in Puna (minus the lava).  The hotel used to be a port for fishermen, now long since closed and turned into a restaurant and then a hotel.  It was noticeably warmer and more humid on a relative level to Tenerife and Madeira, but still not humid on an absolute level.  Near the hotel there was a blowhole, but the tide was too low and the ocean too calm for any sort of a show.

The next stop was Charco Azul, where there were some semi-natural pools, with saltwater being changed out every time there is the high tide.  It was somewhat reminiscent of the (now gone) Kapoho tide pools.  We saw a bus for Seabourn there, but there was no evidence of where the tourists were.  Back on the road we headed south along the west coast, and went past a bunch of terraced areas for pineapples and bananas, with bananas inside greenhouses to protect the plants from the wind and also to make it a bit warmer.

At the western edge of the island there was the Lomo Negro lava flow, with lots of newer black lava, which looked a bit like the area around the Kona airport.  We zig-zagged up a hill, and Paolo showed us the island’s landfill, explaining that the island is doing better about being energy independent and trying to minimize waste.  There are lots of volcanic cones all around the island, and quite a few were visible from the Lomo Negro area.  We could also see a lighthouse in the southwest corner of the island.  Back in the day, when people thought the world was flat, this was the westernmost spot on the map – the zero meridian before Greenwich.  As Paolo told us “this was the end of the world.”

We got off of the paved road onto a dirt road and meandered our way to El Sabinar, above where Lomo Negro was.  This was an extremely windy part of island, and so the native Juniper trees are gnarled, twisted, etc.  Their deformity is why they are still here, as all of the straighter trees were cut down in the past centuries for wood for ships and whatnot.  Our stop here was the only “crowded” place today, with maybe a dozen people total.  Apparently the island was busier last week for Semana Santa, and today was back to “normal.”  The trees were twisted in all sorts of crazy shapes, some nearly horizontal, and some of the gnarled trunks had interesting shapes, including one that looked almost exactly like a human ear.

Near El Sabinar we stopped at a cave with a Virgin Mary picture.  The picture is of the Virgin Mary statue that is at the church next door, but the church is closed on Mondays.  The backstory is that long ago, a boat had become stranded on El Hierro, and the locals were very helpful in getting the ship back out on the water.  The captain asked them what they wanted, and they wanted the Virgin Mary, but the captain couldn’t do that, as he was supposed to take it to Cuba.  After leaving and being forced back by wind for several days, the captain took it as a sign, and gave the locals the Virgin Mary statue.  The cave had a bunch of lizards in the area, and Paolo had brought snacks, including some local banana chips.  The lizards fought over the remnants of a banana, and that was some free entertainment.  The nearby church looked nice from the outside, a stark white building.

The road from the church to El Pinar, along the south part of the island was at elevation, just at the base of the pine forest.  In addition to the pine trees, there were lots of new Juniper trees, straight ones.  Paolo told us that the local ravens are critical to this.  The ravens eat juniper seeds, and after passing through their system, the seed germination rate is much higher.  Because of this, the ravens are now protected, and they’re doing their job quite well.  It was a very picturesque drive, and we saw only one car the entire way.

Once to El Pinar we were back in “civilization” again.  From there we turned south to La Restinga (the very southeast of the island), and meandered down the hill.  La Restinga is a quiet fishing village, but mildly famous for some of the best diving in Canaries.  We had looked at this semi-seriously before finding a guide, but we weren’t especially enthused about how cold the water is.  La Restinga is also somewhat famous because there was a volcanic eruption in 2011 just offshore, raising the ocean floor from 300 meters below sea level to 80 meters below.  Thankfully at 80 meters, the water pressure was still enough to keep all of the explosions from getting above water and causing Iceland-type ash issues.

We had a nice late lunch at a local restaurant, Casa Juan.  Crystal got some sort of tuna that was a bit like Ono (maybe “Peto”??), and Justin got a steak that was thick and cut like the steaks you see in Florence.  The owner actually brought out a hot platter to cook the undercooked pieces that were in the middle of the steak, and that worked pretty well.  Paolo got a rice dish, pretty much the only thing he could get since he is vegan.  We shared volcano stories and pictures of our respective eruptions – we each seemed more impressed with each other’s, probably since new and different.  After lunch we took a short walk around the pier area, then got back in the car.

The drive back up the east coast was not as picturesque as earlier parts of the day.  We stopped at a viewpoint where we could ordinarily see other islands, but it was too cloudy and hazy today.  We also stopped at a wind and hydroelectric plant.  There is a fascinating “battery” system for their green energy, created from upper and lower water reservoirs.  The energy from the wind turbines is used to pump water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir, and when there is no wind energy can be created from hydroelectric pumps when the water goes downhill from the upper to lower reservoir.  There are 5 giant windmills, and each blade for the turbines is 35 meters (110 feet).  Apparently it was an ordeal to get the blades to the site, as they had to drive completely around the island, like we’d done, because the direct route was too narrow and windy.

We got dropped off at 5, and were the last ones on the boat.  The security area on the ship is chock full of Filipino people, and we enjoyed chatting with them every time we got on and off the ship.  Today they told us “you are the winners” for being the last ones back on the ship.  We went into the Club on 5, and caught up on the trip diary and heard Claudio’s talk about Gran Canaria.  After the talk we got changed and went up to the Patio Bar.  Jose had recommended another Pisco drink, a “Chilcano” the night before, and Justin tried to order that, but couldn’t get one today because only Matias could make it, and he still had no Pisco.  It was sunny, but not as bright as the day before.  We made sure to sit in Jose’s section, before things filled up.  They had beef cheeks, and Jose joked when we ordered it about whether we wanted the left or right beef cheek.  We also got a caesar (Crystal) and some polpette pasta (Justin). As we ate it got progressively colder and windier.  We were tired from the night before, so we got only one drink at the Observation Bar.  We chatted a bit with a man from Brisbane – originally from Germany – and discussed traveling for a while before we decided to call it a night.

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