Spain–– Has tourism been affected by the forest fires that swept across this tiny Canary Island last month? Matthew Hirtes finds out
We stand on the Mirador de Valle Gran Rey, overlooking the valley of the same name. There are three of us: La Gomera’s tourism chief, Fernando Méndez; Yaiza, his Tenerife-based TV journalist sister-in-law who covered the recent forest fires on the island; and me. What we see below is a charred, scarred landscape in which only the famously incombustible palm tree has survived relatively unscathed.
It’s also a crime scene, a fact I’d discovered during a breakfast meeting at the parador in La Gomera’s capital San Sebastiá. I’d told fire-fighting services chief Javier Seijas that I’d heard rumours about the origins of the fires, one of the most persuasive being that a broken-down car had burst into flames when its bonnet was opened. Before I’d even finish my sentence, he was shaking his head and placing his thumb on top of his index finger to indicate the involvement of a lighter: arson rather than accident.
Yet despite the fires causing more than 70m worth of damage to the island, including as Valle Gran Rey mayor Miguel Angel Hernandez informs me, 11m worth to his own municipality I can already see green shoots of recovery. Literally. These are not the first forest fires on the island, and La Gomera has almost legendary powers of recovery.
Valle Gran Rey is the major resort on an island that makes Frinton-on-Sea look overdeveloped. The comparison with neighbouring Tenerife, rising to the east, is stark. In summary: there are no McDonald’s outlets on La Gomera. Ann Sylverans, the Belgian manager of the Balcó* de Santa Ana luxury timeshare in the second tourist centre of Playa Santiago, tells me that when she reads news of events on mainland Europe they no longer seem relevant.
Valle Gran Rey is the next stop in an itinerary designed by Fernando Méndez to demonstrate that, contrary to unreliable reports from European newspapers which also carelessly relocated the deaths in Almeria forest fires on the mainland to La Gomera the island remains open for business. “There were no human victims here,” he points out as we arrive at Oceano.
Elsewhere in Tenerife, for example Oceano would be a tourist trap where visitors are promised that they will be able to swim next to dolphins. On my wildlife-watching tour, guide Juliette explains that her company is about more sustainable tourism. “Everything about us is in tune with the island. We use an old fishing boat painted in the traditional Gomeran colours of red, white and blue. And we go slow, so as not to frighten the marine life.” Indeed, so respectful is our trip we don’t see anything other than the Cory’s Shearwater.
Another casualty of the fire was the Parque Nacional de Garajonay. Here, almost a fifth of its 3,984 hectares was razed to the ground. Park director Angel Fernandez suggests that the primary cause of the destruction was a move away from agriculture nearby, with the highly flammable plants of abandoned farmland bordering the Garajonay setting its neighbour alight.
Later, we meet up with Garajonay guide Jacinto at the Juegos de Bolas visitor centre. He takes us into Fuen Sante, a part of the park permanently closed to visitors and preserved for research. Apologising for the lack of humidity, which ordinarily makes Garajonay resemble Amazonia, he’s nevertheless keen to illustrate how most of this Unesco World Heritage Site is unblemished. “Look at these laurel trees. They’re 25, 30 metres tall.” They’re also incredibly ramose, with more branches than Starbucks.
As if to further prove his point, Jacinto drops on all fours and starts digging up the ground like a terrier. “Smell this,” he insists, thrusting a handful of moist loam under my nose. “It’s the scent of life.”
It’s a touchy-feely side to Gomerans that I witness again the following day as Fernando and I stand at another mirador. “You need to touch and you need to listen,” he insists. “La Gomera is not only about what you see. You have to experience it to use all your senses.” The sound we hear is of the Atlantic Ocean, which once brought Christopher Columbus to these shores, and the wind which carried the fire around the island.
I hardly see any other traffic travelling around La Gomera on its two “motorways”. In many ways, it’s the island most unaffected by the Spanish conquest of the 15th century, with a landscape dominated by deep barrancos (ravines). These prove enduringly popular with hikers and mountain bikers alike. They also explain how the local whistling language of “el silbo” came about. I meet up with silbo expert Isidro Ortiz on the terrace of his Chipude home. Beyond, the neighbouring island La Palma floats on a mar de nubes (sea of clouds) providing a picture-postcard backdrop to our conversation.
“Historically, there were three ways to communicate in La Gomera,” Ortiz tells me. “The donkey, the path and silbo.”
Ortiz, who teaches local children in their compulsory weekly half-hour silbo lesson, begins to instruct me. Fanning his left hand across his cheek he inserts the foremost finger of his right hand on top of his tongue and whistles, imitating a child calling out for his mother. The combination of hand and finger amplify the sound.
One of the schools where Ortiz teaches used to have a thousand students back in the 1980s. It’s now down to 17, with most young people leaving for the greater employment opportunities on Tenerife. One alumna, though, is making a go of it down the hill from Ortiz’s house: Sonia, of Bar Sonia. She was the 2011 winner of local Diario de Aviso newspaper’s prize for traditional cooking. She describes the smoke which continued to plague Chipude, one of the worst-affected villages, after the fire had died down. With businesses remaining closed after residents returned from the evacuation, it made this then ghost town appear even more phantasmal.
Sonia plonks a carafe of white wine from her own bodega, a plate of cheese, a basket of bread and a wodge of almogrote, the traditionally piquant cheese paste, in front of me. The almogrote is splendid, as it is at nearby Restaurante La Montaña Casa Efigenia in Las Hayas, the only exclusively vegetarian eatery on La Gomera. Here, the matriarch Efigenia will also spoon feed you your first mouthful of gofio (toasted cornmeal) at this menu-less temple to traditional Gomeran cookery.
It’s an obvious contrast to the last meal I enjoy on the island, at the aforementioned Balcó de Santa Ana, full of British holidaymakers, just below the Fred Olsen-owned Hotel Jardí Tecina, which houses the island’s only golf course. Here, butter rather than almogrote accompanies the bread, and the tortilla española comes with chips and salad.
It’s where I meet the mayor of Alajeró, Manuel Ramó Plasencia. Asked what message he’d like to give prospective tourists, he replies with three simple words: “La Gomera survived.”