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In the footsteps of ancient pilgrims


Aaron Millar hikes El Hierro, the remotest of the Canary Islands, and discovers the story of an extraordinary ritual

I am standing at the edge of the earth. For hundreds of years, before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, El Hierro – the smallest and least developed Canary Island – was the end of the known world. Beyond her western shores, no ship had sailed and the earth simply disappeared into a blue void of unexplored sea and sky.


Even now, the feeling of remoteness is palpable. Hiking up the cliff edge to Mirador de Bascos, the southernmost lookout point in Europe, I had only the distant clatter of goat bells for company and here, at the top, it's silent enough to hear waves break, 2,000ft beneath my feet. I am only 100 miles from the sprawling tourist resorts of Tenerife, but it feels, indeed, as if I am closer to the edge of the world.


I had come here to retrace the steps of a remarkable pilgrimage. In 1741, with much of the population already dying, shepherds of the island discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary in a cave on their common pasturelands and carried it to the capital, Valverde, to pray for rain. As they arrived, the heavens, so to speak, opened and saved them from almost certain death. Since then, every four years, the islanders repeat the Virgin's journey – the Bajada de la Virgin de los Reyes (Descent of the Virgin of the Kings) – carrying the statue 18 miles across El Hierro's mountainous interior accompanied by traditional music, dance and much celebration. It's a huge occasion; the last Bajada attracted upwards of 25,000 people, more then double the island's population. By mirroring their journey, veering off to take in a few of El Hierro's other highlights along the way, I hoped to walk a rough circuit around this rarely seen island and, in doing so, catch a glimpse of an authentic Canarian culture that has changed little in centuries.


I began in the north, following the path of the procession for three days, from its end point in Valverde, south to the dark, volcanic summit of Malpaso, the 5,000ft-high point of the island. From there I hiked down to El Golfo, an enormous natural amphitheatre bordered by 3,000ft cliffs and filled with plantations bursting with pineapple, banana and mango. I watched the sun rise over a sea of clouds; I swam in natural sea pools; and then I stopped to touch the limbs of The Garoe Tree, sacred to the island's original inhabitants, the Bimbache, for its ability to absorb water from clouds formed by the trade winds. "People relied on El Garoe in times of drought," Monica, a caretaker for the tree, explained. "They collected water here until as late as the 1960s."


living history


But as I continued to explore the island, I began to realise that such ancient ways of life are more then just a segment of El Hierro's history; they are a living part of the island's culture today. I visited volcanic caves, once used as homes by the Bimbache, now converted to weekend retreats; I hiked beside farm walls built from stones laid by the conquistadors; I learnt of shepherds who still migrate according to the seasonal needs of water. "The trails of El Hierro hold many stories," Paolo, a local guide told me. "You can touch the history of the people that walked them for centuries before you."


That night there was a treat in store. Wandering up to the miniature, white-washed village of Sabinosa, I followed signs, like a treasure map, to Nolly's house – the 'Casa de Comidas' - a pop-up restauarant of unrivalled secrecy, hidden in a tiny house behind the main square. In her pretty, unassuming front room, surrounded by pictures of her family, I ate a traditional feast of Puchero, a local seasonal stew with a Gofio broth, and fresh figs for dessert. But Nolly is more then just a great chef - indicative of the size of the island, and the welcome of its people, she's also the mother of Valverde's mayor.


Finally, near the end of my journey I found myself at the beginning: the tiny chapel where the virgin is housed, until the procession begins anew. From there, I walked through El Sabinar, an extraordinary juniper forest twisted horizontally along the floor, like a dancer, by the relentless force of the wind, until I found myself looking west again, into that seamless blue horizon where once only the imagination dared go.


El Hierro is not for everyone: there are no pristine white sand beaches and only a scattering of bars and restaurants. But there is something else instead: a dramatic landscape empty enough to have utterly to oneself, and a traditional way of life peaceful enough to relax completely. I raised my arms to the view and felt like I might float away. Not bad for the end of the earth.


The other face of TenerifeEven the more developed of the Canary Islands offer superb walking beyond the sun, sea and sangria, as Sue Bryant discovers


The Tenerife I knew was touristy, built up and commercial; a hotspot for winter sun-seekers, its coast lined with flashy hotels, ranks of holiday villas and English pubs. Frankly, I'd always dismissed it as a bit of a tourist trap. But now, on a Ramblers walking holiday, the Tenerife I'm discovering is something completely different: beautiful, remote, wild.


There are walking trails all over Tenerife on terrain varying from arid semi-desert in the south to the craggy lava fields 12,000 feet up Mount Teide, Spain's highest mountain. I was based in the lush north west, which is steamy and subtropical compared to the rest of the island.


Early in the morning, our minibus climbed up the lower slopes of Teide and dropped us off in a pretty little hamlet, Icod el Alto. Not a soul in sight (I visited in the midst of Carnival and most locals were probably sleeping off the excesses of the night before), but we trudged along a country lane and veered off down a narrow track signposted 'Barranco de Ruiz'. Barranco is the Spanish for the deep ravines that slice from Teide through layer upon layer of ancient volcanic deposits to the sea.


Initially, across scrubby fields and patches of deeper green, no such ravine was visible. It turned out that this was because Barranco de Ruiz is so steep that the ground suddenly just falls away beneath the path, plummeting into a spectacularly deep mountain valley, a rocky trail zig-zagging down one side and up the other. Estimated to be three million years old, this particular barranco supports an ancient laurel forest and as such, has been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest.


For the next hour, we scrambled down the rock-strewn path into the ravine, finally arriving into a twilight world at the damp but river-less watercourse at the bottom, giant ferns dangling over mossy rocks in deep shadow. The sides are so steep, the sun barely penetrates here. Grey-green spikes of giant aloe cacti punctuated the skyline on the sunnier slopes above.


heat haze


As we began the slow climb out, tantalising flashes of brilliant blue came into view every now and then, promising big sea views at the end of the trail. Dazzling butterflies in cream, blue and orange flitted between the profusion of pink and yellow wildflowers, while bees hummed in the still air.


Soon, we were picking our way along a cliff path under towering, volcanic rock faces, with views of foamy surf breaking on black beaches hundreds of feet below. As the day heated up, lizards and frogs crawled onto black rocks to bask in the sun, while the bells of mountain goats jangled in the distance. Eventually, the whole west coast stretched out below me into the blue heat haze, the terraced green slopes and black lava fields peppered with brilliant white villa developments and beyond, busy resorts. Yet we still hadn't encountered another soul in the four hours since we'd set out.


Yes, Tenerife has its tourist traps, but how glad I was, taking in this amazing vista, breathing the fresh air and feeling on top of the world, that I'd taken the trouble to scratch beneath the surface.

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