Amid lava fields and lizards: a walking trip on El Hierro, Canaries

Before Columbus, the island of El Hierro was the ‘edge of the world’. Today, its volcanic peaks and forest offer superb family trekking

Women walking the lava fields and coast of El Hierro, Canary Islands, Spain.
 An elemental place … a walking adventure around El Hierro

Clouds of volcanic dust envelop the car as we judder down the track through the Malpaís – the badlands. Contorted lava fields and cinder cones surround us in a fierce display. This was once believed to be the end of the Earth. Before Columbus voyaged to America, El Hierro – the smallest and least-visited of the Canary Islands – was the westernmost edge of the known world.

It lies 190 miles off the coast of north Africa, with nothing but ocean to the west until Florida, some 3,000 miles away. The sense of isolation is still palpable. There are few beaches, no resort hotels, and getting here requires a flight or 2½-hour ferry ride from Tenerife – but the few that make the effort are amply rewarded. It seemed like the perfect destination for an off-the-beaten-track hiking adventure with the kids.

My seven-year-old daughter and I are joining friends on a guided three-day group trip, exploring the island on foot and by car from our base at Balneario Pozo de la Salud, a small spa hotel on a bay on the west coast. We start our tour at the Faro de Punta Orchilla, a lighthouse on the south-western tip of the island and regarded as the prime meridian for early map makers, until Greenwich won out. The seven of us are the only ones here. In February, it’s hot and eerily quiet. “Out there,” our guide, Paolo, says, gazing over the ocean, “people once thought there was nothing but sea monsters.”

The Orchilla lighthouse on black volcanic rock, ocean in background
 Zero in … the Orchilla lighthouse was once the prime meridian. Photograph: Alamy

Back in the car, we wind up along switchback roads. At over 100 metres, “heroic vineyards”, so-called for the strength and agility needed to harvest the grapes, cling to the mountainside. Small villages are strung with colourful bunting – it is carnival season, and soon each village will be holding a celebration.

We arrive at El Sabinar – a wild juniper forest shaped by centuries of fierce north-easterly winds. Bent double or twisting horizontally along the ground, these trees have been sculpted into extraordinary shapes. “The wind is an artist,” Paolo smiles. “It shapes our land, the nature around us, and defines the way we live.”

El Hierro is an elemental place. Stark and rugged, its dark cliffs soar some 1,000 metres from the sea. Although it enjoys a sub-tropical climate, there can be a 10-degree difference in temperature from sea level to mountaintops. The terrain and ecosystems transform suddenly, too. One minute we’re exploring dense, mossy woods and the next we are scrambling up scree slopes to a crater’s edge; meadows give way to pine forests ravaged by fire but still thriving; lava fields ripple out from plantations of banana, avocado and pineapple. With such rich diversity, it’s little wonder Unesco designated the island a biosphere reserve and geopark in 2015.

Kari’s daughter and friends examine one of El Sabinar’s twisted trees.
 Twisted sister … Kari’s daughter and friends examine one of El Sabinar’s trees. Photograph: Kari Herbert

We stop for a swim at the village of La Restinga, which made headlines in 2011 when a submarine volcano erupted just 2km offshore. Magma bubbles were seen from the water’s edge and all 600 villagers were evacuated. Despite this, the protected waters here are called Mar de las Calmas – Sea of Calm – and are one of the best diving spots in the world, with spectacular sub-acquatic flora and fauna. But even in high season Restinga is quiet. We see just three divers and a row of elderly gentlemen sipping wine.

El Hierro’s story is one of resilience. At the chapel of Our Lady of the Kings, we hear tales of miracles worked by the island’s patron saint – mainly bringing rain. Nearby, we explore caves once inhabited by Bimbaches, the first inhabitants of the island, which are still used by modern-day shepherds. We pause to feed bananas to tiny lizards before heading to the Lagartario eco-museum to meet El Hierro’s famous giant lizards, thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in 1974.

Chapel, Our Lady of the Kings (Santuario de Nuestra Senora de Los Reyes), El Hierro, Canary Islands.
 Our Lady of the Kings (Santuario de Nuestra Senora de Los Reyes). Photograph: Frank Lukasseck/Getty Images

Our hotel was built for those coming to take the healing waters of a spring discovered in the 18th century, and its clifftop location is hard to beat: the soundtrack is of Atlantic breakers crashing below. After days out exploring, we dine here on tasty, simple fare such as grilled fish with the Canaries’ trademark papas arrugadas, small salt-crusted potatoes with green and red mojo dipping sauces. A standout dessert is El Hierro smoked cheese baked in palm syrup.

With Paolo’s encouragement, the kids (aged between seven and 10) walk for around four miles each day without complaint, dreaming up stories about lava giants or chasing pixies in the cloud forest. They search for King Neptune in sea stacks and duendes – mischievous spirits – in a rock face, and play where witches once danced by moonlight. The story says that the witches hoped to discover in their trances what had happened to their menfolk who had sailed to Venezuela and Cuba in search of an easier life.

Today, life at the end of the world is not so hard. The island has no crime and the pace is slow. The people are hospitable and proud of their connection to nature. On our way back to the port we pass the towering wind turbines of the island’s revolutionary new energy and desalination plant.

The Pozo de la Salud hotel cliffs and sea
 The Pozo de la Salud hotel is in a dramatic cliff-top location. Photograph: Kari Herbert

Wind and sea are shaping the island’s future too: El Hierro is set to become one of the world’s first sustainable islands – wind and sun already supply 60% of the island’s energy. In a couple of years it hopes to be fully energy self-sufficient. It is an extraordinary development, given that just 50 years ago few homes here had electricity at all.

“We never complain about the wind,” Paolo says. “It gives us life.” The vast propellers turn slowly, catching the quickening trade winds, the ones Columbus tackled as he sailed into the unknown. Had he picked up supplies at El Hierro instead of neighbouring La Gomera, perhaps the course of history would have been different. I now know from experience that leaving this magical place is very, very hard.

 The trip was provided by Much Better Adventures, whose new three-day guided tour of El Hierro is available from January to April and costs £478pp, including accommodation, meals and local transport. Some departures are specifically family-friendly and individual trips can be arranged