On an island like El Hierro, neither the Atlantic nor the volcanoes and lava disappear for long.
We turn our back on the capital of Vila de Valverde. We walked away along a half-country half-wild road, with a floor of a mixture of sand and ash scattered a little everywhere.
Andrea Armas, hostess in Hierro, makes the observation: “want to bet? Let's run into my colleague. It's time for her to leave and she goes home this way.” In fact, a few hundred meters ahead, the prediction is confirmed. Andrea greets her colleague and keeps her in a short conversation on occasion.
In fact, were it not for the recent promotion of La Graciosa to the eighth Canary Island, El Hierro would be the smallest in the archipelago. And yet, it could never have housed and satisfied the two civilizations that, it is estimated that from 1405 onwards, confronted each other in it.
Andrea takes us to the Garoé Tree Interpretation Center.
Inland, it enlightens us on the importance of that shady tree, the slopes around it and the moment when the Europeans reached the coast of El Hierro.
The Miraculous Garoé Tree and the Inevitable Occupation of the European Conquerors
Since at least the first half of the XNUMXth century, Castilians, Aragonese, Galicians, Catalans, Portuguese and others sought to explore the archipelago and claim the riches they could find there.
In 1405, when Lanzarote and Fuerteventura were conquered from the Majos (Maxos) indigenous people, Norman Jean de Bethencourt turned to El Hierro.
When disembarking, he found no resistance. It is likely that the Bimbache natives of El Hierro already feared the incursions of bearded navigators arriving in large boats.
Accordingly, when they spotted them approaching the coast, they had taken refuge in the only place on the island where they could survive: the top of the Garoé tree and caves around the slope, a set that the Andalusian Franciscan Juan de Abréu Galindo nicknamed him Tigulahe, but today, in El Hierro, no one seems to know him by that name.
At the time, this was the only permanent and reliable source of water, fed by the damp mist that the trade winds carry there, held back by flooded pits, foliage and a dense network of roots that intertwine between these pits.
For some time, the water source of the Garoé – which means river or lake in the Berber dialect – allowed the Bimbaches – also of Berber origin – to avoid contact with the men of Bethencourt and hope that the dryness in the rest of the island would force them to disband.
This retreat was possible for some time. When the settlers returned with reinforcements, the Bimbaches were no longer able to hide. Apart from surrendering to their fate as slaves, they were still forced to share their precious water with invaders.
The most famous local legend adds a flurry of romance to the story.
The Legend of Passion and Betrayal of Agarfa and Tincos
Andrea tells us that, according to legend, the Europeans found the hiding place of the Bimbaches because, somewhere in the story, Agarfa, a native young woman, had fallen in love with Tincos, an Andalusian soldier.
The traitor Agarfa thus revealed the hiding place of her own. Caused the capture of Armiche, the mencey (king) of the Bimbaches and made possible the occupation of El Hierro by the Spanish Crown. If more melodrama lacked, he ended up dying at the hands of the beloved conqueror.
We inaugurated a short trip to the northwest side of the island, still with our backs to the Villa de Valverde that the colonists later founded, the smallest capital of the Canaries and the only one removed from the seafront.
El Hierro has always been one of the most remote and unprotected islands. At a time when the attacks of the Berber pirates followed one another - and also tormented the islands of Porto Santo and Madeira Island – remove the villa in elevation it will have left the Norman and Castilian settlers a little more rested. This, while pirates and other enemies remained the colonists' main concern, of course. This was not always the case.
We return to the asphalt. We cross the rural scenery of the interior of the island and the Barrancos de La Pasada and Los Muertos, this one, already in the middle of Camiño de La Pena.
We stop again at the yellow Chapel of the Virgen de La Peña, the Canarian incarnation of the Virgin Mary, patron of Fuerteventura.
From there, the Camiño de Jinama departs, one of the routes used for centuries by the inhabitants of El Hierro, a trail more than goats, especially on windy and bad weather, treacherous and deadly.
The Unforgettable Amazement of Valle de El Golfo
We approached the wall that closed the road in front of the hermitage. Unexpectedly, in the glimpse that followed, El Hierro granted us an amazement that we will forever cherish in our memory
Forward, downward, a massive slope stretched obliquely from the top of the island to the Atlantic in a jagged lava fajã.
With the almost setting sun, peeking out from behind a blanket of clouds, overflown by kestrels with an eye on everything, in the company of indifferent goats, the scene dazzled us. And we had no idea of the sweeping event that gave rise to it.
The Youngest and Most Active Volcanism in the Canary Islands
It is estimated that El Hierro emerged from the Atlantic about 1.2 million years ago. It is thus one of the youngest and most volcanic islands in the Canary Islands. Your intense volcanism it is well expressed in its 500 open craters and around 300 others covered by lava flows has shaped and continues to shape the island.
When it rose from the sea, it is believed that the result of three major eruptions, El Hierro was crowned by a cone high above 2000 meters, 500 meters above the current zenith.
What is left of this cone, today, the main volcano on the island, is called Tanganasoga, a term with obvious origins of bimbach.
In the millions of years that have passed, several downfalls have followed each other. The last one, 15 thousand years ago, gave rise to an avalanche with a volume between 150 and 180km3 and the panorama of Valle de El Golfo that kept us incredulous.
In the 80s, using architectural and cultural elements from El Hierro, and as a tribute to the geological sumptuousness of the view, the multifaceted artist Cesar Manrique endowed a section of the seafront at Risco de Tibataje with an elegant Mirador de La Peña.
In addition to a viewpoint, this monument is also a café-restaurant-terrace where we had the privilege of dining.
In the meantime, the sun sank into the ocean. Turning on the electric lights reinforced the row of houses and the pattern of winters (greenhouses) of bananas that sat on the solid lava below.
Jinama and his Camiño. A Vertiginous Way of Life
The villages of El Golfo and the Camiño de Jinama that leads there from the highlands of the north of the island were created as a result of the “changes”.
This expression translates a transhumance that took place twice a year: once in winter, so that the animals could take advantage of the pastures. Another, in midsummer, according to the vintage.
The Camiño de Jinama was, therefore, going up and down again and again, on foot, on a donkey and in the carriage of other animals essential to rural life.
Its preponderance lasted until, at least, 1950, when the current HI-5 road was inaugurated, connecting the various villages established there, Frontera, Sabinosa, Llanillos, Merese, Toscas, Tigaday, Belgaras.
The twilight faded. He left El Golfo signaled by the mottle of its little lights. Shortly afterwards, we retired to the shelter we had on the island, also lit by them.
We welcomed the following morning as a continuation of the island charm in which El Hierro kept us. We pass by the viewpoint of La Llania. From there, above a lush laurisilva forest, we can see El Golfo from a more centralized perspective of its semi-boiler.
The Volcanic Domain that the Herrenhos Continue to Challenge
Next, we spy on Hoya de Fireba, another crater. Unusual as it may seem, from then onwards, the volcanic degree of El Hierro only increased.
Andrea leads us below the southern tip of the island, in search of the facilities of the island's Geopark, so decreed by UNESCO for geological merits that hardly deserved discussion.
At one point, we found ourselves surrounded by a sea of solidified lava, in such a profusion of craters and chimneys that it seemed impossible to pinpoint which ones were responsible for the massive flood that extended to the southern depths of El Hierro.
We took refuge from the oven heat in the refrigerated interior of the center. There we watched video excerpts of the last scare because, even made by Hierro, many inhabitants of the island passed by.
2011-2012 and the Volcanic Activity that Threatened to Expel the Natives
In October 2011, similar to what happened in 1957-58 with the Capelinhos volcano in Faial, an underwater eruption about 2km south of La Restinga, gained dimension and impetus, at times, with water jets that reached 10 to 15 meters high.
The 600 inhabitants of the village were evacuated.
Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions from the Tanganasoga volcano and earthquakes have increased. The authorities feared another collapse of the El Golfo slope and even new eruptions of an emerging chimney in that part of the island.
Families were also evacuated from there. the authorities prepared for the worst. And to evacuate all the inhabitants of El Hierro.
After a fluctuation in activity, finally, in March 2012, despite the opinion of several volcanologists, the authorities declared the eruption extinct.
Since then, there have been some outbreaks of activity but nothing to generate the panic of 2011. El Hierro has resumed his life.
La Restinga: a Hot Southern Threshold of Europe
From the Geopark facilities, we descend to La Restinga, once a fishing village with the emblematic status of the extreme south of Europe, but to which the transparency of the sea and underwater ecosystems attracted hordes of divers eager to explore the volcanic Atlantic offshore.
We lacked the time.
Having lunch at one of the local restaurants, we pass by Tacoron Beach, a natural cove cut into the lava expanse of southern El Hierro. There, we dived for a few laps of relaxation, which refreshed us from the brazier that continued to envelop us.
We zigzagged back to the HI-410 road that departed from there towards the far west of the island. In El Julan, we confirmed that, below and around, we had only solid lava.
We pass by the sanctuary of Our Lady of Los Reyes. From that far-fetched church, we advance to El Sabinar where we praise the notorious savannahs of El Hierro, junipers that the mighty Alisios helped twist in a profusion of incredible plant waves.
Punta de Orchilla and its Lighthouse at the Old End of the World
The sun was again insinuating itself to the horizon. With the minutes counted to reach Punta de Orchilla in time for its disappearance, we hurried as far as the vertiginous road allowed, aware of the eminence of the old Meridian point, in force in El Hierro for over 200 years.
Transferred in 1884 to Greenwich, so this, instead of Orchilla's, has the correct coordinates.
We anticipate the sunset long enough to walk around and enjoy the backwater of the eponymous lighthouse, considered the most remote in Spain.
Soon, we installed ourselves next to a cross detached from the high threshold of the tip, in honor of the souls who crossed the Atlantic. On the verge of another smaller cross that immortalizes Carmelo Heredia Olmos, the first lighthouse keeper to light the Orchilla lighthouse, in 1933.
The setting turns the cross and the tower of Orchilla into silhouettes. When darkness sets in, the lighthouse's greenish light signals the civilizational fringe of El Hierro in the Atlantic and in the world.