GR132: Playa de Santiago to San Sebastian de La Gomera

Holiday with folk who aren’t walkers and you feel a bit self conscious… your desire to clamber over a ridge or test yourself on demanding remote routes inevitably impacts on others. You’re out day-tripping with friends, but you always have one eye on the mountains, plotting a return trip alone.

Consequently, I had a to find an excursion which fitted with friends’ need of the hire car and which didn’t rely on the local bus network (however good it may be).

Checking the Rother guide, a number of options presented themselves. I could walk out of Playa de Santiago along gnarled mountain ridges to remote mountain villages or follow the coast to San Sebastian following the GR 132.

The latter prevailed in the end. The weather had been claggy in the mountains and I sought a view. The coast, by contrast, would be hot and clear.

Also, there was an undeniable attraction in following a Sendero de Gran Recorrido or Gran Randonee, one of many long distance trails strung across Europe marked with a simple yet effective system of painted lines. A journey connecting major settlements appealed to my backpacking gene, too, while promise of a long lunch in San Sebastian with my sight-seeing companions sealed the deal.

Plan sorted, the initial advice in Rother was not encouraging… the authors described the route as a ‘long, pitiless trudge’ that would test the reserves of any hiker. Challenging, then, but surely no worse that a 10-hour clamber across the peat in the Dark Peak?

The guidebook suggested I allow 6hr 55 mins for the walk, which seemed rather precise. However, it gave no indication of actual distance, which seemed like a major oversight – a strange quirk of these German Rother guides.

I figured it would take me between five and six hours, so set the alarm early in order to make my lunch appointment.

The sun was just rising over the formidable Teide on Tenerife as I followed a dusty track to the start of the old camino. Passing the Jardin du Tecina Hotel and golf course, I followed a road to my first barranco or valley of the day, the sea shimmering and golden to right in the early morning sun. Climbing the far wall of the Barranco de Tapahuga, I saw my first waymark and pressed on up the cobbled track.

The GR 132 circles La Gomera on the coast, giving you a different perspective of its verdant, high central massive.

Although sharing the volcanic origins of its neighbours, this island has been relatively inactive in recent history, allowing water to slowly make its mark on the friable rock. The island can be simply visualized it as a wheel, the island’s summit, Alto de Garajonay, serving as a hub, and the radial barrancos the spokes.

The rivers, which have carved these precipitous valleys, are dry for much of the time in the south, but the terrain is a pointed reminder as to how much rain La Gomera receives… a product of the trade winds hitting its slopes.

Pondering the up and down nature of what lay ahead, my train of thought was disturbed by a local making his way slowly down the cobbled track toward me. Despite his advanced years, he made short work of the bumpy path and presented a beaming smile to me under a smudge of a moustache.

I bade him my best ‘Buenas Dias’ and he doffed his wide-brimmed straw hat in reply.

I crossed the ridge, past small houses, and dropped into the next valley. Skirting a banana plantation, I heard unseen workers harvesting the bountiful crop.

Crossing the dry river bed, an obstacle course of rocks and boulders that threatened my ankles, it was again time to climb.

The sun now gaining altitude, it suggested the heat to come. Fortunately, a keen breeze blew off the sea, but this would only help the sun burn off layers of dermis later unless I covered up. I was grateful of my Tilley.

After more climbing, the camino headed inland through abandoned crop terraces to abandoned farms along Barranco de la Vasa. The buildings would make good refuges, but their level of disrepair rendered them a dangerous proposition for a rest stop of sleep over.

More substantial was the two-storey house at Contreras. Again, a great point to shelter and a blackened fire pit suggested recent occupation.

Here, a number of mountain tracks converged as the GR 132 meets with equally well signposted local trails. I stopped to take on water, making headway into the three litres I was carrying, and munched on sugary local Alajero biscuits… fine trial food.

Pressing on, and with a third of the trail behind me, I followed the route through more terraces before finding more steep barranco walls, more imposing than those earlier in the day.

Now heading towards the sea, I took the longer option provided by the GR132 and headed to El Cabrito, a quiet holiday oasis with finca (an impressive market garden, in this case) largely serving German tourists.

I left the trail briefly to hug the crest of a ridge in an effort to see where the GR132 led down a seemingly impossibly sheer cliff to the resort hundreds of metres below.

I needn’t have worried. These old caminos almost defy the landscape and the cobbled track zig-zagged with ease down the valley wall.

Walkers are urged not to wander aimlessly into the resort and I headed towards a track along the stony beach, pacing tentatively under wire mesh covers designed to catch rock fall from the flaky cliffs soaring above.

Crossing another river of boulders, I tackled the steepest part of the trail. Turning right and dropping down into the Barranco de Guancha, I ignored a incongruous steel barrier and followed the exposed camino to the valley floor. This is the only really troublesome section of the walk, as crumbling cliffs hang over you on descent.

The path then followed the valley to the sea, once again crossing the boulders of the river bed. This seemingly deserted and attractive valley holds a surprise in the form of a lone fisherman’s house in its delightful cove.

Not sure if the resident was at home, I did stumble across a lone couple sunbathing in this remote spot. I bade them an ‘Hola!’… they seemed rather startled.

The sea looked very tempting at this point but the final climb of the day beckoned, a dramatic and airy clamber up the side of a cliff with the calm sea lapping the rocks far below.

The trail then contoured around the final two headlands (Punta de Juan Daza and Punta Canarios) and provided a fine view of San Sebastian.

One final descent to a rather unceremonious industrial estate and I found my companions and lunch, a delicious piece of fish, prepared simply, with a large ice cold Dorado beer.

La Gomera 2010

I’ve just returned from a very relaxing trip to La Gomera… a vertiable paradise for walkers.

Miles of quiet trails and caminos criss cross this delightful Canary Island and, as of 2004, are now very well waymarked.

We stayed in the relatively parched south and enjoyed sunshine for most of the week. A testing drive along a hair-rasing, hair-pinned road soon took us into the mountains, another climatic zone and the eerie laurasilva forest in the clouds.

Guidebooks are a bit sparse for this island and I picked up a translation of the Rother guide by Klaas and Annette Wolfsperger. However, Paddy Dillon has returned to this and neighbouring Islas Canarias to update Cicerone’s guides and these are due to be published soon.

Freytag and Berndt 1:35,000 maps are available too and would be a prudent investment if tackling more of the challenging ridge routes.

Although this was not a walking holiday, I managed an easy trek to the island’s summit, Alto de Garajonay at 1,487 metres, and a more demanding tramp along the GR132 from Playa De Santiago to San Sebastian, the island’s capital. Reports and pics to come.

Thinking of the off… again

The last time I posted, I was basking in the glow of a week pedalling across the country… err, now I’m thinking about going away again.

This time next week I’ll be in La Gomera, which is a small island in the Canaries just off Tenerife.

I’m told this sleepy destination will be ‘right up my street’ given that it hasn’t been robbed of any charm by the unseemly charge of mass tourism and that it boasts some great walking in it’s volcanic and surprisingly verdant interior.

We’ll see… I’m taking some walking gear and hiring a car so will be able to get to the numerous trails which crisscross the island. Of course, I may end up doing nothing, but it seems unlikely as I’ve never been one for doing ‘nowt.

As I tap away here, it occurs to me that it’s been an age since I’ve been on a holiday like this. The last major trip we went on was through the Canadian Rockies in an RV.

Belt-tightening has shifted our focus to holidaying in the UK and mainly under canvas.

No doubt the flight will be miserable (EasyJet doesn’t cater for six foot six) but I am relishing the prospect of some decent weather and the simple fact of being somewhere different. It’ll be fun getting there, too, after touch down as we’ll need to get a ferry… which brings back memories of two weeks Greek island hopping a decade ago…

Forgive the tenuous link, but thinking of of camping, and under canvas in particular, we have at last found a replacement for our ‘Big Bertha’ tent which we use on extended trips. For many years, we’ve been the happy owners of a Sunncamp APS 3004 (sadly no longer made).

After nearly a year of umming and ahhing, and attending numerous tent shows, we finally agreed on a tent we hadn’t seen… a rather unconventional canvas bell tent.

The shelter of choice for the growing ‘glamping’ community, our decision is born entirely out of practicality (OK, my other half did like the ‘look’). This heavyweight 4m tent has an equally tough zip off groundsheet and a large bedroom with plenty of room for even me to stretch out.

An age old design it may be, but the tent is very weatherproof and comfortable in a range of temperatures. It’s completely ‘sealed’, too, and has a very well-designed door, both niggles with our Sunncamp. The only real drawback is the extra care required for the canvas and the weight. The 4m is OK at 25kg but larger versions really do pile on the pounds.

I have no pictures yet as the tent doesn’t pitch properly in the garden due to lack of space… should be giving it a test drive next month (another holiday?!)