There is a part of me, a BIG part, which doesn’t want to write this post. When something is termed a “best kept secret” it usually should stay that way, and that’s exactly how I feel about what I am going to write, but knowing full well that others have written about it, and knowing that it cannot stay a secret forever, here I go.
Apart from some precious family time, a huge highlight of 2014 for me was crossing something of my bucket list.
More than 20 years ago I put my eye to the telescope in the Mirador del Rio, the impressive viewing spot on a mountainside in Lanzarote, created by local architect and hero Cesar Manrique. The Mirador over looks the channel (“rio” or “river”) between that island and the smallest, inhabited Canary Island, La Graciosa. Graciosa captured my imagination immediately, as it lazed alongside its big sister in a turquoise sea. I’ve wanted to go there ever since.
When I stayed at Sands Beach Resort last year they put me in touch with Lanzarote Active Club, who offered me a choice of their eco tours; they cover a multitude, from wine tasting (no, I didn’t, sadly!) to bird watching. Frankly, I could have gone out with them every day, quite happily, and yes, they invited me, but I can shout out without the slightest hesitation that this company and the tours they offer Rock … note the capital R! In the end I went to La Graciosa with them and did a walk around Montana Corona too, but, truly, I have a new bucket list item, which is to spend a week or so on Lanzarote and try all of them!
I did the Montana Corona walk first. That was good, because it whetted my already eager appetite with its breathtaking views of Graciosa from high on Lanzarote’s mountainsides. It wasn’t a hard hike by any means, a couple of slithery places where the descent was over scree for a few minutes, nothing more difficult. It was a whole world of information, though, supplied, as our group of six tramped merrily along, by our guide Michele, an Italian who is passionate about the environment and more knowledgeable about Lanzarote than many folk born there. From collapsed volcanic cones to wildflowers, to goats perched precariously on ledges to the birds circling above, Michele had stories about all of them.
As we gazed down on Graciosa he pointed out a particular spot on the Lanzarote shoreline, just opposite. This, he told us was where the women from Graciosa would come ashore, bearing their menfolk’s catches of fish, and climb a considerably steep hillside to sell the fish, or exchange them for vegetables and other food. Graciosa is a barren, though beautiful, island, and little of use grew there. Bartering the bounty of the surrounding seas for other goods was the way of life for the village of fishermen in Caleta de Sebo, the only permanent settlement on the island right up to the 60s. Now there is a limited amount of tourism to supplement the coffers, but hopefully it is going to escape the excesses of the larger islands.
One sunny morning a couple of days after the Montaña Corona walk, I was picked up by owner of Lanzarote Active Club, Carmen Portella, who was going to make a dream come true for me. For Carmen her business and life is a dream come true, being outdoors, teaching people about the environment, and in particular spreading the word about the island life she is so passionate about. She is incredibly well-informed and experienced when it comes to the history, geography, environment of Lanzarote. I felt immediately at home with her, and absorbed by what she told me about her life and the island.
Arriving in the small, coastal village of Orzola we had just a few minutes to join the rest of the group, and embark on the ferry which plies between La Graciosa and Lanzarote. This journey, however, wasn’t to be simply going from one point to another. La Graciosa is a part of a mini island chain, the Chinijo Archipelago, along with islotes Montaña Clara, Roques del Este and del Oeste, and Alegranza an even smaller island which is a privately owned and uninhabited. The surrounding waters are a marine reserve, and, as I was to discover, home to a rich biodiversity.
After dropping off the owner of Alegranza, we cruised along its coast, at one point excitedly spotting osprey above its cliffs, and listening to Carmen’s expert information about the region’s bird life. We dropped anchor a few meters from the coast opposite an opening in the cliff side. The plan was to swim to the opening, which would reveal a secret, but one glance in the water warned us off. All around us purple jellyfish happily bobbed and jived. Going into the water wasn’t an option, so in turns, because it held only six of us at a time, we puttered over in a zodiac. The opening was cave-like, and the rising tide pushed us through and into a tiny slice of paradise; a grotto with an open roof, through which the sun streamed. Volcanic walls glittered, and a small, pristine, black-sand beach tempted, but we had only time enough to gaze in wonder, take snaps and return, because the zodiac had to return for two more journeys. Getting out of the opening was less easy, a the tide pushed us back, but we made it in good time, those of us who made the first trip having created a bond in our awe of Nature.
All aboard, we headed for La Graciosa, a short walk and lunch, marveling at the aerodynamic beauty of the Cory’s Shearwaters gliding around us. These waters are home to the world’s second largest colony of these graceful birds. Eagle-eyed Carmen spotted a whale at some distance and we headed out that way for a short time. Of course it’s forbidden to deliberately get too close to any of the whales and dolphins which inhabit the archipelago’s waters, and in any event we were on a schedule. Whale watching recently I’ve tended to stand back a bit, because much as I love to see these wonderful creatures, it’s not a novelty, and I love to watch the faces of folk who are having this experience for the first time. However, this was a bit different for me, and when I learned that it was a Bryde’s Whale and not the familiar pilot whales my excitement was every bit as stimulating as if it was the first time I’d been at sea.
Reluctantly, because everyone, bar none, was entranced, we turned again for La Graciosa. As we rounded the coast level with Playa Francesa we were given the option of kayaking or being ferried ashore to walk to Caleta del Sebo and lunch. I’ve never kayaked, and the memory of those jellyfish was just too much for me to want to risk a dip. I opted for the walk, which was pure delight along white sands fringed by turquoise sea. It was April, and one of those perfect days which demand that I always return to the Canary Islands, warm but not hot, with a clarity which can break your heart. I didn’t want the walk to end.
If I was reluctant to arrive in Caleta del Sebo, my reservations dispersed into the sunshine when I saw the long table, laden with fish and seafood which was awaiting us, by the harbor. Then came one of those rare moments in life, when, all seated around the table we all jelled in our mutual wonderment of the day we’d had, and enjoyment of the food which was the perfect ending.
There was, however, one, other small surprise in store. As we relaxed over coffee, Carmen asked if we’d like to see the local church. Some of us followed her around the corner from the bar to a wide street which was in reality a dirt track, resembling those we see in westerns, flanked by low, white buildings, one of which was the tiny church. Inside maybe the simplest Catholic church I’ve ever been in, simple, wooden pews, an altar covered with a cloth of local embroidery, in the corner a font made from a turtle shell, behind which were crossed a pair of oars, the lectern a ship’s wheel. Very much a church of the people in this community of fishermen, and it was humbling to wonder how many families had prayed there waiting for news of their loved ones out at sea in bad weather. It wasn’t an easy life. It still isn’t.
At only 27 square meters, with no water source (water has been supplied from Lanzarote since around 2000) it’s unlikely that La Graciosa will succumb to the worst excesses of tourism its bigger neighbors have suffered, and this is something certainly to be wished. The number of inhabitants is variously said to be between 500 to 700, perhaps the discrepancy is due to seasonal fluctuation. There is no hotel, but there are apartments to be rented, and a campsite. Cars are not allowed, excepting, I understand, a handful of 4 x 4s owned by locals. Only 4 x 4s would manage those roads in any event, but you can take your bike. The ferry service is excellent, but they advised me to avoid July and August when I return, when the island is about as full as it can get as folk from the other islands flock there for a slice of tranquility, although it did sound as if those months might not be so tranquil!
I have no doubt that I will return to La Graciosa; perhaps not in high season, nor in the depths of winter though! It was everything I imagined it would be with its almost empty and sparkling beaches, waters of color only usually seen in travel magazines, and delicious fish and seafood. For me it would be the perfect place to get away from it all, and just be.
My thanks to Lanzarote Active Club for two fabulous and unforgettable days, and to Sands Beach Resort who invited me to Lanzarote and provided first class accommodation as well as the intro to Lanzarote Active Club.