A couple of tanned figures were moving along the shore. Naked men with long hair, carrying palm branches and a few wooden beams. They disappeared somewhere among the large boulders. I’m still not clear what is going on the shore of this bay.
I’ve arrived here after a night sail. I left the previous evening from the south tip of Gran Canaria, the main island of the canary archipelago. From a place called Anfi del Mar, but that's a different story...
The sun was just rising as we approached La Gomera, stripping the night off of the granite cliffs of this volcanic island. The wind and waves again disappeared for the last time, like they did several times during the night as we passed through the lee of several islands.
I stood on the deck, alone, watching my new domicile approach as the boat gilded silently and peacefully on the calm water. A huge school of fish jumped out of the water in tandem just 100 meters from the boat. Large silvery fish, glittering in the morning sun, splashing as they fall back into the water. A hunt is taking place below.
When we entered the bay, morning light had already washed the small adjacent harbour but the bay was still sunless. Immense cliffs left it in the shade till the late morning. I dropped the anchor into ten meters of water and made sure it is well dug in the sandy bottom.
La Gomera is one of the smallest of the Canary islands. It is also as round as can be. Just over 20 km circumference. By the end of the 1960’s American and Canadian hippies discovered the place and made it a refuge from the Vietnam war draft. They were seeking an alternative life, digging for their natural roots.
It was the first hippie colony in La Gomera, centered around Valle Gran Rey, a small fishing village on the South West of the island. The group of about 20 people just camped on the beach among the large pointy boulders. Later they purchased a small roofless house and renovated it. Others took shelter in one of the many caves up the valleys or along the shore.
The locals welcomed them although the norm in Valle Gran Rey was not about naked men and women dancing on the beach. Back in those days, local men and women used to bathe in the sea in separate beaches. Anyone who as much as sneaked a glance towards the women’s beach was fined. Back then a weekly postal ferry took 8 hours to reach the main port of La Gomera, San Sebastian, from Tenerife.
From San Sebastian the road to Valle Gran Rey was a rocky trail climbing the tall mountains in the center of La Gomera. With no paved roads, no electricity and no telephone service, time in this little village had a different meaning if any.
The steep shoreline along the bay is lined with large dark boulders smoothed by the constant surf crushing on them. Smaller rocks roll up and down with the waves, producing a low thunder sound as they are fashined into a round shape by the constant rubbing.
Along the beach stands a modest guesthouse, or a resort, very different from the large, all inclusive town-size resorts we have seen in other islands - Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria. It is a single structure with a red roof, white cinder blocks fence, large solar panels, one big veteran tree and a lot of green vegetation around.
Behind it, a steep canyon made of 13 million years old granite, has pools for collecting rain water carved in the rock and built with rudimentary blocks and cement. On the beach in front of the resort, 3-4 naked bathers lounged.
There’s no cellular reception in the bay so I had to venture into town. I found the central bus station abandoned but this is where the cell tower was. The next bus to San Sebastian is in 4 hours.
After lunch I found a printed leaflet in front of a small prayer house overlooking the water in the center of the next door village bay. Three piles of leaflets were left there under a round stone to battle the constant breeze. “Movie Night” the title read. It was the third part of “The Secret”, a well known spiritual trilogy. The leaflet was in the German language. The movie will be screened tonight at the resort in my bay.
Next to the prayer house a man was playing a guitar. The sound was amazingly clear and pure. I approached, sat nearby on a small wall in the shade and tore pieces off of a fresh baguette I just got and ate it. I have not listened to live music for a long while and this was a real pleasure. The guitarist, in long hair and faded clothes, maybe 40 years old, smiled at me and nodded.
I have seen one of these printed leaflets the day before, also in German, under a rock on the trail leading to the resort. The small village has a very large number of Germans in it. There are several German bakeries, run by Germans, serving Linzer torte, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte and other delicious stuff. Vegan restaurants and the many nature and organic produce shops, have menus and signage in German language. The many German tourists usually wear light, thin clothes. Meditation, Yoga, veganism is their way. No beer drinking, no complaints about the disorder and inefficiencies of the local ways, and no tourist-like behaviour.
One of these visitors or tenants I stopped next to the central bus station to ask and get some information. The bus station is the only place I could get cellular reception. She was a young woman in a flowery dress walking on the bridge leading to the station.
Any way I can get to the main town from here? Is there a cellular provider shop somewhere? She told me that taking the ferry to San Sebastian is a better option than the bus. She also said the main town does not have much more to offer than Valle Gran Rey.
That evening I decided to go see the movie advertised on the leaflet. So I left an internet cafe early in order to make it on time for the screening and maybe mingle around and meet some people. Before I left the coffee shop, three older men, skinny and with thinning long hair walked in slowly and took their seats at a table. One of them looked at me and smiled a big smile.
I took the dirt road leading to the meditation resort, snaking between the foot of the cliff and the water. The moon was already up but the road was not getting any moonlight and was dark. Reaching the resort, I stood in front of the locked glass door of the reception office. Then a woman arrived, small and skinny, and squeezed herself between me and the door, holding a key and trying to push it into the lock. Before I had time to realize what is happening, the woman said: I have no time for you now and tomorrow is Tuesday we are closed.
It did not leave me with the feeling this meditation center is immersed in peace and harmony, but still I kept on walking towards the light. A handful of women and men were seated around 2-3 round tables positioned about a circular swimming pool. They were eating and examining me and my friend. Pale lights hang from above, covered in colored screens. The large tree obscured the night sky with its wide green canopy. I entered the inner hall. A large clay bowl holding a chickpeas stew was on the counter in front of the open kitchen. Another bowl with what looked like tomato paste stood nearby. One man with long hair stood next to the counter and a few women were seated around tables in the dark extremities of the room.
Is there a movie screening tonight? I asked the guy.
He laughed and said he does not think so. No movie. Two women looked up at me and frowned.
I don’t think meditation or yoga is doing you any good here, I said loudly.
We left the place, happy to be back on the boat.
Back to La Gomera of the 1960’s. Locals remember the naked American hippies on the beach with fondness. They were polite and gentle, told me an elderly local woman. We used to give them fish and some fresh produce from our gardens, she said. Avocado, bananas, potatoes.
By the end of the Vietnam war, the original hippie band dispersed. Each roamed to a different place. Yet La Gomera today is still a world’s end type of place, away from time as we know it. The island attracts visitors who are different from those visiting other Canary islands. They come here for Reiki workshops, Bach flowers treatment and learning, yoga, meditation and alternative healing practices.
Some visitors stay for months. They find a cave, sell jewelry they created with great talent, earthware, leather items. They drum on the beach at sunset, using handmade drums made from the local agave trunk and goat skin. They collect coins from the tourists who come to the beach at sunset to listen.
At the end of the last Rainbow event that took place in La Gomera, a good number of revelers stayed on the island. They settled in remote caves up the canyons and on the beaches. They washed their clothes in the public beach shower and waited for them to dry, naked. The local authorities decided it’s time to bring some order in. They combed the area and destroyed any structures built by the nomads and sent them away. But the authorities also understood it is not a wise move to expel these very alternative vagabonds. These special characters attract the more conservative tourists which in turn produce income for local businesses.
And so a new idea came forward. The local authorities decided to build and sponsor caves for the permanent alternative vagabond population. In April 2017 the municipality completed the project and built 14 ‘caves’. From the outside, the long, gray, low structure looks like a small warehouse in the flat area adjacent to the port. There are indeed 14 rolling metal doors visible, all shut. The plan is to further add some vegetation around, build a communal BBQ area and construct a platform or stage for dancing and music playing, fire artists and jugglers. It may be located behind the caves structure on top of the immense seawall overlooking the ocean to the south of the port. Any potential tenant who can prove they were in La Gomera during the previous five years at least, can apply for one of the 14 municipality caves. The winning applicants will enjoy electricity, running water, WiFi and of course the security that comes with social housing. All for a very symbolic monthly payment.
La Gomera offers much more than German bakeries, yoga and meditation retreats, healing, vegan food, organic produce and alternative spiritual existence. The local whistle language, Silbo, is a unique method of communications developed and used by locals for centuries to send messages up and down the narrow canyons. Here too the authorities stepped forward and integrated the language into the local schools curriculum before it goes extinct.
In the center of the island at the tallest mountain top a large area was designated as a nature reserve and added to the UN world heritage sites list in 1986. It has a humid, thick rain forest immersed in fog, with large moss covered trees. Some 50 endemic bird species nest here and 100 more migrate through. Next to the reserve is a trailhead leading to several trails which do not require much effort to hike. The trails run along water streams and lead to a freshwater lagoon.
The reserve and its rich beauty are in stark contrast to the scenery and vegetation on the cliffs and in the canyons running from the higher elevation areas to the shore. Here agricultural terraces built of local stone keep the earth around palm trees, impressive agave trees, prickly pear bushes and other plants. Flowering bushes grow lavishly among the granite rock.
The expanse of the ocean and the two nearby islands, Hierro and La Palma are a magnificent view. Hiking trails leading from the shore to the center of the island demand an arduous climb.
One morning I began walking randomly from the central bus station along the main road leading to Valle Gran Rey. I then took a trail going up one of the mountains. I had no idea where it will take me but my sense of direction told me it will lead me back to the bay where the boat is anchored.
The climb was hard and steep. I am not in good shape for terrestrial activities since I live on the water in a rather small space. So it did feel like my circulatory system is about to explode at certain moments, especially that my colleague is 21 years old and naturally fit. We both had nothing but slippers and shorts on.
It took three hours of hard climb to reach the top of the trail. The view of Valle Gran Rey from above was incredible. It took 4 more hours to continue hiking down an amazingly beautiful canyon on the other side of the mountain. We made our way jumping between huge, rough-faced boulders as if it was a luna park.
We scaled down dry waterfalls and crossed natural water pools. We were muted by the grandeur of the scenery around and soaked in the great silence of the canyons. Here and there a single lost goat was calling, they all roam here freely and happily as no predators are around. We have not seen a single person during the whole hike which ended, without any planning, miraculously at the bay in front of the boat, exactly at the moment the sun touched the ocean. Serendipiry.
In San Sebastian, from which Christofer Columbus left for his first Atlantic crossing, and supplied his ships here, one can visit the house he lived in for about a month. It is now a museum. In the city also stands the oldest military fort of the Canaries, built in 1450.
In spite of all the changes Valle Gran Rey went through since the late 1960’s, the atmosphere here is super relaxed, very special and authentic, almost as it was when the early hippies discovered the place. The air looks and feels very clean, especially at night when a full canopy of stars extends all the way as low as the horizon.
La Gomera is a sweet island with exciting scenery where mornings made of pure light rise like a golden ring above a deep blue ocean.