Emily Slaco gambles on a 48hrs journey to find a mini paradise in the Canary Islands and discovers what makes this little island so great. Food, drink, amazing trails and great company combine to create an unforgettable trip in an exotic location in the Atlantic.

Social media, along with all its strange qualities, can sometimes bring together amazing experiences… “I just booked my flight; you should come join.”

It’s the end of September, and I’m at home enjoying a short break from work before one last stint and a much-needed break. It had been a crazy summer working non-stop, guiding bike trips daily and only now could I think about what I was going to do with myself for three whole weeks. While pondering vacation options a friend who I get to see very rarely sends me a Facebook message about a trip he’s been thinking about doing.

“Leave at the end of October, spend a couple of days in Paris, then on to the Canary Islands and back a couple of weeks later.” On a whim, I decide to Google the island and what I saw was stunning, enormous volcanic craters, black sand beaches, colourful houses, jungles and pine forests all on the same small island. With my upcoming vacation opening on my mind, I casually check flights; prices are reasonable, and with only a month to go, I pull the trigger. “Booked!!!!!!!”

The following few weeks are a blur and next thing I know I’m meeting Steve at the airport in Paris before we hop on our plane to the island of La Palma in the Spanish Canary Islands.

Steve had originally planned the trip to meet up with a couple of friends who spend their fall months working on La Palma. As an adventure photographer, Steve has a great way of mixing work and pleasure into his trips. This trip was no different, and he was going to be doing some photography work for Bike Station La Palma, the bike tourism company where his friend Robi was working.

We decided that I would be his official “bike model” so I could tag along and hopefully help get some shots as we toured around the island with the tour groups. Robi would be our guide, and we would join the daily enduro tours that departed from the Bike Station’s home base in the quaint oceanside town of Puerto Naos on the west coast of La Palma.

“Please fasten your seat belts the Captain has started our descent into Santa Cruz de La Palma.” I wake up from my state of semi-consciousness after 48 hours of non-stop travel and peer out the window to see the ocean looming closer and closer. The plane touches down with the ocean directly on our right side and a towering hillside up the other.

I can’t believe that we’ve just arrived on this island paradise. Instantly it seems as though my last two days of flying and travelling are gone, and I’m totally reenergized by the fresh ocean air. We grab our bike bags and lug them outside the tiny airport where we immediately see the smiling face of Fleur, Robi’s better half. Introductions and hugs all around we load up the borrowed van with our gear and Fleur sets off giving us a narrated tour.

As we snake our way up the side of the mountain, we pass alongside lush jungle forests and misty vistas. Fleur tells us that this side of the island tends to get more moisture than the west where we’re headed. As the weather rolls in off the ocean, the clouds move up, dropping their moisture on the east side and accumulating around the tops of the volcanoes. Being from a coastal climate where we get more than our fair share of rainy weather, I’m glad we’re headed to the sunny side.

The van continues moving upwards before levelling out and entering a dark tunnel. We pop out the other side, and the landscape is a stark contrast. Instead of lush jungle we’re surrounded by pine forests and black volcanic sand. We roll down the mountain and out of the clouds towards our quaint seaside village that will be home for the next week. My jet lag is starting to kick in, and all I can think about is lying down.

We drop our stuff at the bike station, grab Robi and walk the two blocks over to the beach. First stop is a little beachside shack and a round of cerveza mixtas, or beer mixed with a lemonade type beverage. Refreshing and delicious, these go down very easily - almost too easily, and I’m glad someone suggests we leave the bar to jump in the ocean.

“Dos cortado condensada por favor.” Fleur is ordering us two of the local coffee specialities to get us going. The shots of espresso come with a layer of sweet condensed milk sitting at the bottom and we polish those off quickly before we head over to the Bike Station. Bikes are being loaded onto shuttle vehicles, and people are milling about. Our group for the day is a mix of Swiss and German riders. We introduce ourselves and hop on the shuttle van. The rest of the group had already been riding for a few days, so we plied them for trail data to get some insight on what’s to come.

As we drive through the vast swaths of banana plantations that cover the island, our van suddenly stops. Construction on the road has us taking an extended rest, and we all pile out of the van. Our driver pulls out his pocket knife and starts opening up one of the prickly pear cactus fruit that line the side of the road. Once he carefully peels the prickly spines off the fruit, he offers it to us, and we plop the bright orange fruit into our mouths.

It’s sweet and juicy and so delicious. I want more, but I’m warned not to try grabbing another myself since the spines require careful peeling, so you don’t end up with an unexpected mouthful of pain. We are eventually dropped off halfway up the hillside in a beautiful pine forest where we start off gently spinning our legs up a winding dirt road. Views over the forests, vineyards, small farms and houses extend down towards the ocean.

“Be careful of the pine needles” says Robi before he sets off with a whoop down the trail. I wait until the rest of the group drops in and then set off, excited to get the wheels in motion down this smooth rolling singletrack, traversing through the pine forest. I rally into a particularly flat corner and all of a sudden I’m fully sideways, power sliding down the trail. I barely pull it back around in time to save myself.

I ride up to the group with a sheepish smile, “guess you weren’t kidding about those slippery pine needles.” The rest of the day has us rolling up some gentle climbs and mostly descending as we pass through some local farms and small vineyards. All of a sudden the heavens open up and the clouds that have been hovering at the higher elevations descend upon us. We continue down the mountainside to a small roadside bar and a welcome shelter from the rain.

Cold hands are warmed with another round of cortados and stomachs are filled with bocadillos, a Spanish style baguette sandwich filled with your choice of local fare. Our shuttle van reappears, and we load the bikes up before hopping into the warm van for the drive home.

It’s early afternoon by now, and the sun is back here on the beach. Steve, Fleur and I grab cruiser bikes and take off for a little exploration to the local surf spot. We wind our way through the roads lined with more banana plantations, and I can’t seem to get over how these bananas cover some of the most prime waterfront real estate on the island.

If we were on any other tropical island, the shoreline would be filled with resorts, restaurants and tourist traps, but here on La Palma, it’s different. Robi informs us that there are only three major Resorts on the entire island and a smattering of smaller hotels. I think that’s part of the charm of it all; the island has embraced the tourists that come to experience their beautiful island, but they haven’t changed their way of life too much.

The weather has been toying with us. Clouds have been hanging around the higher elevations deterring us from heading to the highest ground. Robi makes the call, and today our shuttle van heads south, dropping us off in a charred pine forest. As we start spinning up the road, Robi and Fleur tell us that in the summer there was a huge forest fire that ignited about 12,000 acres on the west side of the island, sadly it was caused by human action. What’s left after the fire are charred pine trunks dotting the hillsides.

The light brown pine needles that have fallen from the dead limbs stand out against the black volcanic sand, a reminder to use some caution after my previous sideways slide. “You ready, follow me!” says Robi to me before he takes off down the trail. We race along the fast swooping trail, hopping over the rocky outcrops that pop up and railing naturally bermed corners, sliding along the sandy volcanic soil. Finally, we pull up and wait for the rest of the crew to catch up.

The huge grins on our faces can’t be wiped off; we’re having too much fun. The trail continues, and we pass through a town full of colourful houses and all of a sudden we’re looking out over a huge black sandy slope dotted with scrub bushes leading all the way down to the ocean. “Just don’t touch your front brake and you’ll be fine.” Our first lesson in sand surfing has begun. When my turn comes, I tentatively start down the hill picking my way through the larger rocks and scrub.

As I pick up speed, I begin to channel my inner Graham Agassiz and start to get the hang of carving turns into the sandy slope. It feels just like skiing: carving into the hill, picking up speed and all too soon I’m at the bottom wishing I could do it all over again. However, there’s still more trail to be ridden, and we weave our way down towards Salinas de Fuecaliente, a UNESCO world biosphere reserve where sea-salt is still hand harvested in salt pools from the ocean. A dramatic sight of black lava rock, white salt crystals, and deep blue ocean greets us, a fitting end to our day.

I crawl into the van an hour earlier than usual today with the promise of an espresso stop halfway through our drive this morning. We’re heading north and up to the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, one of the best locations for optical and infrared astronomy in the world. Today we’re more interested in the trail conditions and what kind of terrain we’ll encounter than telescopes.

So far the days have all had something a little different and unique, keeping us excited for more, and today will prove to be no different. Similar to other days, Steve and I let the rest of the group head down the trail while we cruise along stopping to snap a couple of quick photos before racing to catch up. Maybe it’s the altitude or maybe it’s the earlier start but neither of us is on our A-game today, and after a while, we pack the camera away and decide just to ride our bikes.

That is until we arrive on top of a towering cliff overlooking the small town of Puerto de Tazacorte. The scene is breathtaking, a beautiful black sandy beach dotted with colourful umbrellas and turquoise waves lapping up against the shore. Instantly Steve’s camera is out, and he’s snapping away, this is too good to pass up. As we peer down the cliff, a trail is visible. Cobbled stones line the path that switchbacks directly down the side of the cliff.

“Don’t fall!” says Robi and we carefully navigate our way down the tight switchbacks and tricky rock. My eyes are constantly torn away from the trail taking in the view, but the switchbacks come up quickly and take all my focus to steer both wheels around the tricky corners. We all end up safely down in the little seaside village, eating ice cream to celebrate our switchback victories.

Just another mind-blowing day on La Palma, thinking back to where we started at 2,396 metres and where we are now sitting on the beach.  

“So when are you going to change your flight and stay another week?” We’re back at the beach in Puerto Naos enjoying cold cervezas and another stunning sunset. I’ve got half a mind to call my boss and beg her to let me stay another week, but my conscience gets the best of me, and I shake my head sadly.

It’s been a fantastic week, exceeding any expectations I might have had. Truth be told I had no expectations. My decision to come came from a brief Facebook conversation, a quick Google photo search showing a couple of pictures of beaches and the promise of trails and sun. Some might say “way to seize the opportunity” but I think it was more a mix of great timing and fate that took me to this quiet biking paradise.

Not only did I get to experience all the beauty on this pristine island, but I was able to connect with some amazing people and form friendships based on a mutual love of exploration, adventure, and of course having a good time! The laid back vibe, outdoor activity opportunities and quiet atmosphere bring a certain kind of person to the island, and I’m thankful I landed here. I’m now going to spend all year figuring out how to get back to paradise. Does anyone need a bike model?

By Emily Slaco