No matter how good our research skills are and no matter how prolific travel blogging becomes, there is never any substitute for the mass of experience and knowledge about a place that is stored in the memories of those for whom a destination is their home and their livelihood.
When it comes to tour guides, La Palma has some real stars…
Sheila Crosby – IAC Observatory Roque de Los Muchachos
“Here, take this bottle and see what happens to it when you reach sea level. Teachers here don’t do science experiments,” says Sheila, handing me a closed, empty, plastic water bottle. “It’s a shame really because that’s what makes science so interesting.”
We’re standing on the heliport of the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma where Sheila Crosby has just taken us on a tour of the Gran TeCan telescope. I’ve learned more about astronomy, science and astrophysics in the last couple of hours than I did in 15 years of full time education. Why? Because Sheila made it all such fun.
Sheila originally came to La Palma in 1990 to work at the observatory on a three year contract. She never left. Meeting and marrying the love of her life, she has made La Palma her permanent home and now, when she’s not busy finishing her book on the Observatory, she hosts tours to its Gran TeCan Telescope.
Her enthusiasm, sense of fun and ability to relate the most complex of scientific instruments and theories to everyday objects and situations make her tour immensely enjoyable and educational. If she had chosen a career in education rather than engineering she would have been one of those teachers or professors who mould young lives and inspire greatness.
By the time we got back down to Los Concajos our bottle had sucked its middle in to produce the perfect, hourglass figure. I must ask Sheila why that doesn’t happen to me…
Daniel Gómez – ADER La Palma
Daniel is a journalist, author and a hiking guide working with La Palma’s Rural Development Agency. The first time we encounter him he’s standing outside La Casa del Volcán in Fuencaliente, all smiles and perfect English. It takes me a while to realise he’s our guide. He’s so relaxed and easy to chat to that I thought he was just a friend of Ana’s who happened to be lunching at the same place as us.
A world traveller, enthusiastic astronomer, hiker and film maker, Daniel was our constant companion over two days in which he took us volcano walking, to Roque de Los Muchachos, around his home town of Los Llanos de Aridane and to Puerto de Tazacorte. A veritable Oracle on all things associated with his homeland, Daniel spent many years working in London (hence the excellent English) before realising he missed his native island too much and returning to take up his current position with ADER.
“If you could transfer one aspect of London to La Palma, what would it be?” I ask Daniel as we traipse through the lava fields below Volcán San Antonio.
“The multi-ethnicity,” he replies unhesitatingly. “In London I was living amongst so many different cultures and I could eat different dishes from around the world. I really miss Indian curries.”
“And if there was one thing you would take from La Palma to London?” I follow up.
“The clear, star filled skies,” Daniel smiles. “In London there is so much light pollution it’s almost impossible to see the stars.”
If only we could make both those things happen…
Jonás Pérez – Natour Trekking
We pile out of the mini bus at Mirador Los Brecitos, ready to go hiking in La Caldera de Taburiente and Jonás shows us on the board exactly what our route will be, describing each leg of the hike in Spanish, English and German, animated and enthusiastic, with a smile fixed onto his face.
When we set off Jonás moves along the line of hikers, chatting to everyone in their native language and finding common ground with each one. As we progress he mentally identifies who will need a little help, who is a competent hiker and who he can rely on to take the lead. I don’t know if he’s even consciously aware of his professionalism, it’s the instinctive modus operandi of an experienced guide.
With enviable energy he moves up and down the line, covering twice the distance of the rest of us, showing us the hard heart of the pine trees, the three pronged pine needles and the volcanic formation of the crater. When one of our party begins to experience heat exhaustion he runs ahead, dipping a towel into the icy stream and bringing it back to cool her neck. When we criss cross the river he’s always there, his hand outstretched to help with balance.
By the time we make it to the end of our hike we’re filthy, exhausted and sweaty but we’re still smiling, thanks to Jonás. Shortly after the bus sets off on our homeward journey it stops again, across the road from a bar.
“Cold beer anyone?” asks Jonás.
The perfect guide just got better.
Carmelo González – Astrotour
Astronomer and photographer Carmelo González is co-founder of La Palma’s Astrotour company which was set up in 2009.
It’s 10.00pm and we’re driving up though pitch dark country lanes that hairpin their way through the pine forests, climbing ever higher to escape the mar de nubes that has settled half way to the island’s summit. Finally the forest thins, the car pulls into a lay-by and I step out, straight into an episode of Star Trek. Above our heads the Milky Way dazzles in a billion stars, strewn carelessly across the firmament. Around it, the sky bears no relation to the one that nightly covers me, this one is straight from the bridge of the Enterprise.
Using his laser pointer, Carmelo shows us how to recognise Pegasus and Cassiopeia and how to find Polaris. Tapping co-ordinates into the telescope and waiting for it to stop clicking and whirring its way through the solar system, Carmelo tells us he usually stays all night when he comes up here, tracking the constellations, watching for anything unusual and photographing the firmament. His enthusiasm and extraordinary knowledge of what lies beyond earth’s atmosphere has us glued to the telescopic lens and hanging on his every word.
Unfortunately, as our acquaintance is reserved entirely to a moon-less, pitch dark night, we have no photo of Carmelo, just this incredible shot of the Milky Way which he took for us.
The following night, from our balcony, we can vaguely see the Milky Way and easily spot Pegasus and Cassiopeia. Thank you, Carmelo, you have given us the stars.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+