I was sitting on the patio of a small café, enjoying the sun and my lunch, looking out over the vast valley below, when the man across the table from me started to whistle – hard. He put his knuckle in his mouth, cupping it with the other, and in the sing-song sound I could hear tones and inflections that I recognized as unrecognizable words. It was loud enough to carry clear across the valley. Spirited enough to take a message around the entire island in just half an hour.
In times past, shepherds used this language, called Silbo Gomero, to “speak” across the deep ravines of La Gomera, the second smallest of the seven larger Canary Islands. “The sides of the mountains are natural amplifiers, and [sound] can carry as much as three kilometres,” the whistler, Elias Garcia, explains. “When I was a kid, I would hear it. People would use it to help each other locate livestock or find water. Wives would call their husbands in for lunch. My mother used it to call us in at night.”
Unique in the world and enshrined by UNESCO as a cultural treasure, the Silbo replaces vowels and consonants with distinct tones. But when dictator Francisco Franco ruled the island, the whistling nearly stopped. The military ruler and his henchmen didn’t like the fact that Gomerans could communicate in a language they couldn’t understand, and it came close to extinction. But one of the world’s only whistle languages has survived; it’s taught in schools and recognized and practised by most islanders. “The Silbo is better than a mobile phone,” Garcia says. “You’re never out of coverage and the battery never dies. It’s our thing.”
The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago that sits in the Atlantic, about 100 kilometres off the coast of northern Africa. While the Canaries have gained a reputation in Europe as a winter haven for septuagenarian Germans and Brits on package tours, they have a quiet side that’s a long way from the masses, both in attitude and pace. Especially on La Gomera: an enchanted, volcanic island straight out of a storybook, where cool cloud forests meet subtropical rain forests and each of its dizzyingly deep valleys seems to end at a hidden beach.
Soon after I landed on the island, I found myself climbing away from the coast in a small, Spanish-made car with Sophie Belt, a local schoolteacher who took a few days off from her classroom duties to serve as my guide for my time on Gomera.
As we passed into Garajonay National Park, Belt explained that the island’s geology and geography have created more than 400 microclimates. UNESCO recognizes Garajonay as a World Heritage Site for its biodiversity, the large number of unique animals and its dramatic, ancient landscape (massive barrancos, or ravines, created from ash and lava fields, as well as volcanic roques, or domes). Turning to me, Belt smiled and said, “Get ready to go back a couple million years.”
Before us, great, strange cones, columns and chimneys rose, some of them leaning perilously to one side, an alien landscape and an environment completely different from the small fishing village we had just left a few minutes earlier. Belt, a Gomeran native of British extraction, explained that these were the remnants of an old volcanic crater, now long gone – the whimsical formations all around were simply the last rocks to erode.
We took a few minutes to snap some photos, then quickly descended into a dense rain forest, Belt noting that these islands have a long human history, as well – the Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians all made stops here and, later, the Canaries were an important way station to the New World. The Romans were here, too – they called the Canaries the Fortunate Islands. “We have the sun and the sea, and a good natural water source,” she said in a cheery English accent.
We got out of the car and hiked along a small trail through lush foliage, Belt pointing out little cabins on the slopes here and there, noting that many German travellers come here and rent small, rural homes for weeks at a time, spending their days exploring the still-wild parts of the island. We had worked up an appetite, and made our next stop at a small restaurant, La Montana, that has been serving up authentic, vegetarian Gomeran cuisine for decades.
Now perhaps the most famous restaurant on the island, La Montana had humble beginnings. Belt translated as the elderly owner, Efigenia Borges, explained that, a few decades back, Gomera had no restaurants – tourism didn’t get its start here until the 1980s. So when workers came to the area building the road that now runs the width of the island, Borges dug into her cache of old family recipes, cooking and serving them the same meals she fed her husband and kids.
And it’s what she served me, out on the restaurant’s sunny patio. I tucked into an island favourite called gofio, a milled grain flour passed down by Gomera’s indigenous residents, served here as a pudding paired with red mojo sauce, plus vegetable soup, a fresh salad and almogrote, a delicious mixture of cured goat cheese, red peppers, olive oil and garlic spread on fresh bread. Giving me a tour of the small restaurant, she gestured at her vegetable garden, which still supplies much of what she serves here. “It is totally natural. I’ve raised it, nurtured it, helped it to grow,” she said in Spanish, with Belt translating for me. “You use what the land gives.”
And on Gomera, you use what the sea gives, too. On my last full day on the island, I boarded a small boat to get a look at things from sea level. As we rolled out onto the aquamarine, a naturalist explained that the channel that separates La Gomera from the neighbour island of Tenerife is a magnet for marine life. The currents carry fish here, and the waters are rich in minerals from the volcanic rock, which provides an excellent breeding ground for plankton. It has long been a prime place for calving, and is home to five species of whale, five species of dolphin, sea turtles and a kaleidoscope of crustaceans.
We passed little villages with pretty white buildings tucked into the end of the massive ravines, as well as a couple of former canneries, now just ruins – memories of the hard life that used to be the norm on Gomera. “Before tourism, everyone worked at a fish factory,” Belt explained.
Navigating deeper into the channel, a group of spotted dolphins – small, fast and adorable – whooshed up next to us, swimming and frolicking in the flow of water cast off by the bow as we plunged forward into the waves. Off our starboard side, a seagull kept trying to land on the back of a loggerhead turtle floating at the surface, which it took to be a rock. I couldn’t hear the Silbo, but I still felt a long, long way from the package-tour beaches, teeming with northern sun-seekers, just around the corner on Tenerife.
If you go British Airways, in partnership with Iberia airlines, provides the most direct connection from Canada to either Tenerife or Gran Canaria, via London. From there, you can either take a ferry from Tenerife, or take one of several available domestic flights from either island.
What to do Each of the Canary Islands has its own look, feel and personality. The two largest, Tenerife and Gran Canaria, welcome the vast majority of travellers, and even those headed to the smaller spots usually spend a few nights on one of these two islands. Gran Canaria offers a number of quiet areas, including fincas (farms) where you can drink coffee and wine from beans and grapes grown on site, plus the Barranco de Guayadeque, an arid valley where you can eat and sleep in one of a series of natural caves.
Where to stay Most of the hotels on Gomera are unpretentious, family-run establishments. Hotel Gran Rey, near the ocean at the mouth of spectacular Valle Gran Rey, is within walking distance of several good restaurants and charming shops. Rooms start at $145 per night. hotelgranrey.es
The writer travelled as a guest of the Canary Islands Tourism Board. It did not review or approve the story. Which was first published in The Globe and Mail