Feature: In El Hierro, Waiting for the Smoke to Clear

El Hierro

By: Shawn Moksvold

In La Restinga, El Hierro, a seaside village at the southernmost point of Spain’s Canary Islands, it is a dismal day for fishing.  The wind is loud and piercing, shaking windows and whipping up choppy waves and creating seas nearly impossible to navigate. There is dust in the air and people run across streets, heads ducked down, to the shelter of a corner bar or cafe.

And there is the volcano.

Today, from the vantage point of the shore, there isn’t much to see.  Volcanologists call it a jacuzzi, a small area of bubbling water, silt, a few floating lava stones and an occasional cloud of sulfuric gas.  In this case, there is no spectacle.  There is no fountain of lava, no landslide of rocks and ash.  To the uneducated eye, the evidence is subtle, mostly invisible under the surface of the water. But to the residents of this small island, this volcano is simply a blow to the local economy. Fishing comprises one of the four main economic sectors in El Hierro (which include livestock breeding, farming, and tourism).  Since July, the submarine eruption has been emitting a stain of soil and minerals into the water, contaminating the area where fishing boats normally operate.  La Restinga is the only commercial fishing inlet on the island, and the local seafood business has been halted by the Spanish government because of obvious health and safety concerns.  Also, over half of the island’s territory is already tightly regulated, minimizing most commercial harvesting of fish and shellfish.

One of the charms of the Canary Islands is the variety of cuisine derived from local sources.  Various cheeses, fruits, vegetables and wine are excellent here. And as expected of many island communities, the seafood is of particular pride and high quality.  On this island of 10,000 residents, there are over 80 restaurants and bars that serve local seafood, and many are now working from reduced menus of standard tapas and land-based food.  Overall, the local residents’ reaction to the current situation seems to be amix of healthy Spanish sarcasm and optimistic fatalism.

I stop by a restaurant near the marina in La Restinga where the sign claims a specialization in seafood and fresh fish. I sit on the stool, and ask for a beer and a menu as I look out the window to notice the absence of fishing boats. There are many empty slips in the marina, and a few small sailboats remain, tied to the docks, as well as a government research vessel, a large orange rescue boat, and a rusty tourist vessel called Mar del Hierro.

The man behind the bar is chatting with a group of old patrons, and he is not in a particularly good mood.  The conversation is on the volcano, and he repeatedly throws his hands up in gestures of hopelessness, but then immediately cracks a joke about the futility of the situation, as if to save his own sanity. I sip my beer and listen as the men talk.

As I glance at the menu, the man comes over to me and before I have a chance to order, and he explains to me that of all the seafood and fresh fish dishes normally served at his restaurant (over three pages of them), he currently has only one.  And it’s imported tuna.  I order another beer.

I ask him how long the government will hold the ban on fishing in La Restinga.

“Buaa! God knows,” he says.  “Why, do you know? I would sleep much better with this information.”

He laughs and shows a stained front tooth and deep wrinkles on his face.  He grabs my glass and tops off the beer in the type of good-natured gesture that makes anyone feel at home.

La Restinga is a quiet little town, spilling down into the sea over jagged volcanic terrain. The black of the hardened lava contrasts with the white froth and blue of the ocean water. Through the wind I can hear the deep crash of the waves.  One a weekday afternoon, the passing spectator may find a few children kicking around a ball, or a small clique of elderly men chatting around a terrace table, sipping small glasses of aguardiente.  Most of the villages on the island are quiet utilitarian settlements, surrounded by unspoiled landscapes and clean ocean air, and as I step out of the restaurant with an empty camera and a slight beer buzz, I soon begin to see the charm and beauty of this island.

El Hierro is in fact a concentration of biological diversity and a shining example of a successful conservation culture.  In 2000, UNESCO designated the area a bio reserve. In addition, local authorities have implemented smart, sustainable wildlife management programs, specifically for fisheries and endangered species.  The best way to survey the island is by car, and the roads throughout the island are impeccably maintained, facilitating access to pristine wilderness areas.  The surrounding waters are an obvious attraction to scuba divers, home to sea turtles, manta rays, and many species of fish.

This is a playground for volcanologists, geologists and seismologists. Vineyards, orchards of fig trees, pineapple and banana plantations, and vegetable farms cover the El Golfo Valley, near Frontera, also the habitat of the critically endangered Hierro Gaint Lizard.  The semi-arid elevations are home to six-meter-tall agave plants and prickly pear cactus, as well as the peculiar Candelabra bushes and Balsam spurges. Falcons, ospreys, and owls often perch on fences and high posts looking for prey. Thick, mossy woodlands dominate the high elevations, where beech trees and ancient ferns grow and fast-moving clouds often pour over the mountainsides.  In the center of the island, shepherds walk slowly on manicured tracts of land delineated by fences of small volcanic rocks. There they tend to flocks of sheep and goats with bells hanging from their thick wooly necks.  On the outer edges of the island, black sand beaches are perfectly protected by immense dark cliffs of hardened lava-flows breaking off into the sea.   Sabina Juniper trees grow in the west, bent over and twisted into awkward shapes by the incessant wind.  At night, stars fill the sky, shining free of the glare of city lights.

The variety of climate zones on the small island is impressive.  I begin a morning drive in the dry and dusty lowlands and within an hour I am creeping slowly around winding roads through tall evergreens in a thick, pea-soup fog.  Many of these one-lane roads in El Hierro hug steep cliffs, and when the fog clears, the panoramic spectacles make it nearly impossible to concentrate on the road ahead.  Continuing through the damp forests, there are the dryer wooded areas of tall pine trees growing on rolling hills. The entire area shows evidence of a devastating forest fire of recent years, with sparse ground vegetation and dark burn marks on the outer edges of the pines’ fireproof bark.

At the airport, Mercedes Hernandez Rojas is the smiling face that meets the wide-eyed tourists as they step off the plane.  She stands ready at her desk, surrounded by brochures, tourist guides on sale for 3 euro and well-rehearsed itinerary suggestions. She has the enthusiasm in her voice that comes from a chronic deficit of tourist revenue.  She’s aware of the volcano and anticipates my questions.

“Yes, there are fewer tourists right now,” she says. “The main problem is the bad press we get.  But, come on, we are a volcanic island.  It’s normal for us.”

She draws on a small road map of El Hierro, circling hotspots and scenic views, even telling me what time of day is best to visit certain parts of the island.

“Poco a poco,” she says.  Little by little. “People who aren’t afraid of a little adventure come here and there are more and more coming all the time.”  She asks me why I chose El Hierro of all the Canary Islands and I explain to her my aversion to resorts, cruise ships and bus tours (I am little too embarrassed to tell I her I also want to see a giant exploding volcano).

“You will love it here, then,” she says. “I’ve been here my whole life and I am still enchanted by the island.”

Sometimes when traveling to a new place the attitude of the local is perceived by the outsider as jaded and apathetic. The novelty of the surroundings has, usually, worn off in the mind of the local, replaced by more fundamental and practical interaction with the immediate environment.  It is easy for me to see a fantastic, volcanic island with new animals and fantastic scenic views. I walk around with wide eyes and a camera, and I can smell the air because it is different.  It is a rare thing to find local residents, who are at the same time, proud of where they live and able to genuinely and convincingly convey their adoration of their homeland to outsiders, without being provincial and haughty.  El Hierro is such a place. It is a perfect locale for rural tourism, but it has not yet been exploited and is not in the habit of doling out sanitized tourist packages.

Early in the evening, as I complete my last hotspot on Mercedes’ tourist map, I find the end of a road, and Ermita del Peña, where Catholics come to lay flowers and light candles alone in a quiet place. As I sit with my legs hanging over the steep cliff below, I can hear the faint sound of waves, a rooster crowing, and the bell of a wandering lamb. The air has the smell of fresh rain and somewhere behind me I hear a frustrated horse galloping and neighing.  I look at the ocean, at a small sailboat in the water, and I crack open a can of beer.  I am completely alone.

The underwater volcano near El Hierro continues to burp out subterranean contents of the earth’s crust, and there have been recent rumors of a flash of magma above the water.  These are the kinds of things that delight naturalists and scientists, but sometimes they are the dread of people just trying to make a living.  Some day, there may be the beginnings of a new island in the Canary archipelago, something new to add the map of Spain.  But for inhabitants of a volcanic island at the mercy of random processes in nature, opinions and politics are irrelevant, and there is nothing left to do but adapt and attempt to live well.

At the end of my small road trip around the island of El Hierro, I sit at a cafe and sample a locally famous specialty, miniature Canarian “wrinkly” potatoes boiled in seawater, with green and red Salsa Mojo. The waitress pours me a second glass of wine and says, “Well, next time, I hope you will be able to try the fish”.


About the Writer:

Shawn Moksvold is a freelance writer with particular interests in travel, food and wine, and Spanish culture.  He    graduated with a BA in Creative Writing and Linguistics at Northern Arizona University, and currently teaches English to elementary school children. He writes for his blog, A Casual Notebook, and currently lives in Madrid, Spain.


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