The second island of my visit, La Gomera, is situated just west of Tenerife. At roughly 20km in diameter it covers only a fraction of that island's area, yet rising abruptly to an elevation of 1,484m it still contains a striking amount of ecological diversity. Cloaking the center of the island is the world's largest and most pristine remaining tract of laurisilva forest, mostly contained within Garajonay National Park. With its abundant ferns and mosses and relatively low stature, its atmosphere somewhat resembles that of a Costa Rican cloud forest minus the palms, tree ferns and strangler figs. The coastline is a great deal drier, particularly in the rain shadow along the southern coast, where it approaches desert. Many of these areas have been colonized by cacti and agaves, but in more remote spots, native succulents are abundant. (Disappointingly though, the columnar Euphorbia canariensis so common on Tenerife seems to be relatively rare.)
The transition from wet to dry is more dramatic in the south for several additional reasons. First, the slope from the center of the island down to the coast is more gradual than in the north, where the central plateau drops off precipitously. With the more dramatic topography, it's less clear whether the tailing off of the forest is the result of decreasing precipitation or weaker footholds. Second, while the entire island is cut by deep valleys running from the interior to the coast, the wetter valleys in the north and west are heavily cultivated, largely obscuring the ecological transitions that would normally occur along their lengths. I was able to experience one of these northern transitions during a hike from the village of Hermigua, at the mouth of one of these valleys, inland to the head of the valley at the lower reaches of the National Park. The hour-long walk began among overgrown gardens and fields, and then wound up slopes covered by a mixture of invasive shrubs and native and exotic succulents. That vegetation soon gave way to a tangle of dense native shrubs, scattered with Canary Island date palms, that gradually grew into more substantial cloud forest. Despite the clear transition from scrubby slopes to forest, the non-native plants at the lower elevations ( combined with unusually wet weather) made the entire hike relatively green, and less dramatic than I would have liked. The transition on the south side of the island, which I'll deal with in a later post, had its own disappointments, but turned out to be much more memorable.
Given the deep valleys arrayed radially across the island, there is no coastal ring road as on Tenerife. Instead, a series of roads more-or-less parallel the valleys, running from isolated coastal villages and joining in the forest at the top of the island. One one hand, this makes for an exciting diversity of landscapes along almost every route, and the valleys themselves provide scenery rivaling the Hawaiian Islands. (In a number of them are groves of Phoenix canariensis approaching forest-like densities, among terraced fields or in semi-natural areas. These valleys contain the largest populations of the species in the archipelago.) But, on the other hand, the complex topography and the limited travel routes make the island seem much bigger than it is, and its ecological diversity less "compressed" than it would be on a perfectly rounded or cone-shaped island. One day, an idealized island like this will make it into a painting.