La Palma is like a Lost World. This off-radar Canary Island is a mind-blowing mix of volcanic peaks, wrinkled ravines, black sand beaches and laurel forests popping with wildflowers and waterfalls.
It’s like an open book for science,” says my guide, Rafael Martínez.
But lush can lash out, too. Last September, the Cumbre Vieja volcano split the earth.
It spewed for months, destroyed thousands of homes, spoiled banana plantations and left a scar of crusty rock sweeping down to the sea, cutting communities off from each other.
On one side of La Laguna, things appear normal. White buildings glisten; palm trees sway in the wind.
The other side of town is a disaster zone. The line where lava came to rest sees homes and businesses half-swallowed, a bank gouged out, a bar burnt.
On the raven-black rock, diggers grind and recovery workers lay trails. There is still a whiff of sulphur in the air. Above it all, the fresh crater gapes on the ridge, like an open wound or an evil eye.
I can’t look away. It’s a terrible scene, but a wickedly compelling one.
I’ve had this feeling before, visiting the wreckage of the World Trade Centre weeks after 9/11, or scenes of volcanic devastation on Montserrat. I’ve felt drawn to these aftermaths, to reporting and writing about them. But I wonder what my presence means to locals grieving what’s lost and trying to repair their lives.
On La Palma, a path has been created to give “the opportunity to all visitors who want to see the volcano in a respectful way,” Raquel Hernandez of Tourism La Palma tells me.
But I also see some families living in camper vans, meet an old man forced to move to Tenerife, and see modular homes arriving at the port.
It’s “impossible to know” when everyone will be rehoused, she says.
‘Disaster tourism’ is a newish term, but it must be as old as disasters themselves. Pompeii has been visited for centuries. Think of our fascination with Titanic, of spooky visits to Chernobyl before Russia invaded Ukraine, or the way we rubberneck at roadside accidents.
Is it wrong to gawp, or a natural human instinct, a chance to learn or help?
Something deep draws us to disaster. We shouldn’t be ashamed of that. But we also have to put safety first, avoid stupid selfies, joking around and mindless selfishness (I once met a person who took a piece of brick from Auschwitz).
“This is a very sensitive area,” Rafael muses. On most of his island, life is good. Tourists are sunbathing, hiking, stargazing. And Raquel is hopeful that any new volcano tourism can help rebuilding and recovery efforts.
“Let’s not forget that La Palma was already a volcanic destination before this eruption,” she says, pointing to the Caños de Fuego interpretive centre, set in volcanic tubes formed after the San Juan Volcano eruption of 1949.
“Our target group is tourists who like nature and landscape, who respect the environment,” she adds.
“We are confident that this volcano will not change that model of tourism, but will develop it further.”
Pól’s visit to La Palma was hosted by Visit La Palma (visitlapalma.es) and the Spanish Tourist Office in Dublin (spain.info).