THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
The island of La Gomera, 373 km2 has been shaped by strong forces of erosion. From the large central plateau, a network of barrancos (deep ravines) radiate outwards to the coast. Sheer and abrupt, these ravines are often only accessible at their mouth where they meet the sea. In the wild ravines of the north, the geologically oldest zone, the land levels out only at the coast. In contrast, the ravines of the geologically younger south have open, canyon-shaped sections between which form wide, raised plateaux.
La Gomera’s climate is determined by the trade winds that arrive from the northwest carrying humidity, and by the abrupt mountainous terrain. The combination of these factors is responsible for the climatic differences between the north and south. The highest point, el Alto de Garajonay (1487 m), and the central plateau cause the humid winds of the northwest to develop into clouds. Rain falls heavily in this central area around the Monte del Cedro, in a phenomenon known as “horizontal rain”. This is produced when the water carried by the trade winds comes in contact with trees or rocks of a lower temperature, condenses and is deposited on their surfaces in the form of tiny drops of water, which then fall to the ground. This phenomenon occurs in the high part of the island where the laurel forest grows, and ensures the renewal of the island’s water reserves.
The climatic and mountainous conditions give rise to distinct bioclimatic zones as one passes from the coast to the summit of the island. From sea level to 300 – 400 m windward or 600 m leeward is coastal scrubland with its multi-coloured flora including interesting endemic species. Above this zone is the thermophilic forest consisting of a few tree species, notably beautiful groves of junipers (Juniperus phoenicea) and canary date palms (Phoenix canariensis), scrubland and many flowers, including endemic species. These days little remains of the thermophilic forest ecosystem in its original state. In the higher zones, with their high humidity caused by the trade winds, grows the leafy, evergreen laurel forest known as laurisilva.
THE CULTURAL ENVIRONMENT
The network of paths on the island illustrates how previous generations adapted to their surroundings and to the isolation in which they traditionally lived. Many paths possibly date from the pre-Hispanic era and up until recently were the only forms of communication between districts. Today’s roads did not exist until the 1940s.
La Gomera’s population was traditionally dispersed widely in small settlements. This isolation, caused by the difficulty of moving around the island, favoured a subsistence economy. The major settlements, where the majority of the island’s population is concentrated, developed in the big ravines. The country houses, dispersed around the island, are usually found near the mountainous centre where resources are more abundant.
Strategies of adaptation to and exploitation of the environment, such as the traditional use of rainwater, show how previous generations accumulated experience of living in their natural surroundings. This ancient way of interpreting the environment comes to life at specific times of the year. Known as cabañuelas (ancient knowledge), predictions about the weather in the following year are made based on interpretation of clouds and tides.