The borough lies on the green slopes of a valley fraught with palm trees and dragos, the population of which concentrates in the so-called medianías -midlands some 400 metres above sea level. Villages such as San Pedro, Botazo, Breña, Buenavista, La Cuesta, Las Ledas, El Llanito and Miranda are scattered throughout its nearly 31 square kilometers. It borders on Santa Cruz de La Palma to the North – where it extends to Barranco de Juan Mayor -; on Breña Baja to the South; and on El Paso to the West, over the ridge of Cumbre Vieja.
This land, natural meadow in pre-Hispanic times, was cultivated after the Conquista -the Conquest-, once it had been pareceled up by a number of rich Castilian families. The noble and bourgeois inhabitants of the Capital owned big properties wherein they had large ostentatious houses built to spend the summer surrounded by a contryside blessed by a mild climate; they cropped vines, cereals, fruits, tobacco…and elaborated much praised wines that were considered, together with tobacco, the best on the Island by far.
The narrow highroads which communicated the nearby Capital with the other side of the Island ran through Breña Alta’s humid hillocks and ravines, perfectly covered by the luxuriant laurislva woods (redoubt of the tertiary era) and powerful chestnut trees. The dampness that feeds this thick vegetation filters down the earth thus adding water to the -once numerous- aquifers which spring up from the stony beds of the ravines. Aguasencio or Fuente Grande is one which still enjoys a well-deserved fame.
An important part of the history of Breña Alta’s people is closely related to migration, specially to Cuba -with which strong affective and cultural links still exist-, in search of new prospects.
Today, the number of productive farming fields has significantly decreased compared to that existing in the past; yet, Breña Alta’s agriculture enjoys an important share in the market made up by tobacco, fruit and vegetables. The Borough also has an industrial estate whose rate of economic growth is relevantly dynamic.
THE LEGEND of the Dragos Gemelos (twin dragos)
The local lore has dedicated a beautiful legend to this twin trees fraught with mythology. It goes as follows: Two young brothers were utterly in love with a handsome aborigine maid whose charms were bewitching. Overwhelmed by the torments of jealousy, both encountered a tragic death. The courted maid honoured them both by planting these two dragos, small cuttings from other trees growing in Barranco de Las Angustias. She then watered them from her earthenware bowl and thus they grew -fed with the richness of the soil and the warm memories she kept. It is believed that the brothers’ blood flows within their still trunks and gives life to these imposing specimens.
TOBACCO scented tradition
In olden times the aborigines’ herds grazed in the communal pasturelands which used to be known under the name of Tedote; afterwards, agriculture became the main economic activity. Vines, cereals, vegetables, potatoes…have been cropped since then. Nonetheless, thinking of La Breña equates to speaking about mountains, tobacco, cigars and pureros (those who roll them). This, so to speak, novel crop reached La Palma around the 1850’s, and was brought by those immigrants who returned from Cuba at a time when it was widely spread in the New World. La Breña, due to its climate and fertile soil, produced high quality tobacco leaves, wherefore plantations increased in number.
Many a hectare quickly speckled the landscape. Men and women worked side by side, taking care of the leaves which were then tied in bundles that were hung from long cujes (long horizontal sticks) till they dried out. After being meticulously selected, they were heaped according to their size, their colour and their texture. The crafty purero then used his razor to shape the leaves that would blend into a cigar.
There still exist many pureros who roll cigars in Breña Alta; the promising future of this sector sustains this deeply rooted tradition through which one strongly feels the actual close relation between Cuba and La Palma.
WRESTLING, ancestral heritage
Wrestling – or, better put it, Lucha Canaria – is part of the traditions which, from our ancient forbears, have reached the whole population of the Canary Islands throughout the centuries.
Breña Alta has been the birthplace of many famous men who accepted the challenge and bravely wrestled until reaching glory.
Long ago males defied each other in improvised fights whenever there was a gathering or a celebration. Thus, it can be easily infered under what circumstances the aborigines wrestled and why the essence of this noble confrontation has remained till the present time, when wrestling has turned into an organized and very popular sport. Both skill and strength are necessary to floor the opponent. The one who does, wins.
Outstanding struggle techniques take place in the terreros -sand rings- during the floundering phase: levantadas (raising the opponent), garabatos (embracings), agachadas (bendings), revoleadas (twirlings), cangos (grabbing the back of the opponent’s knee) and many other arts are capable of congregating a crowd of followers around this autochthonous sport.
FESTIVITIES – crosses covered with branches and garlands made of fruits
In late springtime, when fruit ripens and peasants start to look forward to collecting the product of their labour, the young and the old prepare their festivities.
Among the many feasts that take place there is one which stands out in its own right, that is, fiesta de las cruces -or the crosses’ festivity. On the eve of May 3rd, needlework, laces, flowers, colourful pieces of paper and jewellery shape a meticulous design secretly carried out by women whose rivalry with others from nearby villages encourages them to embellish their crosses far beyond the adornments deployed the previous year. Meanwhile, males climb the mountain in search of faya and brezo -heather- branches whose perfume will pervade the air from the more than twenty crosses that are decorated in the Borough.
In the middle of May, San Isidro Labrador’s feast day, so very linked to the farming tradition -not in vain the Saint is the farmers’ patron- fills the people of Breña Alta with joy. Men and women, dressed in the typical costume, sing and dance. A popular livestock fair adds a country flavour to this lively event.
Finally, on San Pedro’s feast day -June 29th-, the visitor will be able to admire the traditional deeply rooted custom of building an arch made out of branches, from which fruit garlands, the symbol of abundance with which the land is honoured, hang.
Splendid highroads and tracks run throughout Breña Alta’s countryside; mountainbikers and trekkers will be delighted by their unspoilt beauty.
Firstly, we suggest the old and once busiest highroad that sets off from Botazo and runs, through laurislva woods, across the Reventón up to Cumbre Nueva, and then climbs down to ermita de El Pino, in El Paso. Palo Blanco, viñátigos, barbusanos, follaos, laurel trees…are species which enrich the luxuriant vegetation through which finely cobbled stretches, smoothed away by countless wayfarers, run. Secondly, the so-called Ruta de Las Fuentes -the springs route-, also setting off from Botazo, will take the trekker to a number of streams that spring up along it.
For those who enjoy mountainbiking we suggest the Pista Forestal Túnel de La Cumbre-Pared Vieja, which smoothly runs through one of the most splendid redoubts of laurisilva on the Island. This itinerary extends both towards Ruta de Los Volcanes and to Refugio de El Pilar.
Yet, those who are eager to fly freely will find their meeting point on Risco de La Concepción, wherefrom hang-gliders and parachuters launch forth.
PLACES OF INTEREST
Ermita y Mirador de La Concepción
This 355-metre-high hydrovolcano emerged from under the sea. Its half-moon crest, long ago known by the name of “Asomada de La Palma” -the glimpse of La Palma-, overlooks the Capital, Las Breñas and the Eastern coastline of the Island.
A modest hermitage was built not far from it in the XVIth century; despite its simplicity, the building houses a number of outstanding works by native artists. The Virgen de La Inmaculada Concepción dwells, bearing a symbolic white rose in Her immaculate hands, within its stone walls.
La Pared Vieja
Driving towards San Isidro, off the main road to Las Ledas – the farming tradition of which is well-known -, and going past it the traveller will be bound for the highest area of the Borough. The diversity of its vegetation overlaps according to the various climates found at different altitudes.
The recrational site known as Pared Vieja is immersed in the woodland, where one cannot see beyond the pine trees and other species which grow under the immense shade they lavish. The scent of roasted pork and papas arrugadas (boiled potatoes then dried in a pan) pervades the ever cool air of this enchanting spot -one among many of the natives’ meeting points on the Island- where sharing a good meal with friends, walking along the paths and highroads that cross it, or visiting Cueva del Diablo -the Devil’s Cave- are but a few of the attractive ingredients that render it such a special place.
Los Dragos Gemelos
The traveller will find the proud silhouette of these twin dragos raising up to the sky on the way to San Isidro. They are not ordinary trees, for the legend of two brothers who died for the love of a bewitching maid was woven around them. Both entwine their branches as though they were tightly embracing -symbolic expression of a common fate.
In this cozy spot, under the shade of these trees, one will be able to admire the majestic presence of this sacred species, worshipped by the old people of Awara as their benefactor.
Barranco de Juan Mayor and Monasterio del Císter
The deep rift called Juan Mayor marks the boundary of Breña alta, near the village of Buenavista. Picturesque dwellings stand amidst its numerous nooks by the side of highroads that not so long ago communicated its inhabitants. This protected Space encloses a fine flora; pine trees, mocanes, acebuches and palm trees live together where the ever blowing trade winds abate.
On the crest of the rift, the traveller will find the Císter Monastery. Within its walls, the enclosed nuns devote their lives to prayer and receive sweet-toothed visitors who pay the monastery a visit attracted by the fame of their confectionary. A narrow high-walled path leads to this peaceful spot where travellers will be able to lodge.
El mirador de La Cumbre
Leaving behind the forementioned villages and their fertile fields we will go deeper, on the way to Cumbre Nueva, into the laurisilva and monteverde forests. This area receives the dampness brought by the trade winds that blow from the Northeast and thus create a landscape covered by a luxuriant vegetation almost always blurred by the presence of mist. From this vantage point the visitor’s eyes will meet a handsome scene: countless dwellings are scattered at the foot of the rough parallel hillocks and rifts that steeply hurl themselves from the mountain
Iglesia de San Pedro
In San Pedro, administrative centre of the Borough, life goes around its public squares. The numerous changes and improvements carried out on the old XVIth-century hermitage thorughout subsequent ages have given shape to the current church, which marks the village settlement. Its balustraded tower proudly straightens up amidst the people of San Pedro striking the hours and inviting passers-by to wander in. The three naves that make it up house various kinds of artistic works -fruitage of the local patronage. The high baroque reredos keeps Saint Peter’s Cathedra, whose image represents the Pope guarding the keys to Heaven, in its central niche. The green glazed clay font is another precious relic; it is said that it was the first to arrive at the Island, due to which many an aborigine was converted to catholicism and christened with the blessed water it always held.
Playa de Bajamar y Muelle Deportivo
Although Breña Alta’s coastline does not stretch very long it has always been intesely populated for, judging by the many archeological remains found, even the aborigines chose this rocky site as their settlement. Playa de Bajamar -or Bajamar beach- starts at the foot of the vertical cliff known under the name of Risco de La Concepción, which borders on Santa Cruz de La Palma. It was not until 1917 -when the first tunnel was dug out- that travellers could border, along the shoreline, this geografical milestone on foot, when ebb tides permited it. But the excavation of the forementioned tunnel meant an important improvement in the communication to and from the Capital’s harbour. The old stony coast was then buried under the sand that renders it a fine large beach today, which is bordered, on its near end, by the cozy fishing port that shelters passing yachts. A long promenade adorned by a green belt runs along both the beach and the port.
Palmerales breñuscos and ermita de San Miguel
Centuries ago palm trees covered big areas on all the Canary Islands, But these diminished after the Conquista, for woods were turned into farming fields. It should no be infered that the people of La Palma did not utilize palm trees -fruits, leaves and trunks had several uses-, nor that they did not appreciate their beauty -old and new houses always seem to be scorted by at least one specimen.
La Breña’s landscape is speckled with magnificent palmwoods in Buenavista, Miranda or El Porvenir, where they seem to be hiding in the mild rifts of their slopes.
Slender specimens cluster in Barranco de El Llanito, picturesque spot where San Miguel’s sober hermitage stands among a number of dwellings. The building dates from the XVIIIth century -and was funded by a noble family whose main occupation was that of growing malvasía vines. The hermitage shelters, in its baroque reredos, the image of the archangel San Miguel.
The remains of an old mill situated at a crossroads will show the traveller the way to the Centro de Promoción y Venta de Artesanía Local – Local Handicraft Promotion and Selling Centre -, wherein handicapped people are trained and learn a craft. The building houses old trades that are the fruitage of constancy, hard work and popular knowledge. Here, the visitor will hear the rattle of the looms on weaving woollen blankets and saddlebags.
He or she will also feel the attachment of the people of Breña Alta to their customs: delicate embroidery, macramé and crochet works are carried out by women with artistic souls; strong and skillful hands plait follao and chestnut thin strips, palm leaves and so on to reproduce the typical baskets of burden formerly essential in daily tasks. Pottery and woodworks can also be found within this sample of Breña Alta’s handicraft. The traditional drying of fruits has recently turned into a mechanical process which exposes the fruit to steady heat, thus improving the quality of the traditional product, long ago a necessary means of survival.
Last but not least, La Destilera, whose air smells of different blends and fresh cigars, keeps the fair homage paid to the world of tobacco, hallmark of the Borough, within its walls. Several panels depict its history throughout the centuries: its cropping, shed-drying and every single step the craftsman still follows to elaborate these famous hand-made cigars.
Copyright. Asociación para el Desarrollo Rural de la Isla de La Palma (ADER-La Palma).