Guide to Santa Cruz de la Palma
Santa Cruz de La Palma (Holy Cross of the Palm) is the capital city of the Isla de La Palma and lies approximately mid-point on the east coast of the island, 10km from the airport. It is bordered by the municipality of Puntallana to the north, Breña Alta to the south, El Paso to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. It is the second largest city on La Palma, Los Llanos in the west being the largest. When talking about the capital, it is generally referred to by its full name of Santa Cruz de La Palma to distinguish it from Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the capital of Tenerife.
Santa Cruz de La Palma has always been an attractive island not least due to its rich natural resources, relatively sheltered harbour and significant position as the most north westerly Canarian Island. That meant just one thing – Pirates!
However, it was the conquest by the Spanish ending on 3rd May 1493 that finally brought La Palma under the Castile of Spain almost a century after some of the other Canarian islands. Hence the 3rd of May celebrations and street names ‘El Tres de Mayo.’
This was not to say that calm reigned from then onwards as French Jambe de Bois (Peg-Leg) set his sights on the island and sacked Santa Cruz de La Palma in 1553. Most of the older buildings that can now be seen in Santa Cruz date from the subsequent rebuilding of the city.
In 1585, Francis Drake (also considered to be a pirate by the Spanish) launched an attack with an armada of 24 ships, resulting in the destruction of the harbour fort.
The city was later reconstructed and fortified against future pirate attacks. Famous fortifications in Santa Cruz include the Castillo de Santa Catalina at the north end of the promenade (Avenida Marítima) and the Castillo de la Virgen at the end of the north side of the city in an elevated position.
Finding your way around Santa Cruz
To find your way around Santa Cruz is, in some respects, easy because it is built on a slope and therefore if you head downhill, you will eventually reach the sea and the Avenida Marítima which runs along the sea front.
There is just one main road which runs at 90 degrees upward from the sea, Avenida El Puente, and this is located half way along Avenida Marítima. In fact, Avenida El Puente (Bridge Street) used to be a water gully with a series of little bridges crossing it, effectively linking one side of the city to the other. Some decades ago, this was filled in to form a road – and then in 2010/11, it was partly excavated to make an underground car park.
At the south end of town (harbour end) and running parallel two streets back from Avenida Marítima is Calle O’Daly. At the opposite end of town and one road back from the Avenida Marítima is Calle Peréz Brito, the two meeting at La Puente. Calle O’Daly and Calle Peréz Brito are the two main shopping streets.
Most other roads then go uphill at 90 degrees from the sea. Don’t think that you can always cross from one uphill road to another – often you will have to come down again to cross lower down and then back up again. But it is very much worth exploring this tangle of fascinating back streets so don’t be put off!
Things to see and do in Santa Cruz
- Historic mansions which line the main shopping streets
- The Plaza de España and church of El Salvador
- Ayuntamiento (Town Hall)
- Museo Insular
- Naval Museum and Plaza de Alameda
- Flower festooned balconies of Santa Cruz
- Castillo de Santa Catalina
- Santuario/Church de la Virgen de las Nieves 2km out of town
- Historic mansions line Calle O'Daly and Peréz Brito with the most historically important mansions having an information plaque outside. You can start to look at them anywhere you like and make this a circular walk. Most of the buildings with plaques are located in Calle O’Daly this being the most historically affluent end of Santa Cruz.
- Plaza España in Calle O’Daly (close to Avenida el Puente) is considered the most important example of Renaissance architecture in the Canary Islands. The huge white church which sits at the side of the plaza is the 16th century Iglesia de El Salvador and is considered to be the most opulent of all the islands. The intricately carved choir stalls are a classic example of the Mudejar style combining both Moorish and Christian influences.
- The Ayuntamiento, Town Hall, is a 16th Century renaissance building and is located opposite the Plaza de España in Calle O’Daly (it’s the one with the archways.) It’s worth taking a sneaky peak inside the doorway to admire the intricately carved ceilings, tapestry and stairs, all of which can be seen by taking a few steps inside.
- Museo Insular – this is one vast museum housed in what once was a convent. The convent, started in 1508, was built by Franciscan monks who had accompanied Lugo the Spanish Conquistador when he conquered La Palma. It was to be the headquarters of the Order of Franciscan monks. Nowadays, no matter what your interest, you will find it here in abundance - art, natural history (it’s big on taxidermy), musical instruments through the years, crafts, basic hand tools, model ships, bones, (plenty of bones) all in a beautiful yet simple building. Opening hours Monday to Saturday 10.00 to 20.00 hrs. Sundays 10.00 to 14.00 hrs
- The Naval Museum is what we refer to as ‘the boat’ as it is housed in a life-size replica of the Santa Maria, the flagship of Christopher Columbus. Located by the Plaza Alameda at the opposite end of town to the harbour, it is a great landmark and quite an unexpected sight to see in a rather land-locked plaza. Despite it being a life-size replica, it is really quite diminutive and therefore you won’t find a huge amount of exhibits. However, you can climb up on deck and that adds a fun dimension to it. By the way, the hull is made of concrete – honestly! Opening hours Monday to Friday 10.00 to 14.00 hrs.
- The many flower-filled balconies are an iconic feature of Santa Cruz. The most photographed row of balconies is in Avenida Marítima between the boat and Avenida La Puente. In fact, La Palma is lucky to have any balconies at all because apparently King Felipe II ordered that they be torn down, he so disliked them, but his orders sent by boat never arrived and so the balconies remained.
- The Castillo de Santa Catalina is a small ‘castle’ built in the 16/17th century to replace the original one built in 1553 which was to fend off pirates. It is very small and simple in terms of castles with little access to it apart from the front and back, but still quite interesting. It’s not particularly obvious from the town side unless you happen to find yourself in the right street, but you can easily see it from the front on the Avenida Marítima (boat end) and there is a narrow passageway to the rear.
- The Marina, inaugurated in July 2010 is rather a swish place to be and a pleasant rest from any traffic noise. The entrance is just off the main roundabout by the Post Office – it looks extremely dull and uninviting from the outside and whilst some of the shops/restaurants haven’t been able to maintain a presence there, it’s still a nice place to be for its tranquillity alone - and especially if you like boats.
- The Santuario de la Virgen de las Nieves is a 17th church with adjacent sanctuary for pilgrims, is located 4km inland from Santa Cruz (or 2km on foot). This is where the statue of the Virgin Mary resides which is brought down to Santa Cruz in a procession every five years. The fiesta for this is called La Bajada, the Coming Down. Apart from the historical and religious interest, it’s a beautiful and peaceful place with great views over the city. There is also a café. To walk there, head uphill from the boat – it takes around 45 minutes - or to drive follow the signs on Avenida Marítima at the boat end of town and it takes around 15 minutes due to its many curves.
Fiestas in Santa Cruz
When we are talking about fiestas in Santa Cruz, we are normally talking BIG. Fiestas are part of the culture of island life and people like nothing more than to dress up, dress down or just dress crazy! Live music is also an essential ingredient and a little bit of island rum helps it along - although drink related problems are absolutely minimal. It’s a time for everybody to enjoy whether it be octogenarians or toddlers.
January 5 This is the fiesta of Día del Reyes, the Day of Kings, which is when the three Wise Men arrive (often on camels) to give presents to the children. There is a colourful and elaborate procession through the streets as the Kings throw sweets to the children (and adults).
February – a busy month in the fiesta calendar with a host of celebrations which culminate in the Fiesta of Los Indianos when everybody dresses in white and throws talcum powder. The fiesta represents when Palmerans left the island to go to Cuba and Venezuela to seek their fortune or simply work in the tobacco industry. Compared to La Palma, they earned a fortune and were able to send money home or return with riches beyond their dreams. Hence why everybody dresses in white to symbolize wealth – throwing talc is relatively new and adds that extra whiteness.
It might sound fairly awful but it is in fact a lot of fun, especially the earlier part of the day when families with small children are still there to enjoy it. Between 11.00hrs and 14.00hrs is a good time to go if you want to see what it’s all about. As the day and night wear on, things get a bit more enthusiastic.
For transport, by bus is usually the best plan.
May 3 – is the Day of the Crosses which celebrates the founding of Santa Cruz in 1493 when the Spanish Conquistadores captured the island. The many crosses are decorated with silk, flowers and jewels. However the main celebration is at nearby Breña Alta (Mazo) where hundreds of people walk through the night from one cross to another.
June – The Corpus Cristo when in nearby Mazo, the streets are paved in flower petals of intricate designs.
June to August – La Bajada de la Virgin de las Nieves held every five years (2010, 2015, etc.). The celebration dates back to 1676 and as you might gather, it’s major. The first main part is when the statue of the Virgin Mary is brought down from the Church of Las Nieves (the first church on the island) to Santa Cruz where she will reside until the end of the fiesta. The second and even greater part is the Dancing of the Dwarfs, La Danza de las Enanos, a tradition dating form 1833. Thousands flock to the city from the all over the Canaries, Spain and beyond. If you are not here for the fiesta, you can’t help but miss the many dwarf ornaments for sale in the gift shops.
July 16 – the Fiesta of El Carmen where the Madonna is transported by boat along the shores of Santa Cruz while other boats follow.
November – Fiesta of San Martin which celebrates autumn with chestnuts and wine. Bars and restaurants put on a special evening with wine tasting, chestnuts and tapas.
Restaurants/Cafes/Bars in and around Santa Cruz
Most of the time, people eat and drink outside although there is always seating inside. But eating al fresco when in Santa Cruz is a lovely experience for visitors and residents alike. Bars and cafés are one and the same and there is no such thing as a ‘tea room’ that just serves non-alcoholic drinks and snacks.
You will find the bar/cafés everywhere so just stroll along and pick the one you like the look of. If you want to be away from the traffic, then just go one road back from the sea which is a pedestrian precinct or one more road back which is mainly traffic free.
One of the more popular spots is La Placeta which is housed in an 18th century house. It has a beautiful flower filled balcony to the front and a cobbled plaza at the back which is shares with two other bar/cafes. I’m not saying the food is necessarily better than other places, but it’s a lovely place to be!
For restaurants, there are not too many ‘special’ places where you would dine haute cuisine. However, these are ones to try but are also great for a light lunch if not dinner:
Casa del Mar near the harbour on the road going out to the airport has a very good reputation for fish.
El Casino was what it says on the tin. This is perhaps the ‘finest dining’ but with a reasonably priced set meal at lunch time and night.
La Placeta in Placeta Borrero along Calle Peréz Brito
For dining out of town:
El Pulpo (The Octopus) restaurant at Los Cancajos (closed Mondays) – it’s right on the beach at the far end and so is a daytime venue.
La Goya by the airport (closed Mondays). We are definitely not talking here about airport food – this is a place with a difference. The speciality is seafood, in fact, forget anything else. With individual wooden huts for each table, there is no menu and you will be offered 2 or 3 different types of fish. The fish is sold by the kilo and costs maybe 18/20€ per kilo so just order one fish, at least to start with. Best also order papas arrrugados, the Canarian potato, salad and mojo sauce, the Canarian sauce. Afterwards take a stroll through the shanty town which adjoins the restaurant and maybe even have a swim in the bay.
The main beach runs the length of the city. It is fairly new and replaced what was a car park which in turn replaced the sea. What is now the dual carriageway which forms Avenida Marítima is where the sea originally reached.
There is also a very good beach at the south end of the city, 1km further on from the port. It has a shallow-ish shelving entry from the sandy beach and is protected by a breakwater so you can almost always swim there. Changing facilities and showers are available and there is also a bar/café.
The beaches of Los Cancajos which is the small resort between the airport and Santa Cruz are excellent. You can either walk there which will take around 30 minutes or take a bus or taxi. Buses are every 30 minutes.
One of the great delights of shopping in Santa Cruz is the small, individual shops. With almost no chain stores, each shop is unique both in its structure and stock. Beware of closing times though which can be extensive! With a fairly leisurely start at 9 or 10 am, it isn’t too long to wait until closing time which happens somewhere between 1 and 2pm. Shops start to open again from 4 or 5pm onwards and close around 8 pm. Added to which most shops close on Saturday at 1 or 2pm and do not re-open until Monday morning therefore you can expect the capital city of La Palma to be a very quiet place on a Saturday afternoon. Oh yes, and then there are fiestas when they don’t open at all!
In the city, there are several Spar supermarkets dotted about (one near the main post office, one in Avenida Puente on the right as you go uphill and another in Calle Pérez Brito on the left heading towards the boat (Maritime Museum) which sell a good range of groceries and fresh products.
If you are looking for a bigger supermarket, the sort that you get lost in, there are two near the top of Avenida El Puente – Hiper Dino and Trebol. Hiper Dino is better for fresh fruit and veg whilst Trebol is king when it comes to UK-type products.
There is a daily market at the junction of Calle O’Daly and Avenida El Puente. They sell fresh fruit and veg, fresh fish, herbs, flowers and La Palma products such as goats’ cheese. It’s not big by any means but still worth popping in to.
There three chemists (farmacias) in Calle O’Daly – one on the left near the harbour roundabout and two on the right further up toward El Puente. There is also one just by Plaza Alameda which is the north end of the town near the boat/naval museum.
The health centre is located at the opposite end of Santa Cruz to the port/harbour in Calle Pérez Galdós, 5. Google Maps
The hospital is10km from Santa Cruz just off the main LP3 road towards Los Llanos.
Banks and ATM’s
There are plenty of banks and ATM’s nearly all located along the main streets of Calle O’Daly and Pérez Brito.
The main post office (Correo) is located at the harbour end of town, just by the roundabout and is housed in a large, old building. You can post your cards from outside any time of day or night but for stamps, you need to go upstairs (two sets of steps which lead to the same place). You need to collect a numbered ticket as you go in.
Open 08.30hrs to 20.30hrs, except on Saturdays when it closes at 13.00hrs.
There are several internet cafes these days so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one. The hotels also have internet facilities.
There are bus stops along the Avenida Marítima but the main bus stop/terminus is by the main roundabout/harbour. The terminus is not a building, just a line of bus stops.
Public Conveniences (toilets)
As is the custom in Spain, public toilets are in short supply and not really the norm. Most people go to a bar/café and use the facilities there although it is more polite to buy at least a coffee while there, the cheapest coffee being only 60/70 cents.
However there are 4 public toilets in Santa Cruz:
- down the steps opposite the boat (life-size replica of the Santa Maria and which is now the Maritime Museum and at the opposite end of Santa Cruz to the harbour, sorry not very recommended)
- one or two on the beach – blue and white beach huts with toilets and changing
- at the marina where the yachts, etc are – at the end of the restaurants
- and also, at the harbour terminal building. And that’s your lot!
If in a bar or restaurant, you may often find that the door to the ladies’ toilet is kept locked – this is apparently to stop the men using it. In which case, just ask the person behind the bar or waiter for the key (llave pronounced yavaey). If you want to know where the toilets are, they are called ‘el baño, the bathroom and pronounced banyo).
Often, there is no soap, just so you know 😊
Walks to and from Santa Cruz
Apart from the GR130 Camino Real towards the south (Mazo and Fuencaliente) and to the north (Puntallana and San Andres), there are at least two other excellent circular walks with Santa Cruz as the start or end point.
- From Santa Cruz to Ermita Virgin de las Nieves – a 2 hour circular walk which starts and ends by the Maritime Museum (boat).
- From El Pilar to Santa Cruz – a 5 hour linear walk starting at Refugio El Pilar at 1450m above sea level (you need to take a taxi, cost approx. 18€) and walking down through the pine forest, San Pedro and then outskirts of Santa Cruz right to sea level.
- Walk to Los Cancajos beach – not particularly scenic but a good stretch of the legs and relatively flat.