Where hippie ambience and vacationers’ expectations collide

La Gomera offers a uniquely different ‘vibe’ from other Canary islands in one important respect. Apart from its unique cloud forests, unspoiled beaches, walking paths and absence of glitzy resorts, a distinctive laid back feeling abides, writes Damien Enright

Where hippie ambience and vacationers’ expectations collide

Pressed shorts or crisp new holiday gear may look seriously out-of-place in Valle Gran Rey. A battered straw hat, faded levis, a washed-out T-shirt and well worn sandals is better suited.

Thus accoutered, one may even meld with the long-term foreigners with their battered cars, and join the local culture where ‘making a million’ comes second place to living a hassle-free life, and sartorial elegance is strictly for ‘occasions’.

The first foreigners to show up in latter day Gomera were dubbed ‘beatniks’, but were actually ‘peaceniks’, American draft-dodgers fleeing the governmental diktat that they were obliged to go killing people in a far away country called Vietnam.

By 1970, a colony of 20 of so had somehow drifted in and set up camp at the Playa Ingles, a beach still as wild and unspoiled today as it was then.

The locals had no objection. As a friend of mine Barbara Belt wrote in Living Tenerife magazine “Cities like Paris, London and Stockholm offered them shelter. So, surprisingly, did an isolated valley in La Gomera.

In the late sixties, Valle Gran Rey was about as far away from modern Europe as you could get.

There was no blacktop road. In bad weather, even walking in the valley was tricky. The only ferry left from the other side of the island and then took all day to reach Tenerife. No-one had mains electricity.

Telephones were a rarity (as were the state police, the Guardia Civil). It was the perfect spot to hole up and wait for the world to change.”

This group expanded. Girlfriends arrived. Barbara continues the history “The parties were famous; the foreign girls spectacularly uncovered and uninhibited and the boys “hairy like Robinson Crusoe”.

The beach became a magnet for the young people from the village. Interestingly, there was no parental paranoia, no warnings to keep away. These – the first foreigners to come and stay – were seen as ‘buena gente’ (good people ).

They were gentle, friendly and well-mannered, and were welcomed. Valle Gran Rey, to its credit, was an open-minded community, blissfully free of sensationalist (or indeed any!) press or TV.

Locals contributed to their welfare, bringing fish for baking in their rock oven, potatoes for the pot, avocadoes and papayas. They shopped for non-local essentials at the tiny local shop.”

The idyll drew to an end at about the same time as the war they’d wanted no part in. By 1975, only a few of the original group were still here.

These drifted home one by one, leaving their valley to be discovered by other young travellers who’d heard of ‘the Gomera scene.’

The Gomeros remember los americanos with great affection. Strange to think that they were treated with more tolerance here, in a distant outpost of Franco’s dictatorship, than in their own country.”

The Enrights first arrived in Gomera in 1981 via Santa Cruz de Tenerife where I was promised a private teaching portfolio from a girl who was then crossed in love, and didn’t leave.

My brother, who’d opened one of the first businesses in Tenerife’s Playa las Americas, (then divided from Los Cristianos by a desert) mentioned a small colony of foreigners on Gomera. A veteran of Ibiza life in the early 1960s, it sounded good to me.

We took the once-daily boat. Long-stay Valle Gran Rey foreigners numbered about 20. Nine months later, we bought a roofless ruin up-valley and began renovations. Barbara came the following year, and did the same.

Gomera’s association with alternative lifestyles is still here, and attracts holidaymakers wanting to avoid the brash commercialism and big resorts.

The ‘alternatives’, now dubbed ‘hippies’, lead separate lives, but their sunset drumming and fire shows draw ‘straight’ visitors in their dozens to join the exotic milieu. At the Sunday craft market, they display their wares.

Many are skilled jewellers, potters and artists.

The local authorities, however, face a dilemma. Recently, they licensed a remote beach for an international Rainbow Gathering of people who annually congregate somewhere on earth to celebrate a month of peace, harmony, freedom and respect.

However, after it ended, stragglers wandered to Valle Gran Rey, bathed and washed their clothes at the beach showers, and strolled the town naked, waiting for them to dry.

Not a good image, the authorities decided, and turned off the water. The eye-catching unclothed soon drifted away, and showers are, again, today, restored. But how to reconcile hippy ambience and vacationers’ expectations?

There’s the rub...

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