Vega de Rio Palmas is both a relatively lush and green valley and the name of a small village just 4km south of Betancuria. This picturesque area houses a small population, a rather special church and hosts the largest cultural and religious festival on the island.
The relative lushness of the area is thanks to its positioning, with much of the rain from the surrounding mountains draining down into this valley. The stream no longer runs year-round, though there is clearly enough water to sustain the relative abundance of Canary Palms and Canary Tamarisks. The stream makes a return after rains in the winter, but hasn’t been relied upon for a long time.
The relatively new reservoir, located around 1Km downstream from the village, was built between 1939 and 1943. Known as the Embalse de las Peñitas, soil erosion has caused the reservoir to silt up and, together with increased salinity, it is now unsuitable for agriculture. However, the canes and other plants that grow at the side of the reservoir are a haven for birds and thus a great spot for bird-watchers. The area is a breeding site for the endemic Fuerteventura Chat as well as a number of other species, so visitors should take care not to create too much disturbance.
Below the dam, between the slopes of the Barranco de Mal Paso, is the tiny Hermitage of la Virgen la Peña. At the altar hangs a painting, depicting the discovery of a centuries old, and once believed lost, statuette of the Virgin Mary called Nuestra Señora de la Peña – known locally as La Peñita.
The statuette has a tumultuous history and, as is often the case, is shrouded in myth and local legend. Believed to have been brought to the island by Jean de Betancourt, it has miracles attributed to it, such as inducing rain on the island after 4 years of drought. For centuries after Betancourt’s arrival, the island and its capital of Betancuria were sacked by pirates. One such raid, attributed to the Berber Pirate, Xabán Arráez, was in revenge for hundreds of his people being captured and brought to Fuerteventura as slaves. In an attempt to ensure that the precious effigy was not lost during a raid, monks from the monastery in Betancuria would hide the item in various locations. So well was it hidden on one occasion, that the effigy was lost for over a century.
Nuestra Señora de la Peña is the patron of the island and as such holds special significance to the islanders. The statue is now safely housed in the village of Vega de Rio Palmas at the church of Nuestra Señora de la Peña. It is hard to miss the limestone facade of this 18th Century church – unusual as most churches on the island are simply painted white. The precious statuette takes pride of place in the Island’s largest religious and cultural celebration held every year during the third weekend in September. Locals, dressed in traditional Canarian costume, make the pilgrimage, known as the Romería a la Virgen de la Peña, from all over the island to take part in this weekend-long festival.
Those wishing to attend the festival should respect traditional Canarian costume.