Known as the island of the zero meridian, El Hierro (268.7 km2) is the most westerly and southerly of all the Canary Islands, as well as the smallest (except for La Graciosa). It rises to a maximum altitude of 1,501 m (Pico de Malpaso), followed by Pico de Tenerife at 1,417 m and El Tábano at 1,387 m. The island is shaped like a triangle whose three angles end in Punta de Amacas to the east, Punta de la Restinga to the south, and Punta del Barbudo and Orchilla lighthouse to the west. The coastline is extremely rugged in parts, with cliffs towering to over 200 m in the west (Bahía de los Reyes-El Verodal), southeast (Punta de Miguel-Roques de la Piedra Bermeja) and northeast (Punta de Arelmo). However, evidence of recent volcanism is found in the broad lava platforms, known as malpaíses or badlands, extending into the sea at Borque de Barbudo and El Verodal in the west, El Golfo in the north and El Tamaduste and Echedo in the northeast. El Hierro is geologically young and the forces of construction have prevailed over those of destruction, giving rise to a notable absence of important ravines. Exceptions are Barranco de Santiago ravine, several others around Temijiraque and the Las Playas archway, all situated in the northeast and east sectors. Erosion gullies and channels, gradually being carved out of recent volcanic materials, are more common. Volcanic cones are numerous and are often aligned or follow structural lines, as occurs in the northeast between San Andrés and Echedo, or in the south between El Pilar and La Restinga. The island’s largest escarpments are found at Tibataje ridge and areas near the semicircular arc of El Golfo, where cliffs tower up to 1,000 m, the result of massive gravitational landslides. In October 2011, a submarine eruption 2 km off the coast of La Restinga produced a submarine volcano that rose to just 80 m below sea level.
The climate of El Hierro is Mediterranean-like, which is true of all the Canary Islands, but its oceanic location further into the Atlantic lends it some particular characteristics, such as the frequent mists that form at mid to high altitude (e.g., in Valverde and San Andrés). Average annual rainfall is below 250 mm around the coast and some low-lying inland areas, but considerably heavier (750 to 1,000 mm) in north-facing mountainous regions. Average temperatures range from 15° C in February and March to 26° C in August and September, with a considerable difference between the warm, dry south-facing slope, especially in spring and summer, and the north-facing slope beset by the cool wet trade winds blowing in from the northeast. At certain times of year, mainly in autumn and winter, El Hierro is buffeted by storms that roll in from the west and deposit heavy rainfall.
El Hierro has a population of 11,000 (2012 census), which is spread over three municipalities: Valverde, La Frontera and El Pinar. Valverde, the capital, is home to 5,075 residents, followed by La Frontera, with 4,104, and El Pinar, the newest town, with just 1,854 inhabitants. Particularly striking is the total absence of population in large areas of the south and west between La Restinga and Sabinosa.
The island economy is based on traditional activities, such as agriculture, livestock farming and fishing, although tourism and the services sector has gradually gained in importance in recent decades. Hotel accommodation is mostly available in Valverde, La Frontera and La Restinga, but the latter is the main tourist centre for divers and recreational tourists, a sector that is being promoted nationally and internationally. Agriculture features heavily in El Golfo valley (where bananas, pineapples, vines and fruit trees are grown), in the northeast (Valverde, Echedo, Guarazoca and Mocanal), where mid-altitude areas blend polyculture with vine-growing, and in El Pinar, where fruit trees thrive. A lack of water is one of the main problems for agriculture in El Hierro. There are very few springs and the aquifer is practically at sea level, although wells and tunnels have been sunk in several sectors with varying degrees of success. Pineapple, not grown on the other Canary Islands, is much sought-after and of excellent quality. Visitors are often struck by the abundance of fig trees that grow practically everywhere. Indeed, dried and fresh figs are a local delicacy, as are prickly pears. El Hierro is also known for delicacies such as the quesadilla, a traditional pastry, as well as goat and mixed-milk cheeses, a sector which is thriving thanks to the central dairy. El Hierro is one of the islands with the highest numbers of livestock. Herds of grazing cows (around 550 heads) are a common sight on the Meseta de Nisdafe plateau, especially in winter and spring. But goats are by far the most numerous (9,054 in 2009), followed by sheep (5,615) and pigs (850). Pastureland is excellent on the island, particularly in La Dehesa and Nisdafe, except in years of drought. Fishing is mostly centred on La Restinga and tuna is an important resource at certain times of the year. Activities at other island ports, such as El Tamaduste and La Estaca, include fishing and the arrival and departure of passenger ferries.