We arrived on the Canary Island of La Palma this morning. It’s now 10.15pm, I’ve been up since 5am and have been on the go all day. Carmelo’s deep, slow voice is lulling me into a half sleep and the only stars I really want to see are those outside the bedroom window in the split second between putting out the light and my eyelids dropping like steel shutters.
The pitch darkness is adding to my brain’s conclusion that I really should be asleep and the only thing that’s keeping me from going under is the constant movement of the car as we roll left, then right, then left again, trees looming into vision in the car headlights like spectres caught on camera.
Eventually, the car slows down and I look up.
“I can see stars,” I say.
Carmelo turns the car headlights off and we pull into a lay-by.
“Lots of stars,” I continue, now emerging from the car. “My god, millions of stars!”
It’s hard to make out any of the night sky that isn’t peppered with winking flashes of light that seem to appear and disappear constantly. Above my head a wide strip of the sky has been carelessly strewn with fairy dust and then had diamonds spilled on top, smudging the firmament with soft clouds of twinkling light.
It’s a moonless night, I’m beneath some of the clearest skies on the planet and the Milky Way is putting on a dazzling display just for me.
Stargazing on La Palma
Climatic conditions on La Palma’s western flank create the perfect conditions for stargazing and the island has had strict light pollution control since 1988 making it Europe’s number one spot for studying the night sky.
At the island’s highest point of Roque de los Muchachos is the Observatory which houses telescopes and cameras from across the globe, all busily gathering data from space and feeding it back to Earth for scientists to analyse. Arrange a tour of one of the telescopes to get an idea of the sheer size and complexity of those instruments; if you’re a non-scientist it’s an experience almost as humbling as standing on the edge of a capsule 23 miles above Earth. The Observatory offer complimentary day time tours between 10am and 1pm, lasting 45-90 mins. Book at least two weeks in advance.
The most ‘hands-on’ way to experience the wonders of the Universe over La Palma is to book a stargazing tour with Carmelo and his team and take to the hills on a dark night. You’ll be given instruction on how to identify the major star constellations and how to find Polaris. You’ll also get the chance to look into the eye piece of a very expensive telescope and see how you can determine the age of a star from its colour, what a star cluster looks like up close and how to capture the stars on your memory stick.
Tours take 90 minutes and cost €25 for adults, €15 for children (under 12 years). Wear something warm and if you’ll take my advice, have an afternoon siesta to make sure you’re as bright-eyed and bushy tailed as you can be for this heavenly excursion.
Photo credit/copyrights: Ingo Ronner & Andy Montgomery
Posted : Monday, October 22nd, 2012 at 10:00
Andy Montgomery is a travel writer and blogger currently living amongst banana plantations in the north of Tenerife. If she’s not sipping mojitos in a Cuban bar or clinging to some vertigo-inducing outcrop by her fingernails, she’s working on her Buzztrips travel website.