My stomach lurched and I gripped my seat as we rounded yet another hairpin bend. We’d been driving for an hour across the top of lush pine forests, stray hunting dogs, idle goats and ever-changing greenery, yet all I could think was: “get me out of the van”. I wasn’t fairing too well on the altitude sickness front.
La Palma is a steep island. No matter where you drive you always seem to be ascending or descending, rarely travelling on flat ground. As the van continued to climb slowly and steadily it emerged above the clouds and to new scenery. Gone was the fertile plains and instead replaced by vast amounts of red volcanic rock and clear skies as far as the eye could see.
Rounding a corner, a large dome-shaped white building dominated the horizon and we arrived at our destination.
Standing at 2,400 meters and nestling at the edge of Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente, Roque de los Muchachos is the highest point in La Palma. The views are immense, I could clearly see the islands of Tenerife and La Gomera. The area is home to one of the most important observatories in the northern hemisphere – GranTeCan, which is also the biggest optical telescope in the world. There are around 20 astronomical telescopes on La Palma, each owned and operated by many different nations. La Palma is one of the best places in the world to look at the night sky. It has unique environmental features which have won it the distinction of being named a World Biosphere Reserve. It has even enacted a law to protect the night sky – Sky law 1988 – which protects the night sky for astrophysical observation and has the world’s first starlight reserve. As night fell that evening and the sky turned inky black, I was back in the van and again ascending the steep roads.
I was going to meet Elena a stargazing guide from AdAstra who would take me stargazing for the evening. Each municipality on La Palma has an observation point but I was heading to one of the most privileged spots, Llano del Jable which sits at 1,342 meters altitude. Under the pitch-black night sky, Elena set the mood by explaining there are approximately 200 billion stars in our Galaxy, but we can see only thousands of them. With her special laser pen she points out The Milky Way which was visible that night (as a blurred whitish cloud, since our eyes are not able to capture colours at night). You can see it from June to November from the Canary Islands. She continued to explain constellations’ and planets’ position depends on the time of the year (and on the geographical latitude). The night of the stargazing, she mentioned we could see planets Saturn and Mars, and the constellations of Scorpius, Sagittarius, Aquila, Cygnus, Lyra, Hercules, Pegasus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Ursa Minor and Ursa Major. Through the telescope I look at two star clusters: butterfly and diamond. To my untrained eye I am not sure I can see either a butterfly or a diamond but there was something delightful about standing in absolute silence in the middle of nowhere looking at twinkly stars.
The telescope is then repositioned and directed at Saturn. As I cautiously lean in hoping to avoid banging my glasses on the lens this time around, I squinted in the hope I could see the rings that circle the planet. That evening Saturn was quite blurry and I could only just make out its rings. Lastly I looked at the Moon. The phase that evening was waxing crescent and Elena mentions it’s one of the best moments to watch through a telescope, because it was not too bright yet. It was beautiful. I could clearly see the craters and lakes. I always had romantic notions of what looking at the night sky entailed – lying on the ground, a small telescope beside me and softly repeating the famous Oscar Wilde quote: “We’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.” Contrary to my starry-eyed dreams the reality of stargazing was huddling around a rather large and fancy looking telescope. Not one to be deterred by obstacles I lay down on the cold stony ground and gazed upwards and as if by magic I saw a shooting star dash across and light up the night sky. They don’t call this the beautiful island for nothing.