A Stellar Time in the Canary Islands: An Astrophotography Tour of Tenerife and La Palma

August 28, 2019  •  Leave a Comment


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The Canaries, a group of seven sub-tropical volcanic islands looming up out of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Saharan West Africa, have acquired something of an unfortunate reputation for being tacky winter sun holiday destinations, with soulless hotels, cheap restaurants and seedy bars squatting above the shores of black sand beaches. But this is really selling these sun-kissed islands short, for there is so much more to the Canaries than this.

They boast some of the most magnificent scenery imaginable. Magical forests of moss-draped Canarian pines and laurel engulfed in eerie swathes of mist, abut barren and contorted lava fields populated by bizarre cacti and plants. Multi-coloured volcanic cones eroded into fantastical shapes are riven by rocky barrancos and tower above lunar-like dunescapes and deserts. Pretty pastel-hued towns and villages tumble downslope to the very edges of craggy coastlines washed by the ever-restless Atlantic. Inland are scores of secluded rustic whitewashed stone cottages with rust-red ceramic tiled roofs, perched on terraced hillsides of emerald-green malvasia vines. Five out of the seven islands (Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, La Palma, El Hierro and Gran Canaria) are wholly or partly listed as UNESCO biosphere reserves, in recognition of their remarkable landscapes and unusual flora and fauna.


Windows onto the Universe

But of even greater interest is that few places on Earth, and certainly in Europe, offer such a wonderful opportunity to view our Milky Way, the wider cosmos, and deep space objects, than the Canary Islands. And none more so than Tenerife and La Palma. Their location close to the Equator provides a perfect view of the skies over the entire Northern Hemisphere and part of the Southern Hemisphere.

Moreover, the islands are not in the firing line of the turbulent Atlantic weather systems that characterise the climate further north. The Canaries languish in the path of the northeast trade winds which conjure pillow-soft layers of thin cloud called Los Vientos Alisios. These envelop the lower slopes of the islands, but leave the tops clear. They help to block out most of the light pollution escaping from the towns and villages far below, guaranteeing perfect visibility on 90 per cent of summer nights. These islands are therefore ideal 'windows onto the universe', rivalling the well-known astronomical hotspots of Northern Chile and Hawaii.

Tenerife is dominated by the enormous cone of the Teide Volcano. With a summit 3,700m above sea level, it is the highest point in the Atlantic, the third highest volcano in the world, and Spain’s highest peak. It’s also home to the island’s solar observatory located at 2,390 metres (7,840ft) which is operated by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias. Inaugurated in 1964, it became one of the first major international observatories, attracting numerous globally renowned astrophysicists from around the world because of the excellent unpolluted dark sky conditions.

The quality of Tenerife’s night skies has earned it the Starlight Tourism Certification. This scheme was created in 2009 supported by organisations such as UNESCO, the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU), with the aim of protecting our night skies and defending the right to stargaze. Mount Teide is the first UNESCO World Heritage Site certified as a Starlight Tourist Destination.

The jet-black skies of La Palma make it even better for stargazing than its bigger neighbour, and it became the the world’s first Starlight Reserve in 2012. In fact the Declaration in Defence of the Night Sky and the Right to Starlight was drafted on La Palma at the 2009 International Conference in Defence of the Quality of Night Sky and the Right to Observe Stars. Indeed, in recent years the prime location for optical telescopes has shifted from Tenerife to La Palma which now accommodates a wide array of cutting-edge international telescopes. These are built at an altitude of 2,400 meters above sea level on the rim of the Caldera de Taburiente, the eroded remains of a giant ancient shield volcano. They include the Gran Telescopio Canarias, the largest optical telescope in the world.

All of La Palma is deeply committed to astro-tourism and was one of the first places to implement the 1988 Sky Act, protecting the island’s sky from light, atmospheric and radioelectric pollution. Aircraft can't fly over the island at night, and the street lights face downwards to minimise light pollution. 


Mount Teide National Park

Mount Tiede towers over the roughly triangular island of Tenerife. It has blown its top violently several times since the islands were first settled by the Spanish in the fifteenth century, with its most recent eruption being in 1909. It forms part of the Teide National Park, which was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 and attracts more than three million visitors annually.

Progressing up the steep side of the volcano is like entering another realm. Banana plantations and vineyards progressively give way to shady moss-draped pine forests enveloped in mystical wraith-like swathes of luminescent cloud. As the tree line thins, the clouds begin to part, revealing another world. Brilliant sunshine floods a great amphitheatre defined by Las Cañadas escarpment which more closely resembles the surface of Mars. Indeed, the park has been used by NASA to test scientific equipment which will be sent to the red planet.

A giant’s geological sculpture garden is now laid out before your very eyes. Huge saw-toothed volcanic escarpments, buttes, gnarly spires and soaring pinnacles rise amid vast rivers of pertrified lava. In places it resembles gloopy singed cowpats; in others it's angular and crumbly like bits of burnt toast. These lava flows interspersed with flaxen-hued pumice, ink-black obsidian glinting angrily in the strong sunlight, and blood-red piconés (ash-cones), betray the chaos and upheaval which has created this landscape. It reminded me a lot of the badlands of Utah.

The barrenness is alleviated by patches of vegetation that cling stubbornly to the rust-red soil. This includes sweet-smelling yellow-white retama broom, juniper bushes, yellow flixweed and laburnum. Bu most spectacular of all is the brilliant red inflorescence of the tajinaste rojo, a species of echium endemic to this area, colloquially known as ‘tower of jewels’. These floral spires seem to explode from the ground aping the very jets of lava that created this volcanic wonderland.

Amid the rock and tangled vegetation scurries the blue-throated and specked Southern Tenerife Lizard, and kestrels and ravens soar overhead.

We time our visits to the Canaries to coincide with nights with no, or very little moonlight. Night falls quickly at this latitude. At dusk the stars begin to wink in the firmament almost immediately, and the heat of the day gradually gives way to a delicious coolness. Down jackets, gloves and a hat aren't always needed in spring and/or summer; a heavy-weight fleece suffices.

The profound sense of solitude one gets when sitting out under a canopy of brilliant stars in a still and silent night is a wonderful release from our increasingly frazzled modern lives. It's even possible to see the different colours of the stars - red, orange, yellow, blue-white - that make up the various constellations, some of which aren't visible from northern Europe. I never tire of watching in awe-struck wonder as our Milky Way arches overhead. Patience is richly rewarded and the hours simply fly by.

At night the park takes on the aura of a sci-fi film set. Most people make a beeline for the Roques de Garcia opposite the visitor centre. These rocky needles, particularly the huge crocked finger of lava called the Roque Cinchado, look incredible silhouetted against the Milky Way. A trail which takes around two hours to walk, meanders right around the base of the rocks. You can pre-select suitable areas on this trail with the aid of a night sky phone-app. 

This site is one of the busiest, so timelapse can be problematic here due to its proximity to the TF-24 road through the park, and the number of people visiting throughout the night, not all of them photographers, with blinding LED head torches.

Next to the visitor centre is a small Catholic church which has the distinction of being the highest place of Christian worship in Spain: La Ermita de Nuestra Señora de las Nieves (The Hermitage of Our Lady of the Snows). Carefully illuminated, it makes a strong foreground subject for a night shot, as the Milky Way blazes overhead.

El Zapitito de la Reina (The Queen’s Slipper), a rectangular–shaped natural arch leaning against the towering buttress-like crater walls bounding the flat expanse of the Llano de Ucana, is much less visited and makes a fabulous subject for astrophotography. Midway through the night the Milky Way soars above the arch, and a prominent butte in the background adds extra drama.

The Minas de San José (St Joseph’s Mines) an exposed, vast volcanic sandpit of buff-coloured pumice from which giant fins of lava loom, truly resembles a lunar landscape. Using a fish-eye lens enabled us to capture the complete arch of the Milky Way.

Before sundown, a long, dusty hike along the old Camino Real de Chasna to the Cañada de Diego Hernández, an ancient route used by the native Guanches to cross the island from north to south, brought us to a large lava cave with a bird’s eye view of Mount Teide. We like to pack a picnic and sit inside this old shepherd's shelter for several hours to capture timelapse of star-trails above the volcano, and the multiple pin pricks of light cast by hikers’ head torches as they descend from the Refugio de Altavista below the summit.

We usually take the ferry from Los Cristianos over to La Palma. The views are almost always memorable. I love to watch the sun sink towards the horizon in a warm, golden haze before it transforms into a lava-red ball of incandescence that is quickly swallowed by the steel-blue Atlantic. On one occasion, as the sun set, a thin band of opalescent cloud settled between the becalmed ocean and the periwinkle-blue sky, before wrapping itself round the base of the giant rose-pink cone of Teide, which soared above the water like an enormous mystic pyramid.

Caldera de Taburiente National Park

La Palma, the most north-westerly and greenest of the Canary Islands, is also one of the least populated and visited, although it has been much in the news following the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano in 2021. If you think that the Tiede National Park resembles the set of a sci-fi film, La Palma is in another league. The ancient Taburiente volcano boasts an eight-kilometre-wide cleft which isn’t a caldera at all, although it is known as such. This gigantic gash has been caused by scores of cataclysmic landslides triggered by volcanic eruptions over many centuries, and is one of the planet's largest and tallest erosion craters with a circumference of 29km and depths of up to one and a half kilometres. Its ruggedness has been mellowed somewhat over the eons by wind and rain, transforming it into a kind of fantastical ‘Lost World’, with slopes thickly blanketed by dense Canarian pine forests and criss-crossed with deep ravines of laurel rainforest.

From the rim of this enormous slumbering behemoth, great fangs of rock soar skyward: El Roque de los Muchachos (2,426m and the highest point on the island); Pico de la Cruz (2,351m); Piedra Llana (2,321m); Pico de la Fuente Nueva (2,366m); and Punta de los Roques (2,085m). From these high points the terrain plummets over vertiginous near vertical cliff faces for around 800 metres, before falling more gently to an altitude of around 430m above sea level, offering unforgettable photographic opportunities.

Far above the sea of pillow-soft cloud, which rolls in languid waves above the Atlantic, the white towers and domes of some of the most important observatories on the planet line the northwest rim of the volcano between the Pico de la Fuente Nueva and El Roque de los Muchachos. A series of trails thread their way precariously round the edge of this rim, and pass very close to the buildings, affording a bird's eye view of them silhouetted against the Atlantic.

Each evening, as the observatories open their shutters to cool the telescopes in readiness for a night of observation, the most amazing sunsets illuminate the churning cloud and sky with colours straight from a baroque-era paintbox. To the east, the  shadow of the island streams away over the cloud-covered ocean. Within these amazing structures, teams of international scientists are busy discovering the mysteries of our universe by studying planets, asteroids, comets, black holes, galaxies and our sun. The William Herschel telescope is so powerful that it could see a candle burning on the moon. 

Along with the three enormous gamma ray-detecting MAGIC telescopes with their dozens of gleaming hexagonal mirrors staring off into space like the compound eyes of giant insects, these futuristic observatories are incredibly photogenic.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, guided tours to some of the telescopes were on offer. We have visited the Gran Telescopio Canarias, the world’s largest single-aperture optical telescope housed inside a gleaming silver cupola measuring 33 metres. Construction of the telescope took seven years and cost €130 million. First light was achieved in 2007 and scientific observations began in 2009.

Inside is an enormous mirror almost 11 metres in diameter. It consists of 36 hexagonal pieces which can be moved separately from each other, and the shape of each piece can also be changed. These two types of movements compensate for changes in the observed light caused by atmospheric attenuation. The telescope is mounted in a system that moves both in altitude and in azimuth to observe any point in the sky. Seeing it up close really sets the scene for the exciting night sky observation and photography to come.

Although each of La Palma’s 14 municipalities has its own astro-viewing point complete with information boards and signs detailing constellations to look out for, the best places for astrophotography are near the summit of the island. The LP-4 road leads up the mountainside in a seemingly endless series of tight hairpin bends, passing out of the shady pine forest onto the broom-covered upper slopes of the volcano which are ablaze in spring with fragrant lemon-yellow flowers. Tall spires of flaming tajinaste rojo line the road. Close to the summit, a minor road branches off the LP-4, leading uphill towards a car park at the Roque de los Muchachos, offering incredible views down over the silver dome of the Gran Telescopio Canarias with the Atlantic Ocean forming an impressive backdrop. At dusk this road is closed to all traffic to ensure that no light pollution disturbs the science, but it is possible to walk to the Roque de los Muchachos along one of the many rim trails.

Continuing east along the LP-4, there are stunning views of the MAGIC telescopes which look otherworldly as their gleaming mirrors reflect the inverted layers of colour and light made by the sky, cloud and earth. At night, the stars twinkle in them like Swarovski crystals. The road then continues below the numerous telescopes strung out along the rim of the crater, before passing through a chaotic multi-coloured landscape of baked and scorched rust-red earth, buff-coloured ash and pumice, and petrified cliffs of steel-grey lava.

At one point it crosses a mere knife-edge of rock near the Mirador de los Andenes. At night this north-facing spot is a fantastic place to set up a tripod, as no hiking is required to get a great view of the Milky Way arching over the enormous Caldera de Taburiente, with the opalescent ever-present cloud roiling in waves 2,000 metres below at the coast.

From here, a path that heads upwards towards the crater rim can be followed for several kilometres towards the Roque de los Muchachos. Numerous north-facing spots along the way are ideal locations for capturing the full arch of the Milky Way framed over the gaping void. But in the dark, the path offers some real heart-stopping, squeaky bum moments, as it passes dangerously close to some very friable cliff edges!  Better still is the shorter, steep route up towards the Pico de la Fuente Nueva which is signposted from the LP-4. This passes close to the Isaac Newton and William Herschel Telescopes just below the summit. In spring, this area is carpeted with yellow broom flowers whose heady scent perfumes the still night air.

The peace and deep silence is broken only by the periodic quiet hum and clunk of machinery as the telescopes are realigned to face a new section of the heavens. Martin's a keen amateur astronomer, and he explains that it's possible to see up to a staggering 3,000 stars here with the naked eye. These include Polaris, the North Star, at the end of the Little Dipper; Antares, an orange star in the 'tail' of the constellation of Scorpio; the Trifid Nebula in Sagittarius (my Zodiac sign!); and the 'Heavenly Twins', Castor and Pollux in Gemini. It's even possible to see the faint smudge of Andromeda. This spiral galaxy is 2.5 million light-years from Earth, and the nearest major galaxy to our Milky Way. Mindblowing stuff!  I observe all of this with childlike glee, especially when shooting stars blaze across the jet-black sky like fireworks. Another favourite spot is the Infinity Monument, reached after a short hike up a paved pathway from the LP-4. This concrete and metal sculpture which looks vaguely phallic was erected in 1985 by the highly regarded artist, César Manrique. It symbolises the union of the Earth and the Cosmos, and commemorates the inauguration of the Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory. We have lots of fun at this spot trying to align the tip of one of the metal prongs of the monument with Polaris to capture a whirling circle of timelapse star-trails. The view from here of distant Mount Teide looming above the cloud is unforgettable.

Making Stellar Memories

The Canary Islands are a truly stellar destination in so many ways. Seeing the stars the way our ancestors did, before the Industrial Revolution, is such a privilege. On a moonless night in many parts of northern Europe, the light pollution is so bad we’re lucky to even spot the main, well-known constellations, let alone the Milky Way in all its glory. But in the Canaries, even favourites like The Plough and Cassiopeia are hard to see, not because they are hidden from view by light pollution, but because they are obscured by literally thousands of twinkly stars we never see!

Our night sky is a window onto the universe, humankind's connection to the infinite, the vast and the eternal. Surely it is every human being's right to witness this precious spectacle, to ponder our place in the far reaches of our visible universe? We think it is, and if you do too, why not join us on one of our future phototours to this remarkable archipelago of islands?

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