La Palma is the best place for stargazing in Europe. Just ask the professionals: they've brought their biggest telescopes here.
It's an hour's drive from Santa Cruz to the observatory at 2,400 m (7959ft). As you climb the twisty road, the palm trees and fields give way to laurel forest and then pines. You drive into fog and the forest becomes mysterious, until the grey turns silver and then - POP! - you're out into brilliant sunshine. A little higher and you're looking down on the clouds. Most days they look like cotton wool, as though they'd be delightful to jump on.
The first time you see a professional observatory, the telescopes look surreal. The hillside is dotted with buildings, eleven of them crowned with domes. Gran Telescopio Canarias is bright silver, and as tall as a twelve-story tower block. It's the biggest telescope in the world for light your eyes can see. The MAGIC gamma-ray telescope is perhaps even more impressive because it hasn't got a dome at all. Its two huge mirrors, each 56 ft across, are open to the sky. The whole hillside looks like the set for a science fiction film.
This is an amazing place to watch the sunset. The sun sinks into the clouds or the sea below you, so that your own shadow on the ground is impossibly long. The shadow of the island streams away over the sea to the east. The colours are usually glorious, and those white and silver telescope domes reflect them all. If you're lucky, the last tiny segment of the sun will flash as green as a granny smith apple for half a second before it disappears. The Irish say that seeing the green flash makes you wise in love.
The glow in the sky fades and the first stars glimmer. You'll be sad when it's time to leave. Several of these telescopes could see a candle on the moon, and even hand-held torches are quite enough to ruin their observations. So half an hour after sunset, the night staff close the barrier on the road.
The Monument to Infinity
It's not a problem. All you have to do is drive ten minutes back towards Santa Cruz to the Monument to Infinity. This is a tall sculpture by César Manrique commissioned for the opening of the observatory, which symbolises the union of the earth and the cosmos. Once you're out of sight of the telescopes, lights don't matter. You can either stay by the car or hike for fifteen minutes up to the monument itself, and wait for the twilight to fade to black. Then you'll see the stars the way they looked before the industrial revolution, all the way back to the Neanderthals. There's no light pollution and no air pollution. If there's no moon, the sky is crammed with over three thousand stars. So many, that it becomes hard to see the constellations if you only know them from the UK's light-polluted skies.
They're also displaced. It's surprising to see the Pole Star so low down in the sky, until you remember that La Palma's much closer to the equator than the UK. For the same reason, you can see much farther south. From late August to April look for Orion, one of the most recognisable constellations. Below it is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky (except for the sun). And below that is Canopus, almost as bright. You can never see Canopus from the UK, but you can here! It was sacred to the Awara, the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of La Palma. They believed it protected them from drought because Canopus is visible for the months when it rains.
Stargazing with Binoculars
Bring binoculars if you can. There are special binoculars for astronomy, but even the ones birdwatchers use will give you a better view than Galileo ever had. His largest telescope was 3.5 cm in diameter, which is the same light-collecting area as 8x25 binoculars, but the modern lenses are much, much better.
If Venus is blazing in the west, take a look. It might be a crescent, because Venus waxes and wanes like the moon. This was one of the discoveries that got Galileo into so much trouble with the church. Mercury does the same, although that's harder to see. If you can find Jupiter, binoculars will show you at least three small bright dots in line with it, usually four. These are Jupiter's big moons and they got Galileo into trouble too. Io is covered in volcanoes like the one you're standing on. Europa, Ganymede and Callisto have oceans under a thick layer of ice, and perhaps there's life in those oceans.
If the moon is up, scan the craters through binoculars. You'll get the best view near the terminator, the line that divides the sunlit and unlit parts, where the crater walls cast long shadows.
The Monument to Infinity stands at 6,500 ft above sea level and sometimes it's so cold that by eleven o'clock, exposed skin tingles. Luckily there's a whole network of places for stargazing on La Palma, called astronomical viewpoints (miradores astronómicos). All the others are at lower altitude and therefore warmer. Each one has parking space, level ground to set up telescopes, a signpost pointing at the pole star (complete with the distance in light years or kilometres) and information panels. No matter which way the wind blows, it's a rare night when none of them are clear.
It's even better to go stargazing with professionals. There are three firms on La Palma which take out small groups with good amateur telescopes to rave reviews on TripAdvisor. It's not just the telescopes – they're experts who know the best viewpoint to observe whatever the weather, the best things to look at at any time of the year, and how to explain what you're looking at. A 20 cm to 30 cm telescope won't give you a view of Saturn like NASA's photos, but there's something very special about seeing the rings for yourself. On a good night you might be able to see Jupiter's famous Red Spot, a hurricane twice the size of the Earth which has been raging for at least 350 years. Keen amateurs can also rent a telescope locally, up to 18”/ 43 cm, which is much easier than bringing your own. Although the professional nightscape photographers of The World At Night bring their own kit to take amazing photos here. They love La Palma's night sky and so will you!