As the sun dipped lower and lower over the lush, volcanic Canary Islands, travelling steadily onward on its inexorable collision course with the sea, ripples of anticipation resonated across our small group of stargazers. Clad in warm coats (nights on the craggy flanks of the Spanish island’s giant volcano can be blustery), we listened as astrophysicist Agustin Nunez explained why La Palma is – no exaggeration – the best place on Earth to see the stars.\
First, he said, its position 100km off the coast of northern Africa means it is close to the equator, so you can see stars from both the northern and southern hemispheres – but in a temperate climate with placid weather patterns uncommon in the tropics.
Second, it’s very dark here, something that’s aided by an island-wide agreement to keep it that way, meaning all night-time lighting is either an orange hue (which doesn’t interfere with telescopes) or pointed down, at the ground.
But thirdly, and most importantly, is the wind. “Our trade winds are created by a high pressure system in the Azores, and travel more than 2,000km over the sea. When it hits our north shore, it’s crystal clear,” he said, noting that these smooth and slow winds creates an atmosphere where the stars are especially clear from the ground, both through a telescope and to the naked eye. “Here, we have the lowest turbulence on the planet.”
And all this is justly recognised: in 2012, La Palma became the world’s first Unesco recognised Starlight Reserve. The island is also home to one of the most important observatories on the planet: a place that houses 16 massive telescopes – including the largest one in the world.
It’s only recently that visitors have been able to partake in these excellent stargazing opportunities. For years, the observatory was a closed research facility, except for a handful of open days that attracted thousands of curious people. But with the observatory normalizing regular visits in 2013, the infrastructure – including a recent increase in guided starlight tours – is now in place for earthbound visitors to touch distant galaxies.
Down on terra firma, I was shown around the island by Sheila Crosby, an affable Englishwoman with a touch of the mad scientist, who worked at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos for years as a software engineer. She’s also a certified starlight guide, and as she drove us somewhat erratically up and down La Palma’s winding roads, she started to explain the connections between land and sky, geology and astronomy – and how the island’s unique structure has created a number of Earth-bound wonders: for one, a cloud waterfall.