Articles tagged with "canary islands"

Observatorio del Teide

Observatorio del Teide

After the meeting, the IAC had organised a trip to the Observatorio del Teide. We headed up there in a little minibus and it was a lot like the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma in that the driver drove too fast on the winding road and I got to the top feeling like I was going to die of carsickness.

It was a calm and warm day. One of the observatory technicians was looking at the Sun through one of the telescopes so we had a look too, and saw a group of sunspots. The sun had been unusually inactive for quite a while so we were quite lucky not to see just a blank surface.

Looking around I could see a couple of other islands across the sea in the hazy distance. Apparently, ancient island legends tell of a mysterious eighth island which can sometimes be seen across the waters but never reached. I could only see real islands today.

Back in La Laguna I thought I had an easy and relaxing journey home. But an hour and a half before my flight, I realised it was going not from nearby Tenerife North airport, but Tenerife South, 50 miles away at the other end of the island. I leapt into a taxi and sped off. I picked a good driver, we made excellent time and in the end I easily made the flight. Next time I’m here, though, I’ll check my bookings a bit more carefully.


La Laguna

La Laguna

I spent a few days in La Laguna. Last time I’d been here it had been cold, wet and misty, but this time it was sunny and quite warm. I stayed in the centre of town and walked each day down to the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, where the meeting was being held. I liked the town and thought I’d probably quite like to live here one day.

I saw a sign one morning advertising a demonstration for independence for the Canary Islands. I was disappointed to find I’d missed it by a few days – I’d have loved to see what the independence movement was like. If they ever do secede from Spain it will be nice to have a new country to visit.


Roques de García

Roques de García

I reached the Roques de García in the middle of the afternoon. A small church amongst the yellow sands made it look like the set of a Western. The walk across had been quite quiet, but here there were busloads of tourists. I wandered around the huge rocks trying to avoid the crowds.

Eventually it was time for the bus back down to the south of the island. I headed down and flew home. Just a few hours after standing on top of a giant volcano off the coast of Africa, I was back in London, getting a night bus home.


Across the caldera

Across the caldera

I headed back down. I had some time before the bus down was coming, so I decided to walk from the cable car station to the Roques de Garcia, a lava formation a couple of miles away. It was January, I was a couple of thousand metres above sea level, but still it was hot walking weather in the midday sun. The walk wasn’t too exciting but the views back up to the peak of the volcano were impressive. The cone had an obvious bulge on one side, and I could see why geologists think it might collapse next time there’s an eruption here.


Teide

Teide

But the next day, the storm had passed, and the day dawned clear and fresh. My target was Teide: the highest point in the Atlantic, a mountain I’d flown over a few times, and many times seen from the top of La Palma 90 miles away. It’s claimed that it’s one of the most visited national parks in the world, but I found that hard to believe as I got on the one bus a day that goes over the island to the mountain.

In the warm January sunshine we chugged up the road to high altitude, and across a desert-like plain to get to the cable car station. I wanted to go to the top of the mountain; at 3,718m above sea level it was higher than anywhere I’d been since coming down from El Misti three years earlier. But I wasn’t planning to climb it. Time was limited so I took the easy route, getting the phenomenally expensive cable car to the summit area. I would have liked to go to the very top, but the bureaucracy involved in getting the necessary permit defeated me, and it turned out in any case that the trails were all closed due to ice.

So I was limited to the upper cable car station only. I breathed the cool thin air, and looked out over the caldera. Far below, a convoy of Hell’s Angels was going along the road.


Puerto de la Cruz

Puerto de la Cruz

By coincidence, a friend of mine was on holiday nearby, and we met up in Puerto de la Cruz, on the coast below La Orotava. Puerto de la Cruz was much more touristy than La Laguna or La Orotava had been. The weather was nicer, too, at first, and we got a meal on the main square. Here I had troubles, as I often do in Spain, as a result of being a vegetarian. As we looked at the menu, the waiter began to recommend dishes, all meaty. Wondering if they had anything good without flesh in it, I said “Soy vegetariano”. “Ah, Italiano!”, said the waiter, and brought me an Italian language menu.

As we ate, clouds were coming in. We walked down to the sea, watching legions of large dark crabs scuttling across the rocks on the foreshore. The waves rolled in off the Atlantic, and there was a mood of foreboding over Puerto de la Cruz. My friend had to drive back to the south coast of the island, so I said goodbye to her and caught a bus back to La Orotava. In the evening, rain battered down, the gutters filled with rushing streams, and the streets of La Orotava were empty.


La Orotava

La Orotava

On another grey misty morning in La Laguna, I walked to the bus station to go to warmer parts. I headed for La Orotava, on the west side of the island. The bus didn’t take long, and as we headed down the motorway the weather got a bit better. La Orotava is a hilly town, and the place I was staying was at the top of a very steep road. Once I’d recovered, I headed back down to have a look around. The views over the town to the sea were nicer than the views of La Laguna in the drizzle had been.


La Laguna

La Laguna

I’d passed through Tenerife a couple of times on my way to and from La Palma, and I’d seen the peak of Teide from 90 miles away at the Roque. I finally got to stay on the island when there was a scientific meeting there that I needed to attend. I made my way to La Laguna, in the north of the island, and spent three days there. Most of the time it was misty and cold. It had been 23°C in the south but La Laguna was uphill and inland.


Boat back to Tenerife

Boat back to Tenerife

Fearsomely early the next morning we headed to the port of Santa Cruz to get a boat back to Los Cristianos. Sunbeams lit the town as we approached.

At the airport we found that Thomas Cook could also be added to the Canary Islands transport blacklist, as they were running an extortionate excess luggage scam. Somehow their scales suggested that we’d acquired more than ten kilos of luggage since we had left London, and we had to pay some ridiculous fee. Next time I come to La Palma I’m getting the boat from Cádiz.


Up to the top

Up to the top

We drove up to the Roque de los Muchachos. It seemed strange to come up here and not check in at the Residencia. We walked out onto the rocky ridge which juts out into the caldera, and I took the same photos I take every time I’m up there. I think I’ve photographed every possible view, but it wouldn’t seem right to leave without some new versions of them.

We headed back down the road to Santa Cruz. We’d both been victims of the legendary Lionel, who drove astronomers to the top for many years, knew the roads far too well and raced around forest curves in a way guaranteed to induce extreme car sickness. One time after a ride to the top, I felt sick for five days. So I drove down at a sedate pace and got to the bottom feeling great.


Wild road

Wild road

We drove north. Our plans were vague but involved following the coast road around the north end of the island, so we were quite surprised when the road swung far inland. We presumed we were still on the main road so we carried on, but it got narrower and narrower, and higher and higher. When we started to pass through tunnels which were just hewn from the bare rock, we decided we must have taken a wrong turning somewhere.

We guessed that if we carried on, we’d get back to the main road. After an hour or so we began descending again, and eventually we did reach the right road. As we rounded a turn to look south, we could suddenly see the Isaac Newton Telescope perched on the mountain top high above us. We decided to head up there.


Los Tilos

Los Tilos

As we ate lunch in San Andrés, the sun came out, and the clouds quickly disappeared to leave behind a blazing hot day. We headed on to Los Tilos, which is claimed to be a rainforest. I don’t think it is, really, but it was still pretty otherworldly, and very different from the rest of the island. We hiked up a trail to Los Brecitos, and in the heat of the afternoon it was a pretty tough hike.


San Andrés

San Andrés

We kicked off the second day of our island tour with a drive up the east coast to San Andrés. Heavy skies threatened, but it stayed dry. San Andrés has a lot of colonial architecture, and is also amazingly full of lizards. They were everywhere, and whenever I stopped to look around I could see ten or fifteen of them.


La Cumbrecita

La Cumbrecita

From Tazacorte we headed inland, planning just to head back to Santa Cruz. But we passed a sign to ‘La Cumbrecita’ and thought we’d investigate. The road led us through the forests in the centre of the island, and eventually became a single-track dirt road. We were not sure if we would be coming to anything worth seeing, but La Cumbrecita turned out to be pretty awesome. When we reached a small car park at the end of the road, we found ourselves on the south side of the caldera, with a view across to the northern side. Mist was pooling in the caldera, and clouds were flowing over its walls, evaporating as they tumbled down.


West coast

West coast

We drove up the west coast of the island. It feels pretty remote out that way. We stopped for a fantastic coffee in an empty bar in the desolate hamlet of San Nicolás, then drove on to Tazacorte. The island is dominated by the vast Caldera de Taburiente, a giant crater whose walls rise two kilometres above its centre, and Tazacorte is perfectly situated for amazing views into the crater.

Tazacorte’s main claim to fame is that it was the last port of call for some of the conquistadores who were on their way to colonise Latin America. Today it betrays no hint that it would ever be worthwhile for any ship to call in. While observing on the mountain top on previous trips I’d seen the lights of Tazacorte shining far below, but from here I couldn’t spot the telescopes on the crater rim.


The volcanoes

The volcanoes

A week of conference passed largely uneventfully, except that I was ambushed by an astronomer who didn’t like the results I’d presented in my talk. We had a chat in which he outlined his objections, which I mostly disagreed with, but which was nevertheless useful, because it meant that when I wrote the paper I could make sure we covered the points he raised, and avoid a referee asking the same things.

Along with Nick, another UCL astronomer, I was staying on the island for the weekend after the conference. We hired a car early on the Saturday morning and headed south, with the plan of driving around the whole island over the two days. Our first stop was the volcanoes at the southern end of the island. On my last visit to the island eight months previously I’d driven from Santa Cruz to the volcanic end in thick mist and heavy rain. This time, the weather was much better. So much so, in fact, that I got horribly sunburnt within about twenty minutes of arriving at Volcán San Antonio.


Boat to La Palma

Boat to La Palma

Astronomers often need to go to La Palma, because it’s the nearest world class observatory to the UK. This was my fourth trip, but for once it was not to use the telescope. There was a conference being held and I was going to give a talk.

I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get to La Palma. I now boycott Iberia, who provide the most convenient flights but who charge for food and drinks and apparently find it difficult to imagine that there’d be more than one vegetarian on board. For this trip I decided to fly to Tenerife with someone called Globespan Airlines, and get a boat from there to La Palma. My flight was delayed six hours and now Globespan Airlines are also on the list of airlines I’ll never fly with if I can possibly help it, but the boat was a fantastic journey. The sun was setting as we left the port of Los Cristianos in southern Tenerife. We watched the sun set and the moon rise, with Tenerife receding behind us, La Palma approaching, and the smaller islands of La Gomera and El Hierro to the left. I stood on deck listening to Hand Across the Ocean by the Mission and it was a great soundtrack.


Down south

Down south

I had a weekend to spare after my observing run, and I had thought I might drive around the island. But I hadn’t got to Santa Cruz until late on the Saturday afternoon, so that just left Sunday. I set off south and thought I would see how far I got.

It was sunny when I left Santa Cruz, and for the first twenty minutes the drive was great. But then suddenly I was in thick cloud and more or less zero visibility. I had to drive at about 15 miles an hour for a lot of the way to Fuencaliente at the south end of the island.

I parked up near Volcán San Antonio, one of the two recently active volcanoes at this end of the island. For half an hour I could do nothing but sit in the car as the rain lashed down. It stopped, eventually, and I rushed out to do a quick walk around the crater. Then I drove on to the other volcano, Teneguía, and climbed over scenery that emerged from the ground in 1971. Through brief breaks in the cloud, I looked up the west coast of La Palma.


Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz

Driving down the mountain was much less fun than driving up it had been. There was thick cloud most of the way down, and when I got to Santa Cruz it was raining. It kept on raining for the whole of the evening, and I decided that La Palma in October was not as nice as La Palma in August had been.


Seeing stars

Seeing stars

During the fourth night, all was going smoothly. The air was dry, the skies were clear, and I was running as quickly through my observing programme as I could. Suddenly, after a couple of hours, the telescope control system started beeping – the humidity was higher than the telescope could take and I had to close everything down quickly. A few minutes later it had dropped right back down. I opened up again and carried on.

It did this a couple more times during the night. At 5.45am I closed up and I couldn’t open again. By dawn, the mountain was in thick cloud. The visibility was about ten metres, and the NOT quickly disappeared from sight as I drove back to the Residencia.