Text by Aaron Millar
Neil Armstrong once said the area around Mt Teide was the closest thing to the surface of the moon he’d seen on Earth. You could come here just to marvel at the jagged oceans of wild red volcanic rock and ochre stone around Spain’s highest mountain, an active volcano that rises 3,718m above the centre of Tenerife.
Yet Armstrong – like many of the 30,000 people who visit Teide National Park each year – was probably more interested in looking up. With its consistently clear and dark skies, the area is considered one of the best places on Earth to see the stars, and has long been a draw for amateur astronomers and time-lapse photography geeks. The stars here shine blue and red, and locals boast that the Milky Way (the “spine of the night” in local parlance) is brighter here than anywhere else on Earth.
My interest in the area was piqued, oddly enough, by an interview with Queen guitarist Brian May, who did a PhD in astrophysics on Tenerife and wrote the Queen song Tie Your Mother Down at the Teide Observatory in 1971. At times he was more interested in talking about astronomy than music, calling Teide “the closest to heaven I could get”.
So I’m here on a whistlestop tour of Teide National Park, starting at the Observatorio del Teide, Europe’s largest solar observatory and the place that inspired May. Perched 2,000m above sea level on the rugged Izaña mountain, the drive up the mountain roads is so spectacular it’s worthy of a Top Gear montage – you rise above the level of the clouds, with the Teide volcano looming above and the mountainous tips of Gran Canaria and La Palma peeking through the clouds like fairytale kingdoms.
The observatory – a collection of whitewashed buildings and 13 telescopes – has been here since 1964 and, along with sister observatory Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma, has helped the Canary Islands become an international centre for space research. There are astronomical instruments from 19 different countries and scientists here have done pioneering research into everything from solar flares to the detritus whizzing around space.
I’m shown around by Dr Alfred Rosenberg, a young resident astronomer who fits the bill of many of the scientists here – the place has the feel of a genius-only university dorm, with surprisingly young astronomers wearing T-shirts and flip-flops, smoking cigarettes, sipping black coffees and playing pool when they’re not manning some of Europe’s most advanced astronomical equipment.
“The sun’s the only star we can see in 3D,” says Rosenberg, “so it’s the central point of research for all stars. A lot of what we know about the universe is extrapolated from looking at the sun.” He explains that the multiple telescopes, painted white to deflect image-distorting heat, are needed to pick up different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. The largest is the new, German-built Gregor, Europe’s largest solar telescope, which has a 1.5m aperture that allows the sun to be seen in unprecedented high resolution.
There are also special instruments here that listen to the sounds of the sun and detect its vibrations to determine its properties. “It’s like listening to three different bells,” explains Rosenberg. “From their ring you can guess at their size and what they’re made of. It’s one of the only ways we can learn how the inside of a star works.”
Teide, says Rosenberg, is at the centre of an exciting time for astronomy. “I believe that, in our lifetime, we’ll find out if there’s life on other planets,” he says. But the main preoccupation here is the star that our lives revolve around – and, at the end of my tour, I get to see it through the visitor telescope (the likes of Gregor are off-limits to visitors). It’s an astonishing sight – textures of bright orange, yellow and deep red are pulsing and flaring in strange patterns. Solar flares flick from its spherical edge like fiery tongues, as Rosenberg points out that those very solar flares are 10 times the size of the earth. It’s overwhelming to see the sun like this, so clearly a living organism. When I draw my eyes away, entranced, Rosenberg pats my back and nods at me knowingly.
Driving down the mountain from the observatory, the clouds clear and I can take in the sweeping views across the park. Because of its similarities to the landscape on Mars, researchers have come to Teide in the past few years to test robotic vehicles and other instruments designed for finding life on the Red Planet.
Teide’s also made its way into popular culture. This is where they filmed Clash of the Titans and One Million Years BC (the Raquel Welch poster made famous by The Shawshank Redemption features Mt Teide in the background). The area crops up in L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology books and the park has been linked with numerous UFO sightings. It’s also become a training ground for top professional cyclists for its high altitude, reliable weather and easy proximity to sea-level roads – British cyclist Bradley Wiggins had a two-week training bootcamp at Teide before winning the Tour de France in 2012. Chris Froome, who came second in the Tour in 2012 and won it this year, was also at the camp. He wrote in his diary that “the road snaked up into the clouds, taking us to what I would imagine travelling to Mars would be like.”
I spend that night at the hotel where Wiggins and Froome stayed, the Parador Canadas del Teide, the only accommodation inside the national park and also Brian May’s favourite place to stay on Tenerife. It’s not fancy, but it’s right at the foot of Mt Teide and the otherwordly Roques de Garcia rock formations, which jut out from the barren landscape.
After a dinner of salted Canarian potatoes dipped in red mojo sauce, I head out to meet my guide for the night, Yolanda Alfonso, an expert in archeoastronomy, the study of how people in the past studied the sky. There’s evidence people have been looking at the skies since the beginning of human history and that they started trying to discover its secrets a long time ago. Some believe the UK’s Stonehenge, built around 3000BC, was a Neolithic astronomical observatory, but it wasn’t until the Babylonians, who emerged in 1894BC, that there was a functional theory of the planets.
Alfonso talks through this history as she uses a laser pointer to decode the night sky, shimmering with thousands of crystalline little stars. She singles out the Draco constellation, which the Mayans used to warn themselves of seasonal hurricanes, and the geometric patterns similar to those ancient farmers would look for to tell them when it was harvest time. Through history, she explains, different cultures have seen the sky in relation to the world around them: the Romans saw oxen, the Vikings eagles and now, she tells me, kids see racing cars and celebrities in the stars. “You can tell a lot about a culture,” she says, “by the way they interpret the stars.”
The next morning I set off to explore the daytime delights of the park, which is not only one of Europe’s centres for stargazing, but also for volcanic research. I’m in the company of Nayra Sanchez, a young local who has just given up a promising career in banking to be an outdoor guide and whose speciality is the park’s unique flora. She identifies all the endemic spring flowers taking root as we hike around the dark volcanic scree of Mt Samara – shoulder-high alien red bugloss cones and fragile Teide daisies are somehow taking root among the black lapilli dust that textures our every step. She calls it “a miracle” that there are 600 species of plants found here and nowhere else, though really it’s because Teide’s volcanic flows have created a thin soil that’s rich in a unique combination of minerals and nutrients.
The properties of the area have also led to it becoming home to 70 invertebrate species unique to the park, from spiders to beetles, as well as everything from Canary Island lizards and skinks to feral cats and mouflon, a species of wild sheep. Later we picnic under the retreating shade of a large Canarian pine and then climb the vast stone amphitheatre at the base of Mt Teide itself. “I’ve been coming here my whole life and I’m still amazed by it,” says Sanchez.
That night the stars are out again, and they’re so vivid they seem within touching distance. Brian May put it quite nicely: “When I look up I feel a kind of solidity and eternity. My greatest feeling about the stars is just being among them.” Looking at the night sky, I think I know what he means.
Three great hikes around Teide National Park
At 3,718m, the five-hour walk to the top of Spain’s highest mountain is tough, but the dramatic scenery along the way is worth the effort. Stay overnight at the Altavista mountain refuge and enjoy a night of stargazing before catching the sunrise from the summit the next morning. Permits are required in order to reach the top; a cable car is available for easier options.
Roques de Garcia
A short 90-minute walk through some of the national park’s most stunning volcanic landscapes. Start at the Roques de Garcia at the foot of Mt Teide, descending the canyon to pass the impressive “Cathedral” rock tower and the vast Uncanca plain, before climbing back up to the start.
Technically just outside the national park, but one of the best hikes on the island and not to be missed. Start at the picturesque hillside village of Masca in the north-west corner of the island and descend the stunningly dramatic gorge for around two hours until you reach the sea. Don’t forget your swimming trunks.
Where to stay
Parador Canadas del Teide
Use of the hotel telescope is free, as is guided stargazing on Friday nights. Costs €130 (NOK1,025) for a double room with breakfast included.
Make the most of your trip
Regular stargazing tours in Teide National Park from €70 (NOK550) per person, including dinner.
Offers guided tours between April and December. Advance booking is essential.
For a range of bespoke outdoors activities including guided walks in Teide National Park, kayaking and diving.