Canary Expedition 2015

In May 2015 I went on my second astronomical expedition to the Canary Islands. Second year in a row. Because I’m passionate about astronomy and because La Palma – La Isla Bonita. La Palma is home to the largest optical astronomical observatory in the world and a park with many other national observatories. It is a Mecca for astronomers, along with Chile and Hawaii, has special anti-light pollution legislation and one of the most beautiful skies in the world. But astronomy is not everything in La Palma. Although it is only 42 km long and 28 km wide, the diversity of this island is the size of an entire continent. The Isle of Eternal Spring.

 

The island of La Palma in the Canary archipelago is addictive. I was only two years in a row, but Vali Grigore, one of the organizers of the expedition, was about 10 times in a row, year after year. In short, La Palma is a tropical island with a perfect climate of eternal spring, with high volcanoes, in North-West Africa, but which belongs to Spain and has an infrastructure worthy of any Western European territory (much better than in Romania ). Obviously, it is an area of the European Union, with the euro currency. Besides, when I was there, the prices were low, almost like in Bucharest.

Why don’t they all go there.. Because tourists with fitze are mostly attracted to the neighboring island of Tenerife, and in terms of housing, because outside of vacations you have limited possibilities of expression and earning: astronomy, salt mining, tourism, hotels and restaurants, stone. The area is considered, at best, underprivileged by the Spanish. Please, don’t tell anyone, don’t crowd there.. The sand on the beach is pitch black so you definitely wouldn’t like it there..

The caldera of the volcano that produced the island of La Palma

The tour was organized by the Romanian Astronomical Society of Meteors (SARM) and Astro Travels (Ovidiu and Gabriela Vaduvescu, our hosts).

Here is the description of the expedition from the dedicated page of SARM – one of the most important astronomy clubs in Romania, whose president is Vali Grigore – perhaps the most important Romanian amateur astronomer:

The Canary Archipelago is a separate land in the Atlantic Ocean consisting of seven islands of volcanic origin located relatively close to the northwest coast of Africa. The islands, called the Islands of Eternal Spring, belong to Spain, being thus the territory of the European Union. For lovers of nature and clear skies, the pearl of this archipelago is the island of La Palma, also called La Isla Bonita, a real exotic paradise. Although it is only 42 km long and 28 km wide, the diversity of this island is the size of an entire continent.

The southern part of the island is arid, full of volcanic cones, where there is also the youngest land in Spain, created by the volcano that erupted in 1971 (Teneguia volcano). Lunar-looking landscapes, banana plantations and vines in volcanic ash, black sand beaches, colorful cities on the Atlantic coast or settlements scattered among volcanic cones, all these create images of unique beauty.

In contrast to the arid volcanic part of the south, in the northern part of the island we find lush forests and waterfalls. If it rains in the eastern part, only 20 km away in the western part it is sunny… and vice versa. At 2,400 m altitude, above the clouds, on the edge of the spectacular volcanic caldera, is the largest network of European telescopes in the Northern Hemisphere and the largest optical telescope in the world.

The neighboring island, Tenerife (the largest of the archipelago and the most populated) is a paradise for tourism, with hotels and casinos, with one of the most beautiful animal parks in the world and especially with the largest mountain in Spain, the volcano ( still active) Teide, 3718 m high. This is the dreamland where we will go again this year, for the fifth time since 2010…

Salt mining in La Palma:

Let me clarify something. Why an expedition and not a trip.

Because for me, the trip to the Canaries also meant a little bit of research, of astrophotography, and that means staying overnight at the telescopes and learning a few things, or staying half the night or all night with the camera on the tripod, in the dark, in in the wind, on the lip of the volcano, trying to get the best possible images of the stars with the equipment you have.

So I also exaggerated a little, in tune with the others, and called it an expedition, not a trip.

Of course we were a larger group and of course only a few did the things I was telling you about earlier.

There was also a conference dedicated to light pollution, which I will tell you about below.

Photo gallery of astronomical observatories in the Canary Islands:

Inside the astronomical observatory IAC80 – Tenerife:

The IAC80 observatory telescope is intended for optical work. It was built by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) beginning in 1980 and installed in 1991, being a Cassegrain type with a German equatorial mount.

 

Canary Islands – La Palma stellar observatories – May 2015 (1)

Canary Islands – La Palma stellar observatories – May 2015 (2)

The flight routes to La Palma are via Madrid or Barcelona, with a stopover in Tenerife, to La Palma. There are, however, non-stop flights from Barcelona or Brussels to Tenerife upon arrival, at least that was the case in 2015. From Tenerife to La Palma you can also travel by ferry. However, pay attention to the name confusion between the names of the airports – not just one, but several have La Palma or Las Palmas in their name, and besides, cities with Spanish names are very common on several continents.

Canary Islas Pines

Of the 13 days allotted for the expedition, 10 days we walked around La Palma. The tourist part of the expedition included four coach trips to explore the exotic landscape of the island: Caldera de Taburiente National Park, Roque de los Muchachos peak (2,434 m – the highest peak on the island) with the huge volcanic caldera (probably the volcanic caldera with the biggest fall in the world – 2,000 meters) and astronomical observatories (including, as I said, the biggest telescope in the world),

the volcanic cones of San Antonio and Teneguia, banana plantations and vines in the volcanic lava, winery with tasting, serene landscapes, Fuencaliente salt pans, La Fajana natural pool, Los Tilos forest and waterfall – UNESCO heritage, the capital of Santa Cruz de La Palma , the wealth of special contrasting landscapes.

There were optional activities – visit and shopping in the capital of Santa Cruz de La Palma, beach, scuba diving and optional excursions: Volcano route (length 18 km – hike), Cascada los Colores (Waterfall of Colors), bicycle routes, etc. .

I definitely wanted to do the volcano route. I was with two friends, a couple. Fascinating landscapes. And fascinating to walk among the Canary pines – a special species of pine with very thick bark, which gives them some resistance to fire. After wildfires, you can see the pine trees transform from blackened silhouettes of fire and smoke into the green plants before. Basically only the skin burns.

The thick, cracked bark has another effect. Everywhere smells of pines much more strongly than in any other pine forest. Combined with the extraordinary landscapes of the ocean and volcanoes, the atmosphere is torn from everything we knew before.

It is charming, impressive, grand and pleasant. Relaxing from the smell. Interesting how long hikes bring out the best or worst in people. In this case the route brought out the most beautiful. I remained good friends with the two, discovering that we have common passions: astronomy, mountains, numismatics.

The photo gallery with the Route of Volcanoes and other tourist attractions in the Canary Islands:

 

La Palma lighthouse

During the expedition, the astronomical calendar allowed us to have 4 planets visible with the naked eye in the evening sky: Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, 3 conjunctions of the young Moon with Mercury, Venus and Jupiter, constellations of the southern hemisphere, invisible from Romania, starry nights in La Palma – night observations and astrophotography.

I obviously visited again the famous Northern European astronomical complex “Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos”, the largest network of telescopes in the northern hemisphere and the largest (optical) telescope in the world (Gran Telescopio de Canarias 10.4 m), at 2,400 m altitude.

Astrophotography gallery:

TENERIFE

Teide

Three days were allocated for visiting the island of Tenerife, the Teide National Park.

I have included here the ascent of the volcano of the same name (3,718 m, still active) and optional visit to the fantastic Loro Parque (a huge park with shows with killer whales, dolphins, seals, parrots, underwater tunnel with sharks, tropical forests, etc.), The botanical garden, the “Alejandro Ciorănescu” Island Library, open 24 hours a day within the complex of more than 20,000 sqm Tenerife Espacio de las Artes – TEA (Tenerife Arts Centre), also here is the Centro de Fotografía “Isla de Tenerife” (Photo Center Tenerife Island).

About Alexandru Ciorănescu you can find an article written by Ștefan Ghilimescu in Literary Chronicle.

 

 

Photo gallery of the fantastic Loro Parque:

 

Las Olas

Detailed program:

In La Palma we also made our base at the Hotel Las Olas 4***, incredible views to the ocean, very close to the seafront, a superb location.

The balcony faced the ocean, just like in the movies. You wake up with the ocean under your nose.

The whole island being on a slope, it’s hard not to have visual access to the ocean, but this hotel is practically on the cliff. When I had some time between departures, I would go for a walk on the seafront near the hotel, where the water constantly puts on an incredible show, especially at sunset.

In terms of sky-watching, many of the 13 days were affected this year by the calima, a layer of Saharan dust present in the atmosphere at high altitudes.

Island of LA PALMA

Monday, May 11

Dinner at the hotel. That night the Moon was in its Last Quadrant phase, rising 3 hours before dawn, after the Milky Way crossed the meridian.

Tuesday, May 12

Mic dejun la hotel. Zi liberă, activități diverse. Nu îmi mai amintesc așa bine dar ori am vizitat capitala Santa Cruz de La Palma (la distanță de 10 min. cu autobuzul), și portul, zona de coastă din apropiere ori am făcut o excursie mai lungă (cu mașini închiriate + taxi + drumeție circa 10 km) la Cascada Los Colores (Cascada Culorilor).

Breakfast at the hotel. Free day, various activities. I don’t remember that well, but I either visited the capital Santa Cruz de La Palma (10 min. away by bus), and the port, the nearby coastal area, or I did a longer trip (with rental cars + taxi + hiking about 10 km) to Cascada Los Colores (Waterfall of Colors).

Wednesday, May 13

Volcano Trail

It’s the day I did the Volcano Route trip, an extremely spectacular route, a hike of about 18 km on foot.

Volcanic Black Sand Beaches

Travel to the place of departure is done by taxi, then the return from the end of the route is done by bus. The route can also be done with rented bikes, but we did it on foot.

Joi, 14 mai

We went to the western part of the island with rental cars.

We visited the resort and port of Tazacorte, with its black sand beach. The sand is really black black.

Spectacular car route on Barranco de las Angustias.

In the evening we went for observations and astrophotography, with rented cars, up to Caldera de Taburiente, on the edge of the volcanic caldera, 2300 m alt. At dawn (May 15), the thin crescent of the Moon rose from the ocean.

Canary Islands, La Palma – Astrophotography – May 2015

The southern part of the Milky Way was seen in all its glory.

Friday, May 15

We took a trip to the center of the island, 9am-4pm. We went to the Caldera de Taburiente National Park: entrance to the Centro de Visitantes (free) where we learned (for the second time) a little about volcanoes, the island of La Palma and the Canary archipelago, visit the La Cumbrecita viewpoint, hike through the pine forest at the Lomo viewpoint from las Chozas. For me it was the second time I did this trip. Sometimes it’s even better to revisit a place – you can really enjoy all the sensations, no longer flooded with new information at every turn. Everything is a little more familiar on the second visit.

On the way back to the hotel, we visited Las Conception viewpoint, where we could admire a wonderful view over the capital and the port of Santa Cruz de la Palma.

In the evening, the planets Mercury, Venus and Jupiter could be admired in the western sky. On the morning of May 16, right at dawn, it was possible to admire and photograph the sunrise from the ocean of the thin sickle of the Moon, two days before the New Moon phase.

Saturday, May 16

Day off. Beach, walk on the Atlantic coast.

Sunday, May 17

The day of the most important trips in the package.

We went to:

Astronomical observatory and Roque de los Muchachos peak.

GTC’s combined hexagonal mirrors
  • We visited the famous North European astronomical complex “Observatorio Roque de los Muchachos” (ORM) at 2400 m above the clouds and stopped at three of the largest telescopes:
  • William Herschel 4.2m (WHT),
  • Gran Telescopio de Canarias 10.4m (GTC – the largest optical telescope in the world) and
  • Magic 2x17m (a very cool looking German telescope with gamma rays).

The GTC entrance price is 9 euros.

The day included visiting the peak of Roque de los Muchachos (another 2434m – the highest peak on the island) and walking on the edge of the huge Caldera de Taburiente (the volcano that gave birth to the island of La Palma).

In a more limited setting we stayed in the area for a night of observations and astrophotography under the starry sky of La Palma. I stayed next to the Roque de los Muchachos observatory (which is officially closed to the visiting public after 7pm). But one of the organizers of the excursion, the Romanian astronomer Ovidiu Văduvescu, facilitated our stay.

Ovidiu Văduvescu is one of the best Romanian professional astronomers and the manager of the INT Observatory in La Palma. He has nearly 25 years of experience and specializes in dwarf galaxies and near-Earth asteroids, some of which are potentially dangerous. In fact, after the first expedition to the Canary Islands – the one in 2014 – I followed a training and later ended up collaborating with a group of amateur astronomers coordinated by Ovidiu for improving the orbits of asteroids approaching the Earth but also for identifying new asteroids with dangerous collision potential.

I had binoculars, a tripod and a camera with the necessary accessories. But my colleagues, especially Radu Gherase – had much better instruments with which they were able to take longer exposures at astronomical targets, especially at a few nebulae and globular clusters.

Monday, May 18

We visited the capital of Santa Cruz de La Palma (10 min away by bus) with the Alameda square and the El Barco naval museum (replica of the famous Maria ship with which Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas – museum visit 2 EUR), the San Francisco Island Museum, the streets old, the typical palmer balconies, the market and the catholic church of El Salvador in the center of the city, the port of Santa Cruz de La Palma, the market of agricultural products where you can buy exotic local products and serve the best natural sugarcane juice or exotic fruits (cooked on site), shopping and souvenirs.

In La Palma but also in Tenerife I discovered that electronics related to photography are quite cheap.

On May 18, in the afternoon, we had an “informal meeting” dark sky/light pollution for 2-3 hours, chaired by Audrey Fischer, president of the Chicago Astronomical Society and leader in the “One Star At A Time” project.

In the evening we went to a volcanic cone for astronomical observations. We had at our disposal the main constellations and invisible southern constellations from Romania. The moon was then in the new moon phase and thus not visible in the sky.

We visited for the second time in the two years, the “Bodega” (winery), with tasting and sale, local production from vine plantations located in the volcanic lava.

I recommend the stronger wine, the 25 euro bottle. It is similar to Porto. We took a walk through the banana plantation, the kiosk and the picturesque La Zamora beach, the lava flow walk through the volcanic black sand, stopping at the base of the volcanoes, in the scenery with a lunar aspect, we visited the Fuencaliente salt pans again with the lighthouse and the sundial .

Bananas from the plantation have nothing to do with those from the supermarket. There are many varieties of bananas in the world that do not reach Romania. These were small and very sweet, very very good.

Many of them fell on the ground and you could enter the plantations without asking permission and pick some. Or did you have to ask permission? Well, no one complained about us trespassing.

Wednesday, May 20

I hiked through Los Tilos forest (UNESCO Biosphere World Heritage) to the spectacular waterfall in the forest, visited the Barlovento lagoon (the largest water reservoir in La Palma), the La Tosca viewpoint and the wonderful panorama of the extremely steep north of the island of La Palma, we swam in the natural pools of Las Fajanas in the Atlantic Ocean. In the evening in the western sky we had the thin crescent of the Moon between the planets Mercury and Venus.

One of the amateur astronomers, Radu, brought with him a very neat drone, which, although at one point it was a bit blown away by the wind, found its way to us and brought back some great images.

TENERIFE Island

Thursday, May 21

Packed breakfast (we left very early) and flight to Tenerife (morning flights between the islands are very frequent and it is preferable to leave somewhere around 8:00 or 8:30). I then left directly with the coach, but also with the luggage, to the Teide Volcanic National Park. We took the cable car (for the second time) up the Teide volcanic cone (3,718 m, the highest peak in the Canary Islands and in Spain) – a cable car route between 2,356 m and 3,555 m (25 EUR return), with the last 200 m to climb on foot only on the basis of a permit requested in advance, access to the top being restricted to a maximum number of daily visitors, to protect the UNESCO heritage.

We then went down to Puerto de la Cruz, a beautiful resort town in the north of the island of Tenerife to stay at the ApartHotel Bellavista Mirador 3***. Another hotel with a superb ocean view. We then went to the Teide volcano area (with rental cars), with a moonlit night landscape.

There I met Radu Cornea, a young man of only 21 years who, by his own efforts, managed to raise sponsorship to work for 8 months with Ovidiu Văduvescu and other astronomers, both in La Palma and at the telescopes in Tenerife. Radu won national awards in astronomy, but it is still to be appreciated that he got to work for 8 months in one of the most important astronomical parks in the world, and that before starting college.

Having such files I had access to an older telescope that Radu managed that night almost alone. Thus we were able to take long exposure photos, from the telescope, through its window, as well as outside the telescope, wide-frame photos.

Friday, May 22

I didn’t go to Loro Parque on Friday, although this is one of the biggest and most beautiful animal parks in the world, with a Thai influence. I visited it in 2014 and I can tell you that I spent a whole day there. It’s totally worth it. Entrance costs 33 euros. The park is founded by a millionaire German parrot collector, settled in Tenerife, but now contains many other animals and birds, the most outstanding being the programs with killer whales, dolphins, seals, parrots, underwater tunnels with sharks, pools with penguins and aquariums with many marine animals, gorillas, tigers, flamingos, orchid exhibitions, tropical forests, cacti, etc. Another objective worth seeing is the Botanical Garden. The city is worth visiting in the central and coastal area and routes can be made on foot and/or by train.

Saturday, May 23

Take off to the return destination.

 
Some more information in brief about La Palma – La isla Bonita:
  • Apartments or apartments in houses between 50k – 80k Eur.
  • Houses 100 k – 200 k, 500 Eur rent / month – compared to Cluj or Bucharest.
  • Disadvantaged area due to high unemployment and low employment opportunities on the islands
    oriented towards nature / astronomy tourism.
  • Excellent skies, special light pollution legislation – One of the world’s leading sites for advanced astronomical observations.
  • The climate is eternal spring – tropical climate 20 – 25 degrees.
  • Economy: tourism, fishing, bananas, salt, stone, astronomy research.
  • Average salary 800 euros, unemployment 40%.
  • Unsophisticated residents.
  • Places with tradition, archaeological sites of the native population before the Spanish colonization, but also cities founded by the Spaniards who returned closer to Europe, from South America. 
  • Beautiful landscapes.
  • Sudden ocean depth.
  • Inactive volcanoes. On El Hiero – active volcano.
  • Small, sweet and roadside bananas.
  • Quality wine, cellars in the natural lanes dug out of the lava.


As far as I remember, the trip costs somewhere between 450 – 550 euros per person for the 13 days (breakfast only), to which is added the price of the plane ticket (it can be 300 or even 650 euros – it’s still a good few thousand of km between Bucharest and the Canary Islands) and entrance tickets, lunch, dinner, souvenirs, etc.

Estimated and based on my own experience, the journey from Bucharest to La Palma is made with one or two stopovers (in Madrid/Barcelona and Tenerife) or a single stopover on arrival (via Brussels), depending on the companies, routes and flight schedule.

For the best possible price, I recommend making reservations and buying tickets as early as possible. One can also experience the ferry ride from Tenerife to la Palma. The cheapest price is around 35 Euro/trip. The two sites for the ferry are:

https://secure.navieraarmas.com/inicio
http://www.fredolsen.es/en

Both are evening flights and arrive in La Palma around 22:00-22:30. It doesn’t run on Saturdays.

We had been put on guard by the organizers as the Canary Islands, especially La Palma, are Spanish territory where the citizens have obtained the right by vote to rest during the day, when everyone in other countries is working.

Therefore, between 14 (15) and 17 (most) shops are closed.

And the agricultural market closes I think at 3 pm (if not at 2 pm), not because someone kicks out the merchants (farmers/sellers), but because they go to eat and go to bed. So you need to schedule your shopping with this schedule in mind.

 

Videos from Canary Islands

IAC 80 Stellar Observatory, Tenerife:

 

INT Stellar Observatory, La Palma (2.54-m diameter primary mirror):

 

Astrophotography in La Palma:

Waves crushing gently into the rocky shore – La Palma:

 

For more details about such trips you can access:

http://www.sarm.ro/canare2015/contact.html
http://www.astro-travels.com/La-Palma-about.html