Nowadays, the clarity of the night sky cannot be taken for granted. As cities and world population grow, the heavenly real estate suitable for sky watchers and star gazers is shrinking, always under assault by light and air pollution. But in the Spanish heavens, this trend is changing. Here, there remain places where efforts are being made to preserve the clarity of the night, and astrotourism is ever on the rise. Stellar Parks, Starlight Reserves, Sky Routes and sky decks are allowing amateur astronomers the chance to see the sky properly, as few can: a beautiful black void pierced by millions of brilliant heavenly bodies.
STARGAZING ON A VOLCANO
On a bushy and rocky surface, next to Spain´s tallest mountain, the white domes of El Teide Observatory spill down the landscape like a futuristic city. On Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, the night sky is one of the clearest in the world, where the Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon, and where planets glow and the Orion Nebula and Andromeda Galaxy can be seen with the naked eye; a paradise for professional and novice stargazers.
With its year-round temperate climate, friendly locals and fascinating landscapes, tourists have long known the Canary Islands as a hotspot for a perfect island escape. But relatively few are aware that the archipelago—tucked away far south of the mainland of Spain and just miles of the African coast—is home to some of the world´s most important telescope facilities, and has hosted prestigious scientific conferences with distinguished minds in the field space exploration, including Brian Cox, Neil Armstrong, Stephen Hawking, Buzz Aldrin, Martin Rees and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The largest optical telescope in the world sits atop Caldera de Taburiente National Park in nearby Gran Canaria island. And since 2009, a wide-arching “Dark Skies Awareness” campaign, grown from a variety of educational and cultural institutions, has found a fitting flagship destination in the Canaries, as observers can enjoy nocturnal spectacles almost anywhere on the islands and on almost any night of the year.
NATURAL PARKS IN THE SKY
In 2009, Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC), in association with UNESCO, created the Starlight Foundation, a collective that looks to change the way the public values a clear and beautiful night sky. Through a creation of Starlight Reserves and Starlight Tourist Destinations, more and more visitors are traveling to places like the Biosphere Reserve in Fuerteventura, Canary Islands, as well as lookouts at El Teide National Park and Los Cumbres in Tenerife to watch the rare phenomena like meteor showers, super moons and exploding stars with brightness and clarity envied by urban sky watchers. High on Tegu Mountain in Fuerteventura, at the Mirador de Morro Velosa near Betancuria, the heavens explode with the light of burning stars and swirling galaxies. The Astronomical Association of Fuerteventura organizes visits and tours, as well as courses on astrophotography.
The European Union has made El Teide in Tenerife the first stop on its EU Sky Route, a world-wide itinerary of unique and officially certified stargazing sites, where local communities have made fervent efforts to protect the right of the continent’s citizens to view a clean and brilliant night sky. More adventurous hikers have discovered the trails of Las Cañadas as phenomenal places to observe the night lights. Also, visitors are offered guided tours through the largest solar observatory in the world at the Teide Observatory. Professional astronomers and knowledgeable, trained amateurs can even rent telescope time at the Mons Observatory.
STARS ABOVE THE MOUNTAINS
Starlight certifications are by no means exclusive to the Canary Islands. Back on the mainland, at the center of the Iberian Peninsula, the northern Gredos Mountains host activities for active tourism, which include an alpine school, horseback trail riding, interpretive nature walks and of course amateur astronomy and stargazing. Even though Gredos is only a quick drive from your hotel in Madrid, in 2013 the Starlight Foundation designated a wide section of the night sky above the northern mountains of the region with the certification of Starlight Tourist Destination. The ideal natural conditions above the northern Gredos Mountains—like nearly non-existent light pollution, low humidity and more than 200 nights of cloudless sky—are ideal and simply jaw-dropping for astronomers. Hence the north zone of Regional Park of the Sierra de Gredos is among the elite spots in the world for both astronomical observation and astrophotography.
COSMIC PLAYGROUND IN CATALONIA
High in the Catalan Pyrenees Mountains, concerted and successful night sky conservation efforts have made the Montsec Astronomy Park a star in the world of amateur astronomy. In the spirit of defending the celestial darkness as a right for all to see and experience, artificial lights in the area must point down and only LEDs which prevent the emission of blue light are allowed. The Starlight Foundation in turn awarded Montsec both the Starlight Tourist Destination certification and the harder to get Starlight Reserve designation. Activities here include a live narrated presentation under a 12-meter- wide multimedia dome, where a 3D show highlights the most fascinating aspects the night sky. Novice astronomers can also take a guided tour of the observatory and get a close-up view of the moon, planets, nebulae and galaxies, and visit their permanent exhibition on astronomy and local flora and fauna of the park. But you don’t need a giant telescope to see the show; almost anywhere in the area is ideal for simply looking up and taking in a front-seat view of space.
CLEAR ANDALUSIAN NIGHTS
To qualify for a Starlight Reserve, there must be a clear buffer zone in the area, where encroaching light pollution and smog from cities are kept at bay. In the plains of Andalusia, near Málaga, the Sierra Sur of Jaén boasts clean air and a glare-free atmosphere, isolated and distant from contaminating urban development, which means unparalleled stargazing. At La Pedriza in nearby Alcalá la Real, the wonders of space are brought closer in the beautiful planetarium and from the various sized telescopes at the Andalusian Astronomical Observatory.
LOOKOUTS AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD
Some of the best places to take advantage of the uber-clear, Starlight-certified skies in Jaén are at designated lookout points. At Valdepeñas de Jaén, the former military base of Alto de La Pandera serves as a sky deck of sorts, reserving a large patio and heliport for stargazers and astrophotographers at the highest point in the Starlight Reserve of Sierra Sur. Seasoned observers report that the most spectacular views are toward the east and the south. At the Control de La Cabrera, in Marmolejo, an isolated hut with facilities draws hikers toting telescopes and binoculars for perfect views, completely devoid of artificial light. Another of the best locales for taking in the cosmos in Jaen´s Starlight Reserve is Cortijo del Moralejo, at the Quejigo del Amo Natural Monument. Here, a 4x4 vehicle takes adventurous night observers into a wide valley with walls that block out those last photons of man-made light on the horizon. Another option is mixing stars and hiking at El Torcal of Antequera (Malaga) or going to the beach at Cabo de Gata (Almeria) during the night. And these natural land formations create the perfect foreground for top-notch astrophotography.
Up in the mountains of the Córdoba province, near Montoro, the unspoiled terrain is matched only by the purity of the nocturnal sky, and organized tours now show interested parties how good stargazing can be. Couples can escape on a retreat of nature, romance and impeccable stargazing. Where the Guadalquivir River winds though the rugged landscape, the wilderness area is already a desirable destination for nature lovers, but after the Iberian sun sets, a sparkling sheet of of stars, planets, multi-colored nebulae and galaxies spreads out above. With the help of a trained astronomical experts from science and star tourism operator Astroandalus, couples make a romantic getaway and look through professional telescopes and learn about the beautiful complexities of the cosmos from a vantage point that is second to none. Astroandaluz also brings visitors staying at their hotel in Malaga to the nearby Alfarnatejo for an educational stargazing session complete with a knowledgeable monitor and transportation.