Stargaze… from Horus and Nut until Zeus, Jupiter or Odin, not forgetting Navajo Ahsonnutli or Maori Rangi, the stars have always been home to gods, mythological creatures, legends, and, why not, The Little Prince. They are objects of attraction and fear, but they also awaken a deep fascination.
They are responsible for harvests, epidemics and guidance for the arrival of big news. It is impossible not to look up to admire them until Richard Branson finalizes the preparations for the first suborbital trip with Virgin Galactic so that we can be a little closer to the stars. More than 1,000 people are on the waiting list.
Some people are always trying to find the universe’s limits and dreaming of implementing the eccentricities by companies like Space Adventures or Zero G. Until then, we will have to go on start gazing from Earth and, in this sense, Spain is in luck. Spain has become one of the main Star Tourism destinations, together with Finnish Lapland, where you can await the Northern Lights in amazing resorts, the Mongolian steppe, the Bedouin camps in the Sahara dunes, and the Chilean Elqui valley that supposedly boasts the perfect night sky. Where should we start our stargazing trip?
- Canary Islands: The world’s stargazing paradise for their clear, almost transparent sky, as well as for their low rainfall rates. They are also known for their perfect geographical location: very close to the Equator, but far enough from tropical storms, which allows visitors to see the entire Northern Hemisphere and a big part of the Southern one. They have a clean, unpolluted, and quiet atmosphere, the trade winds’ breeze, and high mountains that make tourists feel a little closer to the universe and that ensure a unique night show in the world. These exclusive conditions have not gone unnoticed for researchers -who have set international large telescopes on their summits- nor for the general public. Thus, some of the best places to stargaze on the Canary Islands are Roque de los Muchachos (La Palma), Mirador Morro Velosa (Fuerteventura), or the Teide National Park and Granadilla de Abona in Tenerife, leader of European project Sky Route. Besides, all locations have been declared ‘Starlight Reserve’ by UNESCO.
A Starlight Reserve is “a site where a commitment to preserve the quality of the night sky and its associate values, whether they are cultural, scientific, astronomical, natural, or landscape-related”. This initiative is supported by UNESCO and the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization), and the first Starlight certification went to a place in the Iberian Peninsula:
- Alentejo (Portugal), in particular the Alqueva dam area, a barely inhabited location where the light conditions are best suited to gaze the stars. Not far from here, in one of the most touristic areas of southern Portugal, the Algarve, near Portimão, you can visit the Centro de Observação Astronómica no Algarve where you can even stay for the night since they also have accommodation to allow long stargazing sessions.
Sierra de Gredos (Ávila), Sierra Nevada (Granada), Sierra de los Filambres (Almería), Monfragüe National Park (Cáceres), Alhama, Cidacos and Jubera valleys (La Rioja), Almadén de la Plata (Seville), the Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory (Teruel), and the Montsec Astronomical Observatory (Lleida) are some of the Spanish Star Tourism sites that are able to compete with major international destinations.
- Monfragüe National Park (Cáceres): Situated next to the ruins of a castle and surrounded by high mountains, deep valleys and rock cliffs, it overlooks the Tagus River and a dark, almost black sky. Here, the impressive views are only comparable to the reigning silence.
- Sierra Nevada (Granada): The Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia’s Observatory stands on one of the highest points of the peninsula. If you look down, you will find a beautiful view over the astonishing city of Granada and the Alhambra, and if you look up, you will almost touch the stars.
- Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory (Teruel): Speaking of which, “here you will touch the stars” is the motto of this public center which is already the main tourist attraction in the province. With a 2.5m diameter telescope to explore every corner of the universe!
- Almadén de la Plata (Seville): The greatest information and Star Tourism center in Spain! It has five observatories and public telescopes that everybody can use, and it organizes many astronomical activities throughout the Seville area including the Southern Sierra de Jaén.
- Sierra de Gredos (Ávila): The area offers many different tourism activities such as nature escapades or relaxing luxury spas, and some establishments like the Hotel El Milano Real have a powerful telescope for use and enjoyment of their guests..
- Montsec Astronomical Observatory (Lleida): Research and Monitoring Centre with the largest and most advanced telescope in Catalonia that has generated many businesses in the area around wonderful sky observation possibilities.
Other places that are not included in the Starlight project but could make any stars fan feel like they are walking on the Milky Way are: Cantabria Astronomical Observatory at Parque de las Hoces del Alto Ebro y Rudrón, the Borobia Observatory (Soria) -with lots of activities and the possibility to book a star weekend pack- or La Murta Observatory (Murcia). Do you feel like a stroll among the stars and exploring the universe from Earth?