Experience stellar stargazing in Gran Canaria
Gran Canaria may be chiefly known for its beautiful beaches and year-round sunshine, but the destination's striking natural beauty doesn't switch off at night. The third largest of the Canary Islands is rapidly becoming a popular vacation spot for stargazers, with clear skies and dramatic vantage points that make the most of the impressive views.
In many areas around the world, the perpetual glow from street lights, buildings, signs and other manmade sources obscures our view of the night sky; in major cities, it can be difficult to pick out more than a few stars, let alone magnificent features such as the Milky Way. For this reason, astrotourism has become increasingly popular in recent years, as travelers flock to places that offer dark skies with unparalleled views of the star-spangled heavens. Gran Canaria, as well as the neighboring islands of Tenerife and La Palma, have quickly emerged as some of the top global astrotourism destinations.
Whether you're a seasoned astronomy buff or simply like the idea of a romantic evening spent admiring the heavens, Gran Canaria offers a variety of ways to enjoy this inspiring pastime. Read on to find out more about stargazing tours, observatory visits and the best places to see the night sky during your stay in Gran Canaria.
Why is Gran Canaria such a good spot for stargazing?
“To be able to stargaze in good conditions, you want a place with low light pollution and, obviously, a clear sky,” says Gauthier Dubois, who has been running AstroGC stargazing tours on Gran Canaria for the last 5 years. “If you are going to use a high magnification telescope, it is best to be at a high altitude. Less air between you and the stars means less air movement and less image distortion.”
Gran Canaria’s climate and landscape offers just these conditions. The problem of light pollution can be partially avoided by heading to one of the higher points on the island and taking advantage of an atmospheric phenomenon the locals call the panza de burro ("the donkey's belly"). This effect occurs when trade winds from the north push clouds across the island, until a cloud bank (which is said to resemble the grey belly of a donkey) piles up against the mountains along the northern edge. Although not ideal for beachgoers in the capital city of Las Palmas hoping to catch some rays, this low-lying cloud cover does have the effect of blocking some of the city's light pollution for those standing above the mist.
Even without the assistance of the panza de burro, Gran Canaria generally offers excellent conditions for night sky viewing. The island boasts up to 50 weeks of sun each year, and rainy spells seldom last more than a day or two, so you're certain to get a good look at the stars for at least a couple of nights during your stay. Although the weather is mild year-round, remember to wear a warm jacket or sweater when headed outdoors at night, as the wind in the mountains can be surprisingly cold even when the temperature is comfortable elsewhere.
Join a stargazing tour
The easiest way to maximize your stargazing experience in Gran Canaria is to sign up for a dedicated stargazing tour. “One big advantage is that this is an activity that doesn’t require you to be in any particular physical condition,” Dubois notes. “It’s suitable for everyone from children to seniors, as well as people with reduced mobility.”
There are a number of companies that specialize in dark sky tourism, and who can advise you on the best nights to go, based on current weather conditions, and take you to some of the island's best spots for night viewing. You'll also be accompanied by a guide to help you spot constellations, planets and other celestial attractions – particularly handy if you're new to astronomy. Here are a few to try:
Enjoy dazzling views of the starry night sky from a perch in the mountains near Maspalomas, in the south of the island, on a stargazing tour with Gauthier Dubois’ own company AstroGC. Dubois has been fascinated by the stars since childhood, and later studied mathematics and physics to pursue this interest. As part of the tour, he’ll pick you up at your hotel in a comfortable minibus or van and transport you to a remote hillside viewing station where you can gaze at the stars without interference from artificial light. It's a brilliant opportunity to learn the basics of how to use a telescope and identify planets, galaxies, constellations and more. These small group tours are ideal for families, couples and solo travelers, with at least 1 telescope per 8 people.
With both private and group tours available, this specialized scientific tour company offers a wide variety of astronomical tours throughout the Canary Islands. On Gran Canaria, you can take part in stargazing workshops or hikes at stunning locations such as Roque Nublo, as well as visits to a local scientific observatory (see below). AstroEduca also organize a monthly StarParty, a family-friendly event with opportunities to use telescopes, learn about astrophotography and hone your star-spotting skills – perfect for an unforgettable evening in Gran Canaria.
Visit a local observatory
Gran Canaria is such a favorable location for viewing the heavens that 2 scientific observatories are situated on the island. Both are open for guided tours and offer a range of activities that are equal parts educational and entertaining, both at the observatories themselves and at other sites across the island.
Temisas Astronomical Observatory
Tucked away in a picturesque village surrounded by olive groves, the Observatorio Astronómico de Temisas is a peaceful place to admire the scenery and the stars. Thanks to the efforts of the non-profit Canarian Foundation for Temisas Observatory, the facility hosts an excellent public education program alongside its scientific research, with a jam-packed schedule of talks, tours and other activities to share its findings with a wider audience and promote the wonders of the night sky as an important part of the island's heritage and tourism. With a telescope dome, a stargazing platform, exhibition halls and other specialized equipment, including lasers to point out various constellations and other astral sights, it's a fantastic place for an introduction to astronomy.
Roque Saucillo Astronomical Center
With a convenient location in the town of Vega de San Mateo, in the center of Gran Canaria, the Centro Astronómico Roque Saucillo (CARS) is easy to reach by car or bus. Popular with tourists, school groups and locals alike, this modern facility boasts multiple telescopes, cameras and other advanced observational equipment that is used for both scientific work and its educational program. The center works in collaboration with the tour group AstroEduca to develop a vibrant series of public events and activities that bring astronomy to life for a wide audience, which are particularly good if you're visiting Gran Canaria with children.
The best places to stargaze in Gran Canaria
If you feel like going it on your own, Dubois has suggestions for the best vantage points for stargazing on the island. “In Gran Canaria, the southwest of the island is by far the best stargazing area due to the low light pollution, clear skies and high altitude,” he observes. “It’s also generally very clear when the trade winds are blowing.
“It is important to get far away from urban areas. The north of the island is affected by the lights of Las Palmas, the east is affected by the airport’s lights, as well as Telde, Vecindario and Maspalomas. The west and southeast are good choices as long as you get inland, away from the urban tourist areas of the coast. The center of the island can also work, mainly due to its high altitude – but it is not as dark as the southwest and is more likely to be windy.”
Here are a few of his top picks for stargazing points:
Presa de Las Niñas
“’Presa’ means ‘dam’, and here you’ll find a reservoir of water with some flat areas where you can park the car and enjoy the night. There is also a free camping area with some barbecues, toilets and water available, but you need authorization from the local authorities to stay there at night. There are a few more dams in this area – Presa del Mulato, Presa de Soria and Presa de Chira – all of which are good places to stargaze.”
“This rock formation is an iconic sight on the island. The name literally means ‘cloudy rock’, but hopefully this will be inaccurate the night you are there! There is parking next to the road, and you can either stay there or carefully walk up to the huge rock. Remember, though, you are in the mountains so there are some risks – it can also be really cold during the winter.”
El Garañón Camp and Tamadaba National Park
“These are both heavily wooded areas, so it’s important to choose a spot where you have an open view in all directions. Again, there are camping facilities available, but you need permission to stay overnight.”
Wherever you choose to go, make sure you're properly equipped for night excursions in rugged terrain, with warm clothes, proper footwear and a flashlight. Plan ahead so you know where you're going, and check that you have all the necessary permits if you’d like to camp.
What to look for
Finally, we asked Dubois about what constellations you can expect to see in the Gran Canarian sky between November and February – the peak time for visiting the island. “The constellations you see in the sky depend not only on the earth’s rotation around the sun, but also its rotation around its own axis,” he explains. “Thus, the constellations you can see depend on both the season and the time you are observing the sky. Assuming you’re not an ardent fan of stars willing to stay up till 5am to see an event, I’ll describe what you can see from 30 minutes to 2 hours after sunset.”
“In November, you can still see the Hercules constellation in the west. This contains a nice globular star cluster that can be observed with a telescope. Right over you, the constellations of Lyra and Cygnus also include some nice objects. To the east is the Andromeda constellation, including the well-known Andromeda Galaxy. If there’s no moon in the sky, the Andromeda Galaxy will be visible to the naked eye. Along the ecliptic plane (the path taken by the sun through the heavens) are the zodiacal constellations of Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces and Aries, although these can be hard for an inexperienced observer to recognize.”
“We begin to lose the Hercules constellation in December as it gets too low on the horizon. Lyra and Cygnus shift to the west, while Andromeda gets higher in the sky so the galaxy becomes more visible. In the east, the Taurus constellation is rising, and is quite easy to recognize. Taurus contains the Pleiades, or 7 Sisters – a star cluster that’s easy to observe even with the naked eye.”
“By January, the constellation Orion is rising in the east. This is one of the constellations most admired by stargazers. It is very easy to recognize, and even people with no knowledge of the stars sometimes remember having seen this pattern in the sky. It contains the Great Orion Nebula, which can almost be seen with the naked eye. You can get a good view of it with binoculars and a fantastic view with a wide aperture telescope.”
“In February, Orion is rising higher, Pleiades is in the zenith, and we can see the zodiacal constellations of Gemini and Cancer rising in the east.”