The third leg of our walk across La Palma on the European hiking trail, GR131. Click here to read about the day before.
From the refuge, the walk was pleasant with continuous ups and downs on a rocky mountain path. There wasn’t much vegetation as we continued on at an altitude above 2000 meters. At this height, the views were spectacular with a layer of white fluffy clouds below.
We kept crossing our new Czech friends, the two men from the hut, who had set off much earlier than us. One had powered on and was now more than an hour ahead of the other. The slower of the two was clearly struggling. Looking at what he was wearing, he didn’t look like he had done anything like this before. He looked unprepared. We wondered if they were still friends. We felt the tension between them in the hut and not once did we see them smile or laugh together.
We could see the road up to the observatory below us with sparkling new hire cars making their way to the top. It was a strange feeling, having been so far from civilisation but now on our way to the biggest tourist attraction on the island. There was a huge red space rocket next to the road which looked like some kind of statue or monument. We never did find out what it was.
We arrived at our planned destination at 3pm, well ahead of schedule. This was the nearest place we could “wild” camp to the observatory without a big chance of getting caught. Camping is prohibited so setting up our tent too close to the observatory would have been foolish with its abundance of day tourists and night workers.
We were far too early to set up our tent so we pursued on. Roque de los Muchachos Observatory was a lot bigger than we expected. There are lots of buildings on the complex and even more telescopes. We arrived at the main tourist car park at sunset. Sunset was just as beautiful as the day before but there was certainly a chill in the air. We were now around 2500m in altitude.
First things first, we found the water point and filled all our bottles. This was the last water source before finishing our hike at sea level the following afternoon. The water was not drinkable which we half expected. We had saved two water purification tablets for this situation so split them into two and filled our four 1.5litre bottles (1 tablet is meant to purify 1 litre, not 3). It wasn’t ideal but we hoped it would be enough to keep our stomachs intact.
We took a couple of sunset photos and then continued on, away from the hustle and bustle of the observatory. It was time to start thinking about where we were going to set up camp. As we passed a few of the grand telescopes, we quickly understood why this is the second-best location for optical and infrared astronomy in the northern hemisphere (with Hawaii being the first). It felt like we were in a Sci-Fi movie. The telescopes were huge!
About 1km after the car park we found the perfect camping spot. We were close enough that we could still hear the hum of the GTC, the Gran Telescopio Canarias. The world’s largest single-aperture optical telescope (as of 2009) was just around the corner from us. Despite our close proximity to the observatory, our location was well hidden and we were slightly off the main path.
We set up our tent and put on all the clothes we had with us. We enjoyed our dehydrated meals (spaghetti carbonara and chicken curry) in complete darkness, perched on some rocks high above the valley below. This was our second dehydrated meal of the trip and I think it will be my last. My usual adventure meal consists of couscous, sultanas, nuts and curry powder – prepared by myself. MUCH better than these £7 dehydrated meals from the shop.
We sat there in silence looking in awe at the millions of stars. It was truly magical. Jupiter and Venus were the first stars to be seen each night and the brightest. Despite the cold, we sat there for over half an hour staring at the skies above. We spotted every star constellation that we knew and used an app to tell us what planets were glaring out at us. The milky way was the main event, taking up the sky with its indescribable brightness.
Where was the moon, we thought? We hadn’t seen it since we started the GR131 route in La Palma. We were utterly confused. Could you even see the moon in La Palma? We were starting to think not. We later researched and found that the nights we were there, there was either no moon or very little moon. This had made the stars that much brighter. We stayed out until we felt the cold and retreated to the warmth of our sleeping bags for our last night camping under the stars.