View from the top
The sky turns from spotless blue to yellow and gold then turns deeper and deeper red as the sun sets behind the huge crater within sight of Mount Teide, Spain’s highest mountain. Holidaymakers visiting Tenerife watch the show, snap selfies and occasionally snap photos of rugged landscapes.
A woman comments on how much cooler it is here than on the black volcanic sand beaches of Puerto de la Cruz. Zipped my fleece up to my chin, I’m inclined to agree. This is hardly surprising at our altitude of around 2,300 meters (7,500 feet). Although we are at the same latitude as places in Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, winter visitors to Tenerife often see the slopes of the volcano dusted with snow.
Teide most recently erupted in 1909. Sometimes Mount Teide is described as the third tallest volcano in the world. To understand why, you would need to travel in a submersible vehicle deep below the surface of the North Atlantic. Rising from the ocean floor, the total height of Teide measures approximately 7,500 meters (24,600 ft).
Incidentally, the prodigious depth of the Atlantic around the island explains why no less than 21 species of cetaceans can be spotted throughout the year. The deep waters teem with squid, a favorite food for the resident pilot whales. Along with bottlenose dolphins, they are frequently sighted on whale and dolphin watching cruises that depart from Puerto Colón Marina, near the southern tip of Tenerife. Occasionally, the largest living creature in the world, the blue whale, can be spotted in the sea water off the Canary Islands.
From Puerto de la Cruz, the 80-minute minibus ride to Mount Teide took the winding TF-21, a route long recognized as one of the most scenic roads in Europe. In recent years, the road’s steep gradient and challenging curves, combined with the island’s year-round mild climate, have made rides on the TF-21 a favored training route for elite cyclists. Bradley Wiggins made the climb several times ahead of his 2012 Tour de France overall victory. in Tenerife.
Despite my pleasure in cycling, I was secretly relieved to come here by minibus rather than by bicycle. As we worked uphill in second gear, Juan, my local guide, had to raise his voice to be heard over the groaning engine of the bus. He explained that Alexander von Humboldt, the German polymath, visited Tenerife in 1799. Studying the plant life of the island, Von Humboldt noted how the vegetation was stratified, varying with altitude.
As we climbed, Juan pointed out how the lush laurel forest had given way to giant heather. He explained that markedly different species grow in Tenerife compared to the African mainland, less than 300 kilometers (186 miles) to the east. Between 800 and 900 meters of altitude, the alpine vegetation begins to prosper. The forest is dominated by Canarian pines with similarities to trees found in the Himalayas. In the upper parts of the pine forest, avid birdwatchers have the best chance of spotting the blue chaffinch, one of the island’s most easily recognizable endemic bird species.
Declared a national park in 1954, the arid, rocky landscape of Teide was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Only 200 people a day can enjoy the lunar view from Spain’s highest point, 3,718 meters (12,200 feet) above sea level. This is the maximum number of licenses granted by the National Parks Authority to walk the narrow Telesforo Bravo trail that leads to the summit of Mount Teide. Many other visitors have the chance to gaze down from La Rambleta, from the prodigious height of 3,555 meters (11,663 feet), after ascending with the Teide cable car.
To my layman, the rugged terrain of the national park is how I imagine the rock-strewn surface of the planet Mars. The experts clearly think so too. The European Space Agency has selected locations in the national park as test sites for the Heavy Duty Planetary Rover designed for deployment to Mars.
“We have one of the best skies in the world. It can be compared to the sky of the Atacama Desert in Chile and Hawaii, but at a lower altitude,” says Juan, adding that the sky is clear more than 300 days a year. This, together with the low level of light pollution in the night sky, explains the white domes and silo structures of the Teide Observatory. The darkness of the night sky in the region facilitates the work of professional astronomers.
Raising my head upwards, I notice that the night sky sparkles with a startling concentration of stars – far more than is visible from urban areas. An expert from the Teide by Night team points a green laser beam at a distant constellation then invites guests to look through his telescope. Excitedly, we line up and wait our turn looking up.