It has now been over a month since Dan and I took our two-and-a-half-day trip to Tenerife, one of Spain’s Canary Islands. This post has been dormant, half-finished, for nearly as long; spring break and assignments, sadly, pushed it to the back burner. In light of my recent trip to Barcelona, I realized that I couldn’t write a blog post about one Spanish city without the context of the other. Plus, I’ve been working on this one long enough….
We went for the skies.
As Boston astronomers, each heralding from our own big cities, Dan and I have become accustomed to light-hazed, pollution-clouded, blurred skies in our urban environments. Learning about celestial objects is fascinating, but the wonder is only complete if we can experience it first-hand. Chicago and Buffalo, despite their charms, are not known for their view of the heavens. Even Geneva, with its proximity to the lake and relative quietness, is hardly an improvement.
So when we found out that the Canary Islands are a popular destination for “astro-tourism”, we booked our travel. Plane tickets were relatively inexpensive, as was our hotel for the two-night stay. Besides—we may never have such a convenient opportunity ever again! This was a chance for me to follow through with my goal to pursue the Bigger Life.
Day 1 // Thursday 30.03
Our 09:40 flight to Barcelona was seamless; after a brief layover at the Barcelona airport (where a mocha was less than 3 Euro!!), we boarded the plane to Tenerife South. This leg of the journey was unexpectedly long, totaling 3 hours and 40 minutes of flying. I passed the time by tearing through Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn until I got so disturbed by the story that I switched to podcasts and iPhone Solitaire.
Tenerife greeted us with relentless sunlight and a cool seaside breeze. After Geneva’s 40-degree morning we were grateful for the warm weather, soaking in the sun as we waited dutifully for the public bus.
Our hotel was located in a small village called Vilaflor, the highest village on the island. Tenerife is the product of a volcano that bubbled up in the Atlantic, west of Africa. Heading towards its center requires ascending a mountain. Fortunately for us, Vilaflor was reachable by public transport, though we would soon learn that the timing was less than ideal.
Google Maps, apparently, is not up-to-date on the weekday Tenerife bus schedule. Our first bus arrived significantly after Google said it would, and even then, not “on schedule.” Our transfer to the next bus was much smoother, but between the second and last bus we had to wait another 45 minutes.
That final leg of the bus-journey was both terrifying and thrilling. Our driver—thankfully very experienced with this route—took us for half-hour ride, twisting and winding a lumbering city bus up the mountains of Tenerife. The bus driver’s skill was impressive, but the views were even more so.
Aside from a few remote farmhouses, the road on the way up was primarily lined with trees—unexpectedly deciduous for this part of the world. Vilaflor, a tiny village that basically looked exactly how I imagined a Spanish village to look, turned out to be just about the first sign of civilization after leaving the bus station.
After wandering the quiet streets of Vilaflor, lost, for a few blocks, Dan asked an old man for directions. (This would be the first of many times I would be grateful for Dan’s Spanish experience.) With his help, we found our hotel—Casa El Zaguan—across from the Vilaflor historic plaza.
The hotel was perfect. Its two owners, Steve and Angelina, spoke perfect English (albeit with strong British accents) and were wonderfully welcoming. Our room was clean, well-lit, and brightly furnished. The hotel’s location was ideal; to the east was a view of the forest-covered mountains and the village’s most “bustling” plaza was just across the cobblestoned street. Many of Vilaflor’s restaurants were a 60-second walk away. A hiking trail began right outside the front door. It turned out to be a comfortable and inexpensive place to stay!
The first night, Dan and I ate at a cozy restaurant across the street with an inviting outdoor terrace: Restaurante Fuente Hermano Pedro. We indulged in the boasted Canarian specialties: Conejo en salmorejo (rabbit meat in a traditional sauce) and goat meat. In addition, we were given bread with mojo (traditional Canarian condiments) and papas arrugadas (Canarian boiled potatoes, also often eaten with mojo).
The rabbit and goat dishes were flavorful, each with a little kick of spice. They are certainly not known for their presentation, though; the plates come piled with a mix of meat, bones, and even organs. Digging through the pile was an adventure in itself as we tried to separate the edible meat from vertebrae and ribs. Eating this food was actually a little dangerous, with all the bones hiding in our dinner. But the hearty taste and authentic experience made it worth the risk!
The Canarian potatoes were simple and rather plain but dipping them in the mojo definitely improved their taste. For dessert, I chose a chilled, oatmeal-like pudding embedded with raisins and drizzled with a caramel-like sauce. (After some online research, I have come to the conclusion that it must be frangollo.) The kind waitress, who didn’t speak much English, advertised it as an especialidad canaria (Canarian specialty), so despite its unimpressive taste, I am glad I tried it.
Our bill that night, including drinks, dinner, and dessert, came out to 25 Euro—about the price of a single main course dish back in Geneva. It was a very welcome change of pace.
In addition to the hotel, Steve runs a Tenerife stargazing tour called “Dark Skies Tenerife”. On Friday night, Dan and I met him with his van and two other guests in front of Casa El Zaguan at 8pm. We first drove us to the nearby Corona Forest National Park to watch the sunset over the Atlantic. After 15 minutes of expertly navigating the perilously-twisting mountain roads, Steve pulled over at an observation point and we piled out to watch the show.
From that vantage point, we were afforded views of two other Canary Islands, La Palma and La Gomera. Behind their low silhouettes, the sun slowly receded below a thin veil of clouds, tinging them bright red with its last breaths. Steve said it was the best sunset he’d seen all week.
Our next stop was the caldera of the volcano, an observation point called Mirador Ilano de Ucanca close to Los Roques de Garcia. By now it was very dark and the sky was covered in a dusting of thousands of pinprick stars—more than we’d seen in Geneva or Boston. It was also quite cold now that the sun was set, and Dan and I were glad that we’d come prepared with our lightweight winter jackets and long pants.
The best thing to do in situations like these is to simply look. So we looked; we drank it in. The inky blackness above us was reverse-shadowed only by the powerful light of a sliver moon. We could easily spot constellations that were unseeable from our city homes and even glimpsed a shooting star or two. A thick, faint, misty ribbon of stars straddled the sky from horizon to horizon, suggesting the strip of the Milky Way.
At one point, Steve brought out his binoculars and we were able to see the fuzzy patch under Orion’s iconic belt—the Orion nebula, a gaseous stellar nursery in the scabbard of the warrior. (It was pretty awesome; the Orion nebula is among my favorite celestial objects.) Of course, it wasn’t beautifully-colored like in the Hubble images, but it was magnificent nonetheless.
With the binoculars, we could also clearly make out the seven stars of Pleiades, the cluster in the body of the Taurus constellation. I also stole a glance at the toenail moon, noting the ridges of the craters at the Moon’s edge.
Next, Steve drove us to Acampamiento Las Lajas, a campground off the main road with a large clearing where we parked the van to stargaze some more. By now, the moon had sunk below the trees so the sky was a little darker.
Once we had had enough of the chill of the outdoors, we piled back into the van and drove back to Casa El Zaguan. We all enjoyed a glass of wine together before heading to the roof, where Steve had his telescope set up. While Vilaflor is a small village, there’s still enough light pollution to disrupt stargazing, so Steve had rigged up a makeshift set of PVC curtain rods on which he could hang black curtains to block out the intruding streetlights.
We used the telescope to see Jupiter and the four Galilean moons; for the rest of our time up there, we simply looked. (Looking at individual stars with binoculars or a telescope is pretty uninteresting; they look like the same point of light that we can see with the naked eye.)
At the start of the evening, when we told Steve that we study astrophysics in school, he joked that we would be teaching them more than he would teach us that night. But Steve was very knowledgeable about astronomy! He knew about the unconventional brightness metric for celestial objects, the Messier catalogue of astronomical objects, and the way the sky changed throughout the year. He certainly knew more about amateur telescopes than Dan or me; we could tell he was serious by the way he talked about buying a bigger telescope and his hope to build a small observatory dome in the yard. He knows his stuff, and we were both quite impressed with the entire experience. Our first night of stargazing did not disappoint.
Day 2 // Friday 31.03
On Friday, we took advantage of the nearby trail to hike to Paisaje Lunar, a “lunar landscape” in the hills surrounding Mt. Teide. The entire loop took 4-5 hours, during which we climbed nearly 600 meters!
All the upward climbing made this hike harder than I expected, but it was a great experience. There’s not much more to say about it; these pictures can give an idea, but they can’t really convey the beauty that surrounded us:
We almost got lost towards the end, but we eventually found our way back to Vilaflor with sunburnt shoulders and dust-coated calves.
Saturday night, we tried Restaurante Casa Pana, a few steps farther away than our dinner spot from the night before. The server here spoke better English and seated us on the terrace in the back of the restaurant. From there, we were offered a beautiful view of the surrounding hills (that we had climbed just hours earlier!) as we were surrounded by a little jungle of the patio’s lush greenery.
We reprised our meals from the night before, ordering both the goat and rabbit yet again. (As they say, “When in Tenerife…”) Bread and mojo were also repeat offenders. This time, though, we also ordered a sampling of cheeses from Vilaflor. We were presented with a plate of small slices of a soft white cheese (probably goat) and a harder, muskier cheese. The goat cheese was plain on its own, which I liked as a palate-cleanser, but Dan found it to taste best with some of the mojo rojo (red mojo) and bread.
I finished off the meal with a shot of espresso. The bill, again, was probably half of what we would pay in Switzerland for an equivalent amount of food. Ah, Spain! ❤
We decided to keep it casual tonight. Stephen had told us we could go up to the roof that night to use the telescope, so once the sun set, Dan and I headed up.
Contrary to popular belief, not all astronomy students know how to use a telescope. Neither of us were comfortable trying to figure out Stephen’s remote-controlled telescope by ourselves, plus we were content laying on the lounge chairs and simply staring at the sky above us. It was lovely to enjoy such clear skies while we had the chance.
Day 3 // Saturday 01.04
Leaving Vilaflor (+ Food)
We left Casa El Zaguan around 09:00, walking a few blocks to the bus stop where we could catch a public bus to take us down the mountain to Los Cristianos on Tenerife’s southern coast. Along the way, we saw some points of interest that Steve had pointed out that first night:
As we waited for the bus, Dan and I stopped into a café called Cafeteria La Paz where I ordered a coffee and a couple muffins labeled “Magdalenas”. (I’m a total sucker for anything with my name on it, which I talked about briefly <in Paris.) According to one source, Magdalenas are a Spanish muffin-equivalent to the French Madeleine cookies; I didn’t think they were that similar, though. Both are traditionally lemon-flavored, but I noticed the lemon far more in the Magdalenas than in any of the Madeleines I’ve tried. I also found the Magdalenas to be more moist than their cookie relatives, but perhaps I just haven’t had “good” Madeleines yet….
Cafeteria La Paz also had a gift shop chock-full of Tenerife souvenirs. I bought a lava-rock keychain and we each took a Vilaflor postcard.
The bus arrived a few minutes late, but we were just relieved that it showed up at all (Tenerife bus schedules did not give us much reason to trust them). For the next half hour, we watched the mountain scenery as it passed us through green-tinted windows.
In Los Cristianos, at the very end of the bus line, we checked the schedule and found that the bus to the airport left earlier than we thought. We had wanted to spend a bit of time on the nearby beach and perhaps enjoy a sit-down lunch, but we didn’t have time anymore.
Instead, we perused a couple gift shop in search of patches (no luck) and then ordered a couple sandwiches to-go from Cafeteria Bananas. Both sandwiches together cost about 7 Euro. (As you can probably guess by now, just one sandwich in Switzerland costs more than CHF 7.)
We caught our bus on time but were surprised to find that it got us to the airport in a mere half hour, not the hour-long ride we expected. (Lesson learned: Google Maps cannot be trusted on Tenerife!)
We were both fine playing it safe, though, and entertained ourselves in airport as we waited for our flight to Barcelona. (Fun fact: Dan found a Boston sports-themed bar in the Tenerife airport! Small world!!)
We got to Barcelona close to 11pm, but our flight to Geneva was at 7am the next morning. So that night, we watched 22 Jump Street and then took turns “sleeping” and “keeping watch” until our flight began boarding. (Dan would probably debate the “taking turns” part; I definitely slept longer. Oops.) When I took my shift at 4am, podcasts and the 24-hour McDonald’s were the only things keeping me awake.
Hours later, we arrived safely back at home in Geneva and made omelettes for breakfast.
All in all, Tenerife was a lot of fun! The stay at Casa El Zaguan was a truly wonderful experience. Steve and Angela were wonderful hosts, and the Dark Skies tour was truly unforgettable. I’m really glad we decided to take this trip; I got to experience a culture I never would have thought to explore before. Canarian food is really tasty (especially the cheese and mojo!) and Mt. Teide was stunning.
Vilaflor is certainly not the first destination on most people’s minds (me included), but that made the whole trip so much more unique and exciting. Not many people can say they’ve been to the Canary Islands, and I don’t think I ever would have gone if I weren’t studying in Europe this semester.
As for the skies…I must admit, I’ve seen better. Unless my memory has exaggerated the details over time, I recall an even-fuller sky of stars at a remote campground in Nevada during a family road trip when I was young. I also think that I saw more stars from a campground in Utah during a road trip with friends a couple years ago….
To be fair, we did not get the best stargazing conditions while in Tenerife. There were some wispy clouds both nights and even little Vilaflor suffered from debilitating light pollution. But I’ll concede that the skies were still fantastic—better than those in Geneva, Boston, or Chicago—and Dan said they were the best skies he’d ever seen, so that’s enough.
Dan was a champ with Spanish, too! As long as I’ve known him and we’ve talked about studying abroad Switzerland, he has bemoaned the requirement to learn French because, he insists, “Spanish is better.” (His complaints are somewhat valid; French is a very difficult language to learn.) Now was finally his chance to put his five years of Spanish lessons to good use, and he did fabulously. If not for Dan’s passable Spanish, it probably would’ve taken a lot longer to find our hotel that first night and interactions with the locals would’ve been painful. Being able to communicate in another language is a great skill to have, and a nearly indispensable one when travelling.
I’m very grateful that I got to experience Tenerife. I felt strangely grown-up to plan an impromptu weekend trip to the Canary Islands with my boyfriend! We went to an entirely different country and stayed in a city that isn’t the most popular with tourists. We were able to navigate the confusing Tenerife public bus system and find our way if we got lost.
Of course, we’re both adults and these are things we should be able to do anyway. But I sometimes still have to step back and think about how lucky I am to be able to do this kind of thing. Living in Europe for the past four months has numbed me slightly to the novelty of international travel. When I cross borders every week to do something as menial as buy groceries, it’s easy to forget that I have the incredible opportunity to explore different areas and cultures so easily. I can get to an entirely new country for an entirely new experience just by hopping on a train or taking a cheap flight. It is truly a wonderful privilege, and I’m trying to make the most of it.