Ravens on La Palma

Raven on my car at the observatory, Garafía.

Carmelo the raven on my car at the observatory, Garafía.

Common Ravens live all over Europe, Asia and North America, but we have a different sub-species here. Some biologists group our raven in with the North African sub-species (Corvus corax tingitanus) and others think the Canaries have their own sub-species (Corvus corax canariensis).

Like other members of the rook-and-crow family, they’ll eat whatever’s available: carrion, insects, cereal grains, berries, fruit, small animals, and food waste. And they’re pretty intelligent about getting it. At least two individual ravens at the Roque have learned to provide a photo opportunity in exchange for some food.

Raven outside the Galileo telescopey, Garafía.

Carmelo outside the Galileo telescope, Garafía.

Carmelo hangs around the car park at the Roque itself, although I’ve met him at the Galileo telescope and  observatory heliport.  He’s got a ring around one ankle.  The other raven doesn’t have an ankle ring, and I mostly see him near the Los Andennes viewpoint, and I call him Nevermore, after the poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. (“Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’ “)

Raven at Los Andennes viewpoint, Garafía.

Nevermore, the raven (Corvus corax canariensis) at Los Andennes viewpoint, Garafía.


Steve Simpson's illustration of the road to the Roque de Los Muchachos

Steve Simpson’s illustration of the road to the Roque de Los Muchachos

The Canarian Tourist Board have some good ideas. One was to invite 7 artists from all around Europe to visit an island each with a local artist, and La Palma got Steve Simpson. who was hosted by Victor Jaubert. You can see the work of the artists at the Twitter hashtag #onthedraw

Steve Simpson's illustration of the Holy Spring at Fuencaliente

Victor Jaubert’s illustration of the Holy Spring (Fuente Santa) at Fuencaliente

Inside the Hot Spring at Fuencaliente UPDATED

The tunnel into the Fuente Santa, Fuencaliente

The tunnel into the Fuente SantaThe big tubes on the right are for ventilation.

Well that was fun. Even though I was in (I think) the fourth group, the tour into the hot spring (Fuente Santa) started bang on time. First there was an audio visual presentation, then we put on the hard hats and went down the tunnel. The guide pointed out the various places along the route where we were going through either solid basalt lava, or porous volcanic rubble.

Along the tunnel there are various side pools. Most of them have mineral salts floating on top, and each is at a different temperature. The water level, temperature and composition depend on the tide outside – seawater flows in as well as spring water flowing out.

Walkway and pool, Holy Spring, Fuencaliente

Walkway and pool

In the end pool, I finally got to do something I’ve wanted to do for at least 20 years – I dipped my toes in the water from a thermal spring. It  as warm as a good bath, and the water felt slightly oily with all the dissolved salts. So that’s me happy.

The amount of gas in the tunnel varies, depending both on what the volcano’s burping out and how much wind there is outside. They have lots of gas sensors and a good ventilation system, and I’m sure it’s safe. But after a while you get a gentle prickle at the back of your neck. When we left an hour later, I really fancied a beer.

Luckily the restaurant and café at the salt pans is only five minutes drive away. They do local craft beer too.

UPDATE: Apparently over 100 people went to the first open day. One of them was Steve Simpson, an artist who was invited by the Tourist Board  to come to La Palma as part of #onthedraw. You can see his illustration for the Fuente Santa at http://sheilacrosby.blogspot.com.es/2014/07/the-spontaneous-guide.html

One of the pool at the Fuente Santa, Fuencaliente

The pool at the far end of the passage

The Hot Spring

B&W drawing of the Holy Spring, Fuencaliente, at night.

The graja pecked at the reflection of a star. Althay laughed.

Fuencaliente means “Hot Spring”. The southernmost municipality takes its name from the hot spring which seeped out into pools on Echentive beach. It was famous for curing all kinds of sickness, including leprosy and syphilis, so Fuencaliente used to attract sick people from all over Europe and even South America. That’s the setting for “A Star in the Water”, one of the stories in “The Seer’s Stone“.

And then Volcan San Antonio erupted in 1677 and buried it under 40 metres of lava.

As soon as the lava cooled, people started searching for the spring, and they went on searching until it was found in 2005. Then there was a long discussion about how to renovate the spring without wrecking it. (La Palma is not Magaluf.) And then the engineering work started.

Of course the engineering work took longer than expected – doesn’t it always? In this case, largely because the spring is heated by a volcano, and the volcano sometimes burps out poisonous gases. It took a while to sort out the ventilation system.

The long term plans still haven’t been decided, but the public can finally get in, on summer Thursdays. You have to sign up for a free guided tour at http://www.lapalmaaguas.es/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=114&Itemid=1. Each tour takes an hour. (The website is in Spanish, but then so’s the tour.) I’m going on Thursday, and I’ll let you know.

A Stroll by the Sea: Puerto Espindola, Charco Azul and San Andres

Map showing location of Charco Azul,La Palma, Canary Islands

Where to find Charco Azul

La Palma has over 1,000 km of footpaths – everything from challenges for fit people to gentle strolls. One of my favourites is the walk along the coast from Charco-Azul to Puerto Espindola, in the municipality of San Andres and Sauces.

Seaside footpath at Charco Azul, La Palma, Canary Islands

Seaside footpath at Charco Azul. Photo: Helen Bennett

Charco Azul has salt-water swimming pools, rather like Piscinas la Fajana. At one time, Puerto Espindola was a working port, mostly exporting the agricultural produce of the borough. Now it’s mostly a fishing port, although it does have a rum factory.

The walk also goes past an old lime kiln. Lime was important, because everybody used it to whitewash their houses and water tanks.

Lime Kiln near Puerto Espindola, San Andres y Sauces, La Palma

Lime Kiln near San Andres. Photo: Helen Bennett

San Andres is a lovely little village.

And it’s always nice to meet the locals.

Baby gecko (Tarentola delalandii), Charco Azul, La Palma

Newly hatched baby gecko (Tarentola delalandii), Charco Azul

Roadworks in Barlovento

Roadworks between Barlovento and Gallegos, La Palma

Roadworks between Barlovento and Gallegos

There are roadworks on the main road between Barlovento and Gallegos – the LP1. They only last for about 10 km, but as you can see, the road currently looks like a rally-type video game.

Roadworks between Barlovento and Gallegos, La Palma

Roadworks between Barlovento and Gallegos

I’m sure it’ll be great when they’ve finished. But in the mean time I recommend allowing extra time, and avoiding it at night.


Roadworks between Barlovento and Gallegos, La Palma

Roadworks between Barlovento and Gallegos

The Swedish Solar Tower

Two of the fourteen telescopes at the Roque de los Muchachos observatory are solar telescopes — highly specialised to observe our own sun. This is the Swedish Solar Telescope, which was the first telescope built on the Roque. It’s currently the best solar telescope in the world since they added the new adaptive optics in 2005. (Adaptive optics compensate for air turbulence.) It can resolve details of the sun’s surface only 70km across.

Whereas most telescopes struggle to collect enough light, the main design problem for solar telescopes is air turbulence caused by heat. They solved this by making most of the tower a vacuum tube. Of course that means that the 1 metre lens at the top of the tower has to be very strong to cope with the pressure difference, as well as optically perfect.

The rounded thingamybob on the top of the tower behind the man is called a heliostat: it follows the sun across the sky and sends the image down the tower to the instruments in the basement.

And here is the basement. At the top left you can see the bottom of circle where the sunlight comes down, together with some of the copper water pipes for cooling it. The light is then split up: some goes to the adaptive optics and most to a series of cameras, each of which observes a different wavelength.

They observe things like sunspots, which are areas of the sun’s surface where an intense magnetic field interferes with convection, and keeps the temperature to a mere 4000 ºC, instead of 5800 ºC like the rest. Each spot may be several times the size of the Earth.

If you want more details, the telescope’s home page is here, and there’s a chapter on it in “A Breathtaking Window on the Universe: A guide to the observatory at the Roque de los Muchachos“.

The Sacred Heart fiesta in El Paso

Stencilling designs onto salt for the Sacred Heart fiesta in El Paso, La Palma island

Stencilling designs onto salt for the Sacred Heart fiesta

It’s El Paso’s main fiesta, The Sacred Heart (El Corazon Sagrado). Like Mazo and San José, they make archways and carpets, but they’re slightly different.

In San José, they dye the salt, and then put the colours together to make the picture. In El Paso, they start by putting down white salt –kilos and kilos of it from the salt pans in the southern tip of the island. They carefully put a stencil on top, and spray on the various colours until the design’s complete. In this case, they added a table on top with a statue of the Virgin, and then this man started retouching.

A nearly-finished carpet and altar, Sacred Heart fiesta in El Paso, La Palma island

A nearly-finished carpet and altar

The salt carpets aren’t the only thing. They also make wonderful archways, similar to those in Mazo.

Panels for the Sacred Heart fiesta in El Paso, La Palma island

Panels for the Sacred Heart fiesta in El Paso

Well, as you can see, these days some of them aren’t arches. In this case the carpet is leaves from tree-heathers, laid down with a garden sieve. Like the ones in Mazo, they’re decorated with seeds and flowers.

Flower detail made with maize and other seeds, Sacred heart archway, El Paso, La Palma island

Flower detail made with maize and other seeds

Unlike the ones in Mazo, a lot of the fine detail is done with crushed and dyed eggshells.

Picture of a traditional Canarian house made with crushed eggshells, Sacred heart archway, El Paso, La Palma island

Fine detail made with crushed eggshells

They have lots of religious processions on La Palma, where they take the statue out of the church and around the neighbourhood streets, with music provided by the town band. A lot of the statues are beautiful, but if you see a lot of these processions, they do get a bit samey.

The Sacred Heart procession starts much like all the others, only on the salt carpet. But when they get halfway along the first carpet, the statue stops and brightly coloured bits of paper and bougainvillea petals start raining down from a nearby rooftop, which is very pretty indeed. (The papers had “The promises of the Sacred Heart” printed on them – at least twelve different ones.) And the kids scramble to collect the papers while they release some doves.

At the end of the first carpet, the procession stops again, beside the old church, where the choir sings about “The Source of Love” – and sing it very well, too.

Then the procession carries on round the back streets.

Last year the procession started at 7 pm.

Procession for the Sacred Heart fiesta, El Paso, La Palma island

Procession for the Sacred Heart fiesta, El Paso

Visiting the observatory 2014

Grantecan, the biggest telescope in the world,Roque de los Muchachos observatory, La Palma

Grantecan, the biggest telescope in the world

La Palma is home to one of the three most important astronomical observatories in the world. (The other two are Hawaii and the Atacama desert in Chile.) The observatory sits at the top of the island, at the Roque de los Muchachos. It’s a fascinating place to visit, but it’s not normally open to tourists – they’re too busy doing science. However, you can sign up for a 90 minutes visit for 9€ per person. More details at http://starisland.co.uk/articles/visiting-the-observatory/

The MAGIC gamma ray telescope, Roque de los Muchachos observatory, La Palma

The MAGIC gamma ray telescope, Roque de los Muchachos observatory, La Palma