When you stand atop a solitary peak on Gran Canaria and gaze into the night sky, you’re not just seeing stars; you’re witnessing a history written in starlight. Those same celestial wonders that capture your imagination today once held a profound significance for the earliest inhabitants of this island, known as the ancient Canarians. These enigmatic people, believed to be descendants of Berber tribes from North Africa, wove their creation myths from the cosmic tapestry above.
In the realm of the heavens, they fashioned gods out of the sun, moon, and the very sky itself. Yet, in the depths of the volcanic earth beneath their feet, they conjured fearsome devils. Among them, the tibicenas, demon-dogs lurking in high caves and craters, said to be gatekeepers to the underworld. These nightmarish creatures emerged under the shroud of darkness to prey upon livestock and, perhaps, unsuspecting shepherds, all beneath the crystal-clear starlight of this captivating island.
The unique quality of this celestial illumination and the pristine darkness that surrounds it remain largely untouched even after millennia. The ancient gods and monsters of the Canarians yielded to the Catholic faith brought by Spanish conquerors, but Gran Canaria today has become a world-renowned destination for stargazing, earning UNESCO recognition in 2018.
One factor contributing to this stargazing paradise is the island’s location at 28 degrees of latitude. Here, close to the equator and far from the poles, the stars dance with the changing seasons, and the entire celestial vault becomes a playground overhead. The absence of light pollution adds to the brilliance of the night sky. The glow of modern human activity is mostly confined to the bustling northeast corner around the capital, Las Palmas, thanks to prevailing trade winds creating localized patterns of cloud cover known as the “donkey’s belly” and bringing “horizontal rain.” This meteorological phenomenon keeps the skies clear over the inland mountains and the less-populated south, where Gauthier Dubois, a French-born astronomer, conducts mobile astronomy workshops with his company AstroGC. “When there’s little moonlight,” he explains, “we can gaze upon deep-sky objects like the Andromeda galaxy, Hercules, or Omega Centauri with the naked eye.”
Equipped with his four large-aperture telescopes, one of which he ingeniously constructed himself, Gauthier treats his clients to views of distant nebulae, double clusters, and stellar spirals located over 30,000 light-years away. His goal? To make them feel like they are navigating our galaxy, surrounded by thousands of stars. In March and April, the night sky blesses Gran Canaria with an especially clear view of Canopus, the second-brightest star in the heavens. Tracking its orbit, Gauthier finds a sense of humility and curiosity that links him to those pre-Hispanic settlers who once roamed this island. “Who are we? Why are we here? What is our relationship to the universe? Undoubtedly, the ancient Canary Islanders asked themselves these questions. And, despite not having the means available to us today, they were able to draw maps of the sky that I find amazing.”
This evidence is etched into the soft volcanic debris of the Sacred Mountains, where markers and monoliths left by ancient stargazers stand near the high-tech telescopes of the Roque Saucillo Astronomic Center and the Temisas Observatory. Surrounding slopes are laced with hiking trails, lookout points, and farms producing high-quality coffee and olive oil. In the Risco Caido archaeological complex, an excavated cave beneath a parabolic dome is believed to have functioned as a celestial calendar, illuminated by sunrays and moonbeams through an oculus. Nearby, Acusa Seca features cave dwellings carved into cliffs by fifth-century residents, some of which are still inhabited today and can be rented as guest houses. Ancestral villagers adorned cavern walls with vivid geometric shapes, now preserved at the Cueva Pintada site. They also constructed a vast network of grain silos into a mountain at Cenobio de Valeron. Archaeologists from Tibicena, an archaeology company named after the lurking demon dogs of ancient Canarians, have unearthed troves of artifacts from hidden chambers in the landscape, many of which are on display at the Museo Canario in Las Palmas. Tools, art, idols, and even mummified bodies provide intriguing but incomplete clues about life on this island before the Spanish arrived. Even the name of the archipelago, the “Canaries,” remains an enigma. Derived from the Latin “canārius,” meaning “pertaining to dogs,” Gran Canaria was once “Canariae Insulae,” or the “Island of Dogs.” Legend has it that early Roman expeditions encountered hordes of massive, ferocious canines on the shores. These could have been the ancestors of the native podenco canario breed, still used by farmers to hunt rabbits. Alternatively, they might have been seals, known to the Romans as “sea dogs,” or even giant lizards of the indigenous species still found on the island. Some even suggest they were man-eating fiends from the pagan underworld. Perhaps it was just linguistic confusion, as other theories propose that the original human population could be traced back to the Canarii tribe of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.
Today’s islanders carry a rich genetic tapestry of pre- and post-colonial cultures. In Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, visitors can trace the island’s journey from ancient to modern in the historic quarter of Vegueta. Inside the Renaissance-era Casa de Colon, once the governors’ mansion, you’ll find charts and instruments used by seafarers and merchants who made this island a crucial port of call between Europe and the Americas. Over time, the wooden treasure ships were replaced by cargo steamers and cruise liners that now bring passengers to savor duty-free shopping, gofio-based fish soups, and meat stews, not to mention the breathtaking coral-barrier beach at Las Canteras.
Leisure travel on the island has its own storied history. Landmarks like the 19th-century Santa Catalina hotel reflect a time when the sea air was believed to have health-enhancing properties, establishing Gran Canaria as an early wellness retreat. Those who visit during the Carnival of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria between late January and early March become part of a vibrant, cross-cultural celebration of the island’s heritage, a tradition dating back some 500 years.
In the same season, the giant star Canopus rises above the festivities, casting its luminous glow. On a clear night, beneath this starry canopy, one can’t help but feel that the ancient celestial gods of the Canarians are watching, bearing witness to all that their people have achieved and the eons of human history that have passed in the blink of their celestial eyes.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Stargazing Heritage
What makes Gran Canaria an ideal destination for stargazing?
Gran Canaria’s prime stargazing conditions stem from its location at 28 degrees of latitude, offering a view of the entire celestial vault. Minimal light pollution and local meteorological patterns keep the skies clear, making it perfect for gazing at stars, galaxies, and nebulae.
Who were the ancient Canarians, and what was their relationship with the night sky?
The ancient Canarians, possibly descended from Berber tribes, revered the heavens. They crafted gods from celestial bodies and feared underworld demons. They left behind celestial calendars and markers, offering a glimpse into their profound connection with the cosmos.
What can visitors expect from stargazing experiences on Gran Canaria?
Visitors can enjoy guided stargazing experiences led by experts like Gauthier Dubois, exploring distant galaxies and celestial wonders. The island’s unique atmosphere allows for naked-eye views of deep-sky objects like the Andromeda galaxy and Canopus, the second-brightest star in the night sky.
Yes, Gran Canaria boasts a wealth of archaeological sites linked to stargazing, including the Risco Caido complex with its celestial calendar cave, Acusa Seca’s cliffside dwellings, and the Cueva Pintada’s painted cavern walls. These sites offer insights into the island’s ancient cosmic fascination.
What’s the significance of the name “Canaries” and “Canariae Insulae”?
The name “Canaries” derives from the Latin “canārius,” meaning “pertaining to dogs.” Gran Canaria was once “Canariae Insulae,” or the “Island of Dogs.” The origin is unclear, but it may be due to early Roman explorers encountering large canines, seals, or even linguistic confusion.
How has Gran Canaria’s cultural heritage evolved from ancient times to the present?
Today’s islanders reflect a mix of pre- and post-colonial cultures. In Las Palmas de Gran Canaria’s historic quarter of Vegueta, visitors can trace this evolution through landmarks like Casa de Colon, which showcases the island’s role as a historic port of call and its journey from ancient to modern times.