Plan K

Rainbow on the way to the Cumbre tunnel, BrenaAlta, La Palma
Rainbow on the way to the Cumbre tunnel

I spent quote a lot of time organising a visit for a large group (55!) of high school students. They’re Erasmus exchange students on an astronomy-related trip, some from Tenerife (the hosts) some from Poland, and some from Slovenia. The main point of their visit to La Palma was to see GTC, but they were going to be on La Palma all day, so what else could they see?

So I planned a route and organised a small mid morning picnic and booked the bus and lunch and the telescope. And then the afternoon before, I heard that the visit to the telescope was cancelled due a a weather alert.


OK, where else could I take them? My first thought was the volcano centre in Fuencaliente. They’re geeky, right? But there’s an entrance fee for the volcanoes and I didn’t think there was any budget left. So much for Plan B

OK, Cumbrecita – a gorgeous view of the Caldera. You have to book the space to park the bus in advance, but it’s free, and it’s on the way to the restaurant where I’d booked lunch. Followed by? Oh I don’t know, La Glorieta Square? It’s gorgeous, but out of the way and last time I used it as an alternative destination for teenagers, they weren’t impressed. End of Plan C.

Right, there’s El Verde archaeological site in El Paso, which marks the midsummer solstice. Yay, that’s a bit of astronomy anyway. The path down to the site is very rough, but these were teenagers and I didn’t anticipate a problem. And we would get to the restaurant at almost the same time as the original route. Plan D looked great until I tried to book the bus park at Cumbrecita. End of Plan D

How about El Verde on the way out and Cumbrecita on the way back? Nope, couldn’t book Cumbrecita then either. End of Plan E.

Right, if people got on the bus pretty sharpish at the airport and we went straight to Cumbrecita, we’d get 45 minutes there. Not enough time for the hour-long hike I wanted, but it actually fit. Toilets after Cumbrecita instead of before. Plan F looked OK.

Oh wait. We were supposed to be collecting a small picnic at the Observatory, because they’d all be having breakfast before 7 am and lunch would be 2 pm. Since we weren’t going to the observatory, we couldn’t pick it up. Several frantic calls later I dashed to the supermarket and bough water, juice fruit and a fun sized chocolate bar for each of 56 people. I worried about getting it from my car to the bus until I realised that airports have luggage trolleys. I left the picnic in my car overnight and planned to get there 20 minutes early. Plan G would work, wouldn’t it?

It started off fine. I just had time to load the picnic into the bus before my customers arrived. They were very disappointed not to be seeing the observatory, especially since their visit to the Izaña observatory on Tenerife had been cancelled the day before. We saw a glorious rainbow on the way to the tunnel. I talked less than usual, because English as a second language is tiring, and more so for teenagers.

As we came out of the tunnel it was still cloudy. In fact, it looked as though the viewpoint would be in the cloud and my customers were in for another disappointment. We got to the Cumbrecita on time and found the clouds were just above us. You could see the far side of the crater 5 miles away. People were suitably impressed, although the walk was cut short due to a very muddy section of path.

We went for our little walk, during which the drizzle stopped and the clouds slowly rose and another rainbow appeared. Much of the crater rim was free of cloud, although the observatory was still hidden.

Caldera de Taburiente from Cumbrecita, El Paso La Palma
Caldera de Taburiente from Cumbrecita

The organiser of the group asked if there was any chance of visiting the telescope. I said probably not because a) it was illegal to visit if the weather alert was still in force, even if the bad weather had stopped, and b) we were in the wrong part of the island and c) telescopes hate afternoon visits, because they’re getting the telescopes ready for the night. But maybe we could drive through the observatory and at least see things from outside.

We went to the visitor centre. While people made use of the toilets, I roughed out Plan H. If we dropped El Verde and had lunch an hour earlier, we’d have time to go back over the top. While I was doing that, I had a call from the IAC. They would try to arrange a telescope visit if the weather alert finished, but of course they couldn’t promise. I didn’t think it would actually happen, but I was determined to have my group in the right place just in case! I phoned Briesta restaurant who were very helpful. An hour earlier? No problem. I was impressed (including me and the driver, there were 57 of us.) The customers were happy, and we set off.

On the way, I realised that since we weren’t coming back the same way, a 10-minute stop in El Time would give people a chance to get off the bus and see the amazing view. That was plan I.

We got stuck for 20 minutes at some roadworks, but that was minor.

Lunch was great. I recommend Restaurante Briesta (so does TripAdvisor: they have a rating of 4.8 out of 5).

I tried to phone the IAC for an update, but couldn’t get an answer. Then they phoned me: we could visit the telescope from 15:30 – 16:30. Yay! (Plan J) Except that they had to be at the airport by 127:30 and it’s a 100 minute drive. So we agreed on Plan K, visiting from 15:00 – 16:00. There were cheers when I announced it.

But a large group of teenagers takes a long time in the toilet, even when you’ve told people not to leave it to the end. We got to the telescope at 15:10. Normally I can only take 25 people in at once, so I had to split them into two groups or 27 and 28, 25 minutes each, but call it 20 minutes because people take time to get on and off a bus. Probably 20 minutes per group. That’s very, very tight.

I explained about the low oxygen on the bus before we got there. I explained we needed to be fast. I planned a shorter talk. Each group just had time for a group photo.

Erasmus exchange students in GTC, European Northern Observatory, Garafia, La Palma.
Erasmus exchange students in GTC.

And they got to the airport on time.

I do like to have satisfied customers, even if I have to use Plan K.

Posted by sheila

Sheila came to La Palma with a six month contract and has stayed 24 years so far. She used to work as a software engineer at the observatory, but now she's a writer and Starlight guide.

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