The Story of Azimuth – Spain’s Astrotourism Pioneers
The canteen area bears the clink and clatter of metal cutlery against plain white cups and saucers, as any office cafeteria area would. It’s cosy here, in this functional little building, and there’s even a chill-out area dotted with pot plants and comfy seating in one corner.
But that’s where the similarities with ‘regular’ workplaces end, because up here, the air is slightly more rarefied and pollution-free. I’m at 2,168 metres above sea level, at Spain’s ‘Star Attraction’ – the Calar Alto Observatory complex in Almería. Javier Sánchez and Victor Manuel Muñoz have taken time out of their busy schedule to join me for a coffee and tell me about their enterprising new venture, Azimuth – a project blending the wonders of the cosmos together with culture, heritage and outdoor activities, into enticing events and experiences.
Experiences designed not just for stargazing enthusiasts and students, but for the travel and leisure market seeking something a little less ordinary. It’s a wonderful tale of dreams, serendipity and the allure of dark skies, but to appreciate exactly why and how Azimuth came into being, let’s take a little step back into recent history…
High and Dry
Calar Alto is run by a Spanish-German astronomical association. On the Spanish side is the Spanish Research Council’s Instituto de Astrofísica, and on the German side, the Max Planck Society’s Institute for Astronomy. Together, as ‘CAHA’, (Centro Astronómico Hispano-Alemán) these institutes manage the research program for the Observatory.
But, as Victor tells me, things were once very different here from what they are today.
‘In the past, CAHA used to be quite cut-off – it wasn’t so open to the public. They arranged some outreach visits but it wasn’t on a regular basis. And although it’s on Spanish soil, operationally it was mostly a German-run establishment. The situation changed in 2005 when the German side began putting greater resources into more modern research bases, especially in the southern hemisphere. At that stage, they agreed with the Spanish Research Council to run Calar Alto on an equal 50/50 basis, giving the Spanish side much more responsibility.’
In the future, it will probably move even more towards Spanish autonomy. But for a while, there was even doubt whether the Observatory would remain open. Spain, as with the rest of the world, was enveloped in a deep economic crisis…
‘There was even a risk of it closing because of resource cuts, and the Spanish scientific community had to put a lot of effort in getting people to understand how science is a driver for economic development.
The Observatory now runs with fewer people than before 2009, and they couldn’t even afford to continue with the few outreach activities they had. So for years, they’ve been looking for an opportunity to develop some program to popularise the image of the Observatory throughout Almeria and the whole of Spain. Most locals don’t even know that in continental mainland Europe, Calar Alto is the largest and most important Observatory.’
I make a confession to Victor and Javier – that until very recently, I didn’t know that fact myself, despite having had a life-long interest in astronomy and space. Victor isn’t surprised.
‘That’s the point’ he says, ‘and in my opinion that originated from that past independence I mentioned before.’
That’s all about to change, due in no small part to the efforts and vision of the three people comprising Azimuth (pictured below: Javier, Marcos & Victor, taken from their website).
A Better Future
Victor: ‘Azimuth is a brand-new company. We are two astrophysicists and one astronomer, from very different worlds. We have complementary views and that’s why we work so well together. Javier works in one direction…’
I’d read their website profiles before my visit, and I know what Victor is referring to – I ask Javier directly ‘You’re the entrepreneur, right?’ and I’m rewarded with bursts of laughter from both men. I’m curious to know more, reminding them ‘these are your words, not mine!’
Javier points at Victor, explaining ‘Actually, they were HIS words. He named us, all our roles!’
Victor: (mock-defensively) ‘Yes, well, I had to improvise….’
Javier: ‘He called me ‘the entrepreneur’, because I had been doing astrotourism as a private business for around 6 years.’
Victor: ‘Not only that, Javier had also worked in project management.’
Javier: ‘With astrotourism, though, I was trying to develop a tourism sector that, basically, didn’t exist – it was unknown at the time.’
Victor: ‘Yes. On the other hand, I had been studying and working in the academic world as an astrophysicist, so I didn’t have the same life experience. That’s why I see Javier as the entrepreneur, he has the ability to have an idea and make it work in the real world. That’s what I lacked and is what I meant by ‘complementary views’.’
I ask him about the third person in this trailblazing triumvirate, Marcos Villaverde – he’s not with us as he’s having a rare ‘off-duty’ day!
‘Yes, the 3 of us comprise the Azimuth business. Marcos has more or less the same profile as me.’
It’s Not All Academic
I wonder how they all got together? Victor and Javier jump in simultaneously to tell the story, such is their enthusiasm. On this occasion, amid the laughter, Javier lets Victor win…
‘I studied physics at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, then I came to Granada to do a PhD in astronomy. I then worked for 8 years as a professional astronomer at the aforementioned Instituto de Astrofísica.
But then, for a number of personal and professional reasons, I became concerned about my long-term prospects. Due to the economic downturn, I saw many peers with very strong CVs, struggling to get permanent positions. I probably would have had to move overseas which, with my personal ties here in Spain, wasn’t really what I wanted. Also, I was working almost totally with computers and missed the social touch, that human interaction.
In 2012, after a particularly rough period, I left my role in research. I went home for a year, wondering ‘What can I do? What do I know? What do I want to do?’.
Eventually, I got in touch with fellow physicist Marcos, and we decided to start a business together. Well, it was more of a concept, an idea to try and popularise science. We agreed we’d visit schools, giving lectures and conducting fun scientific experiments with an astronomical angle. And we had this other idea of doing astrotourism. For example, going to rural accommodations and offering guided observing sessions of the night sky.
Then we learned there was a guy, over there (nods towards Javier), who had already been working in that area for 3 or 4 years. That guy was Javier Sánchez.’
There’s laughter all around, as Victor gives a look of mock disdain at his former competition! It’s a compelling story, and I’m completely engrossed in their tale of converging paths and united destinies – and the notion that it’s often during the difficult times that one finds the best inspiration.
From Government to Cosmic Service
Javier takes up his side of the story…
‘I’ve been passionate about physics and astronomy for a great deal of my lifetime. I would even come up to Calar Alto with my telescope to do my own night observations. In my 30s, I decided to take up studying for a degree in Natural Sciences (as I hadn’t done so when I was younger).’
Incidentally, Javier is still finishing his degree. As he puts it ‘it’s a slow rate of study when you’re also having to earn a living’. During this time, and for many years prior to taking up higher education, Javier worked as a civil servant.
‘To put it simply, I was bored with everything I was doing. Not one thing fitted my own personal principles and ideas.’
One day a few years back, my partner wanted to surprise me with a gift of an astronomy holiday. She looked all over Europe, but found nothing suitable. Nothing. It was she who actually said to me: ‘Javi, why don’t you do something about this? Do some research and take it from there.’
As with Victor and Marcos, I said to myself, ‘What the hell can I do? How can I put this together?’ Within a few months, at the very peak of the economic crisis in 2011, I decided to leave my fairly good job, with its fairly good salary, and start my own little astrotourism business.’
He adds, self-deprecatingly ‘I have to say I was very clever, very very clever…I’ve paid for it’
Despite the challenges, Javier too, had found the courage to make a risky and life-changing choice. I suppose many great successes are hard won and not without sacrifice. He explains how things developed after that decision.
‘And so I continued until 2014. That year, the regional government set up their very first astrotourism meeting, at the Science Park in Granada. That’s where the three of us met. Our stands were in front of each other. As soon as I knew they (Victor & Marcos) were astrophysicists trying to do what I was doing, I told my brother to hire somebody to break their legs!’
Victor: ‘Fortunately, he didn’t!’
Javier: ‘I was concerned about the competition being so strong, because I haven’t got the academic level they’ve got…at all, obviously.
But subsequently, we found our ideas were so linked and we were so much on the same wavelength, that within a year we were already collaborating.’
As to the final piece of the puzzle, Javier explains: ‘Last year we ran a public gathering of scientists and private individuals wanting to get involved with astrotourism. In our modest opinion it was a success, and afterwards the three of us decided to form Azimuth and, well…here we are!’
At that point they had already been talking to the Calar Alto Observatory for around a year, trying to negotiate a formal collaboration. They didn’t have much longer to wait…
‘We are very proud to say that in March 2015 we signed an agreement with the Observatory, enabling us to use the facility as part of our astrotourism portfolio. The director Jesus Aceituno, supports us and believes in what we want to achieve, including promoting the scientific research and public image of the Observatory.’
Azimuth itself, with its Calar Alto agreement already in place, was officially launched at the beginning of March 2016, a matter of weeks prior to my visit.
‘The project is very young, but we’ve got clear ideas. It’s not very easy to get them to materialise, but little by little, step by step…’
Below: Azimuth’s innovative rural viewpoint information signs, including star maps and, centre, a keen observer captivated by the dark skies
There’s a pause as we all ponder the immense span of opportunities that could open up…..then Javier continues..
‘In some respects, I can tell you, it’s quite tough, as it’s potentially such a huge project. I can hardly guess at the possibilities, not only within tourism. The range of options is so varied that we’re a little overwhelmed, but we’re working as hard as we can.’
I can imagine – after all, there are only 3 of them. But I don’t think they mind too much, they’re just thankful for the chance to do something meaningful. With their different backgrounds and resonant stories, the blend of passion and synergy that drives this trio onwards is palpable, and will undoubtedly bring great success. Yet they remain endearingly modest and humble.
Javier: ‘The thing is, never ever in my life could I have imagined myself doing something like this, and I’m being very honest (Victor: ‘Me neither…me neither!’)…not ONE of us…we’re living the dream.
Being here and taking people to the domes or showing them the amazing beauty of the night sky and conveying to them as much knowledge as we can, is just simply amazing…it’s wonderful.
If we can make a living from it too, well that’s perfect.’
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Disclosure: My visit with Azimuth was at my own request as part of my remit at Travel Continuum to promote astrotourism, and there were no associated fees or other benefits. All images are courtesy of Azimuth or from their website, or by Travel Continuum.
In a future post, I’ll bring you updated news of the developments at Azimuth and telling more about the events and activities on offer. But why wait for me to write about it? Head over now to the Azimuth website and see for yourself.