In the footsteps of Bond: Arecibo’s radio telescope

If you’ve ever fancied yourself as James Bond, then the Arecibo Observatory is going to be a must-see during your next Puerto Rico vacation. Remember the 1995 Pierce Brosnan outing Goldeneye? Its closing scenes were shot right here. The enormous “dish” of the Arecibo radio telescope, completely occupying a 20 acre space, was flooded and then drained for the climatic chase involving the ever-popular spy.

Arecibo radio telescope. Arecibo radio telescope
Arecibo radio telescope

Must-See in Puerto Rico: Arecibo Radio Telescope

Is there anyone out there?

In fact, the place has tempted many a location scout. The Jodie Foster classic Contact was set and filmed right here. Her character uses the observatory as a base for her SETI research. SETI, an acronym for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life, is one of the programmes that operate here. In 1974, a message was sent into outer space in the hope of a reply. If you’re wondering whether they’ve answered, you’re too early. It’ll take 25,000 years for the message to get to its destination and another 25,000 for any reply to get back. In 1999, [email protected] was launched, an Internet-based public volunteer computing initiative. Visitors to the observatory are invited to write their own message. As a Duran Duran fan, there was only one thing I could write: “Is there anyone out there?”

The radio receivers. Arecibo radio telescope
The radio receivers

Interactive Exhibits

A visit to the Observatory is fun, not only for the chance to follow in the footsteps of Hollywood stars. It’s a bit of a drive from the main highway, up a potholed and narrow road that winds its way through the forested karst mountains that characterise this area. On arrival, as this is a working radio telescope, you’ll be asked to put your mobile phone in airplane mode to avoid interference. Next, a few hundred steps’ worth of uphill hike past models of the planets takes you to the visitor centre.

A range of interactive exhibits teach visitors about space. You can touch lumps of meteorite, play a computer game to shoot asteroids down and create your own impact crater. A short film explains how the telescope was constructed and what its purpose was – and is. From its inception until relatively recently, at 305 m in diameter it was the largest radio telescope in the world, though a new Chinese telescope has now robbed it of its record-breaking position.

Looking down from the viewing platform
Looking down from the viewing platform

Arecibo Radio Telescope

There’s a small observation deck which affords a bird’s eye view of the Arecibo radio telescope itself, which looks like an oversized satellite dish. It’s huge, incongruously sitting in a natural hollow created by a karst sinkhole and surrounded by verdant forest. To get a close-up look and learn more about the workings of the site, you need to upgrade to a VIP tour ticket. Volunteer guides hand-picked from Puerto Rico’s Metropolitan University are as enthusiastic as they are knowledgeable.

You’ll be driven down to the edge of the Arecibo radio telescope via the warehouses and workshops that form the business end of the operation. The Observatory staff manufacture all spare parts on site. The reflector is spherical in shape, constructed out of 40000 aluminium panels and even has tiny plants growing through it. Above it hang the radio receivers, suspended in liquid helium to ensure that they don’t overheat. The cold temperatures enable any incoming signals to be amplified.

Close up during the VIP tour. Arecibo radio telescope
Close up during the VIP tour

If you’d like to visit the Observatory, renting your own car is the easiest option as well as being the cheapest for groups of two people or more. It’s around an hour and a half’s drive from San Juan, mostly on good roads. Tours can be booked through most agencies and hotel tour desks; commonly packaging up the Observatory with the nearby limestone caves at Camuy.

About JuliaHammond


Julia Hammond is a Geography teacher turned travel writer with a passion for places. Winning Mail Travel's Deep South competition was the catalyst to write for a diverse range of publications including Bradt's Bus Pass Britain Rides Again. She’s written Kindle guides to Cape Town, Peru and London for Unanchor and advice on Savannah for Wanderlust. When not travelling, she can be found at home in Essex planning her next trip, her two golden retrievers curled up at her feet.

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