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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.