Aiming for the stars

Dark Sky Alqueva

Portugal’s starlight tourism destination, Dark Sky Alqueva, draws stargazers from across the planet for extraordinary night-time experiences

“An old whitewashed primary school in a Portuguese village is our gateway to the heavens,” says Apolónia Rodrigues, who, in 2007, founded Dark Sky Alqueva, a protected reserve that is the world’s first certified “Starlight Tourism Destination”.

“Since 2015, it has been our headquarters and observatory,” she says. Located in Cumeada, two hours’ drive east of Lisbon in the Alentejo region, the Dark Sky Alqueva Official Observatory is the centre of Portugal’s growing night sky tourism industry. “There is no better place in Portugal to stargaze. As this is a rural area, very little unnatural light exists. Having grown up in a city, when I first saw the stars here I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

The journey to create Dark Sky Alqueva was not always straightforward, but friends and family helped Apolónia make her vision a reality. “So many people were willing to help. When we encountered a difficulty, I looked to the galaxies above and thought, ‘We have something magnificent here. A sea of stars that can be seen with the naked eye’.”

Apolónia’s passion made it worthwhile, as in 2011 the organisation was awarded the inaugural Starlight Tourism Destination certification by the Starlight Foundation. Supported by UNESCO and the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, this strictly regulated certification gave Dark Sky Alqueva worldwide recognition, with stargazers coming from across the globe. “Our objective is to inspire people with the extraordinary things happening above us,” says Apolónia. “You can ask our guides – cosmologists, astrophysicists, astronomers and astrophotographers – absolutely anything.”

Dark Sky Alqueva offers a network of accommodation to choose from and organises unique activities, such as the popular blind wine-tasting in the darkness – “creating a new connection between the mind and senses” – and astrophotography workshops with the reputed astrophotographer Miguel Claro. Night walks can be arranged and there is also night canoeing.

Nearly 15 years on, Dark Sky Alqueva still has the same mission, but it has since won in numerous categories at the World Travel Awards for three years in a row from 2019, winning the World’s Responsible Tourism Award 2021, among others.

“My objective has always been to demonstrate our individuality but in a sustainable way,” says Apolónia. “We bring value to the local community by providing visitors with something astonishing – the stargazing experience of a lifetime.”