Our eclipse party

In the Mendoza Airport yesterday, I heard a woman talking about someone she knew who had seen 20 total solar eclipses. I know such people exist; they more or less dedicate their lives to traveling the world to wherever it is the sun will next be totally blocked out by the moon. (This happens only once every year or two.) When I saw my first total solar eclipse in 1999, it affected me so powerfully I vowed to see as many as I could for the rest of my lifetime. I’ve since decided this requires a level of nuttiness that, nutty as I may be, I lack. Seeing only three has taught me how many decisions you have to make, any one of which can turn out to be disastrous.

Solar eclipses follow an arc, so first you have to pick which point along the arc you want to aim for. The eclipse that just took place sliced across southern South America from (roughly) La Serena in Chile to Buenos Aires in Argentina. Steve and I have already explored Buenos Aires, plus we knew the eclipse there would take place almost at sunset. We’d never been to Chile, so that was most attractive to us.

On the other hand, this is winter in Chile, when rain and fog (the arch-enemies of eclipse-viewers) plague the coastline west of the Andes. That happens less as you move north of Santiago (where La Serena is), but if the weather wasn’t good, it wouldn’t be possible to drive to somewhere better, given how the mountains and the sea constrain this long, skinny country. That’s why we chose to spend a few days sightseeing in Santiago, then fly the short hop across the Andes to Mendoza in Argentina. If the weather looked ominous, we might have a few more options.

As it turned out, everyone lucked out. Days ago, the weather forecast for everywhere along the ecliptic path predicted sun. But there were still decisions to be made.

In Mendoza, we got our first sense of the excitement building. At dinner Sunday a fellow at the next table turned to us and asked in English if we had come for the big event. He was an amateur astronomer from Montreal, and we traded information and good wishes. Monday afternoon, we made the drive to San Juan (north of Mendoza) in just under two hours, and we saw non-stop TV coverage that evening and the next day at lunch. San Juan would be on the far southern edge of the eclipse arc, we knew, but the sun would only be totally covered there for about 30 seconds. In contrast, if we drove north to the center of the path, the eclipse would last close to two and a half minutes. Totality is so spectacular, you want it to last for as long as possible. But what I learned as I researched all this (months ago) is that there aren’t a lot of options for getting around in this part of western Argentina. Professional astronomy sites said the towns of Rodeo and Bellavista were likely to be best, but I had trouble finding them on any map (even Google’s). The only roads leading to them from San Juan crossed a mountain spur, and I could find no clue to what their condition would be.

We finally figured out that if we drove north from San Juan on the main highway (Ruta 40) for about an hour, we would come to a tiny settlement called Talacasto where totality would last two minutes and 11 seconds. We decided to trade the extra 20 seconds we would lose by NOT going to Bellavista for the extra hour or two it would take to get there (and drive back, probably in heavy traffic, after dark.)

With our destination settled, and the weather looking good, one additional concern bothered me. At the two previous eclipses I’ve seen (in Bavaria in 1999 and Oregon in 2017), part of what thrilled me was the reaction unfolding all around. We weren’t in a huge crowd either time, but there were enough fellow viewers to make the experience collective; to hear the chorus of exultation and wonder; to see the tears, the upraised fists. I fretted we might wind up in a lonely place where we four were the only spectators. Steve and Mike couldn’t imagine this, but Mike had a solution: “We’ll pick up some wine, make a sign, and invite anyone who sees it to join our eclipse party.”

So it was that we stopped at the Carrefour in central San Juan, where we bought several bottles, disposable glasses, paper, and a marker. Michael worked on the sign…

…while we drove north through countryside that surprised us by its resemblance to Southern California: the Mojave desert (in places) and Anza Borrego (in others).Along the road, we spotted the first of a series of signs announcing a “Punto de Observacion” (eclipse observation point) ahead, which in itself reassured me. (If there was an official observation point, clearly we wouldn’t be alone.)It also dispelled another worry: If the road led us to a point too close to the Andean foothills to the west of us, the sun might actually be behind them by 5:39 pm (when totality would start). But if locals had picked an observation point and then created and posted glossy signs leading to it, surely they must have chosen a site where the mountains wouldn’t block our view.

We got to Talacasto around 3:30 and found a large area already filled with at least 100 cars, yet still containing plenty of room for more..We had no folding chairs like most of the local folks, but Michael scouted out a spot behind a half-built stone building that sheltered us from the wind.Climbing up on its roof offered excellent views both of the sinking sun…and the surrounding crowd.We anchored our sign with a cinder block and uncorked one of the bottles, poured ourselves a glass, and settled in to wait.

It didn’t take long for an Argentine couple to stroll by. I asked if they had eclipse glasses. (We had extra because I’d bought a 10-pack from Amazon.) They were thrilled by the offer, since they’d forgotten to get some. At first they demurred accepting the wine, but they broke down after a while, and we had a lot of fun chatting in English and Spanish with Edgardo (a CPA and aspiring website developer) and Nancy (a painter and art teacher). I offered more glasses (and wine) to a family of three from San Juan encamped nearby us, and they too accepted with delight. They eventually left their rig and brought mate (Argentine herbal tea) and cookies to share with our fiesta. We toasted the eclipse, toasted being alive in this enchanted spot to share this amazing experience together.

Because it was so late in the day, the light shortly before totality may have looked a bit more weirdly gray. But almost everything else echoed what I remember from Bavaria and Oregon. There was that same awe as the crescent seen through my glasses grew thinner and thinner then shrank to the magnificent jewel in what folks call “the wedding ring.” I took my glasses off just as its jewel of light blinked out and the sky turned from azure to navy. I remember seeing at least a few stars. But I was also drinking in the sunset glow at the horizon — not just in the west but for 360 degrees around us. I was making incoherent noises, at least one or two full-throated screams, and laughing.

Why do humans make so much noise during total eclipses? Birds grow silent. They sing when the sun re-emerges and the light comes back. Humans make noise then too. It’s time to celebrate. The sun is not lost forever. Life on Earth will go on.

After that, everything else was mundane and not worth writing about. Except one curious detail. No one seemed to be making any money off the eclipse (except the hotels and restaurants back in the towns and the tour operators who brought in large groups of gringos). The single restaurant in Talacasto (around which we all parked) was selling more drinks and snacks than it will ever again in all its lifetime, but no one was charging for parking or to use the restaurant’s bathrooms. Not one soul had created eclipse t-shirts or other eclipse-themed souvenirs (nor had they in Bellavista, according to other folks we talked to who had traveled there). I can’t explain this. It seemed amazing, though nothing, of course, as amazing as those two minutes and 11 seconds.

Winter wonderland

This is what the street in front of our hotel Saturday morning looked like.

We travel so rarely to wintry places it’s hard for me to remember the risk involved in doing so: the weather may be too cold or rainy to enjoy the destination. In the case of our current adventure, there was no avoiding winter if we wanted to see the total eclipse that will occur here tomorrow, July 2. July is winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Since the whole of the continent (from north of Santiago in Chile to Buenos Aires in Argentina) falls within the path of totality, we did have to choose where to try and experience it. We’d never visited Chile before, so that made us want to go there. But the weather west of the Andes is notorious for being gray and rainy in winter. We finally decided to start out in Chile but then make the short flight to Mendoza, Argentina on the eastern side, where the skies were much more likely to be clear. Still, with weather, any choice made months ahead is a gamble.

As I wrote in the last post, we lucked out in Santiago when the rain that had been forecast didn’t materialize on Monday until late in the afternoon, then Tuesday turned bright and sunny. Clouds moved in again on Wednesday, the day we drove into the countryside to see the wine country (an experience I hope to report on later). The gloom there never turned into rain, but my spirits sank when I saw my Apple Weather app was predicting downpours for both Friday and Saturday, the days I had earmarked for taking walking tours around Valparaiso and its tony neighbor, Vina Del Mar.

Happily, apps sometimes get it wrong. All day and into Friday evening, the sky only looked threatening. Steve and I spent hours enjoying a guided “free” (i.e. tips-supported) walking tour, while Michael and Stephanie roamed the city on their own. All of us enjoyed the place. Valpo (as it’s known) has had it’s share of hard knocks over the past 100-plus years. It developed on the shores of a fabulous natural harbor, but one so plagued by pirates in the 1500s that the original Spanish rulers decided to build their capital (Santiago) about 60 miles inland.

Looking down from one of the hillsides in Valparaiso. Vina Del Mar can be seen in the distance, across the bay.

Mining and seafaring activities made the coastal city boom in the late 1800s, when more than 30 steep funicular elevators were built to help locals ascend and descend the town’s vertiginous hills.

Sadly, only 8 are still working.

But then a quake in 1906 devastated the place, and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915 took more wind out of its sails. When the Germans invented a way to make a synthetic substitute for saltpeter chemically, that decimated the mining that had fueled the city’s short-lived boom. Valpo declined steeply throughout most of the 20th century, earning a reputation as a place of crime and decay.

When several of its oldest neighborhoods were declared a UN World Heritage Site in 2003, that attracted tourists whose presence has helped to turn things around. It also imposed a thicket of bureaucratic regulation, and we heard that local property owners have been divided over whether the UN designation has been worth it. From the visitor’s viewpoint, the wild architectural jumble that now exists is lots of fun to look at.

Some buildings have been beautifully restored, while some have been abandoned because the costs of fixing them up are now so prohibitive. Most buildings are brightly painted, and a burgeoning mural scene has added to the eye candy.

We met up with Mike and Stephanie after lunch, planning to take a walking tour of Vina del Mar together, but it wound up being canceled (because, we were told, the guide’s home had been broken into and burglarized), so we wound up seeing some of the sights on our own.

Parts of Vina reminded us of La Jolla, while other parts looked more like Rio.

Only by late afternoon did light sprinkles (and tired feet) drive us back to our hostel for a break.

The rain started in earnest Friday night and we woke Saturday morning to the sound of such a deafening downpour it made me want to snuggle down in bed and stay there all morning. Instead we checked out of our rooms, left our bags at the hostel’s front desk, and took an Uber to the one-time home (now museum) in Valparaiso of Chilean poet/diplomat/politician Pablo Neruda. La Sebastiana, as it’s known, is an enchanting place, full of color and art and interesting insights into Neruda’s large life.

The cow on the table was a punch bowl. Neruda hosted lots of parties.

Like magic, when we left the house, the rain had cleared, and we were able to walk for a while before catching another Uber, returning to the hostel, and hitting the road back to Santiago’s airport.

The weather’s been good since we landed in Mendoza Saturday night. Lots of clouds yesterday, but they cleared by Sunday evening, and today the weather app prediction for San Juan looks like this:

We plan to drive to San Juan, a few hours north of Mendoza, this afternoon. We’ll use it as our launchpad tomorrow: Eclipse Day. If the weather stays clear, that’ll be great, since it will let us concentrate on the other big looming challenge: figuring out where to go to watch the celestial drama.

A dark journey

Someone at the gym this morning asked me, “Why are you going to Chile and Argentina in the middle of [their] winter?” It’s a fair question, and we have a clear answer: the trip Steve and I are setting off on tomorrow was inspired by the total eclipse of the sun that will be visible all across southern South America on the afternoon of July 2. We’ve seen two total eclipses before: our first in Germany on Steve’s birthday in 1999, and then the one that swept across the entire US mainland in August of 2017. We caught that event near Portland, Oregon, and like the first, it dazzled us. I wouldn’t say we’ve exactly joined the ranks of total-solar-eclipse fanatics. But we’ve edged close enough to them to plan an entire trip around seeing the world go dark once again.

We will start by flying tomorrow to Mexico City, a capital we once knew pretty well but haven’t visited in decades. After two days of remedial sightseeing, we’ll head to the capital of Chile (a country we’ve never been to before). In Santiago, we’ll meet up with our son Michael and his girlfriend Stephanie, who joined us for the Portland eclipse adventure two summers ago. Because the skies on the other side of the Andes, in western Argentina, are more likely to cloud-free, we will fly to Mendoza for the actual eclipse, after which Mike and Stephanie have to return home to their jobs immediately.

But Steve and I, being freer birds, will go on to explore Ecuador for about two weeks. (We’ve never been there either, so those two will be my 61st and 62nd countries.)

We’re excited about this itinerary, but it has posed one of the biggest packing challenges I’ve ever faced. As my gym-mate noted, it’s winter in the southern hemisphere. We may see snow, and temperatures at night may approach freezing. Ecuador, on the other hand, is named after the equator because that balmy line passes right through it.


I’ve now got everything for the next four weeks crammed into my carry-on and backpack (save those eclipse glasses. I’ll tuck them in a side pocket.) My fingers are crossed it will be enough.