El Eclipse Solar

I had been wanting to see a solar eclipse since when I first learned about them in first grade, and I distinctly remember in second grade while I was doing 体操 at 图强二小, I would look up directly at the sun, hoping to see an eclipse, and my mind would play games with me simulating how an eclipse may look. As a relatively rare natural phenomenon, occurring once every 18 months in a very lucky region of the world, it had always been my dream to witness one. I saw the partial eclipse in Hanian in 2009 and I was in Boston during the Great American Eclipse in 2017.

As I am spending this year as a Fulbright scholar in Santiago de Chile, one of my motivating reasons to come to Chile was the possibility to see the solar eclipse in July 2019, fulfilling a lifelong dream.

And thus on July 1st, 2019, I drove up with friends Evan Yao, Tom Benavides, Lulu Russell, and Shannon Wing to La Serena from Santiago de Chile. We spent the night camping in the valley between La Serena and Vicuña tracing the path of totality.

Being new moon before the total eclipse, we went out to see the stars, and boy was it amazing. Setting up my Sony for some long exposures, I got pictures of the milky way Nebulas, as my camera saw more than the naked eye. Those were definitely the best night photos I have ever taken, and potentially the best stars I have ever seen. After doing some light paintings, we called it a night, excited for the next morning.


The night sky the night before

The next morning, we drove to Pisco Elqui along the Ruta de las Estrellas having passed by Gabriela Mistral’s hometown. Valle del Elqui is known for its lush green basins in contrast with the barren desert mountains, where much of Chilean Pisco is produced. We stopped by at a artenesal Pisco distillery, and after a quick tour and the purchase of two really smooth piscos, we drove off knowing that we didn’t have too much time to hike a mountain to see the eclipse.

We found a hill that according to our Gaia topo map had a clear view out west. We hiked until around 3:45pm when the eclipse was beginning. Choosing a nice prominent rock to sit at, we settled, and took out the eclipse glasses to witness the first contact. We had around an hour until totality, enjoying the view of the drier northern Andes, and conversing while Lulu and Shannon took some creative pictures of their mascot Freddie. I set up my gorillapod to record video on my GS8 while I also played around with camera settings on my A7iii with my double ND filters to try to get pictures of the eclipse without burning the sensor itself.

Italian Trulli

Totality began to approach. We could definitely feel the temperature dropping, and the brightness dimming too as the moon began to cover the sun. I couldn’t really explain the lights though it felt like the contrast increased. I had my camera gear set up, with my phone taking on video responsibilities, while I took off my ND filters and prepared my camera settings for the eclipse solar.

I don’t really remember the transition super clearly, as I was probably looking through my A7iii e-viewfinder when at the worst possible time my camera froze. Holy fuck I yelled, recorded in the video, probably damaging the tranquility and serenity of the moment, but as much as the holy fuck was directed towards malfunctioning tech, it was hopefully also towards the magnificence of the eclipse itself. Looking up and instead of seeing the bright sun, seeing this ring of light with a black center was the most, absolutely most, surreal experience I’ve had (while not on drugs or alcohol). Looking around, seeing the town below us in night lights, looking at the horizon and seeing sunrise/sunset colors, and looking up at the sky where one could see stars and the sun at the same time. And boy oh boy did those two minutes pass so quickly. Fortunatly I got my A7iii working again and I got some nice pictures at my 75mm zoom of the sun transitioning back to normality.

The total eclipse

There was so much to see, too many things to see at once that you had to pick your poision. I didn’t get to see the transition from light to dark or dark to light, the speedy shadows sweeping across the valley over the mountains plunging the community below into darkness. Or I didn’t get to take a panorama of the eclipse, a shot that I think Evan got. Two mintues were also way too short to take in the eclipse in full, and now I understand why the statistic of the length of the eclipse is so special -not all eclipses are created alike. I didn’t really take in the 360 view of the eclipse as I was mostly focused on photography and looking at the sun itself rather than the views that the sun produced. There was so much to see and so little time.

Immediately after the eclipse, I immediately craved for the next eclipse, almost like a drug. This was such a high, such a naturally created unnatural high, that I just wanted more.

And thus we began our hike back down to reality. After cleaning up our shoes and resting for a bit, we hit the road, only to be met by gridlock traffic on Ruta 41. We found an asado roadside, locals who were quite nice, bought food from them, and also camped in their farm from 9pm to 1am, hoping to avoid the traffic. We set up tent and called it an earlier night.

We left the farm at 1am and we drove until La Serena. Gas stations we passed by were either closed, having been completely depleted after the eclipse, or with lines fortnights long. The drive along Ruta 5 was smooth for the first hour or so, though we soon began observing a lot of stopped cars roadside, almost in an apocalyptic fashion, wondering why people were sleeping on the side of the road. However, as we passed more and more cars road side, we also noticed more and more cars ahead of us, eventually reaching a density of stop and go traffic. I knew that I was hitting my safety limit, and during some stop-and-gos I could clearly notice that my ability to shift into first declined. After a couple of stalls, I pulled over too and we napped for two hours.

There was more traffic when we woke up to the rising sun, but eventually it cleared. Finally arriving back to Santiago, the normally 5 hour drive turned 10. The traffic was almost as unique of an experience as the eclipse itself. Although the traffic was quite bad, later Evan and I were discussing, and we both agreed that we’d easily sacrifice 20 hours of traffic for such a unique experience. As they would say in Spanish, vale la pena.


Two headlights shine through the sleepless night