Running around Chile without speaking much Spanish is a bit intimidating but what a great adventure!
This is the first time I’ve done a workshop and hadn’t either been to the location or worked with something who knew the area. I billed the workshop as an exploratory adventure and so far it has been fairly free anxiety or stress. I did a ton of research before going so I had a good idea where the best viewing locations would be but not exact places. I’m on a Facebook group of hard core eclipse chasers and they helped with pre-arrival scouting and logistics. The hardest part was finding hotel rooms around La Serena, they were sold out early but I found accommodations through AirBnB. All I could get was a three bedroom so I only brought three other people with me, Burt and Evelyn, an American couple living in Ecuador and Jane from New York City.
Sunday I took the group an hour east of La Serena to the Eliqui Valley and the town of Vicuña, near several international observatories. It is one of the darkest places in South America and is well known among people who care about that sort of thing. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get into the big observatories but I had read about a smaller one run by volunteers. We drove right up to it, ok, we had to kinda open the gate, but there weren’t many people around. We tried talking to a guy wandering around but he wasn’t a whole lot of help. A woman came over and said she heard English being spoken. She was from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and working with other universities around the world to film and study the sun during the eclipse. She told me what experiments they were doing but it was way too detailed for my brain to handle. I told what we were up to and while obviously not impressed, she asked if I had heard of Fred Espenak. Yea, he is the king of eclipse photography. She said his group was using one of the three buildings on the site. If Fred is here, then this is the place to be. A while later the observatory’s head guy arrived and told us the place would be full for the eclipse and we couldn’t be here. Drat.
As we were leaving there was a small camp next to the observatory and they had a little sign selling food. There were several small buildings in the complex and it looked like there might be room for our group to hang out on eclipse day. I had driven past it a little bit but we thought it might be a good idea to see if we could come back for the eclipse. I pulled the van into a dusty area near a tent and a couple of very friendly young people in their 20’s came over. They spoke great English, which makes things so much easier. We asked them what the deal was and the guy said they had two cabins for rent. How interesting! He gave us a tour of a newly constructed cabin and it was barely large enough to hold our group. It had two bedrooms and futon in a small common area. I was thinking the others could have the bedrooms and I’d take the futon.
One of my main concerns about any location was going to be traffic from La Serena. For months the government issued warnings about how bad the traffic would be since there was only a two-lane road out to Vicuña and the Elqui Valley and that they would be making much of it a one way road before and after the eclipse to handle all the traffic.
If we could spend Monday night on location and not have to fight traffic in the morning, I’d have no stress at all. The weather forecast was perfect and there wasn’t a better place to view the eclipse. I asked how much for the little three room cabin and he said $900 for a night. Ouch! I let him know that was way too much and I offered $200, pointing out that it was only two days away and $200 was better than nothing. His whole family lived there and he went to talk with his mother and aunt, the “chef” at the “restaurant.” He came back and said $300, telling us how good the food and wine was. Toss in two bottles of wine and we’d do it. We shook hands, I gave him a deposit and I was thrilled to be in such a great spot. It would also allow us to be out in a dark place for the night to shoot the Milky Way and stars. As we were walking out, workers were coming out of the second cabin, they had just completed both of them and we were their first guests.
We came back Monday afternoon in time to see exactly where the sun would be during the eclipse. Totality was at 4:42 p.m. so the sun would be pretty low on the horizon. I had found several maps online that showed where the shadows would fall at that time of day, which wasn’t a place I wanted to be. Interestingly the government had set up 11 official observation locations that had restroom facilities and most of them would be in shadow during totality, which was going to disappoint a lot of people.
Our compound was near the top of the mountain and it was a windy dirt road to get there. I had noticed there weren’t any utility lines to be seen and asked about the electricity. The camp ran on a generator that they turned off at midnight. Since we wanted to be out photographing stars, I was thrilled the place would be dark. They did have great cell phone service, so all was wonderful in the world!
The brightest and most colorful part of the Milky Way rose above the mountains around 8:00 p.m. so we made sure we were out there. Several camps had sprung up in fields below us and they had generators too. And they created a lot of light. I was hoping for legendary darkness but we could see town down in the valley and light from the other camps. It didn’t bother the Milky Way though, it glowed brightly in the sky. I wanted a photo of the complete Milky Way arch, which is hard to photograph in the Northeastern U.S. I have cell phone apps that show stars’ locations and knew the shot I really wanted was going to be between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. It was a perfectly clear night and I have never seen so many stars.
I used a flashlight to illuminate our cabin as a foreground and made some fun shots. I had also wanted to do some star trails shots. In the old days you left your camera’s shutter open for a couple of hours and hoped the film could handle it, which usually wasn’t the case. Now with digital it is a matter of making a bunch of photos and putting them together in the computer. If you aim the camera at the North Pole or in Chile, the South Pole, the stars rotate around it. Yes, it is actually the earth’s rotation that causes the starts to move. Earlier in the evening I aimed a camera at a mountain to the east and let it shoot for a couple of hours. I did 30 second exposures with a gap of 10 seconds between shots to give the camera time to process. You get a weird effect shooting to the east rather than the pole. Before I went to bed for a few hours I set up another camera behind the cabin aiming south and let it run all night. I set an alarm to get up at sunrise to fetch the camera before somebody else saw it and it was still firing away.
It was the perfect lead up to a total solar eclipse.