In late June, I flew from New York to Buenos Aires on my first trip to South America. I was looking forward to visiting a new continent, seeing parts of Argentina and Chile, and having a chance to use my long-neglected Spanish in conversation. But the primary reason for my visit was to view the July 2 total solar eclipse from northwestern Argentina. Fortunately, the weather at our location was perfect for the event, and I, along with the small group I was with, were treated to a dazzling view of the totally eclipsed late-afternoon Sun poised above the Andes.
I was there on a group tour run by Roman Kostenko of AstroSafari. I knew Roman from online eclipse groups, and had met him in Oslo en route to the 2015 total solar eclipse in Svalbard. I was impressed with his willingness to go to extra lengths to observe sky events (from several stories he related to me), and his diligence in following the weather and in keeping our options open to maximize our chances of seeing the eclipse. The trip was relatively affordable, and the group was small—just five people. We were split between two cars, and stayed in about a half dozen inns, spas, cabins, hostels, and homestays over the trip, and most of our accommodations were comfortable and appealing.
The majority of group tours for this eclipse were going to Chile—namely, La Serena and the Elqui Valley—but Roman opted for Argentina. It would be less crowded, less expensive, and although weather prospects for Chile and Argentina were both generally good, Argentina would allow much more room to maneuver in case of bad weather. (Most of us ultimately did visit Chile, driving over the week after the eclipse, but that excursion, which included a visit to the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) La Silla observatory, is another story.)
After a few days exploring Buenos Aires, I flew to Mendoza, Argentina, a city of a million people, where I met up with the rest of our team. Above is a photo of our group at dinner later in the trip: Piotr Jedrzejczak; Chirag Upreti, who I knew from the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York; team leader Roman Kostenko; me; and Oscar Martin Mesonero of Black Sun Expeditions, who shared driving duties, and also conducted our countdown to totality on eclipse day.
The next morning we drove northward to the city of San Juan, which lay at the southern edge of the eclipse track, and spent much of the week before the eclipse crossing northwestern Argentina’s Cuyo region. We stopped at a few prospective eclipse viewing locations, but also visited sites like the Ischigualasto Provincial Park (aka Valle de la Luna) and its dinosaur museum, Banda Florida’s Triassic canyon, and the El Leoncito National Park and its professional and public observatories.
The site we ultimately opted for was a roadside turnout near the town of Iglesia with a great view of the Andes, and not far from Bella Vista, seemingly the most popular destination for eclipse chasers in Argentina. (We passed on the official Bella Vista viewing site, which we deemed likely to get too crowded and dusty—the organizers had turned up all the sandy soil in clearing a space for the large crowd.)
Argentina’s Wild West
The Cuyo region reminded me of the high desert of the western United States in its long distances between towns and arid but geologically intriguing terrain. Much of the Ischigualasto Provincial Park north of Villa San Agustin closely resembled Arizona’s Painted Desert to my eye, while the canyon country of Banda Florida could be mistaken for Sedona. Some of the hills in northern San Juan province were covered with cacti commonly known as the Argentine saguaro. As for the Andes, they put the Rockies to shame.
Our guest house in Banda Florida echoed with the raucous calls of parrots, which gathered in a large tree across the street. On two hikes I saw Andean condors circling, and we had many chances to view eagles and other raptors. We caught sight of several gray foxes during our drives. I was disappointed not to see any llamas or alpacas on our trip, but we did see several herds of guanacos, the wild cousins of the domesticated llama. All of the places we stayed at in the Cuyo had their resident dogs and cats, and horses, cattle, sheep, and goats were common sights on our drives.
The world turned upside down
When we were away from city lights, our team frequently took the opportunity to observe and photograph the night sky. I had been looking forward to seeing signature southern star patterns, such as the Southern Cross (Crux) and Alpha and Beta Centauri.
I was not expecting them to be nearly so high in the sky, but I should have been, with New York City located at 40.7 degrees north and our most northerly location in South America at 29.3 degrees south, the celestial sphere or visible heavens was tilted fully 70 degrees southward from my mid-northern perspective, revealing an enormous swath of sky forever below the horizon back home.
In addition to the stars of Crux and Centaurus, other notable showpieces we observed include the Milky Way’s largest companion galaxies: the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC).
For me, the weirdest consequence of being deep in the Southern Hemisphere had to do with the Sun itself. Yes, it still traveled from east to west across the sky, but it was visible in the northern part of the sky, and moved from right to left. I frequently found myself thinking we were driving southward when we were really driving to the north, and vice-versa. This poster, in the office of the inn we stayed at in Barreal, gets to the heart of this shift in an experiential way. (On the opposite wall is the same map, but printed and displayed from a northern-hemisphere perspective.)
Eclipse day dawned clear and bright. We had a long drive, so we got off to an early start. Traffic was very light on the first road we took, through the town of Calingasta, but when we hit the main road from San Juan there were more cars, and small caravans of tour buses, heading north towards the eclipse path
We met up with the other members of our team at a site they had scouted; it offered some shelter from the wind, plus a view of a ridge and the Andes beyond. After a trip into town for lunch, we returned to the site, set up our gear, and then waited. In time, more people showed up: a couple we had met at a public observing session the previous night, several carloads of Argentinians, and a videographer conducting interviews in Spanish.
When the eclipse’s partial phases began, the Moon took a small nibble out of the Sun’s limb and progressively covered the Sun, turning it into an ever-thinning crescent. About 15 minutes before totality, the quality and intensity of light had noticeably changed. The landscape looked pale, but the shadows—already long due to the Sun’s low elevation—appeared sharp and distinct.
With less than a minute until totality, some of our crew observed the so-called shadow bands, shifting waves of light and shadow, on the ground. Then came the diamond ring, as a last ray of brilliant sunlight shone through a lunar valley, and then the eclipse was total, with the black disk of the Moon surrounded by the luminous white corona in a sky the color of deep twilight, hanging above the Andes.
My primary photographic goal was in taking wide-field shots of the eclipsed Sun, with the mountains and a nearby ridge in the foreground. I was able to do this with my Sony DSC-RX100 II ($598.00 at Amazon), and I also took a few panoramas with my iPhone 7 Plus. I also took some telephoto images with my Sony A7r and got some nice shots of the corona, diamond ring, and prominences. (I brought compact but sturdy tripods for both of the Sony cameras.)
I wish I had spent more time just visually observing the spectacle, including with the pair of binoculars around my neck that remained untouched during totality, but I’m grateful to have witnessed such a spectacular eclipse in perfect weather.
Fortunately, the weather was clear to partly cloudy for most of the parts of Chile and Argentina that lay in the path of totality, with few reports of people being clouded out. Shipboard expeditions to the South Pacific near Oeno atoll in the Pitcairn chain were generally clouded if not rained out.
If you missed this event, another total solar eclipse is due to cross Chile and Argentina late next year. On Dec. 14, 2020, the Moon’s shadow will track about 300 miles south of this year’s eclipse track, skirting the northern edge of Patagonia. I’m looking forward to seeing a different part of these countries next year. If you want to see a total solar eclipse from South America, this is the one to catch—there won’t be another one there until 2045. Fortunately, there will be an eclipse nearer at hand in North America—crossing Mexico, the United States, and Canada—in 2024.
This article originally published at PCMag