Innocent Abroad

17 July 2019

Sunset at La Silla Observatory. Brian Koberlein
Sunset at La Silla Observatory.

It’s often said that the journey is just as important as the destination. I’m certain it was first said by someone who doesn’t travel much. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to travel to Chile for the total solar eclipse. While the eclipse was amazing, the journey was more similar to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Unlike the Great American Eclipse of 2017, this year’s eclipse transited a narrow strip of South America, either the western portion of Argentina, or the area of Chile around La Serena. I was scheduled to see the eclipse at La Silla Observatory, which meant I had to reach La Serena the night before the eclipse. And while most folks viewing the eclipse were part of an organized tour, I was on my own.

An American-Sized Vehicle. Brian Koberlein
An American-Sized Vehicle.

Airline traffic in Chile is pretty efficient, but there isn’t always a wide choice of flight times. My flight into Santiago arrived in the early morning, but my flight to La Serena didn’t occur until the evening. So it wasn’t until about 9pm the night before the eclipse that I got into town and went to pick up the rental car. But it’s not a car. It’s a huge Dodge Ram diesel, and three of the tires are low on air. There’s no use trying to get a different rental, since there is literally nothing else available.

The streets of La Serena are not particularly wide, so navigating this beast among the cars, mini trucks and pedestrians was a bit of a challenge. Google Maps not knowing whether to give me directions in English or Spanish didn’t help. Regardless, the directions hadn’t been updated recently, and streets that were supposed to be correct are in no way truck friendly. The one upside is that every time the idiot American tourist made a wrong turn, Chilean drivers would clear a path. Finally, around 11pm, I reach my lodging and settle in. I’d been traveling for about 18 hours at that point, so I was exhausted.

Panorama of the elcipse at La Silla Observatory. ESO/M. Zamani
Panorama of the elcipse at La Silla Observatory.

The next morning I got up to make the 90 minute drive to La Silla Observatory. The winding mountain drive along Ruta 5 was quite pleasant. Around 10am I reached the parking area of the observatory. They were quite well organized, and had plenty of areas to rest, hydrate, and wait for the afternoon eclipse. The eclipse itself was nothing short of amazing. I had seen the 2017 eclipse in southern Illinois, but that’s nothing compared to viewing an eclipse from a mountain in the Andes.

Traffic on Ruta 5 after the eclipse. pilar saavedra, via Twitter
Traffic on Ruta 5 after the eclipse.

After the eclipse, it was just a matter of getting back to La Serena for the night. It seems that almost everyone in Chile had the same idea. Drive out to the hills to watch the eclipse, and drive home afterwards. Chile is so long and narrow that Ruta 5 is the only real road in and out of La Serena. Traffic built up fast. Cars overheated and broke down, and some folks decided to simply pull over and sleep until morning. A 50 km drive became a 6-hour crawl of cars. Having the big truck meant that folks were less inclined to cut in line, but it was still tense to say the least. Around 1:30 in the morning, I finally roll into my lodgings and crash.

Five tourist busses arrived in the span of 20 minutes. Brian Koberlein
Five tourist busses arrived in the span of 20 minutes.

Of course, getting back to La Serena is only part of the journey. The next morning I was back at the airport to drop off the truck and grab a flight to Santiago. I knew crowds were going to be big, but I had no idea just how big. By the time I arrive, there was a line out the airport winding all the way out then airport gate. I still had more than 3 hours before my flight, so I figured I would be okay. Then the tour busses came. Bus after bus filled with tourists, luggage and confusion. They didn’t pay much for the line, and simply started crowding around the airport entrance. The thin veneer of a queue collapsed into a frustrated crowd of people who figured we would all miss our flights.

A thin crescent Moon sets as my flight from La Serena takes off. Brian Koberlein
A thin crescent Moon sets as my flight from La Serena takes off.

The chaos grew until about ten minutes after I was scheduled to board my flight. I was certain I’d miss my flight, and could likely be homeless in La Serena for a few days. But then the police arrived, and the airport staff started going through the crowd clustering folks by flight. Forget the lines, they would just process the mob one flight at a time. Half an hour later I was processed through, made a mad dash to security (who basically waved people through) and I was on my flight. I really have to hand it to the La Serena folks. They got the job done.

As the flight took off, I could finally relax a bit. Three days of sleep deprivation, stress and poor eating habits, and my eclipse adventure was over. Despite all the challenges, it was an amazing experience. I’m very glad I went. I am, however, glad that the next Great American Eclipse passes directly over my house.