‘Filters Off!’ Chasing the Total Solar Eclipse in Chile

‘Filters Off!’ Chasing the Total Solar Eclipse in Chile

Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. Before watching the solar eclipse in Chile on Tuesday, he visited Salvador, Brazil, where music guided his travels.

It’s a place famous for its contributions to research on planets in other solar systems, but the roughly 1,000 people who had made the trip to the remote La Silla Observatory on the southern edge of Chile’s Atacama Desert had come to witness something a little closer to home.

Just after 4:30 p.m., the moon would block out the sun, an already rare event made all the more magical by the fact that this year, for just the third time in 50 years, the solar eclipse’s path of totality would pass over a major astronomical observatory.

Before coming to Chile to catch the total solar eclipse, I had been told by veteran eclipse chasers to keep my ear out for the reactions of birds and other animals at the moment of totality. But here there were none — just silence and a suspended giddiness in the air shared by the astronomers (amateur and professional alike) that left me physically shaking in the eclipse’s wake.

I came to La Silla Observatory from La Serena, a coastal city that had seen its population more than double with an influx of more than 300,000 people from all over the world who’d come to see the eclipse. I left hours before sunrise and, as a faint morning glow filled the horizon, turned off the Pan-American Highway — the same stretch of road I had traversed five months ago in Panama.

The assembled crowd was a mix of astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (E.S.O.), which operates La Silla; special guests, including the president of Chile and local school children; and paying visitors. Hours before the eclipse was to begin, people staked out their positions along the ridge overlooking the dry hills of the Atacama and, in the distance on this clearest of days, the Pacific Ocean.

Astronomers from the E.S.O. were scattered throughout the crowd, telling people what to expect and where to look. Onlookers compared gear and stories.

Among the visitors was a healthy contingent of eclipse chasers, people who hop across the world from one eclipse to the next.

Bernie Volz, who had embedded himself in a group of Polish travelers, told me he had lost count after his tenth total solar eclipse, but that it hasn’t ever gotten old.

“Besides the amazingness of eclipse itself, traveling for them has made me go to places I might never have gone to otherwise,” said Mr. Volz, who’s from New Hampshire. “I’ve been to Bolivia, South Africa, Zambia — and they’ve all been fantastic trips, even without the eclipses.”

This time, Mr. Volz had been one of the lucky ones: He managed to buy tickets one year ago to the La Silla Observatory event in the five-minute window before it sold out.