Hundreds of thousands of tourists scattered across the north Chilean desert on Tuesday to experience a rare and irresistible combination for astronomy buffs: a total eclipse of the sun viewed from beneath the world’s clearest skies.
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, plunging the planet into darkness. It happens only rarely in any given spot across the globe.
The best views this time were from Chile’s sprawling Atacama desert north of the coastal city of La Serena, where a lack of humidity and city lights combine to create the world’s clearest skies.
The region had not seen an eclipse since 1592, according to the Chilean Astronomy Society. The next one is expected in 2165.
La Serena, a city of some 200,000 people, saw the arrival of more than 300,000 visitors, forcing the local water company to increase output and service gas stations to store extra fuel. Police and health services were also reinforced.
Office workers poured from buildings late in the afternoon to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon and a run on special “eclipse-viewing” glasses downtown had led to a shortage in many stores, with street vendors charging as much as $10 for a pair of the disposable, cardboard-framed lenses.
Northern Chile is known for clear skies and some of the largest, most powerful telescopes on Earth are being built in the area, turning the South American country into a global astronomy hub.
“In the past 50 years we’ve only had two eclipses going over observatories. So when it happens and an observatory lies in the path of a totality, it really is special for us,” said Elyar Sedaghati, an astronomer working as a fellow at the European Southern Observatory in Paranal, Chile.
“We can finally use our toys during the day because it’s always at night that we use them.”
The town of La Higuera was also plunged into total darkness.
“We hope this milestone will transform [our town] into a tourist attraction, so that visitors … can come to La Higuera and take a picture where there once was a total sun eclipse,” Mayor Yerko Galleguillos said.
Town officials distributed more than 2,000 cardboard-frame protective eyeglasses at local schools and community centres while workers built statues of huge sunglasses and a darkened sun on a local square.
The total eclipse could also be seen in the Argentine town of Chascomús, where dozens braved near-freezing temperatures and strong winds and claimed a spot at a pier in a lagoon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the eclipse.
“I’ve been looking at the sky since my youth. My first telescope when I was a kid was made out of cardboard,” said Ricardo Rumie, a 68-year-old veteran eclipse-watcher, who set up his camera with a tripod and a telescope with a sun filter along the banks of the lagoon.
“I’ve seen other eclipses but never like this one. I just couldn’t miss it. For me it’s something supreme.”
“This is something that they say won’t repeat itself for like 300 years, so we wanted to bring our son,” said Maximiliano Giannobile, who arrived at the pier with 18-month-old Vitto wrapped in a puffy jacket and several layers of clothes.
The Earth’s next total solar eclipse will be 14 December, 2020, and it also will cross Chile and Argentina, though on a different path.