THE FORECAST couldn’t have been gloomier. December 12: rain. December 13: rain. December 14, the day of the solar eclipse I’d traveled 8,851 kilometers to see: more rain. I’d flown on the 11th, mid-pandemic, sitting masked up on a tense flight from New York to Santiago, then on to Temuco, in southern Chile. Of course, I had registered the dour weather predictions before boarding, but after nine months of house bondage, I didn’t care. The idea of perfect conditions or a perfect experience had long since fallen off the menu.
Throughout history, eclipses have been interpreted as cosmic, spiritual resets. Folklore from Scandinavia and Asia to the Americas depicts these events as a battle between light and dark, with the moon (or other malevolent actors like wolves, bears, frogs, or dragons) seeking to depose the diurnal status quo. Though the forces of light invariably triumph, the terror brought on by the sudden, surreal inversion of time, space, and the temperature was typically interpreted by soothsayers and medicine men as a warning: Pay heed. Take nothing for granted.
That said, my ambitions for the trip were far from profound. At the end of a long and brutal year, I wanted to gauge what I’d lost in lockdown. The pandemic had disrupted— obliterated, even—the daily flow of stimuli by which I apprehended the world, and by which I understood myself in relation to it. How bad a hit had my senses taken? Had the experience done away with my capacity for wonder?
On the two-hour trip from the airport to a campsite in southern Chile’s Lake District set up especially for the eclipse, my driver, peering out at dairy and berry farms through his rain-streaked windshield, fretted about the weather. Temperatures had been running some 11° C below the seasonal average, he said, with nighttime lows between 5° C and 10° C. We came within sight of Lake Villarrica, a popular tourist destination. The surface of the lake, roused to a salt-and-pepper stipple by the rain, was devoid of sailboats or swimmers. So much for the high season.
We came to Pucón, a resort town in the foothills of the Andes known as a hub for skiing, trekking, biking, and fishing. The humdrum landscape of commercial farms gave way to smallholdings, wood cabins, and country houses with corrugated tin roofs. Two snow-topped volcanoes, Rucapillán and Lanín, towered in the distance. Flocks of sheep, white and brown, grazed with choreographed precision, each one facing the same direction, amid ridges and valleys dense with evergreens and laced in mist.
When the car finally stopped at our destination, I was taken aback. Amid my tense travel preparations (face shield or goggles? One mask or two?), I hadn’t given much thought to the accommodations. If anything, the word ‘camping’ had conjured a basic, smallscale setup. But this site on the banks of the Río Liucura, a fly fisherman’s dream brimming over from the recent rain, felt more like a community. The camp was the work of Raul Buenaventura, founder, and CEO of VM Elite, an adventure broker that caters to high-end clients eager to explore Patagonia, the Atacama Desert, and far-flung parts of Peru and Bolivia. It consists of a dozen or so large, round tents about 45 meters apart from one another. From the woods surrounding the encampment, I could hear the distinctive chorus of black-throated Huet-hunt birds. The trees were covered with epiphytes, moss, and lichen, some fronds as thick as pasta. Fragrant smoke from wood fires drifted our way, mixed with the scent of pine and the humid cold.
Eclipse-spotting is rapidly gaining in popularity, and Buenaventura had set up a successful camp for a July 2019 eclipse some 1,000 kilometers north of Pucón, near the city of La Serena. I’d spent the two weeks preceding my trip frantically messaging with him as the weather and COVID-19 conditions shifted on what seemed like an hourly basis. He’d seemed, understandably, at the end of his rope.
The eclipse would be observable in its totality within—and only within—a 90-kilometer band running through Chile and Argentina, with visibility petering out somewhere in the South Atlantic. Given the rain, the need for social distancing, and travel restrictions that changed from town to town, province to province, and country to country, the logistics of hosting a once-in-a-lifetime eclipse-viewing event seemed taxing, to say the least. But in person, Buenaventura, a boyish 40-something in preppy-chic trekking gear, seemed enthusiastic—if somewhat sleep-deprived. “After all the closures this year, I really had no expectations,” he said. “My main motivation was just to be able to see the eclipse and help other people see it. I knew it was going to be difficult.”
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