Hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals gaped skyward Tuesday, July 2, to experience a rare and irresistible combination for astronomy buffs, as a total eclipse of the sun darkened the heavens over Chile and Argentina.
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun and scores a bull’s-eye by completely blocking out the sunlight, plunging Earth into darkness. It happens only rarely in any given spot across the globe.
This time, Chile and Argentina were the only inhabited places where the total eclipse could be seen. The best views 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 eclipse had made its first landfall in Chile at 3:22 p.m. (1922 GMT) in La Serena, a city of some 200,000 people where the arrival of more than 300,000 visitors forced the local water company to increase output and service gas stations to store extra fuel. Police and health services were also reinforced.
Eclipse-watchers in Chile were not disappointed as the 95-mile (150-kilometer) band of total darkness moved eastward across the open Pacific Ocean.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” thousands of spectators shouted as they jumped and danced without taking their eyes off the sky. After a brief moment of silence, the yelling returned as the sun’s rays began reaching Earth again.
Others shouted “Long live, Chile!”—a chant used at sporting events. In northern Chile, meteorologists measured a three-degree Centigrade drop in temperature and in the center a two-degree drop.
“Today Chile is the world capital of astronomy,” said Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, alluding to the dozens of giant observatories in the country, which amount to about half the world’s telescopic capacity. “We are the eyes and senses of humanity to be able to look, observe and study the stars and the universe.”
Some rushed to buy the cardboard-framed protective eyeglasses at the last minute. Street vendors charged as much as $10 for a pair of the disposable, cardboard-framed lenses.
“This is something rare that we may never see again,” said Marcos Sanchez, a 53-year-old pensioner from Santiago who had purchased 16 of the lenses from an informal vendor downtown for himself and his family.
Clear skies dominated from Chile’s northern border with Peru south to the capital of Santiago, where office workers poured from buildings to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon.
Northern Chile is known for clear skies and some of the largest, most powerful telescopes on Earth are being built in the area.
“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 centers while workers built statues of huge sunglasses and a darkened sun on a local square.
Thousands of visitors also trekked to neighboring areas of Argentina where the eclipse also will be total.
In Argentina, the San Juan provincial government installed telescopes and public viewing areas. Astronomers in Buenos Aires province offered yoga and meditation classes during the eclipse, which were also partially visible in other South American countries.
In the Argentine town of Chascomús, 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.”
The Earth’s next total solar eclipse will be Dec. 14, 2020, and it also will cross Chile and Argentina, though on a different path.
In 2017, millions of people in the United States witnessed the phenomena, with a full solar eclipse visible in parts of 14 states and a partial eclipse seen in nearly the entire country. It was the first such widespread eclipse in the U.S. since 1918.