PUCÓN – The morning of Dec. 14, 2020 starts as expected in the weather forecasts. It pours rain in Pucón, and the sky is completely overcast. Not the kind of weather hoped for, but very defining for 2020 as a year.
Since 1999, I have planned holidays around total solar eclipses, which has brought me to the far outskirts of the world. Whether the Zambian savannah, the Sahara desert in Libya, tropical beaches, or the snow-capped mountains of the Andes. The change in scenery is fascinating, the local scents and tastes make it worthwhile, and the sight of the solar eclipse is a nice added bonus – the cherry on top.
In these two decades, I have had the fortune to never get clouded out. Though clouds or haze sometimes blocked view of the partially eclipsed Sun, the total phase was always visible in its entirety, and there’s a magical thing to seeing the Sun disappear or reappear by allowing a sharp jolt of bright light pass through the hills and valleys of the Moon, making the Sun look like a brilliantly cut diamond ring.
This year things proved a lot more challenging. My trip to Chile was largely pre-arranged nearly a year ago, and back then it all seemed so easy; fly to Santiago, take a bus to Pucón, enjoy the beautiful scenery, and be prepared to rent a car to drive to Argentina and spend a night in the car if the weather forecasts turned bad. That would be my plan B. However, when Chile had to close down its borders in March, it didn’t look like either plan A or B was feasible.
Then, in October, things started to move; Chile allowed business travelers back in, and several weeks thereafter it became clear that, under tightly-controlled restrictions, Chile would allow foreigners back in from Nov. 23 on. These restrictions included having to get a PCR test, to prove myself Covid-negative at the border, and upon arrival I would have to make my way to the final destination within 24 hours. Luckily there was an overnight bus available from Santiago to Pucón.
Up to the last minute, I fully expected it might not be possible after all to make my way to Chile. Throughout the year, several other excursions did get cancelled, and by now it was possible to play a game of Go Fish with all the vouchers issued. Hence, it was a great relief to finally board the plane.
The time in Pucón proved, indeed, how changeable the weather there can be. With the Argentinian border still closed, Plan B was fully ruled out, so there was no other option than to just hope for the best. Sadly, even closer to the date, the weather forecasts for Monday the 14th remained gloomy, and when the day finally broke, they proved to be true. It was absolutely pouring, making it hard to gather enough courage to leave the bed.
From a distance, it looked as if the people who gathered at Mirador La Poza were at a funeral. Very fitting, given that in Mapuche legends, a solar eclipse marks the death and rebirth of the Sun. However, upon arrival the atmosphere at this viewing location was rather pleasant.
First contact, the moment when the Moon takes its first bite out of the Sun, was impossible to see. It was still raining and overcast, but not much later, from time to time the slowly vanishing Sun became visible through the clouds. Whenever that happened, anticipation grew and cheers roared. As strange as it was to look at the sky from under an umbrella, there was something awkwardly satisfying about it. It made the moments of the ever-shrinking Sun seem more rewarding.
Sadly, shortly before second contact, the moment the Moon fully blocks the Sun, the clouds thickened, making it impossible to see the diamond ring effect, but there was something very dramatic and apocalyptic about the sudden plunge into darkness.
During the minutes that followed, there were only a few seconds in which the cloud cover was thin enough to see the solar corona, which appeared as a pitch black hole in the sky with a thin layer of light around it. No long, widely extending streamers as can be seen during fair weather eclipses. However, even these few seconds were really rewarding and welcomed with cheers.
Not long after the end of totality, the weather improved. The rain ended, and the clouds started to break up. Quite a pity this didn’t happen sooner. The remaining stage of the eclipse, in which the Sun appears to grow larger, as the Moon clears the solar disc, were perfectly visible. Either through a thin haze of clouds, or in a patch of clear sky.
As expected, it remained mostly clear the rest of the day. Technically, my two decades long lucky streak ended today. This eclipse is the first that has to be considered one in which I was clouded out. Yet, I still consider myself one of the lucky ones. Lucky to be able to experience this in good health and in a great atmosphere. The second Chilean eclipse in two years’ time brought me an entirely different experience than last year’s in La Serena, but it was unique and unforgettable in its own merit, and I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world.
Christiaan Klein Lebbink saw his first Total Solar Eclipse in 1999, and has been chasing them ever since, from the Sahara to Siberia to the snowy mountains of the Andes. He’s likely to be found in the shadow the Moon.