What could possibly go wrong with five camera setups, four cameras, three tripods, two photographers, two chairs and a drone, all employed at the same time during the recent Great South American eclipse? If chaos comes to mind, that’d be close! To be sure, there was also fun, some confusion, performance anxiety, successes and misses, all adding up to a highly memorable 30th wedding anniversary trip to the Elqui Valley of Chile.

As I wrote in my last article, the coincidence of the date of our 30th wedding anniversary (to Photofocus author Steve Eilenberg) one day before the July 2, 2019 eclipse was a celestial sign to me that we should travel to South America to celebrate. We were richly rewarded, with clear skies and a pair of diamond rings in the sky.

How this evolved … back in the planning stages, we had decided, with the aid of the Eclipsophile website that Chile would more likely have clear skies than Argentina for this event. That focused us on La Serena, a coastal town in Chile and the gateway to the Elqui Valley, known for pisco, clear skies and astrotourism, with a multitude of observatories throughout the valley trained on the skies.

By the time we began planning this trip in earnest in April 2018, there were virtually no available hotel rooms in or near La Serena. We found an apartment through Booking.com in La Serena which was a step above camping, with a paucity of hot water and no heat. We ran the space heater every minute we were in the apartment.

Scouting the location

Our first decision was where to be on eclipse day: In a town on or near the coast like La Serena, Coquimbo or La Higuera or inland in the Elqui Valley? We mentally tried on Coquimbo, repeatedly watching a YouTube of Rafael Pons using the essential smartphone app PhotoPills to plan a shot of the eclipsed sun over a monumental concrete cross in Coquimbo, the Cruz de Tercer Millenium.

Staying in a town meant sharing the eclipse with a lot of people, which could be fun and festive, but possibly also crowded and chaotic. La Higuera was a little inland, possibly avoiding coastal clouds, and had the advantage of being even closer to the center line of totality, adding a precious 10 seconds or so to the 2+ minutes available elsewhere along the arc of the umbra (moon shadow).

We had two full days and a car to figure out where to be on eclipse day. Using Google Maps and a physical map acquired for the occasion, we both separately found ourselves focusing on a swath of blue along Route 41, the main artery of the Elqui Valley, more poetically known as Ruta de las Estrellas (Route of the Stars).

This body of water, Puclaro, is a reservoir created in 2003 to supply water to the coastal towns and support irrigation to the valley. Visually, it is a lake rimmed by hills, with Route 41 closely hugging the southern margin. So closely, in fact, that driving it, it became clear there were effectively no safe places to pull over for potential eclipse viewing and shooting.

Embalse Puclaro in Elqui Valley of Chile
Scouting for eclipse day stop #1: Embalse Puclaro. It checked some boxes, with parking and a restroom and a nice view, but was slated to be closed on eclipse day, being repurposed as an emergency regional medical facility. Also, being at the western end of Puclaro meant we couldn’t shoot the eclipsed sun over water, only over the mountains.

At the western end was one possibility, Embalse Puclaro, an overlook of the dam which created the lake. We pulled off to scout it out: There was parking, a cluster of vendors, even restrooms. We were thinking this had possibilities until we thought to ask what the plans were for eclipse day. The answer was definitive: “Estará cerrado.” Closed! On the big day, this was to serve as an emergency medical facility for the region.

Tio Jorge

We struck gold on our very next stop. At a bend in the road at the eastern end of Puclaro, there were vineyards on either side of the road. A series of banners announced “Wines! Pizza! Coffee!” We went in to an attractive roadside establishment, Puclaro Caffe, to inquire.

After explaining that we were looking for a place to photograph the eclipse in a few days, the girls at the counter gave me a slip of paper with a name and phone number on it. I tried the number while still there, trying various combinations, with and without country codes, etc., to no avail. Nicolas was called over and whipping out his local cell phone, proceeded to call Tio Jorge.

The reception was spotty but it seemed that yes, they planned to be open eclipse day, there would be secure parking in back, we would have access to food, drinks and bathrooms, as well as access to the fenced off vineyards across the road. We could see a small beach on the edge of the lake. This had distinct possibilities! There also was the possibility of heading up by vehicle into higher vineyards with views of the lake. We decided on the spot this was where we would spend eclipse day. 20,000 Chilean pesos later (a little less than $30 USD), we had a reservation.

Aerial view of Viña Falernia in the Elqui Valley of Chile
Aerial view of Viña Falernia in the Elqui Valley of Chile, at the eastern end of a body of water, Puclaro, and the location from which we decided to shoot the eclipse of July 2, 2019.

Over the following days, while exploring Vicuña, Pisco Elqui and the valley itself on traverses up and down Route 41, we scouted out the possibilities, both down by the lake and up in the higher vineyards.  One day prior to the eclipse, we had a plan, which was being actively revised on the day of the eclipse … to find out what happened, stay tuned for my follow-up post!

If you enjoy listening, join Photo Focus author Steve Eilenberg and me discussing our experiences shooting solar eclipses in a podcast with Kirby Flanagan of Flanagan Fotos.