Eclipse at 16,000 feet

To be accurate, 15,702 feet; a private train took us to view totality on the Altiplano along the Rio Mulatos-Potosi railway line, the world’s ninth highest.

The train was beyond rustic. Eight hours of squeaking metal, with hard seats in cold and cramped compartments. To get to the dining car (for yet another meal of pollo and fries) we had to take a giant step between the cars, the rushing tracks visible in the yawning, swaying crack below.

We boarded the evening before the eclipse and the train clattered through towns and remote villages for hours, higher and higher into the night. We handed our freebie paper eclipse shades and filters out to villagers when the train stopped. We moved through a huge All Souls Day celebration with covered tents and couples dancing, bands playing caporal and cumbia music, people holding up their beers to toast us as we pass.

All the trains to the centerline were coordinated from below and embarked from the station two miles apart, and the nighttime passage and early arrival time ensured that no smoke, light or vibration would pollute the eclipse viewing areas.

The train screeched to a stop at 4 a.m. where the weather satellite said to, somewhere outside Sevaroyo. With the trains filled with groggy travelers suddenly silently in place, it was hushed and dark and cold before dawn on eclipse morning.

No flashlights or flash photography were allowed. We were advised to dress in warm layers—there would be no heat, no generator—and prepare to be on camera: an accompanying film crew hired by National Geographic was about to go to work.

After a hurried breakfast we all piled out onto the dark desert with our scopes and cameras; we were late arriving, and there wasn’t much time for observing before sunrise at 6:30. I saw Crux, the Southern Cross for the first time—a stargazer’s milestone and proof that a North American traveler is very far from home.

I was excited to be observing at a high-altitude site—about as far from my sea level first eclipse as possible—where the coronal streamers were expected to be long and bright (as light from the corona wouldn’t be dulled by Earth’s atmosphere). The air was thin and the wind was chilly. Local children, families, and military guards armed with machine guns materialized to view partiality through our solar scopes and eclipse glasses. I later learned that only 600 souls were present on the Altiplano.

The short three-minute totality began at 8:22 a.m. at 35.80 degrees above horizon. As predicted, the delicate corona was detailed and luminous. I got a good look at Baily’s Beads (for those who don’t know, these are the dots of light in a ring formed by SUNLIGHT SHINING THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS ON THE MOON, sorry, I can hardly fathom it), and this time, both diamond rings.

Above: Sunrise on the Altiplano


Boarding the ENFE train

Viewing site

Locals and travelers witness together

Group shot at the train



The AstroNASAcal League

The Astronomical League tour group convened in El Alto International Airport with our nerdy, overweight luggage filled with telescopes and camera equipment. We towered over the airport personnel, tiny people in riot gear. No photos were allowed. We boarded a bus to our first destination, and immediately noticed the lack of air in the air.

“Remember, when you land there will be 20% less oxygen,” stated the itinerary notes. Miami lies at (duh) sea level; La Paz, at nearly 12,000 feet, is almost twice the height of Denver (with more than 3500 feet in elevation we’d yet to gain that week). “For many visitors, the most challenging aspect to this eclipse will be coping with the significant, if not downright extreme, altitudes they will encounter,” wrote Joel Harris in an article for Astronomy.

I prepared by taking Diamox, the ascent medication acetazolamide. It combats the dangerous and uncomfortable symptoms of altitude sickness, but not the gasping feeling of struggling for oxygen. Coca leaf (the key ingredient in COCAINE) is the local remedy, and travelers are encouraged to chew and/or brew the leaves that can be found piled high in hotel lobbies and offered with elegant silver service teapots and cups to make mate de coca.

Unrelated: According to local documentation, we were present in Bolivia during the Age of Aquarius, when the source of power shifted from the male Himalayas to the female source and central vertex of cosmic energy, Lake Titicaca, where “from now on, the positive energy of the world will be generated.” I knew I felt something other than altitude sickness. (The way this year is going Lake Titicaca better step up her game.)

During the tour were were allowed to see and do things ordinary tourists weren’t allowed to see and do. Public officials appeared out of nowhere to give Ken Willcox, the group astronomer, a laurel and hearty handshake. In Sucre, for instance, the director of the mint delivered a gracious welcome address through an interpreter. He informed Ken that as an honored guest he must autograph “the book of important persons,” a very old and precious registry signed by world leaders and royalty. Ken does—and we discover later that a misunderstanding led them to believe we were from NASA, of which Ken was president.

Above: Welcome to La Paz


Astronomical League tour

Coca leaf tea


Inti Jiwaña

Fast forward three years, three months, and 23 days, when I join an Astronomical League tour through Spears Travel to Bolivia, “the last authentic country”. All the usual suspects were stampeding to South America, including groups with Travel Bug, Sky & Telescope, and Scientific Expeditions.

On October 27, 1994 I flew from Miami on an overnight flight to La Paz next to a cranky gentleman in a grey suit who was irritated about what he perceived to be the abundance of “students” on the flight who were discussing, loudly, degrees above horizon, rock collecting, and whether or not they remembered to bring duct tape. Seated throughout the plane were others of my kind: amateur astronomers. I spotted them immediately in the terminal without a field guide, and some were aggressively On The Spectrum. (I boldly introduced myself to a couple—“pleased to meet you, I’m Rhonda from Oregon,” said I. The woman glowered and replied, “how do you KNOW you’re pleased to meet us? You haven’t met us yet.” This is going to be a long vacation.)

“Intijiwaña”—the Bolivian slogan for the TSE of 1994—means “Death of the Sun”, and reflects the myth imagery and extreme behavior of the average pre-Colombian Andean (who also enjoyed savage games involving decapitation). It was a puma spirit that was once believed to cause all the trouble by swallowing the sun, who must be chased away by screaming children brandishing sticks and beating other animals. (Like a dog who is reinforced to bark at the mailman because the mailman always leaves after a couple of minutes, the Andeans learned that this technique is 100% successful.) In some areas the eclipsing sun was thought to be languishing near death, and native peoples lit wildfires to warm the Earth while the sun was on sick leave. CALM DOWN Bolivia.

Above: Death of the Sun


Path of totality, 1994

Ancient Bolivian eclipse causes widespread panic