All posts by cerandor

Argentina—From the Andes to the Rio de la Plata

The customs station on the Argentine side of the Andes crossing that took me from Santiago in Chile to Mendoza wasn’t unbearably cold, for all that it was winter and the roof’s insulation was fraying and falling away in multiple places. More importantly, it was efficient, moving an entire coach, its passengers, and their luggage through and out in about an hour. However, our trip was already delayed, and that combined with a couple of police stops further down the road, meant that I only got to see the first part of the trip in daylight.

The Argentine side of the Andes is notably different from the Chilean side. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the geological forces that heaved up the mountains, as the Pacific is ground under the continental plate. But part of it is probably due to water and ice as well: most of South America’s rivers flow east from the Andes, and the rivers and glaciers there have alternately left massive deposits of sediment on valley floors and carved narrow channels through them. All around are vast sweeps of red gravel and great stacks of sedimentary rock heaved up and tilted, creating bands of cream, grey, and red that colour the mountains.

The Argentinian side of the Andes as dusk comes in.

Unfortunately, the best sights of the descent were lost in the dusk.

There’s no railroad that runs through the mountains on this route, though there must have been one once. Our bus ran parallel to an old single-line track that was still intact in many places, but broken up or buried under landslides in others. Perhaps it might get remade some day, and if so it would be well worth riding, but for now I suspect that the tunnel that took us across the highest part of the crossing has been stolen away and will not be given back.

In darkness I arrived in Mendoza, capital of Argentina’s wine region. Sadly, my stay was as short as it could be. I stepped across the street from the bus station into the spartan Hotel Bari and rested my eyes for as long as the sound of cars and barking dogs* outside would allow. Once up and showered, I had a breakfast of tea, cereal, and pastry smeared with dulche de leche, then headed back to the bus station. This time my Chevallier bus was completely on time and not completely full, so I got to sit back and relax as the winter sun shone down and we drove east, first to San Martin and San Luis, but eventually to Córdoba, where I would be able to actually explore a bit before the train to Buenos Aires. No wifi on this bus, despite what the sticker on the door promised, but the USB plugs provided power and the seat reclined, so I was able to rest and write and even watch a little Umbrella Academy as the miles flew by.

Sugar-soaked pastries for sale in Argentina.

Living on these would be pleasant, but probably brief.

After a brief stop in a bus station along the route, where I was able to refuel with pastries and coke, the bus trip brought us ever closer to an escarpment running north-south, some distance southwest of Córdoba itself. The view they provided was spectacular, rising as they did from the flat plains of north-central Argentina, but the setting sun beat us there, and sunset had come and gone by the time we crossed over. In darkness we passed by several smaller towns before we came at last to Córdoba itself, entering town from the west and driving through the centre before pulling into the Terminal de Ómnibus about ten minutes behind schedule. After a short delay to grab my bags, the Casa Urbana Hotel was only a short walk around the corner and proved a step up from my Mendoza lodgings. It was late though, so after grabbing some meatstuffs and starch at the La Herredura buffet nearby, I settled in for sleep and a day of exploring to come.

The corner of Córdoba I’d arrived in wasn’t the most prepossessing. Bus stations rarely inhabit the best part of town, and it took the dilapidated Estación Córdoba railway station nearby to make the bus terminal look good. Once again, it was clear that Argentina had once had an impressive rail network but had long since let it go to seed, to the point where there are only two trains per week between the country’s two biggest cities, even though the land between them is almost perfectly flat and open.

Estación Cordoba in Cordoba, Argentina.

Looks impressive, but it’s mostly a hollow shell, part of which is used for events.

That was a concern for the following day though, so I went exploring around the streets to the north of the Casa Urbana, eventually making my way to the Plaza San Martin, the heart of the city. My Lonely Planet guide hadn’t been much help in giving me an idea of what Córdoba had to offer, so I took advantage of a waiting open-top tour bus and climbed on board for an hour-and-a-half spin around the city’s highlights. I’d recommend it to any new visitor, though Argentina’s winter, while dry, can be cold in the mornings and proved chillier than any of my time spent in Chile. Not quite enough to make me put on my gloves, but enough to make me think about it.

Dropped off by the bus where it had started, I found myself essentially replicating its path on foot throughout the afternoon, with a few variations. A black-bun burger in the Black Pan restaurant before exploring malls and the Museum of the Natural Sciences, with its tiered exhibits of Argentina in the present and the distant past of megafauna before the Great Biotic Interchange and the arrival of humans upset the applecart of South America’s biosphere.

Three skeletons of South American megafauna.

Yes, these megafauna are particularly charismatic, even if they’re dead.

My wandering eventually took me to the Parque de las Tejas, a broad green space filled with activities for kids and athletes in the southern half of the city. I spent a pleasant hour wandering its winter-parched fields and avenues before the long stairway that acts as the park’s ceremonial entrance deposited me not far from my hotel. Having spent the better part of the afternoon just walking, I decided that a rest might be in order, and I retreated to the Casa Urbana, where all the staff were focused on the Argentina-Chile third-place game in the Copa America. In my room I watched it too as I updated my notes and charged my phone.

I did manage to venture out again after dark, this time across town to the Antares Córdoba bar, where a couple of cheap pints of craft beer were more than enough for this traveller’s underfed stomach. I solved the underfed problem with some ice cream next door and some provisions from the supermarket across the road from the Casa Urbana, but the combination of beer and ice cream was enough to send me to sleep before too long.

Cordoba’s town hall as seen from the nearby bridge.

All of this lights up in rainbow colours at night.

Of my last day in Córdoba, there’s not much to say that I haven’t already said. I packed and checked out after an Argentinian breakfast of toast smeared with dulce de leche and fruit, then went for an extended walk to use up the hours between checking out and my train journey. My loop this time was a smaller version of the day before, and this time in the opposite direction, but it took in part of the colourful Juniors district too, including a bust that looked rather too much like Peter Cushing in Star Wars for comfort, and a brief revisitation of the Parque de las Tejas. With more time, I’d say there’s much more to be found in Córdoba, but my time was up, and I grabbed my bag at around 1330 before heading down to Estación Córdoba.

I wasn’t the only person taking the journey, as the neglected grandeur of the old station featured a long queue, albeit one that shuffled on pretty smoothly. Soon enough I was seated in Seat 61, and after a brief snooze we were off. The initial part of the journey saw us crawl through some of the poorer outskirts of the city, with kids throwing stones at the train more than once, but soon enough we were out and into the countryside. Not accelerating though. This is a slow service—I calculated the speed at 32km/h at one point by timing the distance between kilometre markers on the road running parallel.

The train from Cordoba to Argentina.
The start of a 19-hour roll through day and night.

Still, the land remained resolutely flat throughout. We passed grain fields and wetlands, as well as through the backyards of several small towns, and even as far as the horizon there hadn’t been much sign of a rise in the land. It reminded me of the American Midwest, with its level crossings and isolated towns. As we cruised on slowly, the sun began to set, and I used up some of my limited battery (no USB connections here) continuing my viewing of the Umbrella Academy and writing up my notes.

I’d tried, when booking, to get a first-class seat, but things didn’t work out that way, so the one I had was in standard class. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, though with no reclining, there was a limit to how good my sleep was going to be. I kept on scribbling and watching as the darkness came in (the little girl beside me showed some interest in the Umbrella Academy, so I had to turn the screen away at some of the more violent bits), but after the lights were turned out at 2200, it was time to hunt for sleep. In this I was successful, more or less, though my neck didn’t thank me for the sleeping positions I chose.

The interior of Estación Retiro in Buenos Aires.
The European-style interior of Retiro.

With dawn came wakefulness, and the lights came back on around 0800. We crawled into Buenos Aires some time around 1015, a little behind schedule but not too much. Estación Retiro is one of those grand old cavernous spaces, with signs here and there of the expense that went into making it, but rather more signs of neglect (albeit less than in Córdoba—the rail lines around the capital are clearly better looked after and more used). As water and trail mix** do not a solid meal make, I grabbed a slice of pizza for breakfast in the station before going in search of my hotel.

Of course, walking out of the hotel and spotting a tall tower all alone in the middle of a green square, the Torre Monumental, was always going to distract me. What was I meant to do? Ignore it? No. I went straight to that sucker and bought a ticket to the top, enjoying the views of the city and the Rio de la Plata in the morning sun. My need to climb tall things having been satisfied, I finally descended and shortly thereafter found the Bisonte Palace hotel, my lodging place for the next few days. It was still a bit early for check in though, so I ditched my main bag and went off to get a feel for Buenos Aires.

Torre Monumental in Argentina.
Known as the English Tower before that unfortunate business with Las Malvinas.

Like most larger cities in South America, there’s a lot that’s relatable for Europeans. We’re all infected by the 20th century American virus, and Europe’s earlier colonial efforts have had plenty of effects. (That Torre Monumental was until the Falklands War known as the Tower of the English.) The Avenue 9 de Julio cuts through the heart of the city like the Champs-Élysées, and is named after Argentina’s Independence Day (coincidentally the day after I arrived). A little way downhill and to the east is a Docklands area that would be pretty familiar to Dublin visitors, though at a larger scale and with far taller buildings for the nearby financial institutions.

One thing that is entirely Buenos Aires’ own is the Costanera Sur, a wetlands park that flanks the city on the east, providing access to and views over the massive Río de la Plata estuary (only debatably a river in its own right, it’s the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná rivers as they reach the sea). As it was winter when I visited and roamed around, there weren’t too many birds to be seen in the protected lagoons within the park, though I did spot some large, predatory-looking waders that I’d be fascinated to learn more about. Thankfully, I didn’t spot any snakes or alligators, despite warnings to alternately keep an eye out for them or not feed them. Which may amount to the same thing in some cases.

A path in the Costanera Sur park in Buenos Aires.
The Costanera Sur is a lovely place to walk, even in the dead of winter.

As I was tired, I didn’t do much more exploring beyond having a look round the locality of my hotel in order to secure some proper food and bottled water. Uniquely for this section of the trip, I have three whole days in this city before I have to depart, and with Independence Day set for the second of those days, I have good reason to be rested and ready to enjoy it. Also, what’s with the lack of Natural History museums in Buenos Aires? Don’t they have a lot of fascinating dinosaurs here? Sigh.

So, my timing in general wasn’t the greatest for Buenos Aires. The Monday I arrived saw most of the city closed or only half-heartedly open, and Independence Day the day after was much the same. If anything, the city was even more shut down as people took advantage of the public holiday. I tried and failed to get the hotel to do my laundry for me, and eventually spent part of the morning doing a loop around the centre of the city, exploring down the Florida shopping street, across to the obelisk in the centre of Av. 9 de Julio and the massive topiary “BA” that people were queuing to get their picture taken in front of, and beyond to the theatre district on the other side. Interesting but not highly active. Luckily, I had an appointment for the afternoon.

The Puerto Madero docks in Buenos Aires.
They even have a Caltrava bridge, the copycats!

A friend of mine from my old Masters course in Dublin settled in Buenos Aires a few months ago, and I met him at Retiro Station at around 1400. Together we rambled southwards as far as Plaza de Mayo, with its pink-coloured Casa de Rosada, as he told me stories of his own travels across South America (far more extensive than mine), then eastwards across Puerto Madero, the Dublin Docklands-alike, to the edge of the Costanera park, where we sat down and had some very tasty Choripan Completo sandwiches, washed down with Coke.

In a straight line west from the Plaza de Mayo is the Plaza del Congreso, where we headed once fed. Once again there were signs of protestors, and of cops keeping their distance, but the main attraction was the architecture. I’m no expert, but some of the buildings are absolutely gorgeous, with tall, narrow domes and baroque decorations across their facades. The influences are a complete mix of European styles, including French, German, Italian, and classical, and simply walking along any of the old neighbourhoods would be a treat for any architecture fan.

A street view of a building in Buenos Aires.
Just one of a huge variety of fascinating buildings in Buenos Aires.

For us, we followed the Av. Entre Ríos until we found ourselves surrounded by bookstores. There we dropped into the El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a former theatre converted into a bookstore and now featuring three or more floors of bookshelves arranged around the central hall. We’d made a serious loop around the city though, and the sun was setting, so food and drink were again an issue, so we headed back to the vicinity of my hotel. The On Tap craft beer bar was closed due to the holiday, but the Natacha cafe nearby could at least provide more straightforward refreshment. The rest of the evening was lost in The Temple Bar (!) just a few doors down, where slightly underwhelming beers mixed well enough with solid burgers and a subdued atmosphere (Argentines generally start eating and drinking later than us Irish) until it was time to part.

My last full day in Buenos Aires was the first day I got to see the city alive, crowded with people and traffic. It was also a day of walking a loop, the largest yet. First to Florida for medialunas and black tea in the Florida Garden cafe, then south along Av. Leandro Niceforo Alem, where I ran into a phalanx of cops in riot gear lurking near a crowd of protestors beating drums to a dance rhythm. I passed them all by and started my museum visiting at the Museo de la Casa Rosada, in the cellars of the presidential palace, where I experienced a run through the history of the presidency and a fascinating mural chamber in the company of a gaggle of schoolkids.

A painting of Juan and Eva Peron.
You can’t get too far from the Perons in Buenos Aires.

I dropped into the cathedral on the other side of Plaza de Mayo, but then I headed further south along Calle Defensa, under flyovers until I reached the Museo de Arte Moderno, which highlighted the fact that although pre-Colombian art was cut short, there are still art movements very much indigenous to this continent. In particular there were excellent exhibits from Max Gómez Canle, who mixes natural landscapes with unnatural intrusions to fascinating effect, and Flavia da Rin, who makes herself the subject of her art, altering her face and form to various effects.

After passing the fascinating San Telmo galeria market, the southernmost extent of my wanderings came at the Parque Leandro and the Museo Histórico Nacional, where I went through another run at the history of Argentina and South America at large, this time focusing on the revolutionary era and all leading to the sword of José de San Martín himself, guarded by a soldier in historic garb. (Many countries in South America have their own revolutionary hero: in Chile it’s Bernardo O’Higgins, in Argentina San Martín, and in Uruguay José Gervasio Artigas.)

The sword of Jose de San Martin, hero of Argentina.
The sword of San Martin, which is surrounded by the swords of his contemporaries and followers.

The time had come to turn the loop though, so I headed west along Av. Caseros, all the way to an overpass that provided shelter to some of Buenos Aires’ many homeless. Beyond this was the Plaza Constitucion railway station, another reminder of the railway glories that Argentina once had. From there I turned north, first along Calle Salta and then along Av. Entre Ríos again, this time all the way north to the Recoleta cemetery.

Recoleta is one of the city’s most upmarket neighbourhoods, and the cemetery is where anyone who is anyone in Argentina is buried. Lanes lined with mausoleums intersect across this space, with some of the shrines still well tended while others have long since started to crumble. Almost all of them have been designed to within an inch of their lives, for what’s the point in being dead if you can’t still outdo your neighbours? This was also the first place in South America that I came across any free-roaming cats. As in Ancient Egypt, they still act as guardians of the dead.

The mausoleums in Recoleta cemetery.
Mausoleums of all kinds, in varying states of repair.

I’d walked my feet off at this stage though, so it was time to close the loop. South along Av. Alvear with its ultra-swanky shops and hotels, to the French Embassy on Av. 9 de Julio. As a bonus, not only was I able to rest in the hotel for a while, I also bought some fridge magnets, got my ferry ticket printed for the next day, and picked up the laundry I’d left at a nearby laundrette that morning. All told, my most productive day in the city by a distance.

For my last evening, the plan had been to go for a steak dinner with my college friend, but it turned out that he couldn’t make it, so I headed out on my own later in the evening to Parrilla Pena, an old-school grill, where I was served enough steak and chips to put me into a meat coma. I struggled through a dessert of flan/creme caramel and dulce de leche, then staggered back to the hotel. Plans for a nightcap in On Tap were set to one side as I settled for an early night to get started on the hard work of digestion.

A dinner of steak and chips with Argentinian wine to go with it.
This took a long time to finish, but the Mendoza wine paired well with it.

That was mostly it for Buenos Aires and Argentina. The next morning I was up early to purchase provisions and pack, then check out and stroll the ten minutes distance down to the ferry terminal. Buquebus do regular services across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay, and I was taking the noon boat to Colonia. A quick passage through immigration and a short wait in the boarding lounge, then shuffling onto the ferry itself (paying a little extra for business class gets you a glass of sparkling wine and a comfy seat on the upper deck). Then the ferry itself took off into the mists wreathing the massive river and the country where I’d spent most of the past week was consigned to memory and these notes.


*Stray dogs are a fact of life in Chile and Argentina. Less so the further east you go, it seems though.

**I’m convinced that trail mix exists mostly to convince you that you’re not really that hungry. Or that almost anything else is actually edible.

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Chile—Santiago and La Serena

Chile was always going to be a scramble. Perhaps we should have realised how much of a scramble it would be, but it was a unique situation, so I’ll cut ourselves some slack. The Lawyer, the Doctor, and I were in the country to view a total solar eclipse (a story I’ve already told), but we were also each in the Southern Hemisphere and South America for the first time, and while we were all experienced enough at travelling, we were well outside our comfort zones. For myself in particular, while I’m used to travelling alone, travelling with friends is a less common experience.

We’d divided up the duties before arriving, with the Doctor, who was landing the day before the rest of us, dealing with accommodation and myself with car hire. The latter wasn’t too hard to arrange, but the crowds flocking into the country for the same reasons as us, as well as the vagaries of Internet booking, meant that the Doctor had a harder time of it, dividing our time in Santiago between the Luciano K and Magnolia hotels, and arranging a beachside apartment in the Agua Marina complex in La Serena.

It was a little hazy on the first day, but that cleared.
A glimpse of Santiago from the top of Cerro Santa Lucía

As the Lawyer and I flew in (on separate flights, mine delayed) to Santiago, the city wasn’t showing its best side. The morning light struggled through the clouds over the Andes and the coastal mountains that cradle the city, but the airport delivered us through customs and baggage reclaim without too much of a struggle. Our hotel had arranged a taxi to pick us up, with my Irish name replicated closely enough to be recognisable.

The drive into town took us past plenty of slices of the city, with the sights of wooden pallets stacked high, walls daubed with massive murals, and the now grey, overcast skies making me think of Belfast and the glorious 12th that it’s always a pleasure to avoid by being in a different country, and if possible a different continent.

A mural in Santiago, telling the history of the city.
Santiago is full of murals—this is one of the more official ones.

Once we’d rendezvoused with the Doctor at the Luciano K and dropped our bags, we could do some proper exploring. The Doctor had done some reconnaissance the day before and showed us around the city centre, taking us up the Cerro Santa Lucía, a sculpted peak in the heart of Santiago, with monuments and viewing points aplenty. From up there, we could see the contradictions of the city’s architecture: like most older cities, it maps its history through eras of enthusiasm and decline, with modern skyscrapers rising amid older areas both wealthy and drab, occasionally preserved but often neglected.

For the rest of that day and the next, we experienced as much of Santiago as energy and jet lag would allow. The city is easy to walk, though there’s a good metro system if you’re in a hurry, and it boasts some excellent museums. The one we liked best was the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, which showed a full array of artworks from across South and Central America, limited though these were. It’s a sobering reminder of just what was lost when the New World encountered the Old—civilisations that were developing along parallel tracks to our own but were snuffed out and much of their art and memory lost with them, as well as the chance to ever know how they might have developed, given the chance.

A golden ear ornament from pre-Colombian South America.
A rare piece of surviving native goldwork. Most of it was melted down.

As for nightlife, we weren’t the most active partakers. We became fans of the restaurant Holy Moly and the nearby Opera de Catedral bar, with burgers and beer at the former and pisco sours (and more beer) at the latter. Despite it being the heart of winter it was still worth enjoying the rooftop bar at Opera de Catedral, but we probably enjoyed being in the cellar of Holy Moly more, especially when the Copa America quarter final was on, and we were treated to a penalty shootout between Chile and Colombia. (A return trip to watch the semifinal between Chile and Peru after the eclipse was sadly less successful for our adopted team.) The Doctor and I also ventured across the river to the Cerro San Cristobal and to the Gran Torre Santiago at the Costanera Center in Santiago’s financial district. Both offered incredible views of the city and the mountains surrounding it, with the tower in particular worth visiting for the well-designed viewing floor and skydeck.

When the time came to drive to La Serena, our base for the northern half of our trip, my car booking proved to have been a solid one, though the car we were given was an odd Chinese brand, with Tesla trappings in the form of a massive LCD control panel, but little of the Tesla refinement (a delay of a few seconds when trying to use the screen, assuming it responded at all). Still, the five hour drive north was pleasant enough, with a single stop at a crowded filling station enough to refresh and refill us. As driver, I didn’t get the full benefit of the often stunning views as this section of the Panamerican Highway moved from mountainous terrain to rocky coastlines, but the Lawyer and the Doctor certainly enjoyed it, and the road was never too crowded, even at the regular toll booths.

The beach at La Serena, Chile, just before sunset.
It’s not Baywatch—that job was left to the helicopter that buzzed the beach after sunset, reminding surfers to get out.

We arrived in La Serena early enough that it wasn’t yet jam-packed with eclipse watchers. Our apartment, while chilly, was right beside the beach, so we did get to stroll along the sands and enjoy a Pacific sunset, in between which we were interviewed by a Brazilian reporter—one of many present for the event. Decent burgers but slow service were had at Bastad & Burger right beside our apartment, and we had an early night for the early start we were expecting the next day.

Of the actually eclipse experience I’ve already written, so for the morning let’s just say that we were well organised and ahead of most of the crowds, getting out onto Route 5 (the Panamerica) and climbing into into the mountains of the southern Atacama desert along several switchback sections. We’d read our instructions well and followed the signs to the La Silla base camp rather than the eclipse party camp that the normal road would have taken us to. A fleet of minibuses took us up to the mountaintop, where we joined hundreds of others in waiting for and enjoying a close-to-ideal eclipse experience.

A mirrored dish and telescope dome at La Silla observatory, Chile.
Even without the eclipse, it still would have been a pleasure to visit La Silla.

Descending in the darkness and driving back along the 5, things got a little more tricky. The switchback sections of the road were navigated without too much trouble, but long before we hit La Serena we hit a tailback. One that went on and on, keeping us stop-starting and crawling for an hour and a half before we reached the lane closure that was the partial cause. That and the numbers of cars leaving the eclipse viewing sites were a warning of what the next day would bring.

Our last day in La Serena saw us trying to get around some bank and card issues that had been only partly sorted out during the car hire experience. This entailed leaving the beachfront area of the city behind for the commercial centre, crossing the dirt-tracked area in between, and navigating the city’s one-way system before we could even begin to deal with the banks and get the funds we needed for our accommodation. Still, we managed it in time and had one last look at the beach before getting in the car and setting off at around noon. A little later than planned, but a five hour drive and eight hours before the car was due back was plenty of leeway, right?

Sunset over the Pacific again, seen from somewhere north of La Serena.
I didn’t get to see the sunset while driving—this at a rest stop we took was the best I could manage.

Wrong. The Panamerican south to Santiago was a nightmare. The one sensible thing we did was to fill up the car as early as we could, as every subsequent filling station featured ever-longer queues. Every toll station along the road south now resulted in a massive tailback as everyone quit the area of the eclipse for the capital and/or the airport. None of the tailbacks were as bad as the one we’d endured the night before, but together they added up, and it was long after dark that we found ourselves at the outskirts of Chile’s capital, trying to follow the signs for the airport. (On our trip north, we’d missed a turnoff and ended up heading south through the city instead, eventually restoring ourselves to the right direction through guesswork and drama.)

After some tense moments, we finally pulled into the car rental site with ten minutes to spare and gratefully returned our off-brand Chinese SUV without any more scratches than it had when we got it (but quite a bit more desert dust). A shuttle to the airport and a taxi into town at last brought us to the Hotel Magnolia, by far the most luxurious of our lodgings. We had just enough time to venture out to Holy Moly for one last round of beers and burgers, as well as Pisco sours before and after in the hotel bar.

A queue to board a coach in Santiago’s Terminal Sur.
All aboard for those of you who want to cross the Andes in genuine comfort.

That was more or less it for me though. While the Doctor and the Lawyer had another full day in Santiago to shop and explore, I was heading for the bus station the next morning, after eating my fill at the Magnolia’s excellent breakfast buffet. Farewells were said and I was off, first on the metro and then (after an hour’s delay) on the bus heading east into the Andes, where tunnels, valleys and switchbacks took me above the snow line and into Argentina, my last view of Chile being down a narrow rocky valley into the sunset land beyond.

Under a Black Sun

(Featured photo courtesy of the Doctor and his photography skills.)

Normally I do these posts in proper order, following my travels as they happen. However, this one time I think it’s worth breaking that habit. For one thing, the first week of this trip has been unusually hectic, with next to no downtime in which to write, so I’m already behind. For a second, the event that this entire trip was centered around has already happened, and to waste any more time in committing my thoughts on it to words risks losing some of the detail.

In 2018, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a collection of observatories in Chile’s Atacama desert, decided to celebrate an upcoming total solar eclipse by selling tickets to an unusually perfect viewing point: their mountaintop site at La Silla. I grabbed three tickets, roping in a couple of friends who were as keen as me to make the most of this opportunity. One had to drop out, but another replaced her, and so the three of us made our way to La Silla for July 2, 2019. The broader story of that trip will be told in the next post, but what follows below is my notes made directly after the event itself.


Well, that was special. It took the Lawyer and the Doctor a little over an hour to return (from their tour of the La Silla site), and when I went to follow in their footsteps, the New Technology Telescope (NTT) tour was closed due to VIP activity. So I returned and we hung out at the viewing spot we’d claimed for an hour or two, until the Lawyer and I went to queue for a tour of the massive reflector that sits on La Silla’s highest peak. Despite the presence of the Chilean President and two kids doing their best to start an avalanche, we made it up to the top of the mountain and spent a few awed moments roaming the interior of the telescope dome and marveling at the massive, if somewhat aged, technology within.

By the time we returned, having also spotted more than a few condors* circling the peak, it was about 1500. The Lawyer went to relieve the Doctor, while I took the opportunity of no queue at the now reopened NTT to tour that as well. After a quick run around the internal workings of the telescope, with its double sensors, cooling technology, and adaptive optics, I returned to our viewing spot. At that stage, there were only a few minutes until first contact at 1523. From that moment on, the crowd’s attention was ever more tightly focused on the sun, staring at it through the provided safety lenses and watching as the moon crawled across the face of the solar disc, dimming it more every minute.

As we approached totality, a chill fell over the land, and the contours of the valleys below La Silla were lost in shadow. Our own shadows were twisted by the crescent sun as strange, untimely colours stained the horizon.

Not the best of photos, but better than the one I took during totality.
Moments before totality, captured with my struggling phone camera. The sky colours are pretty visible though.

How to describe how things changed at totality? Up until the last few seconds, even the smallest fragment of the sun was too bright to look at. In an instant though, the sun gave way to a disc of complete darkness, wreathed in a halo of white flame. Colours danced along the horizon, the world utterly changed.

For just under two minutes, the hundreds of viewers gathered on the mountaintop experienced a very different universe to the one we know day-to-day.

As totality had been, the return of the sun’s light was greeted by cheers. An initial speck of light on the edge of the black disc was joined by another, bisected by lunar peaks. Moments later, the sun returned to us the world that had been. Once again there was light, and warmth too slowly returned.

It was as if we all released a breath we had been holding. Awed exclamations gave way to cheerful conversations and mutual congratulations. Slowly we turned to checking the records of the moments that we’d made, as if to distract from the ferment in our brains. Only by routine could we reacclimatise to the everyday world.

Slowly, reluctantly, people began to move. Some began to head for the buses and the long trip back to their lodgings. Others, like the three of us, were hanging around until sunset and later, so we retreated to the warmth of the vistors’ tent. That’s where the Lawyer and I are now, still coming down from our high, while the Doctor remains outside to catch some final shots of the occluded sun.

I’ve never experienced anything like that before. Not even close. And the best thing? We still have the stars to come.


We did hang around for a few more hours, as the sun set and the stars came out, brighter and more numerous than any of us had ever seen them before. Using my binoculars and the Doctor’s camera, we made the most of being in that place at that time, and even after the ESO staff shooed us off the mountain so that the observatory could get back to doing actual work, we did some more star-spotting on the plains below. As for getting back to our own lodgings, that turned out to be an adventure in itself, but one for another post. For now, and for then, the eclipse is enough.

* Possibly turkey vultures rather than condors. My birdwatching skills are not the best.

Black Sun Odyssey

It’s that time of year again. (It’s not—that time of year would be September, if I hadn’t skipped it last year, for reasons.) The travel itch has overtaken me. (The travel itch never really goes away—what does overtake me is available money and time.) I’m about to go somewhere I’ve never been, see something I’ve never seen, and tell the story of it all here. (Those bits are true enough at least.) So sit back and let me explain what’s going to be.

A bit more than a year ago, one of the podcasts I follow, the ESOcast, flagged up something interesting. A total solar eclipse was due to pass over Chile in 2019, more specifically directly over one of ESO’s mountaintop observatories in the Atacama Desert. More relevantly, they were going to sell tickets to this event. My travel plans for 2018 having fallen through, the combination of viewing an eclipse, venturing into the southern hemisphere for the first time, and getting to visit and perhaps cross South America was too tempting to resist.

From darkness into light. A tale of two mountains.
A map of my own folly.

This time though, I did something unusual for me when travel planning. I reached out to a couple of friends who I knew to be astronomy buffs and suggested a joint trip. When I got positive responses, I booked three tickets. A year ahead of time, I was locked into a big trip. It was the longest lead time I’d ever had for a trip like this. The only question is what shape the entire trip would take. The result is the shape on the map above.

Santiago in Chile is the starting point, where myself, the Doctor and the Lawyer will congregate. Chile’s an awkwardly shaped country, thin as a ribbon and stretching across a good portion of the world’s latitude, north to south. The eclipse event is due to happen at a mountaintop site called La Silla, at the southern end of the Atacama Desert, so we’ll be driving (or to be more precise I will) five hours north, first to La Serena on the Pacific coast and then a further two hours north on the day itself to La Silla. As the Atacama is one of the driest spots on earth, this is as close as possible to a sure thing as regards eclipse watching, but either way it’ll be a unique experience.

After this, things don’t get any less interesting on the trip. Another night on the Pacific coast and a few more in Santiago, and then the Doctor and the Lawyer depart for European shores, whereas I go on my merry way. Once again, road and rail are my carriers, but South America’s rail system being as disconnected as it is, there’s only one rail section of this trip, from Cordoba to Buenos Aires in Argentina. To get there, I’ll be hopping two buses, crossing the Andes to the wine district of Mendoza before reaching Cordoba itself.

Buenos Aires comes highly recommended, so it should be a highlight on the trip, and I’ve set aside several days to explore it. Plus, it’s only a ferry trip away from another goal on this journey—the less-visited country of Uruguay and its capital of Montevideo. Like Moldova and Mongolia on earlier trips, Montevideo is an inexplicably personal requirement for a place to visit. Maybe I have a thing for locations starting with “Mo”?

Anyway, if things were otherwise, the trip might end there. I’ll have crossed another continent to add to Europe, Asia, and North America (and I have plans for two of the remaining three), and Pacific to Atlantic would be enough for me. Except that when I was booking flights, departures from Montevideo or even Buenos Aires were prohibitively expensive. So I made a somewhat rash decision that gave birth to the ludicrous-looking line on the map that runs north from Montevideo to the metropolis of São Paulo.

It’ll be the middle of winter when I hit Brazil, but a 29-hour bus trip will drop me into heat matching anything that an Irish summer can muster. For this last part of my trip, I don’t know how much time I’ll spend in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro (from whence my relatively cheap flight departs), but for my mum’s sake I’ll at least try to climb the hill overlooking the city to visit the Christ the Redeemer statue.

So that’s the plan. Another continent-spanning, mostly land-based odyssey, with a lot of freedom to improvise around some pre-booked fixed points. It’s been too long since I’ve been on one of these trips, and it’s going to be a novelty to be kicking it off in company for a change. My Spanish being as limited as it is, and the prevalence of English speakers being probably less than you’d find in Europe, I’m expecting to face a few more challenges than I have before, but challenging myself is part of the reason why I like to travel solo. You don’t learn anything new by doing the same old thing, again and again.

As always, I’ll fire up travel highlights here as often as I can, and more detailed travel journals will follow in their own good time. There’ll be photos and maybe even some videos, especially of the eclipse. I hope you enjoy it all. I know I will.

Remembrance

If you must remember me when I am gone,

Let it not be with graven stone,

Before a plot of earth,

Over a mouldering form. 

Let the fire consume me,

The winds carry me,

The fields receive me,

The waves cover me. 

And if more is still needed,

Take a stone,

Sea smoothed,

And carve my words upon it. 

Take it to a mountain,

Glacier carved,

And lay it there,

The words hidden.

And maybe in some far off day,

Someone will turn that stone,

Read those words,

And wonder. 

And that will be my remembrance.

 11/11/2014

Heavy Sits the Arse Upon the Throne…

We’re only a few hours away from the finale of Game of Thrones. Having long ago outstripped the A Song of Ice and Fire novels it was based on, the series is now delivering an ending that author George R.R. Martin may not match for years. However, season 8 has already met with a mixed reception, so the odds that the last episode will leave viewers happy, or even satisfied, are not as good as they were. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the runners and riders for the Iron Throne and how they’ve been served by the last few episodes.

(Spoilers, obviously.)

Continue reading Heavy Sits the Arse Upon the Throne…

Game of Thrones—The Long Farewell

Quite a few long-running stories that I’ve been following across different media are coming to an end these days. In the cinemas, there’s Avengers Endgame, the climax of a story that started with Iron Man in 2008 (and which I’ve seen—more on that soon). In comics, there’s Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, which has been running since 2014 and is on its final story arc. And on TV of course, there’s Game of Thrones, now two episodes into its six-episode final season.

Endings are tricky things, of course, all the more so when stories are as sprawling as these three examples are. But these stories have an advantage: a large cohort of dedicated fans, who have invested in and stuck with the story from the early days. Perhaps the key to getting the ending right lies in making sure that these fans feel a sense of payoff for their dedication. And from the two episodes so far, Game of Thrones‘ creators understand this well.

(Spoilers for Game of Thrones below, but also for sundry other endings.)

Continue reading Game of Thrones—The Long Farewell