LA SERENA, Chile.- The countdown has begun in northern Chile toward the arrival of the more than 350,000 tourists the government estimates will visit the country next July to enjoy the total solar eclipse, a unique spectacle that will turn the day into night for almost three minutes.
Specifically, the Coquimbo region, some 450 kilometers (280 miles) north of Santiago and known for the large international telescopes that crown its hilltops, will offer the clearest views of the moon as it completely covers the sun just before 5:00 pm.
The phenomenon last occurred 427 years ago and will not be repeated for the next 146, in the year 2165.
The clarity will be so great that the average eclipse visibility is estimated at between 96 and 98 percent, reaching 100 percent in the communities of La Higuera and Rio Hurtado, a sight attracting scientists and astronomy aficionados in the thousands.
So true is this that from the time it was publicly announced that Chile would be the world’s «window» on this phenomenon, as the United States was in 2017, the reservations made for lodgings in the region shot up to a 95-percent occupation rate by the end of January, six months before the July 2 eclipse.
Locals have a smile on their faces when they recite these numbers, since they see the event as a unique chance to make more of a tourist attraction out of the valleys at the beginning of the Atacama Desert, which for years has been the part of northern Chile that has drawn the most tourists.
To do so, the region is out to reinvent itself with high quality attractions including astrotourism, excursions into the unspoiled natural surroundings and the local gastronomy – nothing to do with the eclipse, or course, but a chance to show all of the area’s vacation possibilities on this key date.
The fact is that this mystical land can leave visitors breathless, whether by contemplating the immeasurable universe or the immensity of the desert valleys.
This enchantment was well known to the pre-Columbian communities who inhabited the area, such as the Diaguitas, who learned what the region had to offer as they sought answers to the great dilemmas of existence by reading the stars.
These skies also fascinate the world’s astronomical organizations of today, especially from Europe and the Americas, which have invested heavily in this part of the country.
In fact, Chile plans to bring together 70 percent of the world’s optical and infrared astronomical capacity over the next 10 years and set up the planet’s largest telescope, 39 meters (128 feet) in diameter.
The latter, which is now under construction, will be placed at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), one of the centers that has had the most contact with the local community.
Specifically, the observatory’s Extension and Education coordinator, Juan Segel, gave «a total of 125 talks, workshops and training sessions in 2019» in order to «educate local inhabitants and tourist guides about the eclipse.»
«We’ve been working on this for 2 1/2 years, training the regional community, raising the authorities’ awareness and offering technical support at the observation points – a job we’ll keep working at until next July 2,» Segel said.
The superintendent of the region, Lucia Pinto, went further and said there is a complete mechanism in force for planning the event, choosing «the places to be prepared for solar eclipse observation, providing transportation, while assuring safety and access to basic services.»
The local government has also lined up a list of complementary activities, such as concerts and contests of eclipse photos, for visitors to enjoy during the five to seven days they are expected to remain in the area.
These steps will be taken to make sure both visitors and locals enjoy the occasion, which will serve to spread the word about the qualities of a region that feels ready to compete with Chile’s best-known tourist attractions.