Archive for the ‘Chile’ Category

Total Eclipse

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

Eclipse in ChileMonday we drove back to Antofagasta and flew to Santiago, then La Serena.   At the La Serena airport, as previously arranged, a taxi driver was waiting for us with a sign.  Unfortunately, the sign read “Mr. Rovinho Hankieses,” so it took us a while to decide that was actually for Robin Hankinson.   But sure enough, it was, and the driver, a very nice if somewhat vague guy named Luis, led us to his van in the parking lot.  After what seemed a very long phone conversation with the landlady of our AirBnB place, he drove us there, and we settled into a very cozy bungalow in a suburban La Serena neighborhood.   We did stop on the way for bread, water, wine, and other necessities, of course.  


We arranged for Luis to come back at noon the next day, so Tuesday he drove us in exceedingly heavy traffic up north of La Serena toward La Higuera.  This small town is right on the maximum totality duration line, on a main highway, and both high and inland enough to avoid coastal fog.  In other words, eclipse central.  As we approached La Higuera we saw more and more cars parked out in the desert on random dirt tracks, and La Higuera itself was just a mass of cars.  We turned around and pulled off into the desert, found an open spot without major cacti, and parked.  

La Higuera mobbed with eclipse watchers

While we had evaded the mob, we still had quite a few neighbors; perhaps forty cars or so along a minor dirt track, with varying amounts of camera equipment, camping gear, and picnic supplies.  It was like a pop-up village in the desert.  I walked down the dirt track and passed a guy changing a baby’s diaper on the tailgate of a pickup, some people setting up a big sheet of cardboard for pinhole projection, a group roasting hot dogs, and several tents.  The desert was fascinating, full of flowering plants I’d never seen.  We were overjoyed to have found the perfect spot, more or less by chance.
Stroller in the desertDesert flowers

Our eclipse villageA couple with a teenage son and daughter parked next to us in a red pickup truck, and I said hi.  We struck up a conversation, and they said something about the eclipse glasses I had stuck in my shirt collar.  I asked if they had some, and they said no; I said I had lots of extras.  “Would you sell us some?”  I shook my head, told them to wait a minute, came back with my bag of eight pairs, and started handing them out.  The daughter thanked me in very good English, though it turned out her vocabulary was limited.  They’d driven five hours from Santiago, and the mom forgot their eclipse glasses.  


Robin came over, adding a lot more to our communication ability, and when we said we were from Missouri, the daughter, Millaray, was very excited.  Her high school has an exchange program with a school in Kansas City.  She’d been to Missouri, her English teacher was from Missouri, and she wants to go to Missouri to college.   So we wound up having a very nice conversation, and she and Robin exchanged emails so we can stay in touch.  

Millaray and us

At 3:23, the first nibble disappeared from the lower left edge of the sun, to scattered cheering.  Over the next hour, as the bite grew larger, it started to get cooler.  I’d taken off my sweatshirt earlier, but had to put it back on.  A breeze came up from the south.  It was still a bright, clear day, but the light seemed subdued. Our shadows became oddly blurred, and I amused our group by projecting the sun’s image onto the pickup truck with my binoculars.  Hamner’s mesh hat projected a grid of little crescent shapes. By 4:30 or so everyone was watching the shrinking sliver of sun.


At 4:39, when the last bit disappeared, I found myself yelling along with most of the crowd.  Without the glasses, the sun was a ring of white plumes around the dark moon disk, in a weird twilight sky.  Birds flew across the desert restlessly.  Even though I saw one just two years ago, and knew what was coming, I felt like I couldn’t get my breath, and tears came to my eyes.  As Peggy said, you start to understand how somebody could become an eclipse chaser. Eclipse in Chile

Before it seemed like time, the first beads of light appeared on the lower left, and it was like a white searchlight beam was shining in our faces.  More cheers, and soon it was fully light again.  Our impromptu village started to break up as people headed out to beat the rush on the road, full of traffic bound for La Serena.  On the way back, a guy danced ecstatically on top of a boulder by the ocean.

Guy dances after bringing back sun


Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

Laguna ChaxaWe were totally exhausted after our long day in the mountains, so we asked Claudio to come at noon on Sunday, and just take us one place. Meanwhile, in the morning we thought we’d drive to Chuquicamata, where Robin was born, for a quick look. We knew that the town had been closed down and everyone moved to Calama, and that much of it was now buried under mine tailings. But at least we thought we could look at what’s left. Not actually, it turns out.  There’s a big arch with Chuquicamata on it, then a gate manned by a cop who told us that you can only enter on a tour, and they only have them on weekdays.   Apparently the place is a toxic waste site because of the heavy metals, and you can’t go in unsupervised.  Chuquicamata sign

So we drove back to Calama.     When Claudio came, we had one goal in mind: flamingos.  And he took us to the best spot, Laguna Chaxa.  It’s a salt lake in the middle of the Salar de Atacama, about 1200 square miles of salt flat, high in various minerals including lithium.   The salt water supports a population of brine shrimp, and flamingos eat them.   Laguna ChaxaThere are also Puna Plover and Andean Avocets (one of those in the pic above).  But the flamingos are the big draw.  The place is run as a national park, and there’s a fee to enter.  Well worth it, as the birds are almost entirely unafraid of humans, and you get excellent views of them.   We immediately saw Chilean Flamingos, and then even more Andean Flamingos.  We were missing the James’s (=Andean) Flamingo.  I set up my scope and started scanning the more distant birds.  The absolute furthest visible bird, even through some heated-air ripples, appeared to have all pink legs.  That’s one field mark for James’s.   I waited for it to pull its head up — they spend most of their time sweeping their bills through the water — and when it did, the bill showed only a small black area on the tip.  I called Claudio, who confirmed that it was indeed a James’s Flamingo, and we had al three species in one spot.  That’s half the world’s flamingo species, for those keeping score.   Chilean Flamingo
Chilean Flamingo

We happily headed back to San Pedro, where we paid Claudio his guide fee and said our goodbyes.


A long day in the Andes

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

In the PunaPuna

Saturday morning Claudio showed up as planned about 8 AM, and we set out for the mountains. Calama is at an elevation of about 7500 feet, and our birding expedition would take us up a good bit higher. As we climbed, we followed the course of the Rio Loa, which brings snowmelt water down from the high peaks to Calama. Our first stop was at Laguna Inca-Coya, a little sinkhole lake near the village of Chiu-Chiu, at an elevation of about 8000 feet.

At Laguna Inca-CollaClaudio points out a bird at Laguna Inca-Coya

Our first new bird of the day was an Andean (=Slate-colored) Coot. Shortly after we saw that, an Andean Gull flew over. Two lifers at the first stop, not too bad.

Church at Chiu-Chiu
Church at Chiu-Chiu

Next we headed for the geyser field, which entailed driving on some really bad roads. Hamner was up to the task, though, as he continued to be throughout a very long day. As we climbed, the terrain began to change. Clumps of grass abound at the higher elevations, an ecological zone known as Puna. The grass supports a lot of wildlife, including wild vicuña and guanaco.

In the Puna

While you can go to the main geysers and pay an entrance fee, Claudio had another idea. He guided us to a place with a lot of very forbidding signs saying that we weren’t allowed in; it seemed that there weren’t a lot of cops around, though, so we ignored them. We parked, and just down a slope was a geyser of mud, belching sulfur-scented steam.

Mud Geysers
Me at the mud geyser

Just beyond the mud geyser was a marshy seep, where Claudio and I saw two species of Cinclodes and an Andean Negrito. This spot was the highest we went all day, at about 15,000 feet. I had to take two breaths per step most of the time. Next we continued in the Puna to the Rio Putana, to a wide bend that forms a shallow wetland area. It was full of waterfowl such as Puna Teal, Giant Coot, Crested Duck, and Andean Goose, and we also saw a Plumbeous Sierra-finch and a couple of Gray-breasted Seedsnipe.

Puna Teal
Puna Teal

From there, we stopped at a place called Machuca, which had some shops that were all closed. There were, however, several more bird species to be seen, including Greenish Yellow-Finch, Cordilleran Castanero, Gray-bellied Shrike-tyrant, and Black-hooded Sierra-finch. An Aplomado Falcon flew over in a surprise appearance as well. The landscape of the Puna is amazing. The elevation and lack of rain make it an exceedingly difficult place for anything to survive, yet it’s full of beautiful plants and animals. And of course, wherever there is water such as the Rio Loa or the Rio Putana, which carry snowmelt from yet higher peaks, animals congregate. And many of these animals are unique to the region, including of course a lot of the birds – as you might guess from all the ones that have names starting with “Andean” or “Puna”.

Lupine in the Andes
A lupine of some sort


We continued on, later seeing a beautiful adult Mountain Caracara, and finally made our way to San Pedro de Atacama, where we had dinner with Claudio and saw some of the festival of San Pedro — the streets were full of people in costumes dancing and parading. We drove back to Calama in the dark, and Hamner had put in a good 10 hours of driving, much of it on dirt roads in the Andes. He deserves a medal. Meanwhile, I had 20 lifers in one day.


To the driest place on Earth

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

On Friday (June 28) we packed up our stuff, Hamner maneuvered the SUV out of the exceedingly cramped underground parking, and we set off eastward into the brown mountains.


Train between Calama and Antofagasta

Train in the Atacama desert

 Robin always tells how she and her siblings had a game they played in the car when driving from Calama to the coast for a vacation.  The first one to see any kind of green plant in the distance would yell “I see the river!”   She wasn’t kidding.  For long stretches there is nothing but brown, gray, and reddish dirt to be seen.  The shapes of the mountains are like giant elephant’s feet, contours unspoiled by growth of anything alive.  It gave us all  a bit of perspective into Robin’s mother, Betsy, who grew up on Staten Island.  Anaconda Copper transferred Robin’s father to Chuquicamata in 1942, and the shock never really wore off. Nevertheless, our apartment in Calama is in a very nice building with a lovely view of the sunset.  

Sunset in Calama
View from our balcony in Calama


We called our guide, Claudio Seguel Huidobro, whom I’d been corresponding with for a few weeks, and he showed up soon after.  We had some bread, cheese, ham, olives, and wine, and discussed our plans for the couple of days we’d be there.

A day in Antofagasta

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

Turkey VulturesTurkey Vultures on masts in the Antofagasta harbor  

Thursday after breakfast Hamner, Peggy, and I set out to walk to the jetty with the lighthouse, where we’d seen some promising birds from afar the day before.  Robin’s hip and knee weren’t up to it, and furthermore the all-in-one washer/dryer had failed to dry our clothes, so she opted to stay and dry stuff with the hair dryer a while. We walked out on the historic pier (Muelle Historico), which was the original site of the nitrate exports that made Antofagasta.  It, like pretty much everything in Antofagasta, was covered with Turkey Vultures.  Never saw so many. We continued on to the mall, which is right on the waterfront, and has an outdoor walkway with a nice view of a rocky cove.  There we saw a lot more vultures, gulls, a Whimbrel, and an American Oystercatcher.   The walkway continued around to the south, giving us a good enough view of the lighthouse jetty to determine that it’s a working port, and not accessible to us.  So I set up the scope to see what we could find on it.

Lighthouse at Antofagasta

Lighthouse jetty


It was covered with Peruvian Pelicans, and also quite a few cormorants of all three local species – Neotropic, Red-legged, and Guanay.  Hamner asked if there were nests on the far end of the pier, and I looked with the scope; they were actually ends of rebar sticking out.  Gray gulls were sitting on them, along with three Inca Terns – very cool birds, and sadly I don’t have a photo that does them justice.  But a lifer anyway.

Neotropic CormorantNeotropic Cormorant  

When we turned around to head back, it was after 10 AM, so the mall was open, specifically the Juan Valdez patio coffee shop.  Hamner and Peggy got some real coffee.  We’ve been drinking instant most of the trip, which seems to be the norm here (yecch).   An Oasis Hummingbird buzzed around some ornamental plantings nearby. On the way back, I took another look at the rocky cove, and was rewarded with a Blackish Oystercatcher.  The light wasn’t too good, but apparently it was a juvenile, with an orange/yellow bill instead of the adult’s bright red.  But then Hamner spotted a second, and it was grown up.  A second lifer for the morning, and a decent photo of it. By the time we got back, it was time for lunch, and then we all set out for the Antofagasta Museum.  It’s free, and not large, but we did learn a bit about the history of the place.  It’s been inhabited for about 10,000 years by fishing people; the Spanish didn’t pay much attention to it until they decided to mine guano and mineral nitrate deposits starting in the mid 1800s.  Now it’s primarily a copper port.

Old train engine in Antofagasta

 Old train engine


 Robin poses in front of a mural for the Chuquicamata apartments

From there we headed to Avendida Arturo Prat, which is a pedestrian street for several blocks.  I think in the summer it’s a bit more interesting, as we missed the one street musician, a sax player who was leaving as we arrived.  We did stop for coffee, and this time I had a very good cup of espresso, though.

Back to the apartment for bread, cheese, and olives and a fair amount of wine.  Friday we pack up and drive to Calama, closest extant town to Robin’s birthplace, Chuquicamata.


Thursday, June 27th, 2019

Peruvian Pelican

So Tuesday was supposed to be a fairly easy travel day – drive from Vicuña to La Serena, fly to Santiago, change planes to fly to Antofagasta, pick up our rental car that we have reserved, and drive to the vacation rental apartment.  We got to Santiago, got off the plane, went down the corridor, and followed the sign that said “Conexiones / Connecting Flights”.  And found ourselves outside of the secure area and in the place where you’d be if you just come into the country.   We had less than an hour to get to our connecting flight, and we were facing immigration, customs, who knows what. 

So we talked to the officer at the immigration line, who took us to the Latam counter, where we got moved to a later flight.  And then an old guy with a fancy ID hanging from a lanyard came and led us and about a dozen other confused ducklings through the airport to a secure door, entered a code in a keypad, and then pointed us to our new gate.  Whew!

So we got to Antofagasta, and amazingly our luggage had been transferred with us, so we were feeling good.  Out we go to the rental car counters.  Hamner, what rental company is it?  National.  Hmmm…. Europcar, Budget, Avis, etc. etc. … No National.  Hamner digs out his email from the rental company, which gives us instructions on how to get to them from the airport.  Sigh. One of the horde of taxi guys who had been orbiting us came up, we told him where we wanted to go, and after a lot of consultation with his buddies, we loaded our gear in his totally unmarked “taxi” and off we go.  For a really long way.  The National rental agency is in Antofagasta downtown, basically, miles from the airport.  We pull up to a very seedy looking place at the address given.

Sketchy car rental place  UntitledSketchy car rental place.

It says “Alamo” in grungy letters on the façade, and there’s a locked grill at street level behind which there are some cars.  Our taxi guy yells at the window, pounds on the grill, no dice.  Finally Hamner finds the phone number, and we get taxi guy to call them; the Alamo person says he’ll be there in 20-30 minutes. Peggy by this point was convinced it was an elaborate scam.  Sure the email has a nice logo, anyone can do that; they’ve taken Hamner’s credit card info and directed us to a place where there used to be an Alamo car rental years ago, but it still shows up on Google Maps.

At the sketchy car rental place

Hamner and Peggy put a brave face on it, though Peggy knows it’s all a scam.

I was starting to wonder, but after about 15 minutes a guy wearing and Alamo shirt (Alamo and National did merge, right?) shows up and lets us in.  But then we have to wait for his boss to come do the contract.  Hey, we were supposed to be there at 4, it’s now 6.  Of course, Google Earth says the place is open till 8, but whatever.  Finally his boss shows up and she’s very nice and apologetic that we had to wait.  And poor quasi-taxi guy has waited patiently the whole time to make sure we’re okay.  We paid him with a sizeable tip, as he’d been super helpful when we were pretty lost.  And then we drove to the apartment.

At least Maria, who’s renting us the apartment, is prompt and very nice, and we get our stuff upstairs and get ourselves situated.  I don’t even want to talk about what it took to get the rented SUV parked in the underground parking garage; suffice it to say that we plan to walk places for the few days we’re here.  And in fact, we walked a couple of blocks that evening to the nearby Lider supermercado to get food for dinner.  We’re about two blocks from the ocean, and the Lider is right on the waterfront.  Based on the logo, it’s owned by Walmart, but it’s about four times the size of the Walmart in Cape.  In any case, we managed to buy bread, cheese, ham, olives, and plenty of wine.  We had a lovely meal and then slept like the dead.

The next morning I got up about dawn and took my binoculars and scope out on the balcony.  From the 11th floor you can see the ocean, a couple of jetties, a wharf with a lighthouse, and some of Playa Paraiso.   View from balcony at Montevideo 143

And as it turns out, you can also see Peruvian Pelicans, Neotropic Cormorants, Kelp Gulls, Gray Gulls, and one Whimbrel with a pretty bad limp.

We spent much of the morning eating, washing clothes, and looking at birds at a distance from our apartment, and then a little before noon we walked down to the beach. The beach is called Playa Paraiso, which seems like overselling it a bit, but it’s nice enough.  We walked on down a way to where we could see the wharf with the lighthouse on it, and saw Guanay Cormorants and Red-legged Cormorants.  There was a fish market, and we ate empanadas outdoors at a little café next to it while sea lions, cormorants, and pelicans played around in the harbor next to us.

We went back to the apartment and dropped off our binoculars and such, and then Hamner and I went on an expedition to get dinner supplies.  Lider/Walmart didn’t have any fresh fish, so we went to the fish market, where we were accosted by every booth owner in the place.  There were lots of different entire fish, but that seemed ambitious given the supplies in our kitchen.  But every one of the booths seemed to have a bunch of the same kind of very nice fresh-looking filets, so we bought some of them.  I asked the girl who sold them what kind of fish they were, and it sounded like “Jueneta” to me; this was wrong, but Robin later figured out it was reineta.   In any case, we baked the filets with a little olive oil, salt, and oregano, and we made a fresh mango/pepper/onion/garlic salsa, and served it all with rice.   Nobody complained.

Dinner at Antofagasta


Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

Andean Condor


So today after spending the morning poking around the Centro Astronómico Alfa Aldea, we decided to go to the big reservoir below Vicuña.  A dam across the Elqui river provides irrigation for 20,000 hectares of farmland, and forms a lake — El Embalse Puclaro.   We stopped first along the upper part of the lake, where there are mudflats and other inviting bird habitat, and saw a number of new species, including Red-Gartered Coots [not Grebes, thanks Bill Eddleman, yes, I'm tired], Yellow-billed Pintails, Yellow-billed Teal, and Great Grebes.

Even when they’re not in breeding plumage, Great Grebes are pretty impressive.
Great Grebe

Then we drove along the northern edge of the reservoir to Guailliguaica, a town on the reservoir known for kitesurfing.  After driving around and being sort of lost for a bit, we concluded that you can’t in fact drive all the way around Puclaro, and went back out to highway 41.  Heading west, and missing various turns and being confused a bit more, we finally found the way to the observation area on the dam.


You have to walk in a bit from the parking area, and when you reach the dam, there’s a huge metal sculpture that is an Aeolian Harp, with four piano wires that sing in the wind.  While admiring this and listening to the Big Ears-appropriate music it made, I saw two big black birds soaring over the lake, wings slightly uptilted in a shallow V.  Peggy asked what they were, and I said “Turkey Vultures,” brought up my binoculars, and added “I tell a lie.  Those are condors!”   The two proceeded to circle back and forth right over us for several minutes and about a hundred photos.    With a wingspan of almost 11 feet, they’re the largest flying birds in the world, and they’re really impressive.
Andean CondorThey disappeared over a ridge finally, and didn’t show up again while we were there.  I hadn’t expected them in that location at all, but what a great surprise!  After a long walk across the dam and back, we headed back to Vicuña, where we had a terrific lunch at the same place we ate dinner last night, El Chivato Negro.  You eat in an enclosed patio out back, and the food and beer are all locally sourced and reasonably priced.  Several cats wander around the place — last night I paid the bill with one sitting in my lap — and we saw Green-backed Firecrown hummingbirds in the trees. For dinner tonight we bought bread, cheese, salami, and olives at the grocery store, and we’d already stocked up on wine.  I’m beat.  If you’re keeping score at home, I’ve recorded 32 species on the trip, of which 19 are new to my life list.  But more locations to come!   At El Chivato Negro

Chile trip, day 1 or 2 or something

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

It’s a little hard to say how far we are into our vacation.  We left Cape on the puddle-jumper to Chicago at noon on Thursday, and then caught a flight to Miami, and then one to Santiago, and then one to La Serena, and then rented a car to drive to Vicuña.   We arrived at our first destination, the Centro Astronómico Alfea Alda, at about 3 PM on Friday.  The trip was more or less uneventful,  though we should have received a flight discount for walking a significant part of the distance to Chile through the airport to get to our connecting flight.

Anyway, we pulled up at the Centro Astronómico, checked into our rooms, and although I was totally exhausted, I couldn’t go to bed.  I had to go out and look at the birds.  The place  is in the Elqui Valley, with desert mountains all around, and has vineyards on most of the property with a few fruit trees and ornamentals.  The place was alive with birds.  The moment I got out of the car, several Chimango Caracaras were shrieking overhead, with others responding from their perches on the vines.

Chimango Caracara

I wandered around the place in a daze for a couple of hours.

Centro Astronomico Alfea Alda

When you’re in a country where you’ve never birded, ever movement in the corner of your eye is a life bird, and it’s hard to focus on one because the others keep popping up.   Peggy joined me — she’s dangerously close to becoming a birder — and we had birds everywhere.   By the time we left for dinner around 5, I had nine new species on my life list (one from lunch in La Serena), and I was pretty sure I’d missed a few others.  The highlight of the day, if I can pick one, was the raucous flock of Burrowing Parakeets (parrots, as far as I’m concerned; they’re 18″ long).   A guy we met on the patio in the Centro was telling us that a flock of these birds destroyed an adobe church nearby by making nest holes in the walls till it collapsed.

Burrowing Parakeet


The next morning I got up and walked around in the winter chill before the sun peeked over the mountains.   Saw a Grassland Yellow-finch, and then as I was looking out the window at breakfast, a Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail.    Hamner, Peggy, Robin and I all wandered around with binoculars looking a birds till noon, then we went to town and bought some souvenirs.     Peggy got a Vicuña eclipse T-shirt that was very nice — have to get a picture later.  And we found a little booth shop where a guy was selling jewelry he makes.  One of the best pieces, which Peggy snapped up, was an intricate thread macramé necklace.  Also possible photo later.

We met a young couple at the Centro yesterday who were from Cambridge (England, that is, not Mass) and who had been working their way up from southern Argentina mainly hitchhiking and camping in a zigzag back and forth between Argentina and Chile.  They left this morning, heading northward for warmer weather.  I was faintly jealous, but sleeping in a bed in a heated room last night reminded me why I don’t do that kind of stuff any more.    We’re resting this afternoon, and then we have an astronomical tour this evening.  Stay tuned!