The 1998 Eclipse in Venezuela

The soldier told us we could not pass without a permit. We had travelled thousands of kilometres.
Our eclipse site, a quiet deserted beach, was a few hundred metres further on. Behind us was a beach overflowing with noise, crowds, cars and vendors.

The Diamond Ring
The Diamond Ring at the end of Totality

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Trip Summary

For the 1998 eclipse we visited the Atlantic side of South America in a four month trip.

We began with 4 weeks in Venezuela after flying from London to Caracus. We saw the eclipse here and travelled southwards by bus to and through Brazil (7 weeks).

We ended with a 5 week journey around Paraguay, Uruguay and northern Argentina. Our flight home was from Buenos Aires.


The Eclipse

Punto Fijo is a tourist-free oil town. It is a busy port on Venezuela's Paraguana Peninsula, a windy desert area on the country's Caribbean coast. We had been staying here for a week making friends with restaurant and shop staff. Everybody was looking forward to the eclipse. People were pleased to receive our photocopied eclipse maps. Across the street from our hotel, a Syrian cafe owner made us welcome every time we popped in for a drink. He arranged a taxi for us at a good price for the morning of the eclipse. Although the eclipse would be total in Punto Fijo, we could obtain an extra 16 or so seconds of precious totality by travelling 20 kilometres north of the town.

26 February 1998 was the day of the eclipse. Our taxi was on time. We sped along the empty desert roads heading north. Patchy cloud dotted the sky but every day for the last week, the clouds had cleared by lunch time. The eclipse was due in the afternoon.

Our eclipse site, selected a few days previously, was a beach area beyond a small peninsula called El Pico (Latitude 11O 52' N, Longitude 70O 17'W). Here the world's media would be congregated. 300m from El Pico we were stopped by the military. The soldier told us we could not pass without a permit. We had travelled thousands of kilometres. Our eclipse site, a quiet deserted beach, was a few hundred meters further on. Behind us was a beach overflowing with noise, crowds, cars and vendors. We tried our best Spanish. We tried pleading. We begged. It was no use. This was South America where the correct papers must be shown.

We took a few photographs of the crowds and the special signs (Via Eclipse). While the soldiers continued controlling traffic, we walked off the main road towards the mostly flat, featureless desert dotted with dry vegetation. Finding ourselves behind a small hill and out of sight of the road, we made our way past the El Pico peninsula to the quiet beaches beyond the official sites.

After 20 minutes of looking, we found a crooked tree, called a Cuji. This would give us shelter from the Sun and a flat area to observe from. Around us were birds and milkweeds. The flat sand was covered with seashells. The sea was close by - an oil tanker in the distance. The crowds were far away but we could hear them. We had arrived at 8 am and it was already getting hot. The Sun beat down so fiercely that I needed a towel under my hat. The vicious wind required our cameras, books and food had to be held in place with rocks.

Crooked Tree (Cuji)
Kryss and Talaat and the crooked Cuji tree.

By 10:30, the clouds had cleared. Everything was being sand blasted by the wind. The public beach area was filling. Although it was a Thursday, people were treating the day as a holiday. They were relaxing, picnicking, swimming, and listening to music. We relaxed till midday.

First Contact was at 12:37. I looked through my filter and saw the bite straight away. Our excitement was building as the Moon slowly covered the Sun. People were looking and pointing but nothing was apparent to the naked eye. People carried on enjoying themselves.

Scene at 13:30
At 13:30 there is little change in the light.

An hour later, with much of the Sun covered by the Moon, the daylight lost its fierce power and became very golden. The sky near the horizon took on a pink tinge. The temperature dropped. People began to quieten as it became obvious that something strange was happening. Birds began singing, geese were honking, lizards braved the cooling sand. I removed my head covering. At 1:54, the light was so low that the planet Venus appeared. The Sun was a thin crescent.

Venus Appears
The appearance of Venus.

In the final eight minutes before totality, the light faded rapidly. An expectant hush moaned from the beach crowds. Children ran back to their parents. The sky deepened its blue colour. The sea turned from blue to green. In the west, a grey wall appeared as the Moon's shadow approached from the sea at 700 meters per second. Venus became prominent. We realised that the wind had stopped.

Scene at 14:00
At 14:00 the sky is changing.

Scene at 14:08

Totality
At 14:08 the Moon's shadow arrives in seconds.

At 2:08, the fading sunlight became a point as the last of the Sun was obscured by the Moon. Totality began and the Sun's corona flashed into view, large and bright. It was like late twilight in the middle of the day. The spectacular sight was graced with two more planets shining close to the eclipsed Sun like sentinels: Mercury to the left, Jupiter to the right. And over the sea gleamed a brilliant Venus. I had never seen three planets during an eclipse before. It was a sublimely beautiful scene.

Totality Begins
Totality begins as the last bit of Sun disappears and the corona flashes into view.

The horizon was pink. A frigatebird circled overhead. In the distance car horns blared and people whooped. Fireworks were being let off. I heard an explosion and saw a rocket rise into the dark sky. And still my gaze returned to the wonderful sight of the totally eclipsed Sun sitting high in a dark sky flanked by two bright planets with a third closer to the horizon.

Totality
A long exposure photograph shows the detail in the corona.

Totality
A short exposure shows a pink prominence.

Mercury and Jupiter
The eclipsed Sun with two planets: Mercury to the left, Jupiter on the right..

Totality lasted for 3 minutes 44 seconds. It flashed by all too briefly. The south west sky was brightening as the first light returned through a lunar valley - the diamond ring. It gleamed for five seconds as the landscape brightened. The golden light had returned. The locals began to drive away. We stayed to savour. Emotion took over as we hugged each other with the sheer joy of the experience.

The Diamond Ring
The diamond ring as totality ends.

I was exhausted. The wind returned blowing sand and grit all over me. We walked back to the road. An American expedition was packing. One man, Dan Koehler, was taking sand from the beach home with him. He did that for every eclipse "because it has been touched by the shadow". We got a lift in their air conditioned bus - the Sun and heat was intense again. The road back to Punto Fijo was packed with vehicles - everyone had a smile on their face.

Back at our cafe, our Syrian friend had enjoyed the eclipse:

"You said I would see three planets; I saw three planets. At 2:08 you said it would get dark; it got dark. At 2:11 you said it would get light; it got light".

He refused payment for our drinks.

Syrian Cafe Owners
Syrian cafe owners.

We met an American student who had just witnessed his first eclipse. He told us he had been "ecliptically deflowered".

The next day was spent reading the newspapers.

Schools and public buildings had closed for the day. 30,000 people had crowded into the 5 kilometre strip of beach near El Pico. We had managed to avoid most of them. There had been a carnival atmosphere throughout the country. Tribal people near the Colombian border had stayed in their houses along with their animals. Some people said it was a message from God. Cities in the path of totality had come to complete standstills.

The eclipse over it was time to continue our journey. Venezuela would be followed by Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina...

Written by Kryss Katsiavriades (© 1998, 2012)

Photographs:
Totality by Kryss Katsiavriades
Scenery and shadow approach by Talaat Qureshi


Books From Amazon.co.uk


KryssTal Related Page

The 1998 eclipse main page.

Maps of the path and a diagram of the sky at totality of the 1998 eclipse from Fred Espenak and eclipse details at the observation site.

The strange colours of the Moon's shadow.

General photos.

Newspapers, the day after the eclipse.

The excitement during totality is such that not all photos come out as expected.

Accounts of the 1998 eclipse sent to this web site.

Travel photos from Venezuela.