Inti jiwana

The day the puma swallowed the Sun

Text & photos by Joe Cali unless otherwise stated.

I travelled to the south end of Lago Poopo, a large salt lake on the Andean altiplano in Central Bolivia, to experience one of the greatest spectacles in nature ­ a total eclipse of the Sun. A total solar eclipse is an event that you experience rather than one you observe.

I travelled with the Twilight Tour group (80 people). Joel Harris of San Diego was the tour leader. We relaxed at the Inca Utama Hotel ranch at Lake Titicaca for a few days before totality. During this time, we were given an audience with a Kallawaya medicine man to have our fortunes read using a toss of the leaves of a coca plant. We crossed his palm with silver (actually nickel) and asked him about the eclipse. He chanted something in his native Quechua tongue then threw the leaves. He showed us one leaf which he said represented the Sun and others which represented clouds. He predicted clouds above and below the eclipsed Sun but a clear gap through which we would be able to observe the eclipse.

The next morning we left the hotel at 7.30 and began the long journey south. We stopped at Tiahuanaco, the impressive Inca temple city. We stopped for lunch at the airport restaurant at El Alto and then headed south for Orroru. We set off for Orroru. It was the nearest large town to the eclipse path. Thick cloud filled the sky all day and I was convinced that we'd get clouded out.


©1994 Joseph A Cali


©1994 Joseph A Cali


We arrived in Orruro and checked in to a hotel at 7pm. We were told to be back at reception to check out at midnight. Since arriving in Bolivia, I had deliberately kept myself very slightly jetlagged with this strange night in mind. I left my body-clock skewed so that I was falling asleep very early each night and rising very early. My belief that we would be clouded out lowered any anticipation. This made it very easy to get a few hours of quality sleep. My alarm woke me at 11.30 p.m. I dressed and took my bags to the lobby. Most of the party was late and we didn't depart until 12.45 a.m. This concerned me. There was a rumour that the road south was going to be closed at 1.00 a.m. We passed through the check point just before it closed.

Our convoy travelled south along a rough unsealed desert road for about 4 hours. Two buses were 4wd and one was a conventional bus. The road crossed numerous dry riverbeds. Apparently one of the other tour groups became bogged in one of these beds. They were inside the northern limit when they became stuck and watched a shorter but fortunately total eclipse from this location. They all had to pitch in to dig the bus out for some ten hours after the eclipse. Our 4wd buses didn't have any problems and proceeded down the road without incident. During one reasonably flat stretch on the road, I managed to snatch another hour of sleep. At one point, Joel's voice announced that according to Carter Robert's last GPS reading, we had just crossed the northern limit and had entered the path of totality. This was greeted by rousing applause. The cloud was still thick and I was still pessimistic. At about 4 a.m., I saw a single star through small breaks beginning to appear in the clouds. At 4.15am we stopped briefly in Sevaruyo at the railway siding. We got out and stretched our legs.

A train, packed full of observers, was stopped at the station. We briefly spoke to a few of them through the windows. The poor buggers had spent the last twenty-four hours packed-in like sardines, sitting on hard wooden seats. The night on the drafty train had been freezing cold. We arrived at our designated site a few km south of Sevaruyo at 4.30 a.m. and miraculously, the sky was almost completely clear. The Bolivian Government provided armed troops to guard our site from "bandidos". This was a definite case of overkill in a peaceful country like Bolivia, particularly in that remote area south of Sevaruyo. Given the value of equipment in the area, I guess that the government didn't want to take any chances. The number of observers in the Sevaruyo area numbered in the thousands. There must have been ten thousand odd tourists in Bolivia. I heard that all available public and private transport vehicles & rail rolling stock in Bolivia was diverted for eclipse transport.

On arrival at the site, observers like Ernie Piini, who had transported large telescopes began the arduous assembly task. I watched with interest as Ernie assembled his three way telescope. I was kept busy showing North Americans around the southern Milky Way using binoculars.

Our observing site was 4000m altitude and the temp was +5C. As dawn broke, I set up my simple equipment consisting of two small tripods with cameras and a pair of hand-held binoculars.

After sunrise, more cloud appeared. Bands of high altitude cirrus broken up by bands of perfectly clear sky.

My photographic sequence was relatively complex for a first eclipse attempt. I rehearsed this sequence dozens of times during the previous few months so that I could take a relatively complex series of exposures operating the cameras by feel. As I was making the exposures, I made naked eye observations. With only three minutes of the totality, I wanted to make every second count.

At 7 am, I began the multiple exposure which you can see in these pages. Each exposure was exactly 5 minutes apart for 2.5 hours. The partial phases were taken using an ND4.0 filter. Remarkably, only one image was blocked by cloud even though bands of cirrus were moving across the sky most of the time. I had to remember to remove this filter and the filter on my SLR camera fitted with a Pentax 200mm f4 with 2x converter just prior to totality.


Since sunrise, the temperature had risen to a comfortable level. In the minutes prior to totality, the temperature began to drop quickly. The chill in the air gave me an eerie sensation and sent a shiver down my spine. My estimates of the temperatures and the change were way off. We were still very concerned because the Sun had begun ducking in and out of bands of cirrus cloud. At 8 am, the Sun was at about 30 degrees altitude in the east. I turned to face the west and watch the approach of the oncoming shadow.

 A long band on the horizon had begun to turn deep blue. The shadow of the Moon was approaching. I could feel my heart beginning to beat faster. I watched the shadow slowly fill the western hemisphere of the sky. During this time an icy cold wind had begun to blow across this vast desert in the sky. The shadow raced down the eastern hemisphere toward the Sun very quickly. In the last few seconds before totality, it seemed as though God was turning down a great big dimmer switch in the sky. I knew I shouldn't have been afraid. I knew exactly what was going on but some instinct told me that I should be afraid. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Joel's timing tape had gone from a relatively boring, "ten minutes to totality", countdown to playing "Thus Spake Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss. It brought a tear to my eye as the majestic scene unfolded in front of me and the diamond ring exploded in front of me. I think I muttered "OOOh shit" or something equally prophetic but I was basically speechless.

Me and my compact setup. ......Photo: Elaine Piini Wells


The Twilight Tours Observing site


Joel Harris conducts a post-mortem with Santiago

There were screams, yelps, yahoo's and yee hahs coming from the Americans. Suddenly I remembered I was supposed to have taken a picture of the diamond ring at the end of the telephoto multiple image. Too late! Sometimes you just have to watch. The picture in my mind is far more vivid and probably more exagerated than any film could ever record.

Someone screamed out. "Baily's beads," as small red flashes emanated from the solar disc. I would later learn that these were prominences and I missed the bead display. Then it went dark. It took me a few seconds to realise that my eyes needed to dark-adapt before I'd see any detail in the outer corona. As my eyes, and those of the people around me, adjusted to the new light level, the corona began to grow out of the occulted disc of the Sun. Like bread rising in the oven, the corona grew and grew. One big,"ahhh" seemed to spread through the hundred or so people in the area. To the naked eye it dwarfed the solar disc. It was seven degrees side to side and filled the field of my 8x24 binoculars. It is one of the most magnificent and awesome sights I've seen in my life.

The three minutes and eight seconds of totality seemed to last forever and yet it passed by in a flash. The beginning and end of totality went by so fast that I think I missed a lot. During mid-totality, time stood still a bit like a car or bike accident. I managed to take all my photographs successfully. I'm glad I took the time to watch. No video or photograph can do the event justice.

During totality, I was shaking so much, I couldn't hold the binoculars steady. For the most part, I had to manage with naked eye observations. Next eclipse, I must have a bino support.

I can appreciate how the people of ancient civilisations believed the world was coming to an end. I want to experience the end of the world a few more times in my lifetime.

By the way, we saw the eclipse though perfectly clear sky with one band of cloud above and one below the eclipse just like the Kallawaya medicine man predicted. He also told me I would live a long and healthy life. I hope he got them both right.

Joe Cali






This is a pretty poor scan and not the greatest shot. By comparing the diameter of the Moon to the diameter of the coronal streamers, the streamers were 6-7 degrees diameter. These long streamers were visible to the naked eye. I was told that these were almost double the normal length of visible streamers. The incredible sky transparency of our observing site at 4300m altitude was a major contributing factor. The ghost image of the corona was the result of my forgetting to remove the skylight filter.


 How were the photos taken?


 G.B. Kershaw 6x6cm camera 80 mm lens. Kodak Ektar 25. Partial phases,

1/200sec @ f 22 Kodak ND4 filter, one exposure per 5 minutes.

Totality 5 seconds f8 no filter. In hindsight, this was over exposure. If you're going to try this, I'd recommend 2 seconds @ f8 or equivalent.


SMC Pentax-M 200mm f4 with 2x converter. Kodak Ektar 25 film  

1 second exposure @ f11 no filter.


Pentax 200mm f4 with 2x converter. Kodak Ektar 25 film

Crescent Phases 1/500 f16 w/ND4 filter once per minute for 8 minutes before totality.
Corona/late diamond ring 1/60 s f8 no filter

   Pentax 120mmf2.8 exposure 8s ISO 400 film