Chile: Total Solar Eclipse & Rapa Nui

Now that I’m starting teaching again in August, I’ve been debating whether or not to continue blogging. I decided the wanderlust isn’t going away, so I’m going to keep writing and sharing for now. 🙂

La Serena, Chile

I was just in this beautiful country in December, so it seemed a little crazy to go back, but there was a total solar eclipse! I had some frequent flier miles to burn (thanks to some credit card scheming) and some good friends to visit again. After two long flights, a bus ride and a five hour car ride, we arrived in our beautiful condo for the weekend that looked out over the Pacific Ocean. Cata (who you may remember from my trip to Valparaiso) introduced me to brazo de reina, which is basically really thin cake covered in dulce de leche and then rolled up.


beautiful sunset, me and Cata, brazo de reina

Total solar eclipses are pretty rare. I traveled to Shanghai in 2009 and Kansas City, Missouri in 2017 and both of those eclipses happened to be clouded out. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and I was finally able to see one. It’s a truly spectacular sight and it’s hard for me to put into words my excitement at witnessing such a beautiful phenomenon after so many attempts. The next one in the United States is April 8, 2024. Put it on your calendar now so you can make plans.


total solar eclipse photos

Rapa Nui

Sometime when I travel, I have a really difficult time. Transit is hard, hotels are expensive, the world feels very lonely. Rapa Nui (called Easter Island by colonizers) was the complete opposite of that and I had a magical time there. I stayed in a dorm bed in a hostel and ended up meeting a couple of French guys (hi Maxime & Guillaume!) and we all ended up renting a car and touring the island together. The whole trip restored my faith in hostels, since I’d had some disappointing experiences this past year.

The most special moment occurred when I signed up for a stargazing trip. I learned about how Polynesian sailors used to navigate at night using the stars. Researchers think this is how the first people came to Rapa Nui in double hulled boats, most likely from the Marquesas Islands which are almost 2,200 miles away. This is a dying skill but there are still some Polynesian elders on other islands who are expert navigators and are trying to pass this tools on to young people.

There are two main ways to find south in the sky, both methods using the Southern Cross. The first way is just to extend the Southern Cross 4.5 times and the tip of that will roughly land at the celestial south pole. The easier way for me was to connect the two pointer stars with a line, then imagine a line perpendicular to the original line. Where that perpendicular line meets the Southern Cross line is a point a bit above the celestial south pole. It seems more complicated, but was much easier for me to visualize. Once the navigators had established south, they could accurately orient their boat in whichever direction they wanted to travel even after the sun had set.

After all this time traveling in the southern hemisphere, I still struggle to recognize constellations. With so little light pollution, it was easy to see the bright stars and Milky Way. However, the main attraction was still to come when the guides took us to Anakena Beach. There they took photos of us with the moais and the celestial sky.

One of the guides starting singing a Rapa Nui song his father had taught him, using two rocks to make a beat. As he was singing, a rainbow appeared over the moais, made from the light reflecting from the moon and the moisture in the air. This “moonbow” hung in the air as the guide was singing and just as he finished, we could hear a set of hooves stampeding through the sand behind us. I turned and saw a herd of wild horses running along the beach. Music. Moonlit rainbows. Mesmerizing horses. Magic. Pure magic. Definitely a moment I will remember for a long, long time.

rapa nui

me and the moais, lunar rainbow over the moais

Like many people, I came to Rapa Nui to see the mysterious moais. They are supposed to be representations of revered ancestors who were supposed to be looking out for the best interests of the islanders. They started out small and got bigger over time. Many of the moais were placed onto specially designed altars known locally as ahus. During a hiking tour of the northern edge of the island, I got to see one of the earliest moais that was actually carved from the igneous rock basalt.

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early moai, a giant ramp ahu (the only one like it on the island)

Most of the moais are sculpted from tuff, basically volcanic ash that has hardened and is much easier to carve. The later moais had tattoo carvings on their backs that were probably painted. Over time many of these tattoos have eroded away due to wind and rain. They also had topknots (pukaos) made of red scoria. Once the moai was moved and placed upon its ahu, coral eyes were added with pupils made of black obsidian or red scoria.

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reconstructed moais showcasing tattoos and eyes

A giant quarry at Rano Raraku was used to construct these moai and then oral tradition says they were walked into place. There is still contention about how they were moved, but the distances were great and an average moai weighed 14 tons. (The biggest moai ever moved and erected weighed 82 tons). The pukaos themselves each weighed 1-2 tons.

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moais still in the quarry at Rano Raraku

Once placed upon their ahu, the islanders believed that their ancestors would make sure their needs were met. When colonizers first visited the island, they wrote in their journals about the moais still being upright on their ahus.


Ahu Tongariki

However, over time, the islanders begun to have issues and grew unhappy with their ancestors not providing for them. Many researchers attribute this to overpopulation and a lack of resources, specifically related to deforestation. There was certainly internal conflict on the island and the end result was that the moais around the island were toppled and the worship of ancestors ceased. The quarry at Rano Raraku is still full of semi-completed moais that were never moved from where they were carved.


toppled moais with a few of their pukaos

In recent years, several of these ahus have been restored and some of the moais have been placed back onto their altars so that visitors can understand what that would have looked like. Many others have been left facedown on the ground where they were pulled down years ago.

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moais more recently restored onto their ahus

Most islanders used to live in houses made of rocks and plants. The igneous rocks were carved with small holes that the support beams were wedged into. Then palms were added to the outside. The boat shape held up well against the wind and the plants protected the residents from the elements.

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reconstructed house, stone remnants of houses found all over the island, inside of a house

In one part of the island known as Orongo, stone structures were built instead. This is because the winds were quite strong here and the other houses wouldn’t have lasted long here. These were also built much later, after the moais were taken down. This village was the home of the annual competition of the tangata manu. This event was part of the birdman cult in which Rapa Nui men competed to collect the first sooty tern egg from the island of Motu Nui and then swim it back to the Orongo village. That man would then be made the leader for the following year, although sometimes potential leaders chose a representative to compete in their place.

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stone house at Orongo, the far island in the photo is Moto Nui, another stone houe

At this time, there were many petroglyphs carved all over the island. Some of the most common carvings included Make-make, the chief god of the birdman cult. Many also featured giant tunas and boats as well as carvings of vulvas, known as komaris.

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petroglyphs of Make-make, giant tuna, and a closeup of vulvas

On another hike to a restricted area known as Poike, we were take to a cave that had even more carvings. Women stayed in this cave from time to time for religious purposes and representations of their deities are carved in the wall. Also found on the wall were petroglyphs of sweet potatoes covered in small root hairs (apparently now only found at a couple houses on the whole island).

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top: me while posing, female deities, sweet potato and stone tool
bottom: gorgeous coastline; a rock carved with a face; me, my hostel roommate Camille and our guide Yoyo

By now, you all know I love to see what’s under the water, so I spent one afternoon with my new French friends at the beach and we found a bit of marine life. The lizardfish was definitely a new one for me.


top: flounder, black sea cucumber, lizardfish
bottom: yellowfin goatfish, purple sea urchin, yellowstripe goatfish




Week 13 & 14: Puerto Natales & Torres del Paine


As soon as I knew that I was awarded a sabbatical, this was the part of the trip that I knew I had to do this year. Hiking in Patagonia can only happen during summer in the southern hemisphere, which is a time of year that I’d normally be teaching. Because I knew I’d have December free, I centered the rest of my trip around making sure I’d be at the tip of South America right now.


First stop en route to the park was the nearby town of Puerto Natales. It’s the town everyone passes through on way to the park. I spent a whole day getting supplies and packing up my things and managed to do a little bit of sightseeing along the fjord as well.

One of the most unique things I found out about were mylodons. They’re extinct ground sloths that would have been about 10 feet tall and weighed about a ton. Some very well-preserved remains were found in a cave nearby and brought the town a bit of fame in paleontology circles.


view of the fjord from Puerto Natales, life-sized statue of a mylodon, Monumento de la Mano


The roughly 80 mile trip I did is colloquially referred to as the “O” because on a map it’s basically a big circle. A lot of people hike the “W” which is the bottom half of the “O” and is half as long. In the map below, the “W” is the blue line and the “O” is both the red and blue lines.


Because I’m crazy and figured I’d only get this opportunity once in my life, I booked my campsites for the longer 9 day, 8 night trek almost six months ago. It’s a beautiful circuit of glacially carved landscapes and pictures will never do the actual views justice. Nevertheless, here are my favorite 3 photos from each day of the trek in hopes of giving you a small glimpse of the wonders of Patagonia.

Day 1: Welcome Center to Serontdp1
Day 2: Seron to Dicksontdp2.jpg
Day 3: Dickson to Los Perrostdp3.jpg
Day 4: Los Perros to Pasotdp4.jpg
Day 5: Paso to Grey (plus kayak to the glacier)tdp5.jpg
Day 6: Grey to Italianotdp6.jpg
Day 7: Italiano to Los Cuernos (including hike up the French Valley)tdp71.jpg
Day 8: Los Cuernos to Chilenotdp8.jpg
Day 9: Chileno to Welcome Center (including hike to the Torres)tdp9.jpg
Bonus PanoramasPANO_20181205_135806.vr.jpgPANO_20181206_163910.vr-001.jpgPANO_20181208_101814.vr.jpgPANO_20181209_095531.vr-001.jpg

This is, by far, the longest solo trip I’ve ever done. However, the path is filled with other amazing hikers and I never felt alone for very long. Since everyone is moving in the same direction and campsites are mandatory, I ran into people over and over again and made some true friends for life.

There are many things that went wrong on this trip. My stove was giving my trouble and I had to take it apart and put it back together twice. My aging backpack basically fell apart: one of the metal support spines broke, the front left pocket zipper is broken, and four growing holes appeared along pocket seams that I patched with duct tape. I tripped over a rock, leaving a big bruise on my left leg and my face was attacked by a couple of mosquitos. Yet somehow, looking back on the trip, I feel nothing but incredible wonder and joy for the beauty nature provides. The last few months have been a journey towards mental and physical healing and this trip took me a long way back towards feeling like myself again. Crazy, but blessed.



Week 12: Valparaíso & Santiago



Hanging out in Valparaíso was basically a vacation from my vacation. My former colleague Cata picked me up from the airport and whisked me to her beautiful place that she and her husband are running as an Airbnb. No buses and taxis. Just an old friend and conversation. After we arrived they showed me all over town and even invited me to a friend’s Thanksgiving celebration. I made a cherry blueberry pie (and Cata helped), because they are fresh in the market right now. (It’s summer here!)


Cata and I posing next to beautiful art, view of Valpo, Cata learning how to weave pie lattice

Valparaíso is known for its beautiful murals and one of the coolest is on their hotel (the one with Van Gogh below). The best thing to do is just walk around town and run into awesome art. Here’s some of my favorite ones:



I finally had to say goodbye and headed into the capital city where I was able to indulge my love of museums and beautiful outdoor spaces. The most important place I visited was the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. Most of the museum is dedicated to exploring the terrible crimes committed while Pinochet was dictator. Many people were tortured, many died, and many disappeared (almost all of those were presumably killed). The museum is a reminder to never forget what happened under the oppressive regime, so as to hopefully make sure that it never happens again.


tribute to people who died and disappeared under Pinochet, reminder that indigenous people are still here, the first article of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Just in case you wanted to read what that last photo says in English:

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

If you’ve never read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s great and you should take a moment to look it over.  I had a simplified version of it up on my classroom wall. Read the whole document here.

I also visited several art museums! The quipu in the photo below needs some explanation. These were used in Inca times to record numbers, probably for taxation purposes. Powers of ten are signified by different regions along the strings and the numbers of knots at each location indicates how many digits are in each position. So for example 7 knots in the tens section and 2 knots in the ones section would mean 72. (Although this is a simplification because knots in the ones sections are actually done a bit differently). Scientists figured this out because there are certain strings that add up to all the previous strings. However, other quipus might show maps or other information and no one really knows what the colors are for. It appears the Inca didn’t have a written language, but these quipus are certainly part of their recorded history. (Note: Santiago was an Inca city, their empire stretched this far south.)


exhibit at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, my favorite sculpture at the Parque De Las Esculturas, quipu at the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

I also climbed a few hills to get some beautiful views of the city. I loved that Santiago is full of parks and nature spots. It makes the crowded spaces feel very liveable.

view from Castillo Hidalgo on Cerro Santa Lucía

The picture of the sunset below was quite nice, but the funicular that goes down the mountain stopped running at 7pm. The sun doesn’t set until 8:30pm, so I started walking down the hill as it was getting darker. Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned my route back very well and ended up on a mountain bike path (with fortunately no bikes on it). However, that path didn’t actually connect to the street, so I decided to go on a little adventure off trail and bushwhacked my way through plants as I basically slid down the rest of the hill. I was covered in tiny spiky plant parts, had a couple tiny splinters in my hand, and got several scratches on my leg, but I survived! 🙂


view of Castillo Hidalgo on Cerro Santa Lucía, sunset from Cerro San Cristóbal


This offer is still valid. 🙂 If you want a postcard from overseas, fill out this postcard form! At some point this school year, I will send you a postcard from somewhere outside the United States. I just sent a bunch from Chile!