Trip Report -- Mars Opposition in Flagstaff and Bolivia, 2003 Aug 22 - 29

by Bob Jardine

This is a trip report of my trip to Flagstaff, AZ and Bolivia a few weeks ago. An observing report will follow soon.

I had been thinking about going somewhere South for quite some time, in order to get a good view of Mars up a little higher in altitude. I had considered a couple of tours, one with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific to Chile and another one to the Galapagos and Machu Picchu. But both of these were expensive and not totally observing oriented. Instead, I picked the SSSP trip to Bolivia.

SSSP is the Southern Skies Star Party; it happens every year on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. This year, they did it twice, once especially for the Mars opposition. You can read about it in Sky & Telescope (Jewel of the Andes, S&T, June 2003, page 66). Or on the web...

The price was surprisingly affordable, and it was 6 nights of observing at 12,000+ feet, at 16 degrees South latitude, so Mars would transit almost exactly at the Zenith. So the choice was clear.

But first, ...

Friday 8/22 I flew to Flagstaff, AZ. A new Internet acquaintance, Bill Chandler, had arranged 1.5 hours of private observing time on the 24” Clark refractor at the Lowell observatory. This was the very telescope of Lowell's famous (or infamous) observations of Mars. Bill advertised this on Astromart and TAC. This sounded like a great experience, so I signed up. We met for dinner, then I took a short nap prior to our midnight observing slot. It was partly cloudy (thunder clouds) all afternoon, but cleared a bit by the time we got out of the restaurant.

The observatory and the telescope lived up to expectations -- spectacular. But the viewing wasn’t great. It was sucker holes all night, and the seeing wasn’t fantastic. Occasionally we got a good view, but the 24” had to be stopped way down to get any contrast, and the views were not much better than I could get on a good night at home with my own ‘scope.

Still, it was a grand time, and I’m glad I went. I wish I had traveled earlier in the day or the day before to go through the visitor’s center and spend more time at the observatory. They had an interesting exhibit, on a long walkway (maybe 1/5 mile?) out to one of the domes. Signs were planted along the walkway at the relative positions of the planets out from the Sun. As expected, the signs for Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars were planted all right next to each other. But what blew my mind was that it was only a few steps from there out to Jupiter’s sign. And a very short walk to Saturn. We think of these planets as the “outer” planets, but relative to Uranus, even Jupiter and Saturn are very much “inner”. It is only the walk from Saturn to Uranus that begins to make it really sink in. And then, of course, it gets to be a hike from there out to Neptune and Pluto. Really interesting exhibit.

After our observing session at Lowell, I went back to the Motel for just a couple of hours sleep before my flight to Miami at 6AM. 8/23 Saturday was spent on airplanes all day. Three different flights to get to Miami, and, of course, they lost my luggage. Arrived Miami and met up with my tour group for the overnight flight to Bolivia. The airline promised to have my bags on the very next flight to Bolivia, but since there is only one per day, I would have to do for 24 hours with no luggage. Luckily, I had packed all of my eyepieces, binoculars, BinoVue, and telescope as carry-on baggage. Only my warm clothes and tripod were in the checked luggage.

The flight to Bolivia was uneventful and not even very long by international standards -- just over 6 hours. And the time zone is the same as Eastern Daylight time, so I had only 3 hours adjustment from Pacific Daylight.

Sunday morning bus ride from the airport to our Hotel on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and then relaxed and napped most of the day. Spent a couple of hours touring a museum and “eco village” (like the open air museums you find occasionally in Europe). Here I bought an authentic Bolivian hat, made from Alpaca wool, complete with ear flaps, and a poncho (a square blanket with a hole in the center). I hadn’t packed anything warm, not even a sweater or light jacket, in my carry-on baggage, so this hat and poncho would have to keep me warm during the first observing night.

The first night, I shivered a little and observed mainly with binoculars (and mainly from memory -- my charts and observing target list were in the checked luggage with the clothes). But it wasn’t supposed to be an all-nighter anyway. Needed to rest to get used to the altitude, so it was a good transition night. It was pretty dark by 7PM, and I observed until around midnight, when it clouded up; that was about all I wanted anyway.

Monday took a bus/walking tour of some old Aymara ruins. The Aymara culture goes back a couple thousand years. We hear a lot about the Incas, but they were only around for a couple hundred years, just prior to being wiped out by the Conquistadors. We North Americans learn about the Incas in school mainly because of the Europe-centric education focusing on the Conquistadors. But the Aymara culture is responsible for most of the ruins and the art that the Incas inherited in Bolivia and Peru.

Luggage arrived; warm clothes and tripod. Observed Monday night until about 2:00.

Tuesday rested, napped, read, planned observations. Skipped the day trip (more ruins). Observed until about 1AM, then it clouded up again.

Wednesday long hydrofoil trip to ruins on Island of the Moon and Island of the Sun. Wonderful excursion, interesting ruins and geography. Good weather most of the day, but it started clouding up in the afternoon. Wednesday night skunked, clouded out completely.

Thursday visited school(s), delivered school supplies to the children. The folks that run this tour, Vic and Jen Winter, have been going to this spot every year for around 10 years. They bring school supplies to donate to the locals in this rural village, and they ask their guests to do so too. I brought some pads of paper, crayons, pencils, rulers, etc. Talk about a budget crisis...these kids have almost no supplies at all except these donations each year. We were heroes when we delivered these supplies to the kids at both schools. We were the visiting American astronomers (not tourists!).

At the High School, there was a big ceremony. The class of 2003 has dedicated their class to Vic Winter, who was named "Padrino" or Godfather. Some of these kids who were graduating this year have been seeing the Winters every year of their school careers. The ceremony was a really big deal, with speeches, music, dancing, refreshments. I'm not sure they have an auditorium or anything, so we sat out in the sun for 2 hours at 12,000 feet sweating and getting sunburned. But it was worth it. It was really cool, really touching. The Winters' dedication and donations over the years have made lifelong friends of many people. By contrast with all of the other international relations fiascoes, this was inspiring. There's a lesson in here!

Thursday night observed essentially all night; first completely cloudless night; to bed just as the sky started to brighten around 6AM.

Friday I skipped the shopping trip in La Paz and took a long solo hike -- up to a pass in a range of hills between this valley and the next one East. About 1000 feet gain to 13,500; 10-12 KM round trip. Nice hike. Nice view of lake Titicaca and the Andes to the East. They rise up here like the Rockies do from the plains of Eastern Colorado -- 7000 to 9000 feet higher. But much younger mountains, rugged and jagged, like the Sierra. But at 13,500 feet, I would have been near the Sierra crest; here, I was on a little hill above the great plains.

Friday night observed until 1:30, but then had to pack up for 3:00 bus ride to airport. Best night of seeing, too bad it had to end.

Overall, the weather was pretty good, in spite of some late night clouds the first couple of nights and one night erased altogether. Apparently, this weather pattern was somewhat unusual; this is normally the dry season, and most years they claim to have no clouds at all during a typical week. The seeing was probably affected negatively by the weather, as well, as the weather changed almost every day. I was expecting a little bit better seeing.

It was Winter, of course, and the nights were cool at 12,000 feet -- down to the high 30's I think. But the days were warm; shirtsleeve weather. At only 16 degrees South latitude, it's a tropical Winter.

I would definitely go to Bolivia again for an SSSP. And I would recommend it to others. Good people, good hotel, excellent food, good observing location. And at a bargain price (you won't believe this -- $1650, which included round trip airfare from Miami, 6 nights lodging, and two meals a day). Observed right outside the Hotel on the shores of the lake. OK to leave equipment set up. Easy access to warm room with tea, coffee, hot chocolate provided all night. Hotel cooperates with lights pretty well. There are a few lights in the distance from villages nearby, but not too bad; nearby direct lights can be avoided by positioning. The Bolivians were all very friendly. I had a great time.

Observing report to follow.