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Spring break, with more wrinkles: Chasing totality with San Francisco’s eclipse seekers

People watch the eclipse from the beach at Mazatlan, Mexico
Prior to the Solar Eclipse in Mazatlán, Mexico, people gazed up at the sky, on April 8, 2024. | Source: Courtesy Rachel Levin

“Is this your first time?” asks an elderly Oakland woman in Seat 26D. It’s my second, I tell her. “Fifth,” she says, fanning her fingernails. They’re painted in sequential phases of the eclipse, her black thumb adorned with the finale: a fiery circle. “I did this last year, too,” she says, “for Indonesia.” This year: Mazatlan.  

Our Alaska Airlines flight, SFO –> MZT, is completely full, as they say over the speaker, with Bay Area locals—some in Google-emblazoned puffy coats, others toting Patagonia duffels, toddlers, New Yorker magazines. All flouting the U.S. State Department’s “Do Not Travel” warning in the name of totality.

I’d booked two years ago, which is when you’re supposed to book totality trips. A lead time longer than wedding venues or the Olympics games. And only because it was too easy. My friend Erica, a San Francisco OB-GYN doubling as the Julie McCoy of eclipse trips, had sent a mass email, in 2022, urging 100 of her closest friends to meet her in Mazatlan on April 8, 2024—her place of choice on The Path, based on duration and cloud-cover potential and pure fun.  

I’d witnessed my first totality, lasting 135 seconds, from a quiet, blissful hillside in Idaho. But no one had sent me a bookable link to a quiet, blissful hillside. And so now here I was: at Pueblo Bonito, a cruise-shippy, “all-inclusive” resort with six subpar restaurants on-site, my husband, Josh, who’d wanted to bail and a bunch of middle-aged Bay Area locals I kind of know who still party like it’s 1999. Save for my other friend going, famed chef Gabriela Cámara (of Mexico City’s beloved Contramar and our much-missed Cala), who brought her lovely 80-something-year-old mother. If only she’d also brought her trout tostadas.

No matter. I’m not here for the bottomless margaritas, cardboard tortilla chips or crowded buffets, I’m here for those few fleeting minutes of total midday darkness. A surreal trip to outer space aided by neither NASA nor Elon. Just a patch of sand and a pair of paper polymer glasses. Spiritual this sprawling 300-room resort is not, but every room comes with a coffee maker. Dan Serot, co-owner of Cole Valley’s Finnegans Wake and in-house lawyer for Another Planet Entertainment, doesn’t need his, though. He brought his own beans and pour-over and offers to make me one in the morning.

Like the lady on my plane, Erica also painted her nails. Green with gold stars, to go with her bright red bathing suit. In the eerie eclipse light, red is supposed to burst and green repel. Or maybe it’s the other way around?  We all get Team Totality trucker hats, and Team Totality stickers and fake Team Totality tattoos—which everyone wets onto various body parts. Forearms. Necks. Breasts spilling from bikinis. 

Hand with fingernails painted with phases of the eclipse
A passenger on a flight from San Francisco to Mazatlán shows off nails that represents the phases of a solar eclipse. | Source: Courtesy Rachel Levin

There’s an air of college spring break, but with softer bodies, more wrinkles. A greater purpose. It feels a wee bit like Disney World, just with the moon instead of Mickey.

At the Saturday night welcome dinner at Las Palomas, we meet Fred. A friend of Gabriela’s mother and an astronomer from Vassar. He is a kind, professorial fountain of info and outlines the itinerary for Monday, from the moment of initial contact (9:51 a.m.) to peak totality (11:07 to 11:11) to the official end of the phenomenon (12:32 p.m.). Eclipses are not his specialty, though, he apologizes. (What is? “Nearby galaxies.”)

We migrate over to Cilantro’s for a change of all-inclusive resort scene, and I order a snifter of mezcal while Dan dissects San Francisco’s various mayoral prospects and shows me photos of the Castro Theatre’s upcoming makeover. (Haters worried about the desecration of local history, don’t fret: It’s going to be cool.) I learn he is president of Cole Valley’s merchants association, which I use as an invitation, as a Cole Valley resident, to complain about the always-empty $26 takeout salad mini-chain displacing what had been a lively corner cantina with chips and margaritas a thousand times better than this resort’s.

blue and yellow alcoholic drinks
Bottomless drinks, blue or otherwise, from the pool bar at Pueblo Bonito Resort. | Source: Courtesy Rachel Levin

There is a contingent from Portland, which has brought clarinets, melodicas and mandolins for a late-night pool party. Which Josh and I mull, but we decide to skip to tuck into our room’s twin beds like a happily married couple to watch Curb. Later, we learn the music got shut down anyway by a woman who pattered out in her PJs to lodge a noise complaint.

The next day, I get myself a tequila and soda, or three, for “free” and chat under a palapa with my fellow eclipse chasers. Wendy, a hairdresser with an expensive salon on 20th and Shotwell in the Mission, introduces me to her boyfriend. How did you two meet? I ask. Here, she says. Yesterday.

Ashley from San Rafael flags me down on my way to the pool. “You look so familiar!” she says. No wonder: She used to live two blocks from me. She’s just quit her robotics job and had time to kill before her AI gig begins, so scored a last-minute flight for 70,000 Chase miles and a last-minute availability at Pueblo Bonito. Turns out, Ashley isn’t actually part of our group. But now she is. We promise, post-eclipse, to double-date to Gladiator at the SF Symphony movie night next month.

I meet an M.D. from the East Bay named Phillip Coffin, who runs drug addiction treatment research for UCSF/SF’s Department of Public Health. He is wearing a Hawaiian shirt featuring photos of his pink-tongued Bernerdoodle, Maisy, and is pissed about a panel with the acronym CRAP that is blocking his funding. He came to Mazatlan with his wife and kids, who skipped school to ride Jet Skis and parasail and paint ceramic eclipse memorabilia for $40 U.S. a piece—and experience the astronomical magic that is the moon completely obscuring the sun.  

Erica, our OBGYN Julie McCoy eclipse organizer, has also trained to play DJ; she spins her inaugural set at the all-afternoon pool party, along with imported pros. Team Totality dances–in terry cloth track shirts and madras suits and fishnet coverups—well past sunset. I wonder who, if anyone, smuggled drugs into the state of Sinaloa.  

Who needs them? Totality itself is its own supernatural high. Come morning, everyone is up early, in anticipation. Beach chairs hoarded, saved by our one allotted towel that’ll cost $25 if we fail to turn it in. The place is crawling with tourists of all stripes nerding out, setting up scopes, dressed in their solar eclipse best or T-shirts from totalities past, flowy all-white outfits and flower headdresses. Erica and her husband, Jeff, are in matching star-studded chiffon.

“I remember watching in Mexico with my parents when I was a kid—wearing welding glasses,” says Gabriela, laughing, “which I’m pretty sure weren’t safe.” (Probably not.)  Now here she and we all are, decades later—in proper eclipse glasses, ready for the show. Scattered on the sand. No bad seats. No Ticketmaster fees. Traveling to see a sky, a planet, transformed. Like people have from Austin to Indianapolis to Burlington and beyond.

The moon starts its move across our sun. Taking, at first, a mouse-size bite. A Pac-Man hanging in outer space. Soon enough, a crescent. The entire landscape turns silver-tone. Shadows appear out of thin, suddenly cool air. A lone seagull soars overhead. Drums beat. Humans, humbled, have no idea what to do but hoot and cheer. The earth darkens, and the ring appears. A corona of the most spectacular, non-virus kind. A tiny diamond. Venus.

“It looks like the Exploratorium logo!” a teenager exclaims. “Oh my god!!” my husband says, briefly unconcerned about his sunburned legs. He’s laughing, smiling, almost maniacally. He’s glad he came.

Kaiser OB-GYN and Team Totality Organizer Erica Weiss
OB-GYN and Team Totality organizer Erica. | Source: Courtesy Rachel Levin

As the moon recedes and the sun returns, the sky brightens, normalcy resumes. Everyone cheek-kissing apres-eclipse, like it’s Friday night Shabbat.

Cindy, a dental hygienist from Mill Valley, is moved to tears. “It makes me want to be a better person. To do bigger things.”

Getting to experience the longest duration of 100% totality comes with a point of eclipse pride.  To bear witness to some four minutes and 20 seconds of celestial awe, of our inconsequentiality, yet utter connectivity to the universe—without panic or scarcity issues or worry that this rare, euphoric feeling will pass too soon, is a feeling worth traveling for. More than traveling for the sake of mere Travel itself.

And yet: As long as our totality lasts, it’s still, of course, not Long Enough. Certainly not as long as Luxor, Egypt, will be in 2027. Almost seven minutes, says Erica, beaming on the beach in her bright red bathing suit. She’ll be sending an email shortly.

This story has been updated to clarify that an eclipse-chaser's drug-research funding for has been blocked, not pulled, by a panel with the acronym CRAP.