The Atacama Desert of northern Chile is the world’s second driest region (Antarctica comes in first). Although the Tropic of Capricorn passes through the region, the Atacama Desert lies in the rain shadow of Chile’s Coast Range, which squeezes out the moisture from the atmosphere. The desert is barren and while most areas only receive moisture from an occasional fog or a shower every few decades, the rain gauge at Calama has never recorded any measurable precipitation. The Atacama is a high (most elevations are over 8000 feet) and cold desert.
The Altiplano (also known as Andean Plateau) (Spanish for high plain), in west-central South America, where the Andes are at their widest, is the most extensive area of high plateau in the world outside Tibet. Highlights include the Salr de Uyuni, the highland lagunas and the Árbol de Piedra.
Trip booked, the angst began:
The packing conundrum; planning for possible temperature extremes from -17˚C in the pre-dawn light to more than +20˚C during the day was something quite different to the usual challenge.
A journey of 24 hours out and 30 hours back, with four flights each way and a bus at the South American end.
Hint: entertainment. My own package consisted of a Kindle, iPad (scarcely used during the journey) and an iPod loaded with a “teach yourself Latin Spanish” audio which went in time to a musical beat – - – -. Comfortable clothing, I could mention Merino wool again!
Camera gear; in a totally new environment/landscape what would be the best combination? What would the electricity/facilites be for charging all gizmos and gadgets including the camera batteries.?
Language? We would be with guides and Latin Spanish, I hoped would be spoken. I’d read that even this might be rare as we got out into the wilds.
Money? From GB pounds, to Euros, US dollars, Chilean Pesos and Bolivianos. Ho hum.
Hint: we were advised to take US dollars, then at the last minute told to make sure we had Chilean pesos. This was the correct advice. However on entering Boliva we had no Bolivianos. They do take US dollars but the notes need to be close to virgin before the will be accepted.
The line of hurdles seemd to grow.
Despite the concerns the outbound trip went smoothly. No hitches with connection times. I woke on the transatlantic flight feeling quite out of sorts, but after throwing up once, all resolved – was it what I’d eaten in Heathrow??? The Air Iberia aircraft for the crossing was a little dated: no personal in flight entertainment only a small screen some distance away, which was not easy to see, and a continuous buzz through the headphones. The crew were another matter, ever attentive and professional and a pilot who managed his aircraft with consummate skill.
The most arduous part of the journey was the bus from Calama airport to San Pedro de Atacama. Waiting in the short queue was frustrating as the potential client in front had an endless list of questions. With the bus departing in ten minutess time the anxiety levels rose. I should have known not to get too bothered as, once on the bus, there was a series of delays due to phone calls to the driver and endless adjustments to a piece of paper on his clipboard.
Hint: in the day get an aisle seat, the sun coming through the window was not pleasant, no air con!
Calama was not inspiring, nor was the dusty road outside the city. As we got close to San Pedro de Atacama the landscape became ever more interesting and, towards the end, stunningly dramatic as we passed through the Valley of the Dinosaurs.
San Pedro de Atacama was the meeting place for the participants on the trip, a good choice with the intention of spending a couple of days here to help acclimatise to the altitude. After close to 20 hours of flight time the acclimatisation had begun even before arriving in this town.
Now I’d Googled San Pedro de Atacama before leaving home; I recall mention of a main shopping street, a square and artisan shops. Seemd it was somthing of a mecca for tourists to the region, so I was unprepared for the lack of modern development in the main area of town.
Steps down into shops that are often little more than darkened rooms the only light coming from a small window,
Dogs at each street corner and more,
A pharmacy, although stocked with modern medicines, makes you feel you’ve stepped back in time to the 1930’s.
Don’t get me wrong, none of the above is a complaint:
The town was full of character,
The people honest and friendly.
Our accommodation was beautifully clean and maintained. Hey, it was even warm, more of that later.
Plenty of scope for places to eat, drink and just hang out.
Tour companies in abundance to cater for the visitors to the area.
And, for most of the time here, it was warm. Only in the evenings did you really feel the cold. Actually there were times in the day where I was beginning to wonder if I had any warm weather clothes with me.
In all we had three nights there at the beginning of the trip and one at the end. The altitude here was not an issue for me, and seemd to have little effect on the others.
Three days in the place was a little too much. There are only a certain number of times you can walk into town; I was beginning to know which dog would be waiting at each street corner! Talking of the dogs, they would start howling around 4.00 in the morning, while it was still dark, made me think of 101 Dalmatians – though Dalmatians these were not.
Breaking out of town we had three excursions, each of which had their merits.
The first was to Valle de la Lune (Valley of the Moon): a real desert environment with sand dunes, rocky outcrops carved into intricate shapes by sand blown wind, and ended up with a sunset view high above the valley. Unfortunately it was a tour for sightseers, rather than photographers and became something of a zoo at sunset, there was an image or two waiting to be taken if you could keep spectators out of the frame. ;)
The following afternoon, armed with knowledge from the previous day we booked a private tour which took us to a series of lagoons in the salt flats approx 30 km from town: Laguna Tebinquiche, Ojos de Salar and Laguna Cejar. All promised well until the wind got up, with it the dust and the early promise of flat water was blown into the Andes. It was interesting to see a group of bathers get into the water – remember it is winter! As the sun got lower in the sky we headed to our chosen spot at Laguna Cejar where we watched the colours change in the mountains, water and sky. Our guides were somewhat amused to watch us continuing to photograph in what appeared to be the dark, and long after other groups would have consumed their pisco sours.
The trip for the third day was part of the photo tour, the intention was to visit the Salar de Tara, part of the acclimatisation plan. We didn’t get there – and this is where I need to mention the weather!
This is the so called “dry season,” there are parts of the Atacama where rainfall has never been recorded. The week before arriving and I believe on the day of this trip they had rare rain in San Pedro de Atacama. Ascend another 2000 metres and that rain turns to snow. Add to this the strength of the wind. Put together these elements conspired to close the road and to make an attempt at photography almost impossible. I tried, but within a minute of getting the camera on the tripod it had blown, lens down, into drifting snow. No real harm done, but the camera was welded to the tripod by frozen snow, and just briefly opening my bag saw a centimetre of snow line the inside. In amongst all this you need to factor in the level of exertion needed to battle the wind and the altitude, not a pleasant experience. This brief battle with the elements only reinforced my non-desire to climb high mountains. Pedro, our guide, had a few suggested alternatives up his sleeve and we eventually ended up in the Valle del Arcois (Rainbow Valley) aptly named for the colour of the rock formations. The light was far from kind (well it was the middle of the day) and it was a bit of a drive to get there, but well worth it for the amazing rock formations and variety of textures and colour.
Towards the end of the day we headed back towards town with the aim of returning to Valle de la Lune, the weather was against us once more and instead took a short walk into Death Valley where there was a brief bit of colour in the cloud-filled sky.
Finally the real trip gets going
Not without a hitch. the road conditions we’d experienced the day before meant our intended route into Bolivia was closed, we had to take the long way round – adding hours to the journey time. After five hours in the minibus and having forfeited stopping for some amazing scenery we arrived at the Chilean/ Bolivian border – it was just a little windy.
Passport control on the Bolivian side was something from a bygone era; with a train graveyard outside, the wind, the cold and the snow my mind harked back to a scene from Dr Zhivago. We transferred to our new vehicles here, meeting up with our drivers and Bolivian tour guide. After two breakfasts we were now faced with a second lunch – some even managed to eat it.
Now add in the music: envisage two Land Cruisers crossing the desert and salt flats beneath moody skies. A mixture of Latin Spanish Rap and Western classical with panpipes plays at various volumes that our driver loves, or think we will, and then you may nearly have it.
If we had thought the roads were primitive previously, it was now a quite different ball game. At times there were just hints of tyre tracks in the dust, junctions might be marked with one bare rock, often there would be a line of rocks across the so called road and the drivers had to find a new route. Our Bolivian guide told us that they navigate using the outlines of the mountains, when they can’t see they have to resort to GPS. A compass will not work in many places due to the mineral content in the ground. I finally see why we need a guide in this terrain. From the border we initially cover desert like scrub which is dry and dusty with outcrops of wind-sculpted fossil coral. We return to this later in the day for sunset, but it is difficult to find an uncluttered composition. I fail massively in this task and the idea to return here to stumble around in the dark the next morning keeps me in my bed.
I’m a little ahead of myself here, I’m supposed to be taking you to our first night’s stay on the Altiplano: The Hotel de Piedra (Stone hotel). Described by most companies as: ”basic but, no other available in this location.” We were unlucky that first night, there was no heating in the rooms and it was COLD. I got into bed will all my clothes on despite a newly purchased hot water bottle (available in San Pedro de Atacama). On the positive side there was hot water, but as half the lights didn’t work it was tough going trying to get a shower. Food was fine, though basic. On our return for our final night in the Aaltiplano things were looking up, there was heating in the rooms (it did make a slight difference), the lights were working, I had a room with a spa bath (no bath plug) and would have felt guilty using it in so arid an environment. Next stop the Hotel Tayka de Sal (Salt Hotel) which is built with salt blocks, as is the permanent furniture including the bed base. Immediate impressions were better than the previous, but a lack of hot water (was luke warm) let it down. All the lights worked and no problems with electricity, wall sockets easily accessible and I charged up a battery for each camera (the only time I did so for the whole trip).
The final hotel for the trip was the Hotel Tayka del Desierto (Desert Hotel). Whereas the previous two Tayka hotels were situated close to small communities this spot was out in the wilds. From the outside you wondered what you might be faced with, but inside was a different matter. It was the most aesthetically pleasing of the three. The unseasonal weather once again produced its complications, this time there was no water. Not even water to flush a toilet. The generator which is switched on at 18.00 lasted 20 mins before dying, though resumed just prior to dinner at 19.00. As it came back to life there was now heat in the rooms. Once again the warmest place in the building was the dining room, warmed by an open fire and a multi (brushwood) fuel stove.
This was a long drive from the previous night’s stay. It took most of the day. As we got higher we got closer to those mountains. There was stuff everywhere. How hard it was to have to snap a shot with an iPhone rather than get out and make the most of it. Even more frustrating was to end up at our “make do” second (Árbol dePiedra) destination in poor light. To be fair the weather was becoming more inclement closer we got to our spot.
As we arrived at the Desert Hotel it had begun to snow, by the next morning there was a significant covering on the ground and people were leaving like rats from the proverbial ship. With flights out of Calama in two days time none of us wanted to be stranded. In different circumstances, i.e. warm rooms and hot water, it’s a spot I’d have loved to have stayed longer. It was higher up, it was closer to the mountains/volcanoes there were foregrounds to die for, likely if I’d tired. Sure, as I get older, coping with hardships is more difficult. My admiration goes out to those mountaineers, the Arctic/Antarctic expeditioners, in fact anyone who can go it alone in extreme weather conditions.
Two camera bodies are advisable if you have the luxury. Choose the two lenses you think you will use most of the time and attach one to each body. Dust is a real problem and you want to minimise the chance of this getting onto your sensor. I kept the long zoom on the 1DsMkiii (the sensor on this beast is a real dirt magnet and the wide angle zoom on the 5DMkiii – though on occasion did change this to a midrange zoom – albeit with some trepidation. In San Pedro (Chile) our accommodation had an odd looking socket (three holes) but took a European style plug. In Bolivia the Tayka hotels had US type sockets. There a constant threat of power cuts in the more remote areas but I had no issues with lack of battery power (might have been due to the few images shot). I had three batteries for each camera but used only a fraction of one of each. A sturdy tripod is a must.
Keep an eye on your lens and filters for dust, and be careful cleaning what can be grit-like dirt from them.
In normal weather conditions for the area the light really is limited. The best times are based an hour and a half around sunset/sunrise. Outside this time, unless you have a substantial amount of cloud, the lighting is too harsh. I had hoped to do some night photography but it was not to be. We had far too much cloud for our stay to produce the clear, star-filled skies I had in mind.
White balance can be a real problem. The stark white of the salt as the colour gets going in the sky really throws things off kilter. Additionally the altitude makes the sky exceptionally blue, I’d avoid using a polariser or, at least. not using it to max effect.
I took advantage of the 5D3’s ability to record in camera HDR on a few occasions. This was mainly when hand holding and using a high ISO. They do for a web record of some of the stuff we saw. This image of the inside of an unearthed grave being one of them.Make sure you have something to entertain yourself during downtimes. Out in the Altiplano wi-fi was not an option, nor was there a 3G signal.
While travelling, try to keep a camera in your hand. Sometimes you will see something quite extraordinary. You won’t have the time to get out and rummage in your bag before the moment has been blown away with the wind.
Hopefully these few images will give you a taste of what there is to see, just multiply it and imagine how some of it would be in great light. Photography was the main purpose of the holiday. My experience was not great and I’ve been left thinking I could have spent my time and money better. There were some truly stupendous landscapes, even some wildlife that I would have loved to have spent time with. I’m sorry to say that it was a schedule that did not suit me. Photography seems such a small part of the whole trip, in retrospect. The weather was an issue and meant several of our intended destinations were unreachable. What I really regret is passing by some great stuff in moody light in the race to reach destinations that didn’t excite. We had the opportunity for just three sunrise shots in a nine day trip.
What might I do differently?
Accommodation on the Bolivian Altiplano of an acceptable standard is limited. If you can do basic with sleeping bag, a hut and cook your own on a portable stove you will be fine, otherwise choices are few and far between. It pains me to say it, but if you’re after the image then this is probably the way to do it. Time would be spent more effectively. I’d take a longer trip, take more time to explore and just soak up the feel of the place. Like anywhere there is so much to explore, I felt somewhat cheated to spend so much time sitting on my backside after spending so long and so much money to get there.
Staying alive (at least making sure you can survive without too much pain!)
Take into account how cold it can get if you visit at the same time of year. The mornings were especially cold and had me wearing every layer I had. I even found use, some mornings, for the hand warmers. The wind chill compounded the problem of both the cold and dust.
Hint: layers! Clothing that’s easily compressible, like down or Primaloft. Merino wool base/midlayers – warm when cool, cool when warm and little washing required. We were advised waterproof jackets and trousers – it was the dry season and when cold was more likely to snow – wind was far more of a problem than rain. You will want something sturdy for your feet too. Something that will cope with thick mud, hard salt and cactus spines. Take a hot water bottle, it makes getting into bed acceptable.
Getting around in the high places in Bolivia means you do need a guide and driver. Don’t do it alone.
The altitude, wind dust and salt eat away at the skin. You will need sunglasses, hat with brim and sunscreen. Add a really good moisturiser (yes even you guys) to your packing list.
Finally, the issue that had most of my concern, altitude and its effects.
San Pedro de Atacama approx 2400 metres above sea level.
Salar de Uyuni approx 3600 metres above sea level.
Hotel Tayka del Desierto, Árbol dePiedra, Laguna Colorada etc approx 4500 metres above sea level.
I won’t bore you with the science, that’s easily available via a search engine. Suffice it to say that the higher you are above sea level the lower the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. Not much of a problem until you reach around 2500 metres, beyond that it can become trouble. Via a number of mechanisms the body does adapt to altitude, but it needs time. If this region is on your radar then make sure you plan acclimatisation into your program. Once again the web abounds with advice, but the outstanding principles are: climb high, sleep low; avoid anything sedating, this includes alcohol, ensure good hydration and build acclimatisation days into your itinerary. Try to locate these days in a place you can gently explore. Avoid exerting yourself on arrival at altitude, ease yourself into activity slowly.
A couple of other things you might want to know about altitude:
The higher you go the lower the boiling point of water, so your cup of tea will never be as hot as you want it
Liquids, lotions, potions etc have a habit of bursting out when first opened when arriving in higher environments.
The following are particularly useful:
Would I go again.? Yes it is a place I’d love to revisit, if time and money were no problem. I’d just have to do it differently. There were some phenomenal scenes. I appreciate that to capture the best images you need to put in the time to get them, something that would have to be addressed were I to go back.
For more images from the trip look here.
If you have the urge to travel to the colder areas of South America then have a look at this. It was my intended big trip for next year, only work colleagues got first say ;(
Melanie, June 2013