There is no desert on Earth drier than the Atacama Desert in northern Chile – decades can pass by without a drop of rain. The desert around San Pedro de Atacama is one of the country’s most popular travel destinations and the small village has completely dedicated itself to tourism.
The centre is awash with hotels, restaurants and tour guides, mostly offering the same tours:
The sights in the Chilean part are ideal for full-day tours, making San Pedro de Atacama a very suitable base. It also lets you acclimatise to the altitude, especially before travelling on to Bolivia.
On the way, you’ll pass the two villages of Socaire and Toconao with their attractive churches, graveyards and centres. A good place for a break!
All the tour guides swarm around the Laguna Chaxa and its gorgeous light in the evening, so we arrived exactly at sunset. I don’t know if it was the high expectations or if we caught it on a bad day, but the sunset wasn’t nearly as dramatic as we’d hoped. But watching the flamingos in the evening light is a beautiful memory.
Surrounded by impressive landscapes, the route took us straight to the Bolivian-Argentinian border. And the very well maintained roads took us straight up to 4,700 metres above sea level. The air is very thin and even the smallest exertion can take your breath away. The pass seemed popular with bikers, but less so with tour guides – good for us!
The landscape was simply fantastic, and we stopped for a photo op on almost every curve.
We went on to the Mirador Salar de Loyoques, just 23km from Paso de Jama and the Argentinian border. The gorgeous panorama across the salt flat is great for just letting your mind wander, so we admired the view and watched the flamingos in peace. The only reason we left was the thin air, which we still hadn’t gotten used to.
The valley is at its most beautiful when the sun hangs on the horizon, casting long shadows – it’s worth climbing a dune with a view with your camera and tripod.
Stretching around 600 miles at its widest point and covering an area of 40,000 square miles, the Altiplano is the largest and highest plateau in the world outside of Tibet. It is also home to Titicaca Lake, the highest navigable lake in the world, and Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. While such a high altitude sounds like the Altiplano might be cold, barren, and desolate, it is actually home to a number of plants, animals, and human settlements.
Fundamentally, there are two types of tours: very cheap group tours or relatively expensive private tours with a private driver. It’s not uncommon for providers to offer cheap group tours to travel back from Salar de Uyuni to San Pedro in the same day. When it comes to tours in Bolivia: the cheaper the tour, the worse the service.
If you have special needs for your tour – so any landscape photographer – only a private tour will be any good for you. Here are some things I wish our tour operator had done:
Last but not least, we didn’t want to return to San Pedro de Atacama from Uyuni, rather head north via Laguna Surire (Chile) and the Lauca National Park to Arica. The northernmost Chilean city is located by the sea, right by the Peruvian-Chilean border, and is the driest city in the world.
We invested a lot of time searching for the right travel agent, and it paid off in the end: Mayuru Tours was able to offer a tour to meet our needs. The six-day trip for 2 people from San Pedro de Atacama via the Bolivian highlands to Arica including all special requests and meals cost a total of $3,620.
Although we didn’t pay the extra $400 for an English-speaking driver, Valerio had a pretty good handle on the language.
After a few kilometres, we reached the ‘Sol de Mañana’ geysers. Unlike in Yellowstone National Park, the hot springs and steaming fumaroles are freely accessible. There are hardly any barriers or path markings in Bolivia – commendable, actually! This let us enjoy this hotspot even more. The fumaroles aren’t covered by cheaper tour operators (presumably to save time), so we had the whole place to ourselves.
Much more popular are the ‘Termas de Polques’ hot springs at the ‘Salar de Chalviri’. What more could you want than a 38°C bath at 4,000 metres with a wonderful panoramic view?!
Apart from the official look-out point, it’s also worth stopping for a photo from the other side of the lake.
These four lakes are definitely worth seeing, but the Laguna Hedionda was especially impressive. The many flamingos are obviously used to people, as they come right up to you and proudly strut through the lake as if they’re walking on a mirror. While you’d need a 500mm lens for a close-up of a flamingo at the other lakes, a 50mm lens is plenty here.
Watching these wonderful birds eat is a joy, and it’s hard to stop staring. As with the Laguna Colorada, it’s best to plan in at least 2-3 hours for this stop.
If you look for photos of the Salar de Uyuni, you’ll mostly find creative perspective photos. The cactus islands in the middle of the Salar are also popular. The best-known and most popular is the Isla Incahuasi: here, you’ll find hundreds of cacti and a footpath around the island. You have to pay to enter but it’s still definitely worth a visit!
Our special travel programme meant we could visit all three islands, and then we travelled back to the Isla Incahuasi the next day.
Spanning an area of 1,379 square kilometers in the Andean region of Chile’s far north, the Lauca National Park encompasses altiplano and mountain habitats within its range. A large number of volcanoes are hosted by this park which, together with the neighboring Salar de Surire Natural Monument and the Las Vicuñas National Reserve Salar de Surire Natural Monument, comprise the Lauca Biosphere Reserve.
For most of my landscape shots, I used a focal length of between 14mm and 50mm.
I could have done with a longer length at a few of the lakes. I had a 70-200mm lens with me, but it wasn’t enough for animal photography (e.g. flamingos). One exception was the Laguna Hedionda, where you could get within a few metres of the birds. Stefan Forster has taken fantastic drone shots of the Salar de Surire and got really close to the flamingos – these animals might avoid people, but don’t seem too bothered about other flying objects. If you have similar plans, you should definitely check what the current regulations are for drones and permits in Bolivia before you travel.
When taking portraits, you should ask for permission first – basic Spanish is very helpful on a trip like this.
The Altiplano is excellent for panoramic photos. I didn’t have any special panoramic gear with me, just used the panoramic features in Lightroom and Photoshop. If you do have suitable equipment, definitely take it with you.
A stable tripod, remote, cleaning materials and a selection of ND and circ pol filters should be a matter of course for landscape photography. Apps like TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris), PhotoPills and Google Earth are great for planning photo sites.