Bolivia & Chile 2012 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Apr 16, 2012

I got high on my last Photo Safari. Literally high—about 5,000 meters high, roughly 16,000 feet in elevation. This was the “high point” (please pardon the obvious pun) of the trip to the Altiplano desert of Chile and Bolivia. And for that matter, it’s about 15,800 feet higher than where I live in the Pacific Northwest.

Our group met in Santiago, at a quiet hotel tucked into a leafy neighborhood along with many embassies. Early the next morning we left for the airport and a three-hour flight to Calama, a major mining town in northern Chile. It is also one of the driest cities on earth, with an average annual precipitation of just 5 mm. That’s dry, really dry. Waiting for us at the airport was our bus, which took us about 100 kilometers to San Pedro de Atacama, a small town that’s the jumping off point for exploration of this region. We were headed to Los Flamencos National Reserve, and in particular two spectacular areas, Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) and Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death). The latter was originally named Valle del Marte (Valley of Mars) but over the years “Marte” became corrupted into “Muerte.” With either name, it’s a wild area of sculpted rocks and dunes that glow in the low light of sunrise and sunset.

One morning we headed to the Tatio Geysers, an area of over 80 hot springs and geysers located at almost 14,000 feet elevation. We wanted to be there well before sunrise when each geyser is surmounted by a column of steam that condenses in the bitterly cold morning air. And bitter cold it would be, well below freezing. Due to the driving distance, and reports of road problems going up the mountain, we departed our hotel at 3:00 AM. An hour later our bus was stuck in the mud. Yes, in one the driest areas of the world we managed to get stuck in the mud. A missed turn in the darkness led to backing down a narrow road section, which in turn led to one rear wheel buried in a small mountain spring. Luckily there were several other vehicles also headed toward the geysers and, after a quick explanation of what had happened, by twos and threes we were tucked into the other trucks (hint to self: learn Spanish for “always room for one more”) and on our way. We made it to the mountain top well in time to photograph, and it wasn’t long before, miracle of miracles, our bus actually showed up.

The next day we crossed the border into Bolivia, and switched from a bus to five Toyota Land Cruisers. High clearance four-wheel drive is necessary for exploring this remote region—we would not see another paved road until our return to Chile. The major photographic highlights for the next week:

  • incredible mountain scenery
  • lakes tinted red and green by algae and volcanic sediments
  • thousands of James’s flamingoes (also known as Puna flamingoes and thought to have been extinct until the mid-1950s)
  • but, most of all, the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on earth

And at over 10,500 square kilometers—over 4,000 square miles—it is overwhelming large. At the same time, it’s also so flat that the variation in the surface elevation in less than one meter. The large area, the clear skies and exceptional surface flatness make the Salar an ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites. The salt—which contains sodium, potassium, lithium and magnesium—is mined by hand and shoveled into cones to drain for later pickup, which is also done by hand.

After the rainy season, the flats are covered with a thin layer of water, which, of course, for photographers means reflections. Pre-sunrise the colors were pastel pinks and blues. At sunset, fiery clouds lit up the sky. I could photograph here for many days.

On our last morning back in Chile, we made a visit to Valparaiso to photograph something completely different: some of the most unusual graffiti, although wall art would be a better name.