Bolivia & Chile 2017 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Mar 28, 2017

The Atacama Desert is a high-altitude plateau situated between two large mountain ranges—the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range.  It is considered to be the largest non-polar desert in the world, receiving either zero precipitation or as little as .04-.6 inches/year in “wet” areas.  The towering mountain ranges flanking the Atacama Desert—which has an average elevation between 12,000 and 16,000 feet—create a double rain shadow effect that prevents most moisture from reaching this high-altitude plateau.  It is a surreal desert landscape and not your typical high-altitude landscape.
Our Bolivia and Chile trip began in the capital of Santiago, Chile.  We met for a welcome dinner at a hotel in the quiet part of the city where many international embassies are located.  The following morning we headed to the airport for our flight to Calama, Chile, where we boarded our bus to our first destination—San Pedro de Atacama, only a few hours east of Calama, and at an elevation of 8,000 feet (2,400m), one of the lowest elevations of the entire trip.  For many flatlanders this is their first introduction to high altitude.  With a population of around 5,000 people San Pedro is a quaint little village bustling with tourist activity and fine cafés with musicians playing traditional South American music.  It is also a launching point for many trips in and around this region of Chile and Bolivia.  
We spent several days exploring areas around San Pedro de Atacama and visited Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon).  This area is surrounded by sandstone formations and dunes, and although it is supposed to resemble the moon I think it is more closely related in appearance to the planet Mars with its deep red sandstone formations.  The backdrop of this spectacular landscape is Licancabur Volcano, a stratovolcano on the border of Bolivia and Chile reaching a height of 19,409 feet (5916m).  One thing that fascinated me about Valle de la Luna was the salt crust that appeared on the surface and seemed to be everywhere.  The area had experienced some recent rain and as the moisture evaporated it left a salt crust over the entire landscape.  We were told by our local guide that this may take weeks to dissipate via wind action but, in the meantime, it appeared to be a landscape covered with a fine dusting of snow.  During our stay in San Pedro de Atacama we also ventured to Los Flamencos National Reserve where we had our first introduction to several species of flamingos, Puna plovers, Andean avocets and other birds that inhabit these small high-altitude wetlands.  A pre-dawn drive took us to the Tatio geysers at an elevation of 14,000 feet (4,300m).  Nothing happens very fast at high altitude and here we took our time photographing the geological wonders in this high Andean valley.
Altiplano means “high plain” in Spanish and this is the area of South America that contains the highest plateau region outside of Tibet.  The average elevation is about 12,000 feet (3,750m) and the plateau is surrounded by towering active volcanoes, with many reaching elevations from 16,000 feet to over 20,000 feet (5,000m to over 6,000m).  From San Pedro de Atacama we headed over Cajon Pass and crossed the border into the Altiplano in Bolivia.  We passed Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde, which has stunning reflections of Licancabur Volcano and is considered one of the highest lakes in the world.  After a long drive through the Siloli Desert we made a brief stop at the iconic “Rock Tree” and other sandstone formations.  As the sun dipped over the horizon we arrived at our destination, the Takya del Desierto, a remote self-sustaining hotel located in the heart of the Siloli at an elevation of 15,000 feet.  In the morning we headed over to Laguna Colorada where a population of endangered James’ flamingos nests on islands in the lake.  Thought to be extinct this remote population was rediscovered in 1956 and the area provided us with many hours of good bird photography.
After two nights at 15,000 feet we headed north through rugged country stopping to shoot wild viscachas.  These are actually members of the rodent family, and at first glance resemble our North American rabbits.  They have long rabbit-like ears and, unlike rabbits, long tails, whiskers and rodent-like incisors.  They are very entertaining critters—viscachas raced down boulder fields to our 4x4s, obviously looking for handouts provided by passing travelers.  With the arrival of afternoon rains we continued to our hotel in the village of San Juan and settled in for the night.  In the morning before traveling north again we were photographed a Quechua llama drive and took a tour of the ruins at Necropolis.  Mummified skeletal remains were buried in open sites at this Pre-Columbian Andean funerary where the chullpas were cut out of volcanic tufa, and many of the skeletons remain intact where they have lain for thousands of years.  Interesting, but creepy!
After passing quinoa plantations we reached the town of Uyuni where we fueled up the jeeps and photographed at the train cemetery before a sandstorm cut our plans short.  Our final destination was the Solar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on earth.  This is just a surreal landscape of salt-formed polygons under several inches of standing water that provide some of the most impressive mirror reflections ever seen.  We spent the next couple of days photographing this massive salt flat covered with a thin layer of water with picture-perfect reflections.  After a morning shoot we drove 90 kilometers to Fish Island for lunch.  Fish Island is only one of 80 islands on the salt flat that is filled with gigantic cacti—another strange sight at 12,000 feet.  
After a couple nights at our Uyuni hotel—entirely constructed of salt blocks—we headed back to the Chilean border and, after a very long drive, spent the night in San Pedro de Atacama.  The next morning we drove up to the Pacana Guardians, rock formations that are Chile’s equivalent of our Monument Valley.  Afterward we were on our way back to Calama for our return flight to Santiago and our farewell dinner.  Since everyone had late night departures on the following day, we had time for a tour of the city, the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, and the central market of Santiago.  The museum has a stunning collection of thousands of years of art and cultural artifacts of the indigenous peoples of the region and is considered a must-see destination when visiting Santiago.  
Last stop—home—and already I am thinking of returning to this magical and remote place high in the South American desert.  Keep your eyes on the JVO Photo Safaris website for future announcements—I hope to see some of you on the next Bolivia & Chile adventure!