Northern Chile and the Bolivian Altiplano

For those who don't know, Emma and I are travelling South America for nine months, having taken twelve months off from our jobs back in Sydney. We started in Santiago in late June and have now been on the road for around a month. Santiago was nice enough, although it is essentially just "another big city". We'll be spending some more time here towards the end of our trip so we didn't go overboard this time.

This blog post gives an overview of our first couple of weeks in Chile and south west Bolivia.

Photographically speaking, the first major stop on our trip was San Pedro de Atacama, which was a 20 hour overnight bus ride north out Santiago. We used Turbus for this leg and had a pretty decent experience - good reclining seats, warm cabin, reasonably clean (reasonably takes on a different meaning here), regular food and a toilet. Pullman looked like a good alternative, but Turbus had a whizzbang automatic ticketing machine which swayed us in the end.

Because we're travelling slowly I could carry more camera gear than I normally would when travelling. With me for the trip I've got:

  • Nikon D810 and D800E (knowing my luck one will fail on me at some point)
  • Nikon 20mm f/1.8G (small, light and sharp. Also takes 77mm filters)
  • Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 (workhorse, sharp enough in the corners when stopped down)
  • Nikon 70-200mm f/4 (light and sharp, always useful)
  • Gitzo GT2545T Traveler tripod with a Markins ballhead

I pack all this (except the tripod) plus assorted odds and ends (filters, cable releases, etc.), my laptop and Intuos tablet into an old F-Stop Loka.

San Pedro de Atacama

We arrived pretty early into San Pedro and made our way to Hostal Mamatierra (excellent, if you're after a recommendation). A few things strike you about San Pedro when you first arrive:

  1. Its dusty, and windy, which makes sense given its location
  2. Its a tourist town, and owing to its isolation and setting, a literal tourist trap
  3. Its expensive by South American standards

That said, its a launching pad for some awesome day trips (Valle de la Luna, Valle de Muerta, Tatio Geysers) and longer trips to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. On our first afternoon we decided to take a half day afternoon tour out to the Valle de la Luna.

Valle de la Luna

Located around 13km outside of San Pedro, the Valle de la Luna is an amazing landscape comprised of orange-red stone outcrops, desert sands, dried river beds and white salt crusts. We opted for a small group tour over renting bikes, as we didn't back ourselves to ride back after sunset. In a group tour you can also get up to Coyote Point for sunset which would have been a struggle on the deadly-treadly.

Most tours will take the same route - your first stop will be at foot of some modest dunes / hills which when climbed gives you a great view over the valley, similar to that in the photo below. You'll climb up to a ridge line that is a couple of meters wide, with drop offs to valley on each side below you.

 Overlooking the Valle de la Luna. This is a composite image - the clouds in the shot were out of frame to the left, so I took a shot of them and pulled them over to where I wanted them.

Overlooking the Valle de la Luna. This is a composite image - the clouds in the shot were out of frame to the left, so I took a shot of them and pulled them over to where I wanted them.

After 45 minutes or so of walking around the hills, the tour takes you out to a stop to view the "Tres Marias", a grouping of two-and-a-half stone outcrops that resemble praying women (the half was lost when someone climbed an outcrop and knocked it down). It isn't the most "wow" sight you'll see (if you were self-driving and there weren't any cars parked here you'd probably fly right by them). But the formations are photogenic, and I imagine they looked better when they were fully intact.

 Tres Marias - we had some great cloud that hung around all afternoon, helping to improve compositions and make exposures easier to balance. You can see the half-ling on the left.

Tres Marias - we had some great cloud that hung around all afternoon, helping to improve compositions and make exposures easier to balance. You can see the half-ling on the left.

The main point of an afternoon / evening tour of the Valle de la Luna is to catch the late afternoon and sunset light in the valley. One of the best places to take in the view is at the Mirador Piedra del Coyote (Lookout of the Stone Coyote). We arrived here only ten minutes before the sun dipped below the distant mountains, and while it was a rush to set up my gear, we could tell it was going to be a special sunset. You're perched probably 50m or so above the valley floor - there are no railings and only some rough paths, so you're free to roam around and spread out from the crowd.

We found that if you headed left from the carpark the crowd thins out enormously and the view improves. Most people tended to crowd around the main lookout point, which was off the right in the photo below. As you can see below, we got some special light on this trip.

 Epic sunset looking over the martian/lunar landscape of Valle de la Luna

Epic sunset looking over the martian/lunar landscape of Valle de la Luna

That wrapped up our first day in San Pedro, an excellent day and a very productive photographic experience. Back at our hostel we booked an early morning tour to the El Tatio Geyser field.

El Tatio Geysers

Our trip out to the El Tatio geysers can be summed up in a few words:

  1. Early
  2. High
  3. Windy
  4. Cold

We were warned to layer-up for our 4:30am start, and we certainly weren't lied to. Whilst the temperature in San Pedro was bearable, the extreme elevation (4,300m - watch out for altitude sickness as you ascend quickly from San Pedro) meant that the temperature at the geysers was -10C, though it felt slightly colder given the stiff 30km/h breeze we encountered. The geysers are at their peak before dawn, when there is a lot of hot water flowing underground and the steam condenses in the cold air. Periodically the geysers will erupt - the larger mounds tend to be more impressive - although they mostly just smoulder and vent steam.

Unfortunately the strong winds on this morning also meant that most of the geyser steam was blown away quite quickly, so we didn't get the full experience here. Additionally there are now a lot of pathways and rock walls around the geysers, which takes away from the photographic attractiveness somewhat (understandable given people have died falling through the salt crust here).

 Sunrise at El Tatio Geysers

Sunrise at El Tatio Geysers

The Bolivian Altiplano 

At our hostel we met Stefan and Wen - a Dutch couple who were keen to do the Salar de Uyuni tour (from San Pedro to Uyuni) on the same day that we were planning to do a tour. This was serendipitous, as not only were they good company, but we could negotiate a better group price and we had a better chance of getting a 4WD tour vehicle with only the four of us inside (versus the normal group sizing of 6 people).

We ended up choosing World White Travel (not a typo) for several reasons:

  • Their office set up was very smooth, with a very helpful saleswoman giving us a detailed run down of the tour before we decided to commit (surprisingly many operators don't do this)
  • Pricing was pretty good (upper-mid range - not the cheapest but not the priciest), and they bargained down further with us to get our business
  • They could supply an English speaking guide on the day we needed, which helped immensely as our Spanish was very scratchy, and probably not good enough to get us through a guided tour

Pricing varies depending on where you start your tour - starting in San Pedro is expensive as there are fewer tour companies here than in Uyuni. Uyuni is cheaper, as its in Bolivia (generally much cheaper than Chile) and there are dozens upon dozens of tour agencies bidding for your business. You can also start in Tupiza (~200km southwest of Uyuni in Bolivia), but this requires an extra day on the road and there are fewer tour agencies here again.

How smoothly your tour runs will come down to a fair amount of luck. The tour companies in San Pedro contract with freelance driver-guides in Bolivia, and you're never sure who you'll get on the day. We got lucky, and got an incredible guide called Abel Belen Cruz, a Bolivian who lived in Uyuni, drove his uncle's Lexus 4WD, was university educated and spoke four languages (Spanish, English, French and local Quecha). Amazing.

The guides here lead an intense life and carry a huge workload - Abel drove two days from Uyuni to pick us up at the border, and was backing up with another tour immediately after ours (another two days drive back, and three more days driving on tour).

All tours from San Pedro follow the same basic route and see the same main sights, and below is a rough outline of our tour:

 Simplified map of our tour

Simplified map of our tour

Day one starts in San Pedro, with a quick (ish) trip to Chilean immigration to get your passport stamped to cross the border into Bolivia. Your driver takes you to the border crossing at Hito Cajon, where you file into a small office and get your Bolivian visa (30 days standard, although you can ask for 60 days and save the hassle of extending later).

Here you also meet your driver - in our case Abel had set out some cake, hot cocoa and coca mate (made from coca leaves, and helps offset altitude sickness symptoms) for us all. A short drive later you arrive at the Bolivian national parks office where you pay your Reserva nacional de fauna andina Eduardo Avaroa (REA) entry fee. The REA is the national park shown in green on the map above, and covers most of the prime lagunas and desert land in the very southwest of Bolivia.

Stop one is Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde, two lagunas that sit in the shadow of Volcan Licancabur. Both lagunas are drying out over time (some say climate change, though the mining sector here sucks out a huge amount of water to support their operations), and there is now noticeably less water in Laguna Verde than older photos show.

 Laguna Blanca, with our 4WD tour vehicles in the background and Licancabur in the distance.

Laguna Blanca, with our 4WD tour vehicles in the background and Licancabur in the distance.

Around the corner from Laguna Blanca is Laguna Verde, which is permanently a shade of aqua / green due to high arsenic and other mineral content. Don't drink the water.

 Laguna Verde - you can see the old water levels in the white salt crust.

Laguna Verde - you can see the old water levels in the white salt crust.

The next stop of significance was the Desierto de Dali (Dali Desert), which in theory resembles the paintings of Salvador Dali. We didn't stop particularly close to the main rock formations so it was impossible to get a workable photograph. To preserve the area 4WDs are banned from driving close by the valley, so you either need to pack a solid zoom lens or walk for a kilometre or two. You'll have to take my word that it looked cool, if a little distant.

After the Dali Desert we visited our second set of geysers, the Sol de Manana geyser field. These were impressive - huge open pools of boiling mud, erupting steam vents and the strong stench of sulphur. The combination of altitude and sulphur emissions will make you light-headed quickly, so take it slowly. The geysers are surprisingly difficult to shoot given how flat they are and how harsh the light tends to be in the mid-morning - I tried to focus on the details to show how Martian the landscape is. Its an interesting mix of red rock, white salt crusts and yellow-green sulphur deposits.

 The boiling mud pools of the Sol de Manana geyser field

The boiling mud pools of the Sol de Manana geyser field

It will probably be around mid afternoon by the time you get to Laguna Colorada (Reg Lagoon), a huge lagoon populated by dozens of flamingoes. On the banks of the lagoon you'll usually find llamas and vicuna scratching around for food. Pack all your lenses for this spot - wide angles for sweeping views of the lagoon, plus a good telephoto zoom for the flamingoes and detail shots.

 Wide shot of Laguna Colorada showing the red waters and white borax banks

Wide shot of Laguna Colorada showing the red waters and white borax banks

Given the lack of rain in the dry season the water levels were reasonably low when we visited, revealing a lot of the white borax banks, and also creating swirling textures where the remaining water sat.

 Meandering waters of Laguna Colorada

Meandering waters of Laguna Colorada

Laguna Colorada was the last stop of day one, and we drove to our nearby accomodation for the evening. Accomodation is basic out here - no showers or hot water, but its pleasant enough. At 4,500m the overnight temperature was below zero, and the lack of oxygen meant none of us slept very well. After dinner and sundown I ducked outside to see what the sky looked like and try my hand at astrophotography for the first time.

Wow. With less atmosphere to look through and no nearby city lights the night sky way astounding. Sadly the surrounding landscape was less than inspiring in the dark and I was too tired to trek out to find a dead tree to shoot. So I settled on a composite, with the foreground taken earlier in the afternoon and the Milky Way captured after sundown.

 Milky Way captured on our first night on tour, with the foreground from earlier in the afternoon.

Milky Way captured on our first night on tour, with the foreground from earlier in the afternoon.

The second day of the trip was similar in a sense to the first. Our first main destination was the Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree) and the Siloli Desert. While the stone tree and its surrounding rock formations are interesting, the real highlight for me here were the multi-coloured hills in the distance.

 Multi coloured hills in the Siloli Desert

Multi coloured hills in the Siloli Desert

Without sounding blase, the remainder of the day was much like the first - more desert, more lagunas and flamingoes, but rockier roads. At times you have to pinch yourself when you catch yourself thinking "Oh, another laguna, looks like the previous one...", just to reset your frame on reality. You're still in one of the most breathtaking places in the world, more than 4,000m above sea level and surrounded by stunning scenery.

I feel like the shot below, though simple and a bit cheesy, sums up the landscape on the afternoon of our second day. Bunch grass, rocks big enough to threaten the undercarriage of the 4WD if you weren't careful, and bright blue sky.

 Bunch grass on the altiplano.

Bunch grass on the altiplano.

Volcan Ollague

The last stop before our accomodation was the Volcan Ollague Mirador, which gave you an elevated view of the only active volcano on the tour route. My ears certainly pricked up when I heard "active volcano".

Volcan Ollague straddles the border between Chile and Bolivia, with ownership split between the countries based on altitude and geographic location. Whilst the volcano doesn't have a history or eruption, there is constant steam activity on the southern flank, and there are/were active sulphur mines up and down the mountain. Historical lava flows and land slips have resulted in an interestingly textured and colour mountain face.

We got lucky on our visit as there was some decent cloud building out behind the volcano (and almost none behind us). This is one of my favourite shots from the trip to date.

 Volcan Ollague under moody skies.

Volcan Ollague under moody skies.

After a brief stop at the mirador we continued on through one of the smaller satellite salt flats (near Chiguana) that surround the main Salar de Uyuni. The area isn't as pristine as the main salar, with small towns dotted around the perimeter and along the train tracks that run through the flats. As a result the salt flats here tend to be coated in varying layers of dirt and industrial grime.

 Tracks on the salt flats

Tracks on the salt flats

We overnighted at a hostel in San Juan, with floors made of salt and a salt-brick veneer covering the internal walls. Great in practice, but walking back to your room across a salt floor with wet feet soon outweighs the novelty factor.

Salar de Uyuni

We didn't reach the Salar de Uyuni until our final day on the tour, and most of us had marked this down as the likely highlight of the tour. Setting off from San Juan at 5am, we headed to an island in the centre of the salar (Isla Incahuasi or "Fish Island") to catch the sunrise. Given that the edges of the salt flat tend to be quite soft, there are set pathways in and out of the flats which have been reinforced, and its quite a sight to see a dozen or more 4WDs racing across the salar trying to beat the rising sun.

We were visiting in the dry season (winter), so you could access the entirety of the Salar de Uyuni by 4WD. In the wet season you're more limited in where you can get to (and you can't get out to the island) but you do get the epic reflection shots when there is a layer of water over the flats.

Once at the island you pay your entrance fee (15 or 30 bolivianos each from memory, around A$3 - A$6), record your name in the log book and race up the hills to find a vantage point. The isla itself is an ancient reef bed, covered in fossilised corals and now covered in huge cacti.

The sunrise that morning wasn't phenomenal, but that's a rarity anyway and you're in an amazing setting to begin with so it isn't hard to get a pleasing image.

 Sunrise over the Isla Incahuasi

Sunrise over the Isla Incahuasi

Coming from Australia, cacti like this are an unusual site. I'm sure the local Bolivians and Chileans have had there fill (much like Sydney photographers and ocean rock pools), but for us they're unique and special.

 Cactus Forest on Isla Incahuasi

Cactus Forest on Isla Incahuasi

After a quick breakfast and warm coffee we headed out to capture some of the classic images of the tessellated patterns of the Salar de Uyuni. We didn't get the classic bright blue skies you usually see in photos of the Salar, but the clouds and backdrop were dramatic enough for me.

 Salar de Uyuni patterns.

Salar de Uyuni patterns.

Although it goes against the ethos of the frowning, moody landscape photographer, you're encouraged to clown it up here. To be honest I think you'd be a bit disappointed if you came away from the flats without the usual false-perspective profile shots. Thanks to Emma, Stefan and Wen for forcing these out of me (I tend to look better behind the camera rather than in front of it, and am certainly far more comfortable behind it).

 Hamming it up with the group.

Hamming it up with the group.

In addition to being our driver, cook and tour guide, Abel also nailed the perspective shots for us ("little to the left, a little back, now a little closer...perfect...now crouch down like a monkey").

Save for a quick trip to the salt museum, Colchani (a traditional salt-mining and processing village on the edge of flats), and the train cemetery outside of Uyuni, that was the end of our tour. We were dropped into Uyuni, where Stefan and Wen headed north to Potosi and Emma and I headed southwest the next morning to Tupiza.

Including our time in San Pedro, we'd been on the road for only a week, but the sheer volume of sights we saw and amazing locations we visited was immense. The only time my camera was out of my hands was when I was sleeping or eating, and it was one of the most productive photographic trips I've been on, despite being a "standard" tour. If you self drove or took a specialist photographic tour you could end up in some spectacular locations for golden-hour shooting.

Tips and Recommendations

Having covered all this ground I think its useful to give some tips and recommendations based on our experience. Despite some of the horror stories you read online about bad tours, rubbish hostels and terrible drivers, we had a smooth and uneventful week or so in the region.

Chile and the Atacama

  • How to get from Santiago to San Pedro? 

You can fly from Santiago to Calama (nearest airport to San Pedro) or you can take an overnight bus for 20 hours. We were up for an adventure so we took the bus. We used Turbus, which was clean, on time and safe (they had a few drivers who would share the driving duties)

  • How long to stay in San Pedro?

We stayed two nights, which gave us enough time to see the Valle de la Luna on the first afternoon and the Tatio geysers the next morning. You can also do a full-day tour which covers the geysers and a bunch of lagunas and a mini-salt flat if you're up for it. We didn't feel pushed for time (we could have spent another night here), and San Pedro is quite expensive for what you get.

If you're doing a Salar de Uyuni tour from San Pedro you can probably skip the lagunas and salt flat here - they're more impressive on the Salar de Uyuni tour.

Salar de Uyuni

  • How do you choose your tour company?

A lot of it comes down to luck. Almost all of the tour agencies are located on the main street in San Pedro (Calle Caracoles), so your best bet is to wander down and stick your head into a few places to get pricing and to suss out the vibe. We chose World White Tours - they looked professional, had great salespeople and could provide us with an English speaking guide on the day we needed to depart. You'll pay somewhere between 100,000 and 130,000 pesos per person for a tour here.

All drivers in Bolivia are generally freelance and will work across multiple agencies, so you can't really predict who you'll get. We ended up with a fantastic guide who spoke excellent English (plus French, Bolivian and Quecha). If you pay more for an English-speaking guide, the chances are you'll get an experience, safe and university-educated driver.

  • Where can you do the tour from?

Three main places - San Pedro in Chile, and Uyuni and Tupiza in Bolivia. Uyuni is the cheapest, given there are many more tour companies operating here and Bolivia tends to be much cheaper than Chile in general. San Pedro is in the middle - there are fewer tour operators here so there isn't as much competition, plus you need a Chilean driver to get you to the border. Tupiza tends to be more expensive - its 200km from Uyuni which equates to at least 4 or 5 hours driving. You generally need an extra day to the tour route from here, and there are only a handful to tour companies in town.

The tour route is broadly the same - if you start in San Pedro you do it in reverse order to Uyuni. This can be good, with the stops tending to be less crowded, as the hoards departing from Uyuni are visiting at generally opposite ends of the day.

  • What to bring?

We took all our gear, as we weren't returning to San Pedro. If you're doing a return trip to San Pedro or Uyuni, try and leave some gear at your hostel or hotel. Its surprisingly cold at altitude here, even during the day, so layer up. Most of the time were in thermals (Icebreaker 160 or 200 weight), shirts and a fleece top, with and a jacket over the top when we were outside (sometimes a windproof jacket on top of all this too, though it got tough to zip it up).

Change a bit of money into Bolivianos before you leave San Pedro (bring some USD, GBP or Euro with you, you often won't be able to change AUD). You need around 200 Bolivianos per person to pay entry fees to the parks and island, plus a bit more if you want to buy snacks or drinks (a 500ml bottle of Coke is around 5 bolivianos (A$1) as a guide). Only change what you need - the exchange rate at the cambios in San Pedro is about 20% under the spot rate and there are ATMs in Uyuni.

Meals should be included in your tour price, but drinking water isn't. Its recommended to bring 5L per person, and you can buy big 6L jugs in San Pedro if you want.

  • How was the altitude?

Its a bit of a lucky dip as to whether you get sick. You ascend quickly once you leave San Pedro, from around 3,000m to above 5,000m at some points on day one. One lady on our tour was badly affected overnight at our first stop, but the rest of us were generally OK. A bit of light-headedness and a lingering headache is pretty normal. Don't eat huge meals, as digestion uses a lot of oxygen, breathe deeply and take it slow and you should be OK. Get a prescription for Diamox before you leave home (just in case), and coca tea can take the edge off the symptoms if you do get sick.

Feel free to drop me a line in the comments below if you have any questions or thoughts.