Posts tagged ‘Salar de Uyuni’
Writing about the Salar de Uyuni as a photographic destination and avoiding producing a simple eulogy for this astounding location is going to be difficult and, to be honest, I’m not going to try overly hard to achieve that. I do intend, however, in amongst the superlatives which will doubtless follow, to describe the area in terms of how it can be used for photography, what I think works and how to approach it logistically.
I should also point out that I’m deliberately separating the salar from the Andes of southern Bolivia, which are immediately south of it. It would be natural – at least for anyone who’s travelling a long way to visit the salar – to combine the two areas, and I’ve done so twice now, but since they’re radically different in character I’ve decided to write another article in a week or so describing the lagoons of Bolivia and the Atacama desert, in Chile.
I am not attempting to describe every facet of the logistics or photographic options here. Details such as climate, available accommodation and transport, etc. are all available on numerous sites. This article covers primarily those items most closely related to making a successful photographic trip.
Firstly, a little of the eulogy thing and a few large numbers…
I’m a fan of barren, deserted places and wide expanses. I’m also rather enthusiastic about mountains. The Salar de Uyuni is 10,582 square kilometres (4,086 square miles) of salt, surrounded by Andean peaks and varying in thickness from ‘very little’, at the edges, to several metres over most of its area. Very approximately, it’s circular and about 100km across, slightly more in many places since it’s more of a blob than a circle. There are a few islands in this ancient, salt sea and they demonstrate the origins of the place by being composed of rock and coral, still remarkably sharp after something like 30-40,000 years since the water disappeared; one of my boots, whose toe I carelessly dragged across a piece, attests to that.
That’s enough of impressive numbers: the Wikipedia item, unsurprisingly, has a wealth of statistics and details on the geomorphology, with lots of ‘…x times larger than salt flat y…’ and similar comparisons with smaller, lower, thinner, less white salt flats! Ah yes, one last number: it’s 3,656m. above sea level, give or take less than half a metre at any point. That’s a pertinent figure to which I’ll return below under ‘altitude logistics’.
In summary: it’s a huge, startlingly flat area of very old salt dotted with cactus-covered, coral islands and with a backdrop of volcanoes. What’s not to like, at least in terms of spectacle and photographic opportunity? Admittedly, I wouldn’t want to attempt to live on it: doing so would surely be a brief and uncomfortable experience! Living temporarily on the edge of it, on the other hand, and taking daily excursions out to the islands, or to areas of nothing but salt, is fantastic! It’s about as close to other-worldly as I’ve ever come in a fair bit of travel. Forgetting about photography, just being on the salar is a brilliant experience and I’d recommend it very highly indeed.
OK, that’s most of the obvious superlatives used up so I’ll talk about photographic opportunities and logistics a little before returning to the extreme words a little later in this article.
So what is there to photograph?
At the risk of being trite: salt. Salt in lots of different patterns though, and in quantities which are pretty close to indescribable in their sheer enormity. As a foil to the salt, there are the islands. These are mostly covered with very large numbers of cacti – large cacti of the ‘several metres high’ variety – which grow in amongst the coral and rock and can be used to make excellent images as the low sunlight catches them (though not by me it seems – I was obsessing over the salt flat itself and failed to notice the photographic potential of backlit cacti).
Returning to salt… The annual cycle of water on the salar – sometimes it floods briefly and very shallowly to produce a giant mirror which can be used for stunning ‘reflected sky’ images – means that the surface forms several different types of patterns. They’re all stages on the way to becoming the classic ‘hexagonal ridges on a fine, flat surface’, which means that different areas will have, variously, lots of tiny cones, zig-zag lines, a mixture of these with visible hexagons, and the full hexagons themselves, not to mention a broad gamut of in-between stages. This variety of surface – whose changes in nature can be felt as you drive across it in the dark – is fascinating. At least, it’s fascinating to me as I like the wide range of potential foreground patterns.
The sky-line will mostly be ‘distant mountains’, but they’re very fine mountains with some good lines of colour and folded shapes, so they do make a good back-drop to the salt. Alternatively, the few islands offer the potential for images with both salt and relatively close-by land. Of course, with a long lens, those distant volcanoes can form the major part of a composition.
And then there’s the sky
The sky is the tricky aspect of the salar, photographically. As you’d imagine, this is a dry area, meaning that the weather is consistently ‘good’, in the sense of clear and sunny. It also means that there often isn’t much in the way of cloud. There is generally enough to add some interest above the horizon at dawn and dusk though, particularly at dawn. Whilst the Sun is more than slightly above the horizon everything is bathed in very strong light, so during daytime the clouds don’t tend to be quite as relevant anyway since it’s tricky to make a worthwhile shot in those conditions. It’s still utterly spectacular of course ;-) Plus, heat hazes on the salt can give distant islands the appearance of hovering above the surface, floating in the air like the cover of a ‘Yes’ album or the floating forests from ‘Avatar’.
The colour palette is remarkable. It’s quite restricted, consisting of rather a lot of white, shades of brown and ochre in the mountains, and ‘normal’ sky colours, depending on the weather. What it doesn’t have is green, or very little of it anyway; don’t go there to photograph trees! What vegetation there is around the periphery (shore?) tends to be bleached to yellow and orange, and even the cacti are predominantly brown and red rather than green. This is perhaps partly what gives the place it’s slightly surreal appearance. Naturally, nothing but salt crystals grows on the salt itself.
Time of day
Yes, dramatic shots can be made during the hours when the Sun is above the horizon, but the salt really is very white indeed and the reflected light is extremely bright. The patterns more or less disappear under direct sunlight, at least for photographic purposes, and the coral islands suffer from harsh shadows reaching out from themselves onto the salar. If you’re taking more detailed shots then the shadow complexity of the boulders and coral, with their burden of dense cacti, is ‘unhelpful’, at best. In short, you’ll really want to be out shooting around sunset and sunrise and I liked the light best when the Sun was actually below the horizon, often by as much as half an hour (which is reasonably dark this close to the equator).
Having said that, when the Sun is very low, but visible, some of the islands can form dramatic shadows, the cacti become beautifully backlit, and if you’re spot on with timing it is just about possible to catch the light as it hits the salt surface. This next image is the second of three captures: two seconds earlier there was no direct sunshine; two seconds later there is next to no definition left in the salt. Timing is everything if you want to do this sort of thing!
Time of year
I went in winter the second time, summer the first. I preferred winter since it’s quieter and it’s well away from the wet season. I’m not that keen on the mirror effect of the flooded salar really, at least in part since if the whole salar is wet, as it can be on occasion, then that’s pretty much ‘it’: you can photograph mirrored sky and hills, but not the salt patterns, what with them being inconveniently underwater. It’s either rare or unheard of to have a flooded salar in winter; hence my preference.
The important point to note is that it really isn’t very warm first thing in the morning in winter. Specifically, it often drops to approaching minus 20 Celsius, which categorically counts as ‘really quite chilly’ to me. Dressing appropriately is critical from a health point of view, as well as in order to retain the ability to capture photographs. That said, if you do dress properly, it’s entirely fine :-)
Later in the day, however, it becomes hot. The widest range we experienced was something like minus 20 Celsius before dawn to plus 25 in the mid-afternoon. Not only do you need to dress appropriately, you need to change a lot too, unfortunately. All these minor considerations are just that though: minor. If you’re properly prepared then it’s a very fine place to be indeed, as I may have mentioned already.
That last of my numerical points above is significant, at least in terms of anyone planning a trip to photograph the salt flat. If you’ve not been to altitude before – let’s say anything over 2,500m. – then it’s important to know that Uyuni is high enough to feel the effects, but generally not severely. Two miles up, as it is, is probably going to cause minor headaches for a day or so in most people, but nothing more serious in general, though you’d certainly not want to be running around much, at least not for a few days after arrival. Of course, if you’ve been travelling around South America and have been above 3,000m. for a while then you’ll be acclimatised and won’t have any problems.
The altitude is part of why I’m discussing the salar separately from the nearby, Andean lagoons: the latter are much higher, approaching 5,000m; an altitude at which acclimatisation is not a ‘nice-to-have’ but pretty much a requirement, and one which it’s also difficult to fulfil. I’ll talk about that in the next article. For the Salar de Uyuni, however, the issue is minor and there are effectively two approaches to getting there:
– overland from La Paz and then driving south for ten hours , which for most people will involve landing in La Paz at 3,600m. (the airport’s over 4,000m. but the city is in a huge cleft beneath it which appears as if it could have been produced by a giant with a very large axe);
– overland from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
The advantage of the second route, quite apart from the Atacama being rather excellent, is that it’s possible to spend a little time slightly lower: San Pedro is not much over 2,000m. Unfortunately, in my experience at least, that’s not actually high enough to acclimatise much, not to mention that it’s even further overland to Uyuni from San Pedro than it is from La Paz…
I’ve twice approached from Chile and I’d do it again if necessary; however, given completely free choice I’d go via La Paz in future. As I said, altitude effects are, for most people, not too severe when well below 4,000m. and it’s logistically somewhat easier to reach Uyuni from the north. Even if you’re planning on visiting the altiplanic lagoons as well as the salar, I’d do the latter first if possible, purely since a few days at 3,656m. is excellent acclimatisation before moving to the lagoons further south.
Personally, I have a great deal of experience of being at altitude in mountains and have rarely (only once) had a problem, other than in southern Bolivia, having approached from Chile, where it’s near-unavoidable to climb from just over 2,000m. to over 4,000m. in one day and stay there. The staying there aspect is the issue: acclimatisation is broadly achieved by ‘go high, sleep low’, meaning that you ascend a nice long way then drop back down to sleep about 300m. higher than you started from in the morning, ideally. From Chile, both times I approached that way, I noticed the 2,000m. change in altitude in the form of headaches. On the other hand, Uyuni’s low enough to be just mildly discomforting for a day or two and it can be reached from either San Pedro or La Paz in one long day. Much better!
By that I mean the question of whether you visit the salar on a normal tourist trip, on a photographic trip, or independently. If you’re primarily travelling for photography, I’d strongly advise ruling out the first, ‘normal tourist’ option. These trips are excellent, but not remotely optimised for photography since they provide insufficient time and at the ‘wrong’ times of day. If you like huge expanses of über-bright whiteness, the middle of the day is perfect, but it’s a bit limiting, to say the least. Most trips will have sunrise on one of the rock/coral islands, but the time is severely limited, not to mention that everyone else is there too, dotting the pristine expanse of the salt with vehicles and people.
The other two options are photographically very similar. Essentially, travel around the salar is by Toyota Land Cruisers; some drivers are radical enough to use other 4x4s, but they’re in a tiny minority. That means you need a driver, and most companies will insist on a guide too. So, you either need to be on a photography workshop or you need to act all patrician and hire a vehicle, driver and guide yourself. The costs are actually not vastly different since Bolivia’s a very poor country and rates are relatively low, but planning is greatly simplified by going on an organised workshop. Also, rates are relatively low, not absolutely low: hiring a vehicle, two people and their accommodation is not cheap as such! This is a pretty good option if you have two or three people and there are no workshops available; very reasonable, cost-wise, and with complete flexibility.
I imagine it’s possible to hire a vehicle and drive onto the salar yourself but this would be, at best, unwise. I’ve not asked whether it’s actually allowed and it’s not something I’d seriously consider myself: the inconvenience of getting stuck might transform itself into actual danger!
It’s probably worth pointing out that a vehicle is essential. To ‘do’ the salar you need to get out onto it. Whilst people do cycle across it, that’s more of a ‘thing to do’ than a sensible means of transporting yourself around for photography. Lots of things are possible of course – I doubt that anyone has yet crossed the salar by pogo-stick, for example – it’s just that some options will have a higher comfort factor and a greatly increased likelihood of being able to capture some worthwhile images.
Personally, for photography, I’d not consider being there with less than a vehicle and a driver. Ideally there should be two vehicles. I’m not sure whether drivers are willing to drive out onto the salar at night with one vehicle: even in the dry season (most of the year) there are soft areas at the edges and some Land Cruisers do become bogged down and require rescue. In the wet season the whole salar can be covered with water and the 40-60kph driving speed enjoyed most of the year reduces to 5kph. So, if you want that astonishing reflection from somewhere in the middle, be prepared for a long, long drive out!
The primary access point to the salt from the Uyuni side is via Colchani, where the salt is mined, essentially by hand at present. This is around half an hour’s drive from Uyuni itself and then you head out onto the salar through the mining area. That’s something of a grandiose term, incidentally. Essentially what it consists of is cutting troughs in the surface to form cones of salt about one metre high, using manual tools. These are then left to dry before being loaded onto the back of open trucks and stored in large piles in Colchani itself.
As an alternative to staying in Uyuni, or perhaps Colchani, there are a few salt hotels around the edges of the salar. I’ve stayed in the Tayka de Sal on the northern edge of the flats, just about in the centre of the second image in this article and a couple of hundred metres back from the edge of the salt (it’s 50km. away – definitely not visible!). As the name suggests, the hotel is constructed of blocks of salt and is of a remarkably high standard compared to most hotels in the area. I’d recommend this location above one of the many Uyuni hotels, due both to proximity to the main objective and to the views, though if you’re desperate to communicate outside Bolivia then, in common with most, if not all, locations around the area, there is no ‘net access.
I’d in fact recommend all the Tayka chain of hotels. They’re dotted across the southern Bolivian Andes and seem to offer the nicest, if not the cheapest, accommodation in the area. I stayed in the cheapest places on offer on my first trip. They’re functional, but if you’re not on a tight budget then the Tayka chain is well worth the extra expenditure.
The bottom line
As I suggested above, the Salar de Uyuni is comfortably the most bizarre and surreal place I’ve ever been and I’d recommend it very highly indeed to anyone who enjoys something a bit different.
– The sheer size and nature of the place is astounding.
– The colour palette is remarkable.
– The weather is predictable and well-suited to photography.
– The physical logistics, whilst they can take a bit of arranging, and whilst for most people they will involve a long journey, are actually not a significant problem once they’re in place.
All-in-all, it’s a fabulous photographic destination and I genuinely can’t recommend it highly enough.
As I think I said in reference to Lofoten earlier this year, if you can, go there!
Finally, if there’s something about the Salar de Uyuni that you’d like to know, or if you’d just like to comment on the place or this article, please do use the comment box below.
Immediately prior to my recent photographic trip to Chile and Bolivia I was concerned that I’d come back with similar images to those from my first trip, a couple of years earlier; I needn’t have worried.
Yes, I’d already convinced myself, pretty much (!), in my previous article that I’ve changed enough as a photographer to not need to be perturbed by the idea of spending a lot of time and money in revisiting an area, but it’s nice to be proved right. Except … I was decidedly wrong in predicting the actual images I would find myself creating on this second visit to the Atacama desert, the Andes of southern Bolivia and the Salar de Uyuni: wrong in nearly every respect in fact. Having been to everywhere I went this time so recently, I’d pre-visualised all sorts of things, none of which I captured as it turned out.
The good news from my perspective – and part of the point of this short article – is that it doesn’t remotely matter that I was wrong. In future, at least until I change my mind again, I shall not attempt to predict what I’m going to capture when I go somewhere; I now intend to ‘just go’ and see what happens! Of course, that doesn’t mean not doing the logistics in advance, sorting out a way to have flexibility on time of day and location – all the normal photographer things – but it does mean cutting back a fair bit on pre-visualising actual compositions in advance of even reaching the location.
I should contextualise this a little…
There are plenty of places I know well, to which I’ll return, and for which I shall most certainly continue to plan shots using personal knowledge, Google Earth, The Photographer’s Ephemeris – all the various technological toys we now have at our disposal. The key words in that previous sentence, however, are ‘know well’. There are trees and limestone pavements near to my house where I’m simply waiting for the ‘right’ weather in order to capture something with which to make an image. That approach works if you’re able to constantly and easily revisit a place, get to know it very well, plan things in detail. It’s why the photographic project concept often works so marvellously for many people.
Conversely, whilst I have a good idea of the type of terrain, the compositional elements available and the colour palette of these South American destinations, I most certainly don’t know them well enough to realistically pre-visualise anything specific. That last fact wasn’t clear to me until my trip in July. It is now: it seems to me that detailed pre-visualisation ‘off site’, so to speak, is a luxury only available, or at least only worthwhile, when combined with quite comprehensive familiarity with a location.
So, that’s one reason not to predict too much: it doesn’t really work!
Of course, it might work sometimes; arguably it does no harm either. My argument here is that, for me, it didn’t really do anything terribly useful either. I had half a dozen or so captures pre-planned and didn’t execute a single one of them.
There were all sorts of reasons for that, but they came down to simply not knowing enough about the climate or the details of the vast landscapes. Those two things can realistically only be gained by either: remarkably thorough remote research (not my thing – a little light reading-up, some gentle planning; those are both fine, but if I did too much I’d stop enjoying the whole experience of making images); long association with the landscape by being there a great deal (not entirely practical for most people when the ‘there’ in question is in the opposite hemisphere).
And the second reason for eschewing too much pre-planning is that, if you’re in the right frame of mind, in a wonderful location, and feeling even vaguely creative, it’s not needed in order to capture photographs which are worth working with. I had predicted, given my gradually-increasing inclination towards ‘intimate landscapes’, that my images would be of small details in the deserts and high plains; I planned for those shots but very few fit the description.
In practice, whilst I anticipated not taking any big vista images, I took several, both for context and because the scale makes them totally alluring. As to the intimate landscapes: yes, some of my captures might come into that category, but only if ‘intimate’ allows for simple frames with little obvious scale and whose actual dimensions are measured in hundreds or thousands of metres.
Why is this a useful learning point (to me)?
Essentially, I’d fallen into the trap of over-thinking things to some extent. Again, I don’t think that did any actual harm, but nor was it especially helpful. Were I to spend a year in the area – or in any other area – I’m sure I’d treat it as I do the Yorkshire Dales; I’d head for particular places at particular times of day and year and in specific weather conditions. On what can only be a fleeting visit – two weeks in this case, and not all in one location – that level of preparation simply doesn’t, and indeed didn’t, buy me anything.
None of this is a problem though! The above is not intended to sound negative. It’s simply a continuation of my interest in exploring what does and doesn’t work for me when attempting to put myself in situations where I can capture the materials for making images. Everything is useful as a learning experience. All this means is that, when planning my next trip, I’ll spend less time trying to pre-visualise compositions in detail – more free time in other words :-)
And the trip?
The trip itself was a great success and I’ll be posting something about it in the next week or two; quite possibly two articles, one on the Atacama Desert in Chile and another on the Salar de Uyuni and the southern Bolivian Andes. At this point in time I think they’re sufficiently different in character, and certainly in accessibility, to be better described separately.
Whether it’s one article or two, my conclusions will be unequivocally positive on both locations; I’m still a huge fan of these deserted places :-)
About a year ago, thirteen months to be precise, I wrote about my ‘need’ to return to the Atacama Desert and the Bolivian Altiplano. To grossly summarise that article: I went there two years ago, before I’d started making images in any way which could be described as ‘serious’. Then I learnt a lot more about photographic image-making and felt that – it being an entirely spectacular location – I needed to return armed with my new knowledge about things photographic. To some extent I meant that in terms of technique but, far more importantly, I shall return with a different and, I hope, improved vision.
So, I booked myself a trip which will take me to all the same places that I’ve been to before, but with the specific, primary intention of capturing images, rather than general tourism. Not only that, but it’s in winter, so things should be different (notably, about 50C colder, it seems…. ). That trip is now imminent and, over the last couple of months, I’ve had a few fears of the journey failing to meet my expectations; I’ve had doubts about what I can bring back from South America in terms of images.
I’m pleased to say that those feelings are now resolved; at least, they’re not noticeable, so either I’ve resolved them or they’re now reassuringly suppressed :-) This article is about how I removed the anxiety.
So what was the problem?
When I went to the Altiplano a little over two years ago, I was just wandering about playing with my then-new, first, dSLR camera. I was merely travelling, looking at things, and pointing a camera at them. Yes, I was certainly trying to point the camera at interesting things and operate it properly, but essentially I wasn’t ‘a photographer’ at the time, simply a tourist with a camera. This time, I’ve set myself up to go there as ‘a landscape photographer’, with the specific intention of making images which improve on the first set I captured.
Not only that, but this time I’ll be using a better camera and lenses, I’ll be on a trip designed for photographers, and I don’t expect to see anything, in the big picture sense, that I haven’t seen before. All of that can add up to a combination of high expectations and a modicum of self-induced pressure to ‘perform’.
My niggling concern – I’d not go so far as to give it the title of a real worry, but it was certainly something which had come to nag at the back of my mind over the last few weeks…. my niggling concern was that I’d come back with the same shots, or even shots which aren’t as good as the first set. Bolivia from the UK is a fairly long way to go to reproduce something you’ve done before ;-)
And how did I resolve it?
Let’s assume that I have resolved the issue and that I’m not simply suppressing it. I’m sure the latter wouldn’t be a good thing, though that knowledge admittedly comes from watching films and television where ‘suppressing stuff’ is generally not seen as desirable!
The best aspect of this is that I sorted out my worries by re-reading a few of my own blog items!
Firstly, I read the Altiplano one to remind myself why I’d been so committed to going back. It re-established in me the feeling of just what a spectacular place I’m visiting. In that context, I actually don’t care if I fail to produce any new images: even if I had no camera, I’d still be more than happy to go on the same trip and watch the light change in those stunning locations. This time, I’ll be in the same places as before, but at dawn and dusk; the light will be different from last time, and it will change (unlike the previous visit, when it was effectively bright, unmitigated sunshine all the time, with very few exceptions). I’m entirely happy to sit and watch varying light in beautiful surroundings, whether or not I also use it to make images. That said, if it’s as cold as it might be then it’ll be more of an ‘experience’ to be there, rather than unequivocal ‘fun’, I suspect!
Secondly, I read my several Lofoten and US South-West desert ‘Locations for photography:…’ articles. For each location, I was reminded that I came back with shots which were, for the most part, markedly different from those I’d expected. True, I’d not been to either of those places before, but the point is that, once you’re in a place, what you see is generally different from your expectations and is affected by all sorts of factors; things like your mood, what you’ve seen photographed before and how it’s been photographed, the particular weather conditions, the time of year, and doubtless many other things. I’m confident that ‘vision’ is one of those factors, and since my vision has developed, so should the images I make from the Atliplano landscape.
Thirdly, I read a handful of my own ‘musings’ and could see how my thinking on image making has developed in the last couple of years. I’m not the same person now, in terms of my attitude to capturing light and making images from it, as I was in Chile and Bolivia in March 2010. Whether those changes which have occurred are for the better or not is irrelevant: I’m different as a photographer now and hence what I see in the landscapes of the Altiplano and Atacama can safely be expected to be different too.
Finally, it doesn’t really matter if I produce identical images. If I were professional, reliant on making new, saleable images to live on, then I think I’d quite rightly be somewhat trepidatious. I am, however, at a stage with my photography where I’m still very much developing the skills and attitude that are required: I can’t be certain of going to a place and making worthwhile images. Yes, I do expect to, but there’s no guarantee. Not that there ever is, but I suspect that many people can be more confident than I have a right to be at this stage!
And the point of this post really was?
This piece started out as a musing on performance anxiety (of a sort!), but my more significant, personal, learning point is that writing this blog is genuinely useful to me.
I said about eighteen months ago, when I first started putting my thoughts out in this form, that part of the idea was to have something to refer back to; to enable me to see how I’d changed. Re-reading those few articles I have, I can see that there are certainly developments over the period.
There’s more to it than that though: by reading my past thoughts I’ve been reminded of various things which have all fed into my experience as a photographer and which have proved specifically useful right now in allaying the minor ‘fears’ I had. Doubly useful then, and perhaps next time I go back and read some of this I’ll find another broad category of usefulness?
I’d therefore like to suggest that the activity of writing a web journal / blog, or even just keeping a personal diary of thoughts and attitudes to photography as you progress, is a really rather good idea, if only for the wholly selfish, but compelling, reasons that it can serve as reassurance, as reinforcement, and as a record of development. Only the last of those things was more than a vague concept when I started, and this is the best instance so far to prove to myself both that the original idea was valid and that there are other benefits too. And if anyone else finds value in these musings and location commentaries, then that’s even better!
The images in this article are, of course, from my first trip. I’m now looking forward to seeing how different the next set will be!
I am so very tempted to simply write “because it contains some of the most fabulously beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen”, but that would be, it could be argued with a degree of fairness, a little trite. In this article, I shall add considerably more justification to my assertion that I ‘need’ to travel for a third time to what is, from Europe, a really rather distant location; even when employing those flying-bus things.
As an aside, I would love to travel by container ship …. shame it’s so demanding of that ever-in-short-supply ‘time’ stuff. One day perhaps; just not any time soon. And as another aside, I make no apology for the relatively high density of superlatives in the following. I have genuinely tried to keep adjectival extravagance to a minimum, but this is a geography which justifies their use!
I’ve been to various parts of the Altiplano on two occasions now, once approaching from the north, via Peru, across Lake Titicaca into Bolivia, and once via the Atacama Desert into the southern Bolivian region of active volcanoes, multi-coloured lagoons, and the World’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. It’s to this latter area, and including the Atacama Desert in Chile, that I ‘need’ to return; and I recognised that need mere weeks, perhaps days, after I last left. And for a little more context on that rather emphatic opening statement: I’ve seen a generous number of beautiful landscapes, including ice-clad mountains, from their summits, in several ranges, and plenty of deserts – so I’m not solely comparing the high plain which covers parts of Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Argentina to, for example, the Yorkshire Dales, where I live!
I’ll expand that: why is this region home to some of the most fabulously beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen? It certainly is – I’ve spent about an hour, since writing the opening sentence, debating with myself as to whether that’s true, and I definitely can’t fault my conclusion.
Firstly, I like drama in landscapes: you don’t get much more dramatic than multitudinous, active volcanoes dotted around lagoons on a sparsely-vegetated (very sparsely!) plain. The lack of roads adds to this drama; the only man-made tracks are of 4x4s and they hardly impinge greatly on the landscape, if at all. In fact, from a photographic point of view, these faint lines can sometimes be used as part of compositions.
Secondly, the colours are quite literally fantastic. Not only are the rocks astonishingly varied, with greens, vibrant golds, reds, blacks and bright whites, but the lagoons, rather than being restricted to the conventional blue shades, come in green, turquoise, yellow and red. These surreal colours are the result of various minerals (copper, arsenic, and others), as well as the self-protective responses of algae living at high altitude in salty water. And I’m not talking pastels here in most cases: the Laguna Colorada, for example, is a vivid orange as a result of the microscopic algae.
Thirdly, the wild colours and dramatic topography are accented in many places by the white of the salt which encrusts the edges and shallows of the lagoons, producing stunning swathes of pure texture and adding shape to everything.
Fourthly, this remarkable plateau is high; the altitude of the Altiplano varies from well over 3,000m. to nearly 5,000m., with some of the volcanoes reaching over 6,000m. The Atacama is lower, but still above 2,000m. and home to several major astronomical observatories. The latter is a good indication that the result of the altitude and negligible airborne pollution is crystal clear air and visibility which extends unusually far. Of course, the lack of moisture in the air isn’t necessarily ideal for photography of certain sorts, but I can photograph ‘trees in mist’ in the English Lake District, so I can happily live with that ‘problem’.
Lastly, the Salar de Uyuni needs a specific mention since it’s inarguably the most memorable place I’ve been. That’s not to say that I want to live on, or near, this perfectly flat sea of salt – it’s rather far from ‘hospitable’ – but, at over 10,000 square kilometres, the experience of standing in the centre and walking around on it is both difficult to describe and one I very much wish to repeat. There are, perhaps, relatively few compositional options on the salar, but they’re all spectacular, given the right light, perhaps some clouds, and the right time of day. For example, one image I totally failed to capture on my previous visit, and which I would very much like to, is of the cones of salt scraped from the salar and left to dry on its mirrored surface prior to being collected manually, bagged and sold.
How to see the Atacama and the Altiplano
That last point is my fundamental justification for ‘needing’ to return. I took a camera when I was there last time, but I wasn’t specifically on a photographic trip – I was just travelling for its own sake; a great experience, but not one which entirely lent itself to experiencing the best light. The nature of the terrain, and the outlandish colour palette, mean that there are many subjects which work well in bright sunlight, producing pleasingly strong colours and shapes, but I was convinced, when I was there, that they could all be more interesting, more subtle, if I had the chance to watch a scene all day and pick my moment.
Unfortunately, the default means of seeing both the Altiplano and the Atacama is to travel around in a 4×4 with other tourists on pre-planned tours. Naturally, these do tend to start after sunrise and finish before sunset, though those on the salar, at least when approaching from the Chilean border, generally reach the island of giant cacti in its centre before the Sun appears. Consequently, the vast majority of my images from that trip are of the midday-sun variety. I’ve since hunted around on the web, and this is true of most images; the best to be found, however, are clearly taken at carefully selected times of day to make the most of the particular location (not necessarily the ‘golden hour’).
So, quite apart from wanting to go back because it’s utterly stunning, I need to go back to see it in different lighting conditions and, I hope, to make some more considered images, either by going on a dedicated photographic tour or by hiring a vehicle and guides privately (not as expensive as it sounds, though somewhat more difficult to arrange, naturally).
And the best thing about another trip?
The salar is mostly dry, as in the photo here, but in the short ‘wet season’ the surface is covered with a thin layer of water, producing what apparently looks like a 10,000 square kilometre mirror in which the clouds reflect perfectly – that has to be worth seeing, but first I want to see the dry season again and do the ‘thoughtful photo’ thing. The net result of that is that I’ll have to go twice more. Splendid!
More – and better – images
As I said, most of my images were taken at non-optimal times of day. The finest, single place that I’ve found yet to see a huge number of high quality images of this area is in the ‘Bolivia’ and ‘Atacama desert’ galleries of Gerhard Hüdepohl’s web site. Bruce Percy also has a superb collection of Bolivian Altiplano images in his Bolivia portfolio.
If you’ve been to the region and can recommend any specific times and places, I’d be very pleased to receive comments on both that and on any other thoughts that this article has provoked.