Why I ‘need’ to return to the Bolivian Altiplano and the Atacama desert
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.
5 Responses to “Why I ‘need’ to return to the Bolivian Altiplano and the Atacama desert”
Very interesting read and great photographs that inspire me to think about visiting Altiplano.
Hope you will enjoy your summer. Love your work, Mike.
Hello Seung Kye,
Thanks for taking the time to read this, and if it prompts you to make your way to the area at some point, that’s most gratifying!
I’m a fan of your work too and shall be paying your site a visit over the weekend.
[…] you’ve read my piece on the Bolivian Altiplano, you’ll know that I’m rather keen on deserts in general, and varied, rocky deserts in […]
[…] 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 […]
Hello Mike. I total agree with you. I waited for 20 years until the dream of come to Atacama became real. I spent two weeks and now one year after this journey I still can not take for my mind the memories of everything that I lived there. I will come back soon, too. Perhaps we can go together ; )