Journey to the Atacama Desert
Widely regarded as the driest non polar region on earth, the Atacama Desert is truly a landscape photographers dream. With its Mars like features, craggy rocks, majestic canyons, and distant snow capped mountains this magical place offers a wide variety of photogenic features including minimal light pollution allowing for great astrophotography at night. Our journey began after flying from Santiago, the capital of Chile, to Calama, the largest city in the desert. Upon arriving one could not help but notice the Martian features as well as the utter lack of clouds which unfortunately dashed my hopes for any interesting time lapse footage. My gear for this trip included my Canon 70D, Sony A6000, several lenses with multiple filters to protect my precious glass, and Phantom 2 drone. After a one hour drive through the more featureless part of the landscape we reached our destination of San Pedro de Atacama from which we would depart in our daily adventures into the desert. San Pedro is a town that thrives off the many tourists that visit and therefore is peppered with tour guide companies and hostels. Our first trip began early the next morning to the largest observatory in the world, the Alma Observatory. While disappointing in the fact they don’t actually take you up to see the 66 telescopes it was quite educational. This was one of the shorter tours offered and therefore we were able to return early and book an after noon trip to the Valle de La Luna, Valley of the Moon. Valle de La Luna turned out to be my favorite location because of the breathtaking landscapes and the views you get after hiking to the top of the mountains. It was my intention to fly my drone there but the park rangers told me not to and in hindsight I could have flown it from the top of the mountain since there were no rangers present up there. There were panorama opportunities in abundance and although we went in the afternoon I could tell it would be even more amazing in early morning or afternoon light. The day finished up at La Piedra del Coyote, Coyote’s Rock, which was a mesmerizing view over the rocky valley of the salt mountains complete with a great vantage point for the sunset. I quickly set up a time lapse and flew my drone around in the mean time. We reviewed several tour options for the following day and in the end what made most sense was to rent a car and head out on our own. This would give us the most flexibility as far as time and we could stop wherever a photographic opportunity presented itself. We first headed out to Toconao, a small town on the outskirts of the Salar De Atacama where there was an iconic bell tower and church built in 1750. Nearby in the Salar was Laguna de Chaxa, a small, seemingly impossibly placed lagoon given the dryness of the surrounding land. Here wild flamingos fed on algae and we shot picturesque scenes of the wildlife. Continuing our journey southward we took our poor little Toyota Camry into the mountains. It was quite a long drive to reach an altitude of 13,000 feet into what is known as the Lagunas Altiplanicas, High Plateau Lagoons. Two lakes of the bluest waters contrasted with the yellow shrubs in the surrounding plateau and with the snow capped mountains in the distance it was the perfect combination of elements. There wasn’t much else to photograph however, and due to restrictions we weren’t allowed to get very close to the lakes at all. Personally I think the long drive outweighed the photographic opportunities. On the way down it had been my goal to fly my drone through a rocky valley and so we stopped at at crevice previously scouted on the drive up. Unfortunately, due to what I can only think was the thinness of the air, the drone crashed right after take off and chipped 2 of the propellers. After returning to town for a meal we went out for short drive in search of good sunset locations to end the day. Although there were several more sites one could visit in the area such as the geysers and lakes our trip to the Atacama Desert had come to an end. This parched, almost untouched land was truly beautiful in its own right and I would highly recommend it to any photographers or outdoor adventure inspired individuals.