Chile is many things – the mighty Andes, snow capped volcanoes, Patagonian wilderness, fjords and glaciers, colourful rustic villages, wild coastlines – but to me, the first image my favourite place in the world brings to mind is desert! The Atacama Desert – the driest place on earth, but full of just about anything a mountainphile could wish for.
Covering around 70,000 square miles, the 20 million-year-old Atacama Desert stretches from the very north of Chile for 600 miles to the south – Arica to Coquimbo. The area is virtually rainless (estimated an average of 1mm per annum), being in the “rain shadow” on the leeward side of the coastal range of the Andes and is considered to be a cold desert, although in my experience it is plenty hot enough!
Devoid of any vegetation for great expanses, the Atacama nevertheless excels in its primordial beauty. Perfectly conical volcanoes like the 19,500 feet Licancabur and the active volcano Lascar dominate the area around the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, the centre from which our excursions originated.
To the south of San Pedro are the Salar de Atacama salt flats, about 60 × 50 miles in area. The Laguna Chaxa is a salty lake within this region which attracts Andean Flamingos to feed and nest. If you’re lucky (and quick), you’ll get a clear shot at Flamingos in flight!
Around 60 miles to the north of San Pedro and at over 14,000 feet is the El Tatio geyser field. Best steam eruptions are seen at dawn (when there is still ice on the ground from the freezing desert nightime). What the thermal springs lack in eruption height, they make up for in quantity, scattered over a considerable area where you can walk around freely although with care if you don’t want to get an unexpected hot shower! These sulphuric springs are often coloured with algal growth and I even saw some tiny frogs living in the hot toxic streams nearby.
To the west of San Pedro is the Valley of the Moon, which is aptly named due to the unearthly rock formations, probably most famously Las Tres Marias. Best visited just before sunset when the landscape takes on an ethereal golden hue. Being in the tropics the sun sets pretty quickly and the light changes rapidly so your choice of location is everything.
Wildlife manages to survive in the Atacama. At higher altitudes, possibly where there is some moisture, tufty grasses and llareta cacti pepper the landscape. Apart from the obvious lizards, small herds of Vicuna roam, and even the isolated Guanaco or Rhea.
No account of the Atacama could ever be complete without mentioning which was to me the biggest surprise of all (though not a good photographic subject) – the amazing night sky! No wonder some of the world’s largest telescopes are situated here where the clear, high altitude enables a view of the stars which was totally unexpected. I can only describe it as “3D” – you don’t just see a carpet of bright points of light, the brightest or closest stars, you see other, less bright points of light BEYOND these, seeming to stretch on forever (which I suppose they do). You don’t even need binoculars to appreciate the spectacle. So if there are any budding astro-photographers out there…
My first monthly contribution to the Nature Photography Online Magazine group. A short guide to some of the fantastic places to visit.