This Bolivia & Chile Photography Trip was arranged through a tour group that I have used many times: Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris. The main goal of this trip is to photograph the Atacama Desert and the Salar De Uyuni (Salt Flats) in Bolivia during the rainy season. This tour group typically arranges photo trip to some pretty exotic locations for very small groups of photographer. I typically prefer group like this as opposed to “Tourist” groups, since the participate in the photo groups are more willing to put up with the hours and the work required for a trip like this. A typical day goes like this:
- Up around 4:00am, so we can be at our first location before sunrise
- Take pictures for 2 hours, then back to the hotel for breakfast and downloading images
- Around 10-11am head out for the rest of the day with a box lunch
- Tour some interesting locations during the middle of the day and have lunch out in the field
- Around 4:00pm starting heading over to the location for sunset pictures
- Take picture for 2 hours usually ending around 7-8pm, then head back to the hotel for dinner and downloading images.
- Have dinner around 9-10pm, then head up to the room for some more downloading of images, cleaning camera equipment and battery charging. Hopefully there is a little time for sleep.
- Repeat for the duration of the trip.
- You can sleep when you get home!
So this trip starts by making sure your passport is good through the date of the trip, then getting a Bolivian Tourist Visa for entry into the country. This required a Bolivian Visa Memo for the tour operator in the US and in Bolivia. For this trip no Visa is required for Chile, but they do require a $160.00 Reciprocity Fee upon entry. I also needed to arrange to get some foreign currency exchanged: For Chile – it was Chilean Pesos For Bolivia – It was Bolivianos The Chilean Peso were no problem and I got them at the Atlanta Airport, but the Bolivianos it was a hole another story. It turns out the Bolivianos are basically worthless and nobody wants them or has them. To get some Bolivianos (which were required, since the was an exit Fee in Bolivia of 15 Bolivianos) you had to wait until you got in Chile right next to the Bolivian border and negotiate with the locals for exchange. And once you returned you were basically stuck with any you had left over. Also we were warned in advance that for most of the trip we would be between 8,000 and 15,000 ft in elevation with an extended stay at the salt flat at 12,000 ft. So there were recommendations to bring medication with us for possible elevation sickness. We also had a hotel stay for 2 nights at 15,000ft, so that hotel would provide oxygen of needed. As always packing for any international trip is complicated, especially for a photographer. I always want to carry my camera equipment as carryon, so I had to pare down my equipment some. And I only wanted to take 1 piece of luggage for clothes, so moving around would be easier. The domestic part of the flying was not a problem, but the international part was definitely going to be an issue, as we had a number of internal flights in South America on smaller airplanes and they had strict limits on luggage and weights. Also the clothes we had a huge range in temperatures that we were going to encounter, between hot days in the desert to freezing morning high up in the mountains. We were going to be gone for almost 2 weeks, but I could not get 2 weeks’ worth of clothes into my luggage. So I was going to have to find some place to do laundry. I ended up converting a small international sized carry on to my camera bag and took the largest piece of luggage I had for my clothes. I also put a small backpack and a soft sided bag inside of my luggage in case I had to split things up. This will also be my first major trip with my new Nixon D800 Camera Bodies, so I will be testing some of the new features out in the beginning.
- Equipment that I carried for this trip:
- Camera Bodies Nixon D800 – (2)
- Camera Lenses Nixon 50mm f1.4, Nixon 24-70mm f2.8, Nixon 70-200mm f2.8, Nixon 200-400mm f4
- Tele converter Nixon 1.4
- Flash Nixon Speed Light 900
- CF Memory Cards SanDisk 32gb – Extreme Pro – (8)
- SD Memory Cards SanDisk 32gb – Extreme Pro – (8)
- Notebook Computer With Light Room and Photoshop
- Portable Hard Drive Iomega Ego 1 Terabyte – (2)
- Power Converter and an assortment of electrical adapters
Day 1 & 2
Fly from Atlanta to Dallas, TX then to Santiago, Chile The flight left Atlanta at 6:00pm and ended up arriving in Santiago Chile at 9:50am their time. I didn’t even get out of the Atlanta airport before I had to go to my contingency plans for luggage. They said the max weight per bag was 20 Kilos (44 lbs) and mine was 28kilos. So out came my soft sided bag and I split up my clothes in the airport. This day was basically arrival day for the group, with no major plans, so once I arrived at the hotel (Hotel Bonaparte) and met my roommate, we walked around Santiago for a while and headed back to the hotel to catch up on sleep.
We flew out in the early morning north to Calama, Chile. Lucky between our Joseph Van Os Tour Leader John Shaw and the local guide Ricardo Cenzano were able to get the over weights charges waived since we were in a group. I can see this is going to be an issue where ever we go. Calama is in the Atacama Desert and gets only 5mm of moisture a year, one of the driest places on the earth. Once we arrived in Calama we caught a bus and drove southeast to San Pedro de Atacama, located at over 8,000 feet (2,400 m) in elevation to our next hotel. The city is surrounded by snowcapped volcanoes, salt lakes and fertile desert oases. But, the bus did not have enough room for all of our luggage so it rode inside with us. It was about 100 km to San Pedro, but on decent paved roads. It took about an hour. Hotel in San Pedro was Hosteria San Pedro de Atacama, San Pedro de Atacama, which was a nice hotel. San Pedro is a very small town, with one main road and a couple of side streets, but it is very busy tourist area, with a lot of hotels, that don’t look as nice as ours. Our hotel did not have A/C only heat. But we are already at 8,000ft and it didn’t seem to matter. We ate lunch at a local place called Adobe. It was not much to look at inside or out, but the meals were great and the portions were huge! Average cost of the meals was around 9,500 pesos, which is about $19 US. It does not take long to learn that everyone serves 2 kinds of bottled water, “Sin Gas” and “Con Gas”, which simply mean without gas and with gas. Before long everyone in our group were experts at ordering water. We exchanged US Dollars for Boliviano’s (one of the very few places this can be done) for 6 Bolivianos to a dollar. The Bolivian currency is worthless anywhere else. The airports don’t have it, nor did the big international money exchange places in the states, nor did Chase Bank. If I have any left, it will basically be a memento of the trip and no one wants the currency. Finally after more than 2 days of travel we are heading out to first location – Valley De La Luna (Valley of the Moon) for some sunset pictures with dramatic images of rippling wind-sculpted rock formations and polychrome dunes. This is a National Park that you have to pay to get into. It is about 30 minutes from San Pedro. The shoot turned out just okay, because we had a lot of clouds. We climbed to the highest part of the ampetheater to shot. That’s takes a lot since you are almost 8,000 ft up and for most of the climb you were climbing in something similar to lose beach sand. Except this was black volcanic lava dust, which is much worse than sand, and it is very damaging to any type of equipment – like cameras and lens. I took a number of lenses with me on the shot but it was extremely windy and dusty and was hard to change lenses. I can see there is going to be a significant amount of time spent cleaning camera equipment each night.
Our bus got here late this morning so we were running behind schedule. Our Sunrise shot was at Chaxa Lake in Los Flamencos National Reserve. We were trying to get the snow capped volcanos reflected in the salt flat ponds. But, there was a slight breeze so the shots were not very good. Then we drove over to the Flamingos National Reserve to shoot lake—Puna plovers, Andean avocets, Andean gulls, Chilean, James’ and Andean flamingos, and a host of smaller birds. I mainly shot James Flamingos, which are very rare and thought extinct not too long ago. I also shot a few Andean Flamingos. I did a lot of camera work testing with the 3D Auto following moving objects and using the Auto focus button in the back instead of the shutter button. I also took some close ups of a Baird Sand Piper. We came back to the hotel and then walked into San Pedro for lunch. Again into a restaurant that was nothing from the outside, but the service and the food was great. Tonight we are heading over to shot Valley De la Muerta (Valley of the Dead). Again for me it was nothing special, mainly due to the light that we had.
Our goal today is a pre-dawn drive to the Tatio Geysers. A vast geyser field—with as many as 80 active geothermal features, in an Andean valley at almost 14,000ft (4,300 m) above sea level. It was about an hour drive mostly uphill the entire way to the Geysers. You end up at 4,320 Meters or 14,000ft, The Geyser Area reminds me of a the Yellowstone Geysers areas, but when the sun comes up there are some nice shots to be had with back lighting of the stream. It is very cold at the Geysers. It was well below freezing when we got there, but it started warming up quickly once the sun came up. There are at least three different parking areas for the Geysers, and we went to them all. By 9-10am once it has warmed up, the steam pretty much disappears and so do the people. After all the people left we went around and shot some of the colorful hot spring waters. Even though this may have looked like Yellowstone one major difference is in Yellowstone, you walk on a path/boardwalk and are not allowed to get off. Here, there are no paths/boardwalks and no place is out of bounds. You can walk right up to the Geysers or the hot springs. Actually you need to be very careful that you are not too close to a Geyser when it erupts. Ask me how I know. On the way back down we stopped at a small marsh area in the town of Machuca and shot some water birds, like Andean coots, crested ducks, Puna teal. We got back to the Hotel around 1:30pm and had lunch at 2pm and then had the rest of the afternoon off. Which most people needed as the Geyser trip we left at 4am and the altitude ties you out. This was the first time I really had to download and backup my pictures and get a look at some of them. I also discovered that one of my camera bodies already had dust in it, so I spent a fair amount of time cleaning the equipment. After dinner a few of us went out and walked around San Pedro for a while.
The plan for today is to drive to Bolivia this morning, crossing the Bolivian border at Cajones Pass. We will then transfer from our tour bus to four-wheel drive vehicles that we navigate this wild country without paved roads in. Although this region is part of the Atacama Desert, there are hidden rivers feeding wetlands and enormous lakes that support a wide diversity of wildlife. We will be visiting Laguna Verde (Green Lake), one of the highest lakes in the world. With ample summer rains, the emerald waters of the lake should provide a dramatic contrast with the conical Licancabur Volcano reflected in it. We shoot the vast Laguna Colorada (Red Lake) in Eduardo Avaroa Wildlife Reserve, tinted by algae and volcanic sediments. An important population of endangered James’ (Puna) flamingos nests on islands in the middle of the lake. James’ flamingos were thought extinct until a remote population was rediscovered in 1956. The flamingos are spectacular, but the lake itself provides strong graphic photo opportunities—even without the striking pink birds! The days started with a drive into downtown San Pedro and Chilean Immigrations. Here they made us remove all of our luggage from the bus and open it up on the street to be inspected. Once they were assured we did not have what they were looking for (and who knows what that was) we loaded everything back onto the bus for the 1 1/2 hour drive up to the Bolivian border. The local tour guide told us the drive from immigrations to the border was going to be slow. First it was uphill and second there would be a lot of 18 wheel car carriers taking Toyota’s from Chile to Bolivia. Once we got behind one, that was going to be it, we were going to be stuck behind him the entire way up, as there are no passing areas and we would not be fast enough to get by. Sure enough there were trucks everywhere around immigrations. It turns out the Bolivia buys almost all of Japans used Toyotas. But, Bolivia is land locked so they all must go through Chile first. The guide explained that Japan has some type of car tax that almost forces people to purchase new cars after 5 years. Seems like the tax gets higher each year until you buy a new car. So Japan has a lot of used cars to sell and Bolivia has not car production at all. But, until you make this drive you don’t have any idea of just how up it is. In most parts of the world a drive like this would have meant a lot of right and left turns up a switch back road. But, here it is a straight uphill drive with hardly any turns. It was so straight up that we did not think the tour bus was going to make. The first indication was when the driver stopped the bus and opened the hood up and got back in the bus and continued driving. By this time we were in first gear and all of these SLOW 18 trucks were passing us like we were standing still. Then he got out and poured all the water he had over the radiator and then kept going. But, we made it – barely.
The part of Bolivia we are in is quite high in elevation. Bolivia public toilets all charge for use, in bolivianos coins and gave no toilet paper. There is no internet anywhere we will be while in Bolivia. Actually there is only electricity at one of the hotel we stay at. The Border – is not what you would think it is, at least not at this crossing. We finally finish the drive up and come to a small little building and a 2 foot ditch. It turns out this ditch is the border. So we get out of the bus an there are 5 Toyota Land Cruisers across from us and we are told they are for us. So we grab our suitcases and carry them across the border and start loading them onto the Land Cruisers when out comes the Bolivian Immigration Official and he is very upset we have not checked in with him, before we started moving the luggage. So off we go to Customs and check into the country. It also turns out that there is a small fee That we have to pay to get into Bolivia, which is no problem because everyone got their Bolivianos in San Pedro. BUT……… nobody has small bills and the Custom officers have no change, so this develops into a major problem. It is finally worked out when someone arrives with the necessary change. So after we check in some of the group asks where the bathroom is and they get this absolutely blank stare. Turns out there is no bathroom and an old rusted out Bus is what suffices for a bathroom. While all of this international intrigue is going on, our local Toru leader has divided us up into groups and has been busy having the local tour company called Tupiza Tour load the luggage onto our 5 Land Cruisers. We had a driver and 3 people in each Land Cruiser, this gives each person a window seat. 1 Land Cruiser had only 2 people and had 2 of the driver’s wives in the third back seat, they would be our cooks for lunch for the rest of our stay. All of the luggage is placed on top of the land cruisers along with all food and water for the entire 6 days along with all gas needed. The luggage is then covered with blue tarps and tied down. The camera gear went inside the Land Cruisers. After everything is loaded we are gathered up and we have a briefing on what to expect from here on out. First there will be no paved roads for the next 6 days We can stop whenever someone sees something they want to take picture or if someone needs to use the restroom. The restroom – we will stop once a day at some place that has a rest room, usually around lunch. The restroom will cost between 3-5 Bolivianos each to use. And there will be no Toilet paper, so make sure to bring your own. Any other place we stop the restroom is behind some bush. Since we are starting at an elevation of over 8,000ft (2,400m) and we were going to be going up in elevation the rest of the day we were instructed to always walk – never run, lest we fall over from a lack of oxygen. During the briefing our tour guide tells us he has been with s couple of the drivers before. He also made a comment that he thought he was with the same driver and the same Land Cruiser. It turns out he was right. The lead drivers proceeds to tell us through our local guide, that each driver is assigned his own Land Cruiser and it is his responsibly to keep it clean and running. And this is no small task in the desert of Bolivia. All but one of the Land Cruisers still had carburetors on the engines, which makes them at least 20 years old. Most of them looked like they might be 5 or 6 years old, but never twenty. In this part of Bolivia the roads are all dirt, there are no paved roads, and no road signs, the drivers just know the way. It becomes very obvious that a good driver is critical for this part of the trip. It is even more interesting that all those 18 wheeler car carriers that passed us on the way up, check in at the border and then just take of across the desert. In the beginning there are paths to following, but not for long. Pretty soon you are just driving across the sand. But, since the area gets so little rain it is not any problem at all. So we load up and off we go. Our first stop was Laguna Blanco, this was a very quick stop and there was not much to see and photograph. But, right around the corner is Laguna Verde (Green Lake), which was much nicer. It had a large volcano as a backdrop and when we got there the color of the water looks normal, but right on cue the wind starting blowing and the water turned a muted shade of green from the algae in the water. It didn’t; seem like we went up in elevation that much, but the driver told us we were already at 14,650ft (4,400m). As we continued driving some of my initial observations about Bolivia was is extremely barren. There is nothing around. No trees and a few low shrubs, just dark brown/black sand and a lot if it and mountains / Volcanos. I guess this makes sense, as we are still in the Atacama Desert. Our next stop was the Geysers Field of Sol de Mañana, which is at 16,650ft (5,000m). These are quite deep geothermal vents and small geysers. While the location was unique, from my perspective it was not very good for picture taking. We had one more stop of the day at Laguna Colorada (Red Lake), but first we would have lunch. We stopped at a little tourist post on the road and walked around a little while our cooks got our lunch together. We went inside to eat, and it was incredible what was set up for lunch. There is no power water at this location, but there was hot steaming meat, yellow rice and fresh salad and fruit. Turns out the cooks had cooked the night before and had the food on top of the Land Cruisers in the sun helping it stay hot during our morning drive. If all of our lunches were like this we were all going to gain weight on this trip. Last stop of the day was Laguna Colorada (Red Lake), which is at down at only 14,250ft (4,280m). We photographed the red lake against volcanos with its many Flamingos from up high on the parking lot. Then we went down to the water’s edge to photograph the Flamingos up close. We stayed there until sunset. This is the first time we had stayed in one locations for a while and it became very obvious we were high up as walking any distance was tiring. You just needed to walk slow and steady and for me everything was fine. But, there were a few in our group that were obviously struggling with the altitude. I didn’t realize when we first got there, but the walk down to the lake was nothing, but the walk back UP from the lake was anything but easy. While the parking lot seemed to be right there, it was a 2 stop trip up for me. I would walk a little and have to stop to catch my breath. And then it again and stop and I finally made it up to the parking lot and all the guides were smiling and laughing. Turns out they had bets on who would be the first one up and who they would have to help carry their gear. There are three types of Flamingos here: James Flamingo, yellow beaks and red legs. These flamingos were once thought to be extinct and were only rediscovered 20 years ago and only at high elevations. Andreas Flamingos, black beaks and black tails Chilean Flamingos, black beaks and pink tails Once everyone got back up to the parking lot we headed for our hotel. Hotel de Desierto, Ono de Perdiz, Tayka, which is at 15,091ft (4,600m). According to the Guinness Book of Records the highest hotel is in Nepal at 3,692m. Our hotel was over 600 meters higher, so I don’t know why this hotel did not qualify as the highest. The hotel has got to be the most remote hotel there is. There is absolutely nothing around for 50 miles in any direction. There is no electricity this far out in the desert, so the hotel only has a generator that runs from 7-9am and 7-10pm. They give candles and matches for you room for when the power is not running. The is no a/c or heat, they give you lots of blankets. Even though we are here at the end of summer, it is very cold at night, usually right at freezing. And during the day it is very windy and was only getting in to the 50’s. You also have to wear a lot of sun block since we are so high up and there are so few clouds – at least so far. The guides kept telling us to drink water, drink coca tea, or chew coca leaves, which the driver of our land cruiser gave us along with what he called a stone to be chewed together. The coca leaves helped some and actually tasted pretty good. The elevation was definitely getting to some of the group, as they were getting headaches, had a loss of appetite or couldn’t sleep well. The only issue I had was a minor headache the first night. But, walking at this attitude is tiring. You get winded extremely quickly. The guides kept telling us not run. I get tired just walking from the lobby of the hotel to our room, which is only 6 rooms away and up 2 steps and then 4 steps. Another issue with having no electricity is there is no phone even for the hotel. The only communication they had with the outside world we a CB radio that worked when the generators are running. Also the lack of electricity makes charging camera and computer batteries very hard. The first night at the hotel the generators came on while we were eating dinner, so everyone got up from the tables and ran to their rooms to plug in the battery chargers. I on the other hand had a more critical and pressing problem. I discovered when we got to the hotel that my hard drive in my computer had been damaged by the extremely bumpy drive. I had my computer in my suitcase which was on top of the Land Cruiser – that was a big mistake. I did get the computer to come up once in the room, but that was the only time. As of this moment I have no computer and no way to copy the pictures from my memory cards to my portable hard drives. I can already tell this is going to be an important lesson for me. I have backups of almost everything else on this trip, back camera, multiple lens, 2 portable hard drives, 2 memory card readers, but only 1 computer. I need to have some way of getting the pictures off of the CF and SD cards and copying them to external hard drives. So whatever it is has to have at least 1 USB port and some hard drive at least, or 2 USB ports so I can copy directly from the cards to the external hard drive.
Last night we had one woman, get a severe headache and upset stomach. They ended up bringing her Oxygen for the night, but this morning she is not much better so she is staying behind. Another strange thing that I saw last night was them bringing her the Oxygen from the lobby. It was quite late at night and there generators were already off, so the hotel person is carrying the full Oxygen bottle was an open flame candle to the room. Then the woman is using Oxygen with a candle burning in her room. Again I think you would only see this in Bolivia. We were scheduled to leave at 5am this morning for our sunrise shoot. But, a few of us wanted to try shooting stars at night so we got up at 3:30am and stayed outside shooting until everyone was ready to go. I have never really done any night time shooting, so this was brand new to me. I can tell you one thing, you had better know your camera’s controls blindfolded. I tried a lot of different setting and could not use a light or I would ruin other peoples pictures. For our morning shoot we were headed to photograph eroded rocky and limestone formations spread throughout the Siloli Desert, including the iconic “Rock Tree” called Arbol de Piedro and other formations. The guides were also telling us that we would see some Viscachas, which are wild relatives of the chinchillas. They seemed quite excited about them. We almost didn’t get there in time, because there was a miss communication and the guides took us past it to Laguna Colorada instead. But, with some quick driving we got there just in the nick of time. The rock formations are quite interesting and doing a little walking around there were quite a few good shoots. I also did some testing here for focus stacking towards the end of the shot. I’ll see how these come out, once I get back home. On the way back in Inca Canyon we finally saw a Viscachas, which turns out to be a fancy rabbit! I did not come to Bolivia to shoot rabbits, but this one was very cooperative and came right down to us. Turns out he was looking for a hand out, which many of the people provided. Then we went back to the hotel for some lunch and for me much needed rest. I had worked on my computer most of the night and them gotten up at 3:30 to shot stars, so I was tired. I took a quick nap them worked on my computer all afternoon and never did get it to boot up. The hotel is under construction, so we had the power on in the afternoon for a few hours and I worked on the computer until the battery died. The hard drive seems to be damaged and will have to be replaced at the very least. But, I still have no way of backing up my pictures I am taking. Tonight we went back to Laguna Colorada (Red Lake) tonight for sunset again. Since I already had a lot of Flamingo pictures from the previous day I was a little more selective about shooting Flamingo, but still took a bunch. But, I got some very good ones of birds fighting and some vertical ones also. Again the temperature was quite cool, but the wind was really blowing when we got there. But, right before sunset it stopped blowing and allowed for some reflections of the Flamingos to be shot. Once we got back to the hotel I charged the computer batteries up and worked on the computer until they ran down again, but, still no luck with it. If it does not come back up tomorrow I am going to try and borrow someone else’s computer to at least make backups of all the pictures I have shoot. I am quite nervous about not have backup of any of the pictures I have taken so far in Bolivia.
Tomorrow is mostly driving to get to the next hotel in San Juan, Bolivia. We are not going to leave until 7:30am, so some of us got up again at 5am to shoot stars. It was very cold this morning, right at 35 degrees and windy. I just couldn’t keep my fingers warm in these conditions and work the camera. Along the way we saw quite a few Vicunas. They are related to Llamas, but I think they are a cross bred between Llamas and Alpacas. We drove through Yareta Canyon, so named for the Yareta plant that grows there. This plant is extremely slow growing and is known to exist only at very high elevation. So far the roads today have been very rough and the going is quite slow. Calling where we have been drive roads is stretching it, I think the more correct term would be paths. And these paths have very large boulders in the way. We stopped at Laguna Canapa Lake for lunch and our cooks surprised us again. They called us over for lunch and it was absolutely amazing what was setup. They had tables and chairs for everyone. The tables had beautiful table cloths on them and they had a lot of food, again with fresh vegetable and fruit. It is incredible what they have and it’s more unbelievable that it all comes out of the Land Cruisers we are driving in. I have no idea where they keep it all. After lunch we are going through Yareta Canyon. So named for the Yareta plant that grows there. This plant is extremely slow growing and is known to exist only at very high elevation. After lunch our next stop is the some rock formations with a view of the Volcano Ollague. It was nothing spectacular and actually looked more like a bathroom area, with all the toilet paper around. Unfortunately it was quite hard to find a place to photograph that did not have toilet paper in the picture. I tried some HDR shots here and some more focus stacking. We got back in the Land Cruiser and drove for another few hours and finally stopped at some train tracks on the Chi Quanta salt flats and took some pictures. Basically we were just stretching our legs just playing around a little. The last stop of the day was at at a Quinoa (Keen-wa) Farm that we had seen on the side of a mountain. Quinoa is an amazing food in the sense that it is a complete protein and quinoa is higher in calcium and iron than rice, corn, wheat, barley and oats. Quinoa is also high in antioxidants and is cholesterol and gluten. It turns out we had been eating a lot of Quinoa, we just didn’t know it. The Quinoa is only grown high up in the mountains and is particularly adapted to growing in hot dry soil. It is planted, grown and harvested by hand. We arrived at our hotel (Hotel, la-Magia-de San Juan) in San Juan just before dark. The town is a very typical Bolivia town of low mud brick building that always seem to be under construction. But, the hotel looked quite nice from the outside and turned out to be even nicer on the inside. While we were at dinner someone made a comment about the towns and building always looking like they were under construction (and our hotel was no different) they were building something else out back. It turns out that yes almost everything is under construction – for of all things tax purposes! I thought we only had those in the states, but I guess not. As long as the home or building is under construction the tax rate is very low, but, once it is finished it is taxed at a much higher rate. So almost every building in the country is in a constant state of construction – or at least has a pile of mud bricks outside to make it look like it is under construction. Since this was the first night we had a constant power supply I finally was able to re-charge all my battery and I worked on my computer for quite a while. It finally started reading the hard drive but kept saying it was re-building the indexes, so I went to laid down with it running and around 12:30am it beeped and woke me up. I rolled over and did a little testing and it seemed to be working, so I spent the rest of the night downloading 4 days of pictures onto the hard drive and then onto 2 portable hard drives. After I was finished I was scared to turn it off, so I would put the computer to sleep, but I never turned it off for the rest of the trip.
The Temperature is much warmer this morning, I needed only a light jacket and it got hot fast. The plan for today was to photograph a Quechua llama drive this morning. For me this is not something I was looking forward to. This afternoon we are scheduled to arrive at the Salar de Uyuni and I was excited about that. A number of us had been asking about the conditions on the salt flats (like was there water) but nobody seemed to know or were unwilling to say. The closer we got the more worried I became, as I had yet to see any water and actually we had gone through a number of river beds that were completely dry. But first we had to get through the Llama drive, which turned out to be a bit deal. The first lady that was supposed to lead the drive had skipped town and went to San Pedro, in Chile. Our drivers found someone else last night, but she never showed up. Finally our guide found a local woman who had some Llama and we followed her. She was paid $100.00, then she got another $50.00 from tips. I am sure she hasn’t made that much in one day in her life! Right before we got to where she kept the Llamas, we were told to stay back for a few minutes. A few of us continued closer to her pen and we saw them pull 2 Llama out of the pen and kill them, for dinner. But we were obviously not allowed to photograph this. So she let the Llama out of their pens and we are off on a Llama drive. What it really was, was the Llama heading to the local watering hole and all of us running with the Llama to photograph them and her. Like I expected it was not much to photograph for me, but it was some interesting local stuff. After the Llama drive we packed up, loaded in to the Land Cruiser and we were off to the salt flats. Along the way we stopped and shot some red Quinoa fields and some more wild Vicuña. About 11am we got our first glimpse of the salt flat – Salar de Uyuni. We are going to Fish Island in the middle if the salt flats for lunch. The island is famous for its tall Cardonas Cactus. My first impression of the salt flats was they were huge they are actually a little bigger than the state of Connecticut– but we were very disappointed to see very little water on them at all. Most of us were there specifically during this time (the rainy season) to get pictures of the salt flats with incredible reflection of the sky that go on as far as the eye can see. But, that is going to be hard, with no water. The guides finally admitted to us, this had been the driest rainy season they had ever had and that finding water was going to be hard. But, they would work on it. So off we head to Cactus Island driving across the salt flats at over 70 miles per hour. One advantage of no water on the salt flats is you can drive fast, since they are absolutely flat. After an hour and a half of driving we were getting closer to the island we saw other vehicles for the first time It turns out that everyone stops at the Cactus Islands for lunch and as we get closer it reminds me of a sand bar out in the bay where all the boats go on the weekend to party. The place is a huge tourist traps and a lot of people around. But, as our cooks setup our lunch we head of around the island to take some pictures. From the top of Cactus Island the salt flats go to the horizon in all 4 directions. They are blinding white during day and sunglasses, chap stick, strong sun block and a hat that covers your ears is an absolute must. A lot of people wore long sleeve shirts to keep the sun off, because their sun block was not effective enough. And you drink a lot and a lot of water during the day. After lunch we are headed north to the edge of the salt flats, closer to our hotel. But, this turns out to be another 2 hour drive! We arrive just in time for sunset and we all line our Tripods up in a row and wait for sunset and the perfect light, which basically never comes on this night. The guides tell us the salt flats are large enough they can make their own weather and typically in the evening there will be clouds forming all around the flats and they normally come down from the mountains and bring rain with them. But, we had no clouds, no real sunset and no rain, so off to the hotel we go. Out hotel in Uyuni is named Luna Salada – Hotel de Salar and it is just off of the salt flats. Interestingly the hotel is made entirely of locally mined salt blocks. The walls, Furniture and even the floors are loose rock salt. When the maids have water or something to throw away they just pour it on the floor. And instead of vacuuming the floors, they are raked. The hotel is 3 stories and if you are not on the ground floor, it is a pain in the ass to get luggage to your room. You can’t roll it down the hallways since the floor is loose salt. The hotel does have large dollies for the luggage, but only they can use them. I had room 222, which was on the 2nd floor around the corner and all the way at the end of a long hall. Even carrying just my camera gear in and out I got winded. The hotel is quite nice inside and many sitting area with very nice views. Our room had 3 beds in it and each bed had an electric heater, plus 2 heavy blankets plus 3 heavy comforters. All the covers were way too heavy and I ended up using only 2 of them. It must get cold there in the winter as even the hallways had propane heaters in them. There was a power issue the first day we checked in, but that was the power company, not them. The hotel has power and wi-fi all the time – Yeah. And for the first time there are lots of plugs in the room. But, it turned out the internet at the hotel was a tease of sorts. It was very very slow and outgoing did not seem to work for me. They also have blocked the free texting program I was using to communicate with my wife Whatsapp from working, so I could not text using the internet. I basically never got the internet to work for me, but it was there and I would try every morning and afternoon and get upset every time it didn’t work. I wish they had not told us it was there.
Our plan is to shoot salt cones at sunrise. We plan on leaving at 5, shoot for a few hours come back for breakfast and then leave at 10am for the rest of the day. The salt from the salt flats and mined by a few people, but it must be done with hand tools. It is a 2 step process, the salt has a high concentration of water and is very heavy when first mined, so the miners rake/scrape the salt into piles and let the water naturally drain out. Then they come back a few days later and shovel it into trucks. There are not many salt cones around this year since the ground is so hard, with no rain. It seemed like everyone on the salt flats wanted to shoot the same cones we did, but, we were able to chase most of them away. But, as usual the few who did stay were on the other side of the cones and in almost every picture we took. Temperatures this morning were cold, I had 2 shirts, 1 long and 1 short, a sweatshirt and a jacket. Wore a wool hat and gloves and was still cold, when we left at 10am I was down to a short and long sleeve shirt. But, there is a good breeze blowing so I needed these all day For the afternoon shooting we went across the salt flats to a town called Coqueza, which has an old volcanic caldera. First we stopped in the town plaza for a bathroom break, then some random shooting of the square and a church. Once the towns people saw a group there was all of a sudden 2 or 3 tables with trinkets setup, which a few in our group purchased. We then drove most of the way up toward the caldera and then walked a little to see some Incan mummies in a cave. The entrance to the cave was only 4 feet high so you had to crawl in. There were no lights in the cave, but once your eyes adjusted it was very interesting. There was an old man there telling us about the cave and the history of the 6 mummies that were in the cave. We couldn’t use a flash or lights in the cave so it is very hard to shot. Even with a really high ISO you still had a exposure time of 2 or 3 seconds. When then drove back down to the same town square and had lunch in the town hall building. While we were heading over to the location for our sunset pictures we saw the end results of an accident between a tourist bus and a large salt truck. We learned later that 5 people died, 3 in the truck and 2 tourists on the bus. It is very hard to comprehend how this could have happened. The salts flats are almost 12,000 square km large (the size of the state of Connecticut), with no roads and no limitations on where you can drive. So what are the odds of 2 vehicles (that can go anywhere they want) colliding in such a vast area? Our sunset shooting was a little better than yesterday, but still nothing spectacular. We had some interesting clouds but no real color in the sky. We got back to the hotel around 7 pm and had and early dinner around 8pm some interesting clouds but no real color in the sky. We are meeting for dinner at our usual time 8pm. I ran out of Bolivians today so I exchanged some dollar for Bolivianos at the hotel, 115 Bolivianos for $22.00 US. Seems better than the exchange rate we got in San Pedro. There was not one place we have been so far in Bolivia that took credit cards. That might be different in the town of Uyuni, but we haven’t been there yet. Tomorrow we leave for shooting at 5am
We left again at 5am and headed back out to a different group of salt cones. I was hoping to get salt cones and stars in the same pictures, but it was very cloudy and that did not work very good. We shot for a while and I tried a number of different cones, angles and perspectives. But, while I and the tour leader were waiting on the sun to rise a little more I turned around and saw what may be one of the best looking sunrises I have ever seen. There was an old abandoned salt building, and just above the horizon was a long/wide rainbow (for lack of a better word). Then hallway up in the sky the rainbow faded into a cloudless bright blue sky, with a full moon still visible. I took a number of pictures of the scene, which I know will be very good pictures. I have a beautiful, sunrise, with a moon set and an interesting building in the background. This was totally unexpected, but I am sure will turn out to be one of the best pictures of the trip. After the morning shooting we went back to the hotel for breakfast and then left right away for the town Uyuni and the train grave yard. While this is not my thing they were many interesting things to see and shoot. I try many focus stacking and HDR shots. We got there around 10 am and we were alone, but by 11:00 am the place was overrun with back packers and kids. We then drove to downtown Uyuni to shoot the town square. Again not my thing, but there were a number of very colorful building and trains on the main road. I did notice a small tower controlled airport in Uyuni and made a comment about it to our driver. He said it had just been expanded this year for the Dakar road race that went across the salt flats in January. But, you can now fly into the town of Uyuni. I made some notes about this, because I am probably coming back to the salt flats again. I am still looking for the water and the reflection and it would be easier and quicker just to fly to Uyuni instead of driving though the desert to get here. Our cooks prepared lunch at a brand new hotel by the salt flats, which had just be built. They also had a small gift shop so a lot of us did some shopping, so we would not come home empty handed. After lunch we headed back to the hotel for a few hours. Our driver are headed out to scout for water and this will give me time to again make sure all of my batteries were charged and to finish downloading and backing up my pictures. My computer is still working (although I continue to be very nervous about it). I still have not turned it off since I get it to boot back up. Our plan is to leave again at 6pm for Sunset on the flats. This will basically be our last time on the flats and as of this point we have not found any water to speak of. I am quite disappointed about this, but I am also realistic about the prospect of finding any water this afternoon. We left the hotel at 6pm and the driver claim they found towards the end of the flats we have not been to yet. As we arrive at the location, there is indeed finally water on the salt flats. There is not as much as we had hoped for, but there is enough that with some careful placement of the tripods I think I can get some reflections. And sure enough it turned out that was true, I was finally able to get something that I cold call a reflection, with decent conditions. So the trip was going to turn out better than I had been hoping.
Is mostly driving back to the same hotel in San Pedro Chile that we stayed in before. In reality the trip is now winding down. It took us 2 ½ days to get from San Pedro to the salt flats and were are going to do the drive back in one day. So we have a lot of driving to do with not may stops in between. On the way back to San Pedro, we stopped at San Cristobal, where Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid were killed. I was quite excited to stop and see the location, not so much for photography, I just thought it would be cool. The town is quite upscale for Bolivia. It had 1 paved road in the central business district (this is the one and only paved road I saw in Bolivia), and a small area with merchandise stands. But, there is nothing at all that marks the spot where they were killed, nor is there any mention of them. Seems strange to me, but I guess the town wants that part of their history forgotten. We continued on for a while, but a second Land Cruiser got a flat while driving. Yesterday we had gotten another flat and had a fan motor burn up on another one. We were now down to 1 extra tire for all 5 Land Cruisers and this was making the guides nervous. So while we stopped and ate lunch at a small school in town the drivers had to fix both tires so we would have spares. It quickly become obvious why the driver all prefer older vehicles. First they are familiar with them, second they are much easier to repair (there are very few places in Bolivia that would have a computer to diagnosis a new car) and third parts a readily available. It was quite impressive how they managed to repair both tires with basically no tools. They laid a tire on the ground and drove another truck over the edge of the tire to break the seal. Then they patched the hole and then used crow bars to get the tire back on. Then one of the trucks has a compressor in the engine compartment with a hose to fill the tire, and soon enough both tires were fixed and we were back on the road. We arrived at our hotel in San Pedro around 6:30pm.
Left this morning at 6:15am for same place we shot at sunset before – Valley De la Muerta. Weather was cold but not too bad. Light took forever to come through. In the end the valley did not really light up like I thought it would. Shadows were way too long ad the light was too muted. The colors just never really came in. I also discovered something about the my D800 camera and low light. I did not know it at the time, but after talking with John Shaw (our tour leader) about it, it turns out both he and Francisco had the same problem this morning. In very low light the light meter does not function properly. I was using full manual and based on the meter I was purposely over exposing the pictures based on this. But when I would review the histogram and then the actual image the pictures were almost black. Not until I basically ignored the meter and just way over exposed the image (based on the meter) did the pictures start to look correct. It was quite frustrating for and 30 minutes, but once the light started coming up the issue went away. I glad it turns out to be a problem for other people, because I was thinking I had damaged the camera. But, it is something that will have to be taken into consideration in the future. We returned to the hotel and had breakfast. We had the rest of the morning off and don’t go out again until 2 pm. This will be our last trip out as a full group. After this we will be flying back and forth. Our last shoot us at what the locals call “The Guardians”. It us a 2 hour drive from the hotel and it was back up the same road we took to the Bolivian Border. The same road our bus almost didn’t make it, but this time they brought a different bus and we had no problem with the road and its steepness. For me this was a shoot to remember. The Guardians are large rock formations in the middle of the desert. We got there a little early for sunset and started walking around. It was very cool and very very windy. After an hour there we noticed a storm coming in and in a few minutes it was SNOWING! Too much – go to the desert have extremely cold mornings and now snow. The rock formations are quite high up, so the snow is not completely unusual. So we got in the buses and started heading down, looking for anywhere that looked interesting that still had light. Our last stop was at a volcano, that had a hint of sunlight, but the volcano peak was covered in snow clouds. Interestingly, our tour guide kept saying let’s go, before we lose the light. But, the woman who was the guide on the bus kept saying, just wait I know the light will come. I actually thought our tour guide was right, but she was not going to move the bus. So I and one other person got out of the bus and setup our tripods. After about 45 minutes of waiting (and more than a few grumbles for the other people) the clouds starting breaking little and here comes the afternoon sun, in the perfect place. It turned out to be quite nice setting with beautiful light. Pretty soon I noticed that everyone is out of the bus and shooting. This was our last day of shooting all day Tomorrow we fly back to Santiago and the day after that we fly home. I am very tired, the days have been long and grueling, up at 5am, shoot sunrise, back to hotel for breakfast, then back out again usually around 1 or2 pm and stay out until sunset. Then back to hotel for dinner at 8pm then to bed. It was worth it, but it was a grueling 2 weeks. On the flight from Calama back to Santiago I and Youg had to check our camera gear, which made me very nervous. The airline said for safety, but our two bags were the only roller camera bags, everyone else had backpacks. At least two people had back packs bigger than our bags, but they did not have to check them. I need to consider a different type of camera bag for international destinations, as I don’t want this to occur again –especially not on the way to a shoot. The last day of the trip in Chile we drove down to the port town of Valparaiso, Chile. The town is quite old and the port was once a thriving commercial stop from the 1880s until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The city is quite compact and has some very steep hills. The hills are so steep that in the late 1800’s the city developed an Escalator System of cog driven cars to move people up and down. There are still a few old cars running at this point. The city is more recently infamous for its annual street art contest. Each year the city paints some of its downtown building over and invites world famous street artist in for a contest. The results are visually stunning street art of many different types and tastes. However all of the street art is located in the center of a large run down urban area and had our tour guide admonishing us to stay together, do not fall behind and keep your camera strapped over your neck at all times. We even had a few locals tell us we probably should not be here and to watch out. I never really felt worried, but I definitely paid attentions to my surroundings. Some of the street art is stunning and very creative. It was a very interesting sidelight to the trip. Almost all of the streets are extremely narrow, one way and all are at steep angles (up or down). Out bus driver did get lost once and we ended up down a one lane road at a dead end. I was not sure how the driver got in to where we were without hitting things, but now we had to back up (way up) over a Mile uphill! But, he did a skillful job and we continued on. The homes in the city are very tightly packed, and a few weeks after we left, the town had a fire (sparked by lightning) that destroyed 15% of the town. The fir trucks could not get up the steep narrow hills to where the fire was, so they had to just contain it and wait for it to come to them. One thought about the tours and our guides. The tour was well laid out, but it could never have come off with the our drivers. I said I was tired, but they worked more than we ever did. Obviously they were out every time we were, which basically meant between 4-5am each morning and until 7-8pm each night. They also never slept in the same hotel we did except for 2 nights at Hotel de Desierto, Ono de Perdiz, Tayka, because there is nothing else there. So each night after they dropped us off, they would got their hotel, eat dinner and wash the Land Cruiser – EVERY Night. They certainly earned their keep on this trip. Over all I think the trip was quite successful, especially since we did find some water on the salt flats. I think I will be coming back again, but it will be a more direct route, probably directly to Uyuni and just the salt flats.
Pictures Available for purchase from this trip