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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Atacama Adventure

This rare and fragile region is one of the driest—and most beautiful—places on Earth

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Atacama is certainly one of the driest places on Earth. The hills and mountains have more rounded shapes and a much different appearance from much of the world because there are no sharp, deep valleys typically carved by water. There’s only wind erosion.
“For the more adventurous,” continues Hüdepohl, “a one- or two-night camp could be included. There are no campsites, so it’s wild camping. If you want to camp out to get good morning and evening light, you need very warm gear. In the Altiplano at 4,000 meters, even in summer, night temperatures get well below zero. In winter, May to September, temperatures drop below -15 Celsius, and it can get very windy.”

Camping out is suggested for dedicated photographers, because so close to the Equator, the sun rises and sets almost vertically. This, in turn, makes the magic hour more like a 15-minute window of beautiful light. Sleep in, and you might miss it.

Guides aren’t required, Hüdepohl says, especially since so much of the region can be explored easily via well-mapped, paved roads. Traveling off the beaten track isn’t necessary in such a sparsely populated and densely photographable region, but many photographers can’t resist the urge—Hüdepohl included. He warns that additional precautions are a must for such adventures.

“Take plenty of water,” he says, “enough fuel, good maps—which are hard to get—GPS, a second spare tire. It’s better to go with two cars in case one gets stuck, or if alone, take a satellite phone. In remote areas, you might not see another car for days. Gravel roads in more remote areas are sometimes wrongly indicated on the map and with poor sign posts or none at all. To explore more remote areas, you can get topographic maps from the military, but they haven’t been updated with respect to roads for decades. However, they’re useful in little-traveled areas to navigate in combination with a GPS. Google Earth is also very useful; desert tracks can be identified on the satellite images.”

Even in such an inhospitable place, wildlife like these foxes endures.
Beyond the basics of travel preparations, photographers have to fight strong winds that constantly drive dust into their DSLRs. For this reason, Hüdepohl often travels with two bodies to minimize lens changes. He also suggests skin protection since strong UV radiation and clear air make sunburn an ever-present danger. And then, of course, there are the land mines.

“There are still many areas near the border to Peru, Bolivia and Argentina with anti-personal mines,” Hüdepohl explains. “Many of them are marked, but you never know. There’s always the possibility that they have been washed away by rain. The Chilean army has started to remove them, but it will take many years to clear all of them.”

Having taken steps to avoid minefields (maps are available, even online) and keep dust off your camera sensor, Hüdepohl suggests taking the time to prepare and protect yourself for what can be quite a physical challenge. Cold nights in the high desert are a very real issue for both man and machine.

“Be aware of the high altitude,” he says. “San Pedro is already at 2,200 meters. Most of these places are much higher. Camping at 3,500 meters is only advisable after some days of acclimatization if you come from sea level. And when you use hard disks for backup, they’re prone to fail or even crash when used above 3,000 meters. I avoid using them at that altitude and above.”

The good news about Atacama’s altitude is that the climbs don’t have to be grueling. Physical fitness is a requirement, sure, but mountaineering experience is not.


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