Argentina’s Puna de Atacama

(© Ian Plant) I recently had the pleasure of scouting the Puna de Atacama, a high desert plateau located in a remote corner of northern Argentina, which contains some of the most incredible desert scenery in the world. This remote desert will take your breathe away—and not just because of the elevation! Surreal rock formations, massive sand dunes, endless salt pans, dramatic mountains, colorful villages, and dark starry skies all come together in this infrequently visited photographer’s paradise.

My first stop was to photograph Quebrada de Las Conchas, a natural preserve just outside the town of Cafayate. The area has plenty of beautiful desert sandstone formations, including the one featured below, El Obelisco (the Obelisk). I also found natural arches, miniature bentonite slot canyons, and a bunch of other photogenic features. I could spend a week photographing there and still not run out of things to shoot! Canon 5DIII, 57mm, ISO 100, f/11, 1/50 second.


My next stop was the Campo de Piedra Poméz, a massive white pumice stone labyrinth that more resembles a trip to the moon than anything found on Earth. The staggering scale and immensity of this geologic wonder is hard to convey by numbers alone, but here it goes anyway: the field is about 20 miles long by 6 miles wide, containing more than 5,000 rock formations ranging in height from 6 feet to 40 feet. The result of a volcanic explosion that spread ashes and debris that were immediately crystallized, centuries of erosion have carved these porous rocks into stunning formations surrounded by a sea of black sand. I’ve never seen anything like it. At sunset, the white rocks reflect the color of the sky. Canon 5DIII, 16mm, ISO 100, f/11, 0.8 seconds.


The high desert of the Puna was stormier than I imagined, and it seemed that most evenings, spectacular clouds would build just in time for sunset. During my last day in the pumice stone field, a particularly brutal storm rolled in, creating a dramatic display of color. I wish I had a whole month to explore this amazing area! Canon 5DIII, 55mm, ISO 100, f/11, 0.4 seconds.


After leaving the pumice stones (sigh), my next stop was the remote village of Tolar Grande, located high in the Puna near the border with Chile. Right outside of town are the Ojos de Mar, three stunning turquoise pools found in the surrounding salt desert. As a dramatic storm cloud built over the mountains at sunset, I took out my widest lens, getting close to an interesting pattern in the salt. The relationship between the curving shape of the salt formation in the foreground, and its mirror-image shape formed by the cloud in the sky, became the immediate focus of my composition. Canon 5DIII, 12mm, ISO 100, f/13, 1/25 second.


Tolar Grande was a beautiful little town, and I enjoyed walking around, snapping photos of the weathered adobe architecture and colorful doors. I saw this boy collecting money from the town residents; I snapped a quick candid shot as he peered inside a door window, presumably trying to spy a reluctant debtor. Canon 5DIII, 70mm, ISO 400, f/11, 1/320 second.


Outside of Tolar Grande is the Desierto Laberinto, a stunning stretch of desert dominated by red clay hills and salt pans. While exploring the area, I stopped to shoot midday clouds drifting over this patch of cracked red mud. An ultra-wide perspective helped me capture as much of the amazing scenery as possible. Canon 5DIII, 11mm, ISO 100, f/11, 1/125 second.


Once again, sunset did not disappoint. As storm clouds lit up with the last light of the setting sun, I dashed out onto a colorful pan of cracked mud and salt. When I found this line of red puncturing the surrounding white, I knew I had the leading line necessary to bring my composition together. Canon 5DIII, 13mm, ISO 100, f/13, 1/5 second.


The next day I left Tolar Grande and began my descent from the high desert. I stopped along the way at the charming mountain town of Purmamarca. Exhausted after a month of photography (three weeks in Patagonia and one week in the Puna), I decided to relax on my last evening, wandering the town with my camera. Purmamarca is a great town for street photography, with plenty of color, culture, and charm. I found this striking mural on the wall of the local athletic club; when I noticed the man standing inside, I selected a camera position to frame him with the open doorway. Canon 5DIII, 35mm, ISO 200, f/11, 1/640 second. 


As always, I was looking for compelling interactions of shadow and light. Before the sun set behind the mountains, it cast long shadows across the streets and buildings, giving me plenty of opportunities to create interesting compositions. It was a nice way to end a very long trip! Canon 5DIII, 28mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/500 second.


I’m pleased to announce that I will be leading a photo tour through Epic Destinations to this inspiring place in April 2016. I hope you can join me to make amazing images in a stunning and vast desert landscape rarely seen or photographed by others!

About the author: World-renowned professional photographer and Tamron Image Master Ian Plant ( is a frequent contributor to several leading photo magazines and the author of numerous books and instructional videos. You can see more of Ian’s work, and learn more about mastering the art of photography, with his free ebook Essential: Pro Secrets for Unleashing Your Creativity. This article was previously published at