Atacama Adventure

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

Laguna Miscanti and Cerro Miscanti with Cerro Leña and Cerro Chiliques in the background.

There’s a desert in South America that’s said to be the driest place on Earth. Its landscape is oddly reminiscent of other peculiar places you may have seen—Iceland, Death Valley, Yellowstone…Mars. It’s the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, nestled against the borders of Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. It makes news as the driest place on Earth—indeed, some weather stations report only two millimeters of rain annually while others have never registered a single drop—but that’s only the headline. To get the full story of Atacama’s rich offerings, you need to see it for yourself, or at least talk to a local.

“The Atacama has several different areas with different characteristics,” says resident and photographer Gerhard Hüdepohl. “The coastal desert has steep mountains rising straight up from the Pacific Ocean to 1,500 or 2,000 meters. In some areas, there’s constant coastal fog that nourishes plants and cacti. Behind the coastal mountains is the real desert, no obvious vegetation. It looks, indeed, like Mars, and in fact, NASA is doing research here testing Mars vehicles, and astrobiologists are studying life forms under extreme conditions. Behind that, the terrain gradually rises up and you come across enormous salt flats with lagoons and more vegetation. Then toward the borders with Bolivia and Argentina, a chain of hundreds of volcanoes dominates the landscape, many of them over 6,000 meters high and active. Here, again, you can find cacti and small shrubs, even flowers. There are regular rain and snowfalls here in winter. It gets very cold and the snow doesn’t melt; it simply evaporates in a few days since the air is so dry.”

Andean flamingos, Laguna Chaxa, Los Flamencos National Reserve.

The Atacama presents a fairly unique opportunity to explore a vast and varied landscape for photographers up to the challenge. Hüdepohl has photographed here extensively since he first visited from Germany almost 20 years ago. His job at the VLT (the Very Large Telescope, positioned in the high desert for its clear air) has afforded him the opportunity to live nearby and photograph on day trips as well as weeklong journeys to the farthest reaches of the region. It sounds daunting, and while Hüdepohl suggests some very particular cautions, he doesn’t hesitate to recommend Atacama as a photographic destination.

“One of the things that most fascinates me is that many of these places are still almost unknown and hardly visited,” Hüdepohl explains. “There’s a lot to discover and a lot to photograph that has never been photographed—a lot of unique vegetation, endemic plants and cacti, stones shaped only by the wind. There’s interesting anthropology, ancient rock paintings, geoglyphs and other prehistoric sites. When there’s no wind, you can experience absolute silence. You start hearing your own heart beating because there’s no other noise. The stars at night are another amazing sight. I often take pictures of the landscapes at night under the Milky Way. In a moonless night at higher altitudes, with the dry air and no light pollution from cities, you can see the most amazing skyscapes.”

Exotic as Atacama may be, it’s also easily reachable for North American travelers. Flights connect through Santiago to the desert town of Calama, about an hour’s drive to San Pedro de Atacama—the more populous hub of the region. Hüdepohl suggests starting here by renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle and purchasing reliable maps.

“This is a good starting point,” he says, “since around San Pedro there are many interesting sites—active volcanoes, geysers, lagoons, salt flats, flora and fauna. There’s plenty to see. Moon Valley, Salar de Atacama with lagoons, geyser El Tatio, Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques, Lascar Volcano, Salar de Tara—all of these places can be visited in a day trip.

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.

Behind the coastal mountains, you’ll find the real desert, an otherwordly landscape. In fact, NASA is testing Mars vehicles here.

Hüdepohl has created some of his personal favorite images on longer treks that take him far from the coast and across the inland desert into the mountains.

“Across the borders of Argentina and Bolivia into the high plains of the Puna de Atacama,” he says, “there you have huge plains surrounded by volcanoes. The plains themselves are on average 4,000 meters high. You find lagoons, cacti, interesting rock formations, wildlife. In remote areas, you may not see another person for days.

“The panorama of Laguna Lejía,” says Hüdepohl of a favorite photograph, “was actually taken the day after I climbed the active volcano Lascar. At this altitude, there’s wind most of the time, so I was very surprised to see for the first time this lagoon as a perfect mirror. I was able to get a perfect reflection of a chain of volcanoes in fantastic morning light. The atmosphere reminded me of scenes of prehistoric times. A few minutes after I took a series of photos, the first wind started to pick up and the mirror was gone.”

Brought on by the rains that can occur between mid-December and mid-March, a desert bloom is a rare sight that may happen only once every five or eight years.

In terms of camera equipment, Hüdepohl’s kit isn’t overly specialized. He shoots with two Nikon bodies and a typical complement of lenses—all of which travel with him by vehicle throughout the region, pared down only when he’s climbing at altitude. When he travels to the coastal portions of Atacama, he’s more apt to use longer lenses for wildlife and macro lenses for close-ups of flora—both of which are abundant there.

“Most of the life you find in the coastal desert,” explains Hüdepohl, “[includes] many different seabirds, Humboldt penguins, sea lions, lizards, guanacos, desert foxes. In the central dry plains, life is scarce. Then again, you find life from San Pedro up to the Altiplano—flamingos and other birds in the lagoons, guanaco and vicuñas, foxes and nandus, viscachas.

“I suggest a visit to Pan de Azúcar National Park at the coast,” he suggests. “This gives a very different aspect of the desert with a lot of cacti and coastal fauna. You can visit the areas where the coastal fog nourishes life. Include Pan de Azúcar, near the coastal town of Chañaral, and one could drive there or fly from Calama to Copiapó, then from Copiapó drive to Pan de Azúcar. Also driving from Antofagasta to Pan de Azúcar is okay, about 400 kilometers on good road.

“Indeed,” Hüdepohl says, “the variety of different types of landscapes makes the Atacama very interesting. You can find the different landscapes—from coast to volcanoes—within about 200 kilometers from west to east.”

Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa

The Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa is a perfectly positioned and gorgeous location for photo excursions into the Atacama Desert. This unique hotel is a place where guests from around the world come together to photograph and experience the beauty of the Altiplano and the Atacama Desert. After a day of photographing, hiking, biking, walking or four-wheel touring, the hotel offers guests many ways to relax, with the most luxurious being a visit to the spa. Contact: Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile,; Telephone: (56-2) 263 0606; Toll-Free USA: (800) 829-5325; Toll-Free Canada: (800) 514-2579; General Information: [email protected]; Reservations: [email protected].

German-born nature photographer Gerhard Hüdepohl moved to the north of Chile, the Atacama Desert, where he dedicates his time to photographing remote and little-known places. His photos have been published in numerous books, magazines and calendars in the U.S., Europe, Chile and elsewhere. You can see more of his images at