South America is certainly one of the world’s most coveted photography destinations. Colour is everywhere – from glittering festivals through to birdlife like macaws, who’s natural bright, multi-coloured plumage make even unedited photos look like they have had their saturation pumped up a little too much in an editing suite.
And then there are the people many of whom still wear their traditional dress, and not purely for the purpose of extracting money from hapless tourists. Their complex and colourful clothing is something that they are proud of to this day.
But South America is a huge continent. Where should a budding travel photographer go for the best opportunities? Here are our top five picks.
1. Salar de Uyuni and the Atacama Desert, Bolivia and Chile
Although considered two separate destinations in two separate countries, Salar de Uyuni and the connecting altiplano region to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile have to be one of the most photogenic locations on the planet. But the beauty is that they aren’t photogenic in a traditional sense. The landscapes in this area are almost from another dimension, maybe reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting.
It’s for this reason that I’d suggest travelling the entire region from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama or vice versa. Starting in Uyuni you have the famous salt lakes. Everyone’s seen the travel photos of tourists appearing to stand on top of coke bottles or something even more creative. As entertaining as those photos may be, they are just a start point.
Take for example Isla de Pescado (Fish Island). This is a small, vegetated island dotted out in the salty white nothingness. The island is only a couple of hundred metres in each direction but it’s a little green oasis in the middle of a blank canvas. To top it off this small island also just happens to have some of the world’s largest cacti, their twisted forms and long shadows are almost a travel photographer’s wet dream.
But the salt flats are just a start. Heading south from Uyuni are a series of lakes, all differing in colour – some blue, some green and another even pink. Around the shores of these lakes sprout vegetation of alien appearance some luminous yellow or other equally unusual colours. If you’re lucky this is all famed in front of a smouldering volcano – a number of the volcanos in this section of the altiplano are active and vents releasing volcanic gases regularly.
To top it all off there is the wildlife – in particular the multitudes of flamingos who dot the various lakes along the journey.
Lastly you will cross the border into Chile and the town of San Pedro de Atacama. It must be noted here that Bolivian tourism infrastructure is very basic and you need to be willing to rough it a little in the Bolivian portion of the journey. Once inside Chile however it is a different story. There are a number of fantastic lodges around San Pedro de Atacama and for this reason alone I’d suggest taking the route starting from Uyuni and finishing in San Pedro. After the basic conditions in Bolivia it’s nice to be able to relax in well provisioned lodge and spend a few days soaking up the environment in a little more comfort.
The skies around San Pedro also happen to be some of the clearest in the world so this gives you possibly the best chance you’ll ever have to take some long exposure photographs of the Milky Way.
2. Inca Heartland – La Paz to Cusco, Peru
Sun Island on Lake Titicaca is the famed birthplace of the Inca Empire. From there the empires capital eventually ended slightly further north in Cusco. Cusco is well known, not just as the gateway to Machu Picchu, but also as a destination in its own right. The bustling markets and immaculate Inca stonework which still serve as the foundations to many buildings in central Cusco.
Although Incan Empire spanned from central Chile up into Ecuador, this area was very much at the centre of the Inca Empire and many of the people in the area still speak the Quichuan language of the Incas. Many of these people still actively wear their traditional dress. In the major centres such as Cusco or La Paz you will see less of this, but once you get out into the countryside you’ll see much more commonly.
The best way to travel between Cusco and La Paz is first on the train between Cusco and La Paz. This train stops at numerous points of interest between the two cities and will allow you sufficient time to take photos at the smaller villages en route.
Between Puno and La Paz there is a fantastic catamaran journey across Lake Titicaca, which stops in at Sun Island, the birthplace of the Incas.
3. Southern Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
Southern Patagonia is a large place so it maybe a little ambitious to add the entire area as one destination. It’s a land of extremes weather where it’s not unusual to see trees growing sideways, twisted over time by howling winds.
There are also some strange geological forms in the South of Patagonia, in places like Torres del Paine National Park in Chile or El Chalten in Argentina there are towering cliffs of granite which almost seem to defy gravity itself.
Lastly, if you go at the right time Southern Patagonia has the most spectacular autumn colours. This normally happens in late March or early April. The deciduous trees dramatically change colours ascending up the mountains. Trees that are bright green in the foothills slowly change to yellow, orange and finally a flame red.
4. Photography in the Lakes District, Argentina and Chile
Technically the Lakes District is part of Patagonia too, but I didn’t want this more temperate area to be confused with its wild cousin to the south.
The Lakes District is that classically photogenic location. Often called the Switzerland of the south for good reason, it’s an area of interconnecting lakes sounded buy gentle rolling mountains and is heavily wooded.
It’s not just the scenery which is reminiscent of Switzerland. Some of the town have a strong Swiss and German heritage and fondue is a very popular dish in the region, especially chocolate fondue. Argentina’s most popular ski resorts are also in this area.
Much like its wild cousin to the south, the Lake District also undergoes an impossible colour transformation in April and this is probably the best time to visit.
5. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
It really is near impossible to leave the Galapagos out of this list. It’s not only one of the world’s best wildlife dentations but also one of the world’s best photography destinations. Its diverse wildlife has known no predators and so photography is painless. It’s almost too easy!
Cruises are the best was to get around the Galapagos but to get some photos a little more inland, of the volcanic craters and vegetation, it’s wise to also do some land based touring – especially in Isabella Island which has the most volcanos.
Aside from the island themselves, possibly some of the best photography opportunities on the Galapagos are actually under the water. The marine life in the Galapagos is even more abundant than what you see on land. With large numbers of sharks, rays, marine iguanas, penguins and sea turtles to name a few, it’s very hard to take a bad photo underwater.
Chimu Adventures can organise photography friendly cruises and land based tours out to Isabella Island.