Argentina’s Puna de Atacama

I recently had the pleasure of photographing 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. The Puna de Atacama is adjacent to Chile’s Atacama Desert, and although the two areas have some similarities in terms of scenery, the photography opportunities are very different.

This remote desert will take your breath 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!

Puna4

Canon 5DIII, Canon 25-70mm f/2.8 lens, 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.

Puna3

Canon 5DIII, Canon 16-35mm f/4 lens, 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 light and color. I wish I had a whole month to explore this amazing area!

Puna2

Canon 5DIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 0.4 seconds.

After leaving the pumice stones, 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.

Puna1

Canon 5DIII, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/13, 1/25 second.

There aren’t many places left in the world that aren’t already crawling with photographers, and the Puna is one of them. So visit this remote, stark, and beautiful location before the secret gets out!

To see more of my Puna de Atacama photos, visit my website: Dreamscapes – Argentina.

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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 at www.ianplant.com.

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One Response to “Argentina’s Puna de Atacama”
  1. John Matthew

    Great images all–I am particularly impressed by those I would call street photography, the images taken in the villages.

    Reply