Friday Photo: Shadows in the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is, to me, one of the most spectacular places on Earth. Snow-topped Andean peaks, vast sandy plains, mirror-like salt pools, one of the best spots in the world for stargazing. But it is one of those mysterious places which is somehow more than the sum of its parts – there was something about it which spoke directly to my soul. This #FriFotos theme is Shadows – and the Atacama was the obvious choice. Out in the desert, the interplay of light and shadow is magnified, more theatrical and impressive than anywhere else. The sun is truly King here. When I took this picture, it was early evening; the sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon and I was deep in the desert, having visited some salt flats. I was taking photos of the dramatic shadows thrown across the plain by the rocks and mountains, when I caught sight of my own shadow, crazily lengthened, almost stretching to the mountains, or so it seemed to me. Both day and night in the desert surprised me. Of course, I know deserts are places of extremes, but I wasn’t prepared for how sweltering it is during the day, how dazzling the sun is; or how freezing and absolutely black it is at night. There are no hazy shadows as your eyes adjust to the dark; it is like staring into black ink. But my favourite time of day was sunset. Of course, it is the ‘golden hour’ for all photographers, whether in the city or the wilds, anywhere in the world. But in the Atacama Desert, the...

Stargazing in the Atacama Desert

I’ve had travels far and wide, but this is the most Starry-Eyed of them all… The night was pitch black and freezing cold. We huddled in a semicircle, stamping our feet and hugging ourselves to try and stay warm, shivering even beneath our thick layers of coats and scarves. It was 11:30 p.m. and we had just been abandoned in the middle of the Atacama Desert, miles from anywhere. Once the van had sped off into the darkness, the only light came from the almost-full moon. A figure appeared in the doorway of a small hut and came striding towards us. He looked a bit like the Michelin man – and much more prepared for the cold than us – wearing a thick, puffy, spaceman-like suit. “Hi, I’m John. Welcome to the Atacama Desert!” he greeted us, in a strong Canadian accent. “I’m an astronomer and I’ll be your stargazing guide this evening.” There were about 25 of us amateur stargazers, who had been lucky enough to get the last spaces on the last SPACE tour for 5 days – tomorrow the moon would be full and the stars would be impossible to see properly. We craned our necks towards the sky and watched, mesmerised, as John used a faint red laser to map the constellations. He explained the geography of the Southern Sky, pointing out the Southern Cross, shining brightly, as a focal point. He gave us a potted history of astronomy and answered our eager, naive questions with good-humour and grace. Once we had a basic idea about the night sky, John led us to a field...

25 Things I Wish I’d Known about South America

Now that I’ve finished my four-month adventure, I’ve had a few moments to reflect on some of the things I’ve learnt about travel in South America. If you’re planning to go, you might just want to bear some of these in mind – enjoy!       1. That ‘winter’ means everything from 30 degree heat and bone-dry weather to temperatures below zero, to fog and rain. 2. That overland border crossings can be the most mystical, fun or downright chaotic moments of the trip. 3. That you need to carry toilet roll and hand sanitizer at all times. 4.That heating and hot water, even where nights are frosty, are novelty items 5. That Peru is the most amazing, vast and diverse country, with people who are far too kind and experiences which are far too wonderful, meaning that you never want to leave. 6. That there are dangers, but if you are sensible and sensitive to the culture around you, it is much safer than the guidebooks would have you belive. 7. That in Chile they speak ‘chileno’ at rapid speeds and that in Argentina they change all ‘c’s and ‘ll’s to ch and j. 8. That many cultural events are free or very cheap and take place in the most beautiful theatres – this is the place to get great seats for the opera or ballet. 9. That in Peru, they really do eat guinea-pig – one day there will be four in the family’s garden, the next, just two will remain and two small, headless carcasses will be marinating in the kitchen. 10. That transport rarely...

Cycling in the Atacama Desert

The feeling was one of incredible freedom and tantalizing adventure. Sure, the tours had been good, the guides informative and the fellow tourists friendly, but being out here, just two of us on bikes, surrounded by mountains of orange rock, the desert took on an even more magical air. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue; after four days in San Pedro, I still couldn’t get over it. The sun shone brilliantly overhead, creating a high-contrast interplay of shadows and light. Several times, we had to cross the meandering river. Sometimes it was little more than a puddle and we could ride straight through it, but at other times we had to pass the bikes across, avoiding the drag of the current. In this barren landscape, the sun was unforgivingly hot and the path often became overtaken by sand – an impossible surface to ride on. However, it was an energising and thrilling ride, as with each twist and turn a new vista opened up. There was also just the perfect slope that it didn’t feel as though we were going uphill, but we got the reward of the downhill. Eventually, we reached the Garganta del Diablo, a narrow path which weaves between towering rocks. Once inside the Devil’s Throat, we had to abandon the bikes and continue on foot. It was absolutely silent and we were the only people there. Just us, between the rocks, shadows and sunlight. The path is so sinuous that it felt as if we had entered a mythical lair. We were drawn onwards, wondering if there would ever be an end. After half...
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