A journey through the andes

Travel & adventure photographer Luke Gram takes us on a visual journey across the Andes in South America

The route between San Pedro de Atacama, an arid desert town in northern Chile, to the famous Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is well known amongst travellers and locals alike. The launching point from the Atacama desert is already at an extreme elevation - 2407 meters above sea level, and goes up rapidly once the journey begins. The day we arrived in San Pedro alone I already began to experience the affects of the altitude. My sleeps were restless and my headaches constant. After a day, my friend and I felt better and arranged for the journey. 

We spent an extra day relaxing in the town and stocking up on supplies. We needed atleast a gallon of water each, as well as a ton of llama wool clothing for extra insulation. The small center of San Pedro offers stores catered towards travellers preparing for the journey,  as well as bars and restaurants for people coming in from the vice-versa direction. After we had our gear, we packed up our rucksacks and headed to the police station and got our Chilean exit stamps in our passport. From the town we hopped into a small van which weaved through the streets to the open stretch of highway that works it way up to the nearby volcano. After pulling off the paved road, we left behind what would be the last of Chile we would see and made our way towards the border.

This was no usual border. It was simply a small hut with a few off-road cars parked around it and the Bolivian, Chilean and Wiphala flags flying in unison. For those that don't know, the Wipala flag is the flag for the native people of the Andes that live across Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia and Argentina, uniting them all across the modern day border lines. It looks like this (below).

After walking into the dust covered border station and having a guard stamp my passport without a single question, we headed back out to load up our truck with the gear we needed for the next 4 days and 3 nights. All of our gear was wrapped up tightly in plastic tarps and tied to the roof to protect it from the dust and sand that seemed to be getting everywhere already. The back was stacked with water and food as it was our last definite chance to get any for the next while.

Our guide was a local Bolivian man who gave us all handfuls of coca leaves, explaining in spanish that we'd need to start chewing them to combat the altitude sickness. I'd hiked in the himalayas a year before so my arrogance led me to believe that my previous exposure would somehow have conditioned me. I was wrong, and couldn't have been more wrong, but I'll get to that later.

After the truck was all packed and we had thrown on extra layers to battle the wind that chilled past the bones, we set up on the first leg of the journey, which was also going to be the most elevation gain. From 2407 meters we drove for hours past both expired and active volcanos, lakes with flamingos, and hills dotted with llamas to our final resting height of 5000+ meters. We pulled into the front of the concrete hut we were to sleep in just as the sun began to set and the sky took it's unusually vivid purple hue.

Night came rapidly, as did the cold, but we were warmed by the food our guide had made for us, consisting of warm soups and breads with a hefty portion of potatoes and unidentified meat slices. After drinking some matte and star gazing we all headed for our makeshift beds. At around 4am I woke up with the worst skull-splitting headache I'd ever had. Thirst hung like poison in my mouth and I had to run outside as vomit took over. The altitude sickness had set in, and shortly after I was joined by others as it had crept up on them as well. Our guide laughed as he woke up as well to start morning prep, handing us bottles of water and even larger handfuls of coca leaves. We all chewed hastily on them, and within an hour the sickness had retreated and we were ready to start day two. 

 

                                                              The view looking straight out from the border station

 

The next couple of days were spent in a similar fashion, touring from peak to peak, hiking occasionally, and spotting Andean Condors flying as we hung our heads out the windows. Our journey took us to many of the famous Andean lagoons, known for their vivid and unusual colours. It was undoubtedly the most unique, inspiring landscape I'd ever laid my eyes on.

Our final morning we awoke at 3am and started the truck to warm up, as we ourselves warmed up with coffee. From their we drove to Isla Incahuasi in the middle of the famous Salar de Uyuni. Isla translates to island, and they use the term 'island' loosely, as it hasn't been for some time since the salt flats have taken reign. The small island ascends steeply as we climbed over rocks speckled with cacti. Once we reached the top we stood in awe as the sun began to rise over the mountains far off in the distance, casting purple and pink hues over the salt flat. After enjoying the view for an hour, we climbed back down and headed for the town of Uyuni. Overall, it was one of the most memorable trips I've done along any of my travels, and if you're in that part of the world, I can not recommend it enough. 

                                                Making friends with the locals

                                                Making friends with the locals

                              Another truck enjoying the sunrise over the salt flats

                              Another truck enjoying the sunrise over the salt flats

                                                                                                                                               Isla Incahuasi

                                                                                                                                               Isla Incahuasi

                                                                                                                                The view across the salt flats

                                                                                                                                The view across the salt flats