8 Months in South America with a Camera and a Pack

Two years ago, when I had just finished my bachelor’s degree and was doing an internship in biotechnology, my dad asked me if I wanted to go to Patagonia with him, his spouse, and my brother. They had planned to go to South America in December of 2018 for three weeks and spend most of it in Patagonia, visiting some of the most famous places there. Of course, my dad didn’t have to do a lot of convincing to make me want to go to such a place.

However, as I try to reduce my carbon footprint, I found it hard to justify flying from Europe all the way to South America for just three weeks. Luckily enough, I didn’t have any commitments at that time, and the decision to add on another few months of travel was an easy one.

I had travelled six months through Canada and parts of the United States just before I went to university, and I could picture myself traveling for an extended period again. Soon, I began to plan my trip, which would be centered around my big passion: nature photography.

I spent a lot of time exchanging parts of my photography and camping gear, shedding off weight wherever I could, because everything I would bring on this trip needed to fit inside just one backpack. I had to think of ways to edit and keep my photos safe, anticipating being without a fast web connection for months. All this while accounting for some rather harsh and diverse weather, from rainy southern Patagonia all the way to the second driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert.

In my mind, my trip is split in two parts: three weeks with my family – fast-paced, planned in detail, with nice places to stay – while the second part is on my own. My goal was to move more slowly and go with the flow, giving myself additional time for photography. Today, I would like to share with you some of the most beautiful and interesting things I’ve experienced in the nearly seven months I’ve now been traveling. (I’m still in South America as this article is published, with a bit more than a month to go before I return home.)

In Argentinian Patagonia, my family and I went to El Chaltén, one of the more famous spots for climbing, hiking, and of course glorious landscape photography. This is the place where the iconic Mt. Fitz Roy is located.

A bit lesser known to photographers – but, in my eyes, actually of a more interesting shape – is Cerro Torre. I first saw it on a hike with my brother to the glacial lagoon at the mountain’s feet. That was during the day, and the light wasn’t particularly great, but I still had a go at some long exposure experiments.

I knew I wanted to return for some nicer lighting. And so I convinced my dad – who, many years ago, got me into photography – to join me for sunrise at a lookout for said Cerro Torre. And this little morning photography session was all the best things combined. A wonderful location where we were absolutely alone; stunning light from the right direction (I had obviously checked the direction of the light beforehand, but you can never predict clouds); and spending time with the person who brought me into this most rewarding of all hobbies, that has developed into so much more than just a hobby.

We went on to explore parts of Patagonia in a rather special way: On a cruise from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas. We saw places in Patagonia that not many have visited, as they are so remote and only reachable by sea. Sea straits that had been travelled by some of the earliest explorers of South America, mountains towering over the sea in an almost Norwegian fashion, untouched forests, thousands of Humboldt penguins, and glaciers flowing right into the sea, calving in front of our eyes.

After arriving in Punta Arenas, we flew to Santiago, the capital of Chile, where we had a few days together in the city, before the rest of my family flew home. I stayed in Santiago for about a month to study Spanish in a school. Speaking the language of a place to me is vital for having a good experience on a trip, and I am very happy that I made that decision. It has made my trip so much more enjoyable.

After that month, I began my travels on my own with a little adventure – a 9 day hike in the Chilean Andes. Just me, my tent, and my camera. It was an amazing experience: a lot of sun, stunning volcanic landscapes, natural hot springs along the way. Not a single sign of a road, and not a single other tourist.

Next, I headed farther south. I met a friend in the city of Temuco, then went on to Pucón, a touristy town best known for its active volcano Villarica, which you can climb. And of course I took the chance to climb a smoking volcano.

After that adventure – in high winds, and over a steep glacier – I started a 7-day hike towards the Argentinian border. I had already spent nearly three months in Chile, and with my tourist visa, I was not allowed to stay longer than that. But I was determined to return as soon as possible, only spending a few days in Argentina.

That 7-day trek was another amazing experience, on which I climbed a second volcano and had some great photographic opportunities. On the same hike I met Kyra, a Dutch girl traveling on her own in a car that she had bought in Chile. And we’ve been traveling together ever since.

Together we explored the Chilean Patagonia, driving along the famous Carretera Austral, camping wherever we found a beautiful spot and spending another 8 days hiking through the new Parque Patagonia. One month later, while driving north again, we experienced some cold nights at 4000 meters, where even the salt lakes froze. But, luckily, there were some natural hot springs nearby, which helped a great bit to get us unfrozen.

We then drove all the way to San Pedro de Atacama, where we spent about a week among otherworldly rock and sand formations. Kyra then went to Bolivia while I stayed in San Pedro because I wanted to explore the driest non-polar desert on this planet a bit more. I rented a camper van and spent another five nights under one of the best skies in the world for stargazing and astrophotography.

Soon after, I followed her to Bolivia, where I also met my mother, who came to visit me for two weeks. The place I entered Bolivia is probably the best-known part of this magnificent country: the Salar de Uyuni region.

Most people – including me – go on a guided tour through this remote part of the country. Only strong, four-wheel trucks are seen here, and all tour companies drive Toyota Land Cruisers or Nissan Patrols. Unless you go on a private tour (for which I don’t have the money), you have to adapt to the schedule of the tour and the rest of the group’s needs.

Needless to say that as a photographer, that’s not the most fulfilling thing to do. However, when my mom arrived, she obviously wanted to see this famous place as well. So, I went on a second tour and spent more time photographing, even retaking some photographs under much better conditions.

I visited many more interesting and wonderful places, too, which I may share in a future article. For those of you who are interested in the meantime, you’re welcome to visit my website to discover a few more stories and a lot more images.

As I am writing this, I am staying in Sucre, the capital of Bolivia. I will be traveling this country until the end of August before returning home.

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