Behind the Scenes: Hiking in Kari Gorge, Atacama Desert

Crackling walls of salt crystals and sand dunes…

Standing on the edge of the Salt Mountain range, we peered into the valley below where patterns weaved throughout a dry, river floor. Rugged, rocky, part desert and part alpine it’s a bizarre scene to step into…

Volcanoes feature across the skyline and jagged rocks fill the foreground. Shades vary from earthy red to brilliant white, a crusted carpet of salt, one of the ever present scenes in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Trying not to lag behind while taking photos, I kept telling myself to get a wriggle on despite the urge to fill an entire memory card within metres of the trail starting. The landscapes of the Atacama Desert are simply mesmerising and this hike had been recommended very highly by the team Alto Atacama so I knew I was in for something special further along the path…

Kari Gorge, Atacama Desert, Chile-6-2

Kari Gorge lies within the Salt Mountain range near the village of San Pedro de Atacama and shares a landscape with the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). The hiking trail kicks off just a short drive from the main highway, venturing along the valley rim then veering down toward the dried river bank, gorge and cave system.

As we made our way along the path, I couldn’t help but skip along between photos in total delight of where I was, ensuring I was behind my guide at all times so he couldn’t see what a nature geek he was walking with. Also of course paying attention not to trip and plummet down the unforgiving drop to my left…but why not live a little right? To be hiking in such an extreme landscape was just so overwhelming and Kari Gorge had me excited from the get go.

To access the valley it’s a matter of filling your shoes with sand as you clamber down a steep sand dune. There’s two ways to manage it, run like a lunatic OR let the sand gently glide down with each step, I of course chose the latter because, duh! Also though, the moon was on show and every step provided a different angle to photograph where the valley walls met shadows as they slowly crept across the face of the dune with the moon above.

Kari Gorge, Atacama Desert, Chile-12-2

Reaching the river I was immediately impressed by the visible layers from geological activity over millions of years. Capturing shots of striations where tectonic movements shifted overtime, formed from layers of volcanic ash and a dusting of salt. Glowing in the sun the layers are fascinating to watch as they change depending on the depth and location within the gorge.

The best however was yet to come…

Wandering through the gorge at times it was only a few feet in width yet 15m high. We crawled  through caves where salt crystals had formed on the ceiling and soon ended up with crackling salt under our feet. As rains evaporate the water leaves behind a crusty salt carpet, one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.

In the driest place on earth, the salt still feels wet to touch in parts, others are crystalised and hard as rock. It almost felt wrong stepping on such a beautiful product of natural elements!

Kari Gorge, Atacama Desert, Chile-12-2

To capture the scene I used mainly the M.Zuiko 7-14mm f2.8 wide angle lens paired with the Olympus E-M1X. With the gorge being tall and narrow, it felt so immense but also intricate in contrast and I found the wider lens helped portray this best.

The patterns carved by water and shriveled salt were extensive and all around me, not to mention the sound that was created with every step…a snap, crackle and pop like frosted snow on concrete. Before exiting the gorge my guide said we should stand in silence and just listen. With a wall of salt crystals before us and salt at our feet, the only sounds were the intense echoes of crackling salt, rearranging itself within the walls of the gorge. As the temperatures of the desert change, the salt expands and contracts, it’s truly spectacular to hear!

Below are a few images taken from my hike in Kari Gorge with Alto Atacama, it’s a place I not only want to go back and experience all over again but urge others to add to their wish list, you won’t be disappointed.

Photography gear used for the images below –

Olympus OM-D E-M1 MKII + M.Zuiko 7-14mm f2.8 pro lens

Olympus OM-D E-M1 X + M.Zuiko 40-150mm f2.8 pro lens

Those keen to use similar gear but aren’t able to justify the professional price tag may be interested in the brand new OM-D E-M5 MKIII that was announced on October 17th, 2019. It features the weather sealing, 121-point AF + incredible stabilisation (great for landscapes + low light) like the bodies I’m currently using.

Kari Gorge, Atacama Desert, Chile-12-2

Reason #246 why I’m better behind the camera…

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