The Tengger Massif

The southern valley of the Tengger Massif, with volcanic cones rising on the left. The massif is the remnant of an ancient volcanic caldera more than three miles across.

The Tengger Massif is endlessly photographable, one of those surreal experiences that you’d more ascribe to a high-budget movie or video game than a real place. It’s a massive crater more than three miles across, the remnants of a volcanic explosion millions of years ago. The west side of the crater is a vast, living prairie: grasses ripple in the gentle wind under drifting sea of clouds. To the north lies the volcano Bromo, carrying the torch of Tengger’s volcanic legacy with a low, continuous roar as it sends thick billows of noxious gas skyward. And to the east lies the sandsea, a desert devoid of life except for a few patches of grass eking out an existence on a barren landscape of sand and dust.

Prairie grasses sway in the wind on the caldera floor, while new volcanic cones rise behind.


Wildflowers bloom in the prairie of the caldera floor.


A foot and vehicle track winding along the caldera floor, between newer volcanic cones (right) and the steep caldera wall (left)


Young lovers.


A shrine to the volcano gods on the caldera floor.


Offerings of food and flowers on a shrine to the volcano gods.


The near-vertical wall of the caldera crater.


A woman harvests grasses along the road, near the edge of the sandsea.


This shrine marks the end of the prairie and the beginning of the Bromo sandsea.


Stoytcho stands in the Bromo sandsea. Mist and fog often limit visibility in this part of the caldera.


An ojek (motorbike) approaches us in the distance.


Locals passing in opposite directions stop for a chat.


An instant noodles cup abandoned in the sandsea, with volcanoes Bromo and Batok in the background.


The guideposts to Cemoro Lawang, at the eastern edge of the Bromo sandsea.


Mount Bromo (left) pictured beside Mount Batok (right). Mount Batok is the only volcano in the park that is not currently active, and greenery has taken root on its sides.


A dust devil forms on the Bromo sandsea between Bromo and Batok, in front of the Pura Luhur Poten Temple.


A view of the sandsea and Pura Luhur Poten Temple as seen from Bromo.

The Giant Sand Dunes


On the far right of this picture are two people walking across the dunes. They are the tiny black speck lost in the seas of beige-ish yellow sand. In the center is a tiny oasis – no visibly water, but plenty of plant life. These sand dunes are appropriately giant.

What greets you once you cross the tiny stream from the parking lot to the sand – the first set of dunes, commonly used for dune-boarding. I have my board ready, but first we went to explore.


At the crest of the first dune, you see the giant desert-like expanse. It stretches seemingly for forever. For scale, two people walking in the distance.


Continue climbing and you’ll see some of the extremely delicate plant life growing on the upper dunes. Much rarer than the wide swath of plant life at the base of the first dune, these plants exist as isolated guardians against the winds.


All of the plants here are important, but up on the shifting dunes this holds especially true. It is absolutely vital that they not be damaged in any way – their existence is difficult enough, and stepping on them only destroys the fragile ecosystem of the sand dunes.


Reach the top of the dune desert and you’re greeted with a barren view. Nothing lives up here – the sand is ever moving and the wind is strong.


From here you can see the southern edge of the dunes, where the river runs strong and plants grow thick and wild.


On the dune-side of the river, a tangle of plants secure the sands.


If you crouch down to sand-level, make sure to cover your face. The wind blows sand along, up, and over the edge of the dunes with strength enough to hurt. That fuzzy layer of sand is flying up the dune.


Keep going to the west, a long way to the west, and the ocean becomes visible in the low distance. You won’t be anywhere near it – it’s several hours to hike – but seeing the bright blue waves from the top of the dunes is spectacular.


Some notes on boarding down the dunes. The board you bring should have a smooth bottom. Ours was a woven plastic material and the friction was amazing. We’d get on the board, kick off, and wind up stopped inches down the hill.


Fortunately, the dunes offer plenty of distraction. Sitting there, stuck in the sand, I contemplated the scale of the place. This picture is the oval-ish structure at the bottom of the valley I was trying to board down. In one picture it looks tiny, in the next, massive. It was a very large ridge of sand.


For want of a horse, the rider was not lost. My two favorite things to do in the sand are one, roll down the hill, and two, take huge jumps and be caught by the soft sand beneath. Rolling is fun, but gets sand everywhere. Jumping makes you feel like a superhero.


At the bottom of the valley I took some time to practice my sand bending.


And then climbed right back up to go again. Climbing up the dune to get another go is the most exhausting part of the experience, and it leaves with a great workout. We climbed back up many, many times.


At the top of the dunes, there’s a real danger of your hat blowing away, so keep a tight grip. Behind me is a very interesting sand structure, and people for scale.


It looks like it was once a solid dome of compacted sand, which has now worn out and collapsed in a ring around the center.


It offers an ever-changing sight as you walk around, above, and below it.


Some angles are almost unrecognizable as being the same thing.


Briefly the clouds circled overhead in two layers making for a wonderful view.


Sand textures very differently depending on where on the dunes it lies. Mostly it’s a fine particulate, but in some areas it’s compacted, and in others deposits of tiny stones make for an interesting texture.


It’s well worth the detour to see the dunes. They’re spectacular in scale, dwarfing perceptions of distance and size. Exploring them is difficult but rewarding – every new peak is its own, different vista. Take care of the plants, be prepared to clean everything of sand, and have a fantastic trip!

Arica Day Tour Part II

I’m not a huge fan of day tours, because it usually involves cramming as many things to see in as little time as possible with not much thought given tho how enjoyable it is. You spend the day piling into and spilling out of a van, while someone explains things to you that (for me at least) don’t have enough context rooted in the area for you to remember it. This isn’t a criticism of day tours from Arica specifically, but my view of day tours in general.

BUT these tours do make for some gorgeous picture opportunities. So here is the second half of our photos from our Arica day tour:

Chile’s “rainbow mountains” in Reserva Nacional Las Vicunas
Wild burros graze in Reserva Nacional Las Vicunas
A view of the many lakes in the region
A viscacha hides from the midday sun
A llama grazes beside an algae-covered pond
A flamingo grazes at Lake Chungara
The volcanoes at Lake Chungara are still active, and occasionally release puffs of smoke
We stop for a rest on the side of the road
A UV radiation index in Putre. Yes, it is “extremo”.
Ridges in the Atacama desert resemble Martian terrain.
We get caught in traffic on the way back to Arica. Freight trucks are the majority of users on this highway, traveling between Arica’s port and Bolivia.
A fertile valley at the foot of a steep, sandy mountain in the Atacama desert.

Arica Day Tour Part I

I’m not a huge fan of day tours, because it usually involves cramming as many things to see in as little time as possible with not much thought given tho how enjoyable it is. You spend the day piling into and spilling out of a van, while someone explains things to you that (for me at least) don’t have enough context rooted in the area for you to remember it. This isn’t a criticism of day tours from Arica specifically, but my view of day tours in general.

BUT these tours do make for some gorgeous picture opportunities. So here’s the first half of our photos from our Arica day tour:

Waiting on the road for our tour van to pick us up.
A church in the Atacama desert
Graves at a church in the Atacama desert
A memorial wreath at a grave in the Atacama desert.
A tourist approaches a candalabra cactus (Browningia candelaris) in the Atacama desert
Stoytcho befriends a candalabra cactus in the Atacama desert.
Stoytcho measure the length of a cactus spine on a candalabra cactus
Candalabra cactus: a view from below
Ridges in the Atacama desert as seen from our tour van
The road to Reservan Nacional Las Vicunas, which lies on the Chilean-Bolivian border
Brightly-colored lichens grow on rocks in the Atacama desert
We pose for a photo outside of Putre

A Photoessay for Arica

13-IMG_6853 Sandwiched between the sands of the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean, Arica can best be described as a desert city with a beach. Though it sits at the nexus of two fertile valleys fed by the Lluta and summer-running Azapa rivers, they do little to quell the sweltering desert heat. For most people, Arica is a stopover while travelling from Peru to Chile, especially to Iquique in the south or the Atacama Desert in the east. But the town has its own beauty.

A view of the city from the south looking northward


People walk back from the beach in the midday heat

Five nearby rivers act as water sources for Arica, enabling plants to flourish in spite of the heat. Palm trees and grassy parks line the city’s main streets, giving it an oasis-in-the-desert feeling.

People meet in a plaza in the afternoon


A grave on the side of the road just outside of Arica

Shipping and transport are major activities in the city, with the city acting as both a maritime port and a stop for freight trucks from Bolivia and Peru.

Shipping containers in Arica’s port


Ships moored in Arica’s port


A stray cat eats scraps at a nearby fish market

When we visited the main thoroughfare, we noticed a group with speakers and microphones outside of the grocery store. They were calling for donations of food and water for the region of Maule, which had recently been devastated by forest fires.


People fundraise for victims of intense fires in the Maule region

The city’s largest landmark is El Morro, a massive sandstone cliff to the south of the city. The top of the cliff is home to monuments to the Chilean (republic?), a museum, and a massive bronze statue of Jesus. It also offers sweeping views of the ocean and the city, and a chance to see scores of turkey vultures soaring on thermals or resting on steep rocky ledges below.

El Morro rising above the city


The Cristo de la Concordia atop El Morro

A turkey vulture rests on an outcrop at El Morro

The shimmering ocean and desert haze combine to make some of the most stunning ocean sunsets imaginable. Climb to the top of El Moro in the lengthening shadows, after the heat of the day has passed, and enjoy the view from the top.

A view of sunset from El Morro

Sure, Arica isn’t a standard tourist destination. There aren’t any brand name hotels, and no specific must-see attractions. But it’s a place worth visiting if you’re not into running with the tourist hordes and just want to relax.

Sunset over the beaches to the south of Arica