A peculiar, mesmerizing plain of jagged salt stretching beyond the horizon, the Salar de Atacama in the north of Chile is the largest salt flat in the country. Surrounded by steaming volcanoes and crimson colored lunar landscapes, and broken up at points by flamingo-specked saline lagoons, it is a surreal and highly memorable Chilean landmark.
Thanks to the excellent range of tour agencies located in nearby San Pedro de Atacama, it is one of the most popular and more accessible parts of Chile for foreign tourists.
How was the Salar de Atacama formed?
Cradled at the foot of the Andes Mountains in the east and the Cordillera de Domeyko in the west, the Salar de Atacama was formed by water flowing from these peaks and collecting in the Atacama Desert below. Unable to escape from this desert basin, the water evaporated, leaving behind deposits of crusted white and brown salt which some consider to now look like a form of dead coral.
But its appearance is not the only striking quality of the Salar de Atacama; it’s actually the third largest salt flat in the world. Spanning an area of 1,200 sq.-miles (3,000 km²), and at 62-miles (100 km) long and 50-miles (80 km) wide, it is only beaten in size by Salinas Grandes in Argentina and the world’s largest, El Salar de Uyuni in neighboring Bolivia.
How to visit the Salar de Atacama
The Salar de Atacama normally forms a part of tours from the region’s main settlement, San Pedro de Atacama. Its top highlights include a number of shallow, saline lagoons that dot the area and which are home to a surprising amount of wildlife.
Visitable by tour or rental car, these lagoons include:
Located 35-miles (56 km) south of San Pedro, Laguna Chaxa is one of the more popular lakes to visit, namely for its population of Andean, Chilean and James flamingos, who are resident here throughout the year and feed on tiny saltwater shrimp.
Given the clear skies that dominate this region’s weather systems, Laguna Chaxa is also a popular destination for photographers, where shots of elegant flamingos stepping through sky-reflecting waters to a backdrop of towering peaks are the main goals.
Another popular attraction in the Salar de Atacama is Laguna Cejar. 12-miles (19km) from San Pedro de Atacama and deep emerald in color, the lake attracts tourists keen to bathe in its unusual waters. Why? With a concentration of salt higher than the Dead Sea, the lake is designed for floating weightlessly upon its surface.
Best visited for sunset, Laguna Tebenquiche is a short distance south of Laguna Cejar. This gleaming lake is surrounded by a thin crust of salt that dazzles as the final rays of sun turn the lake different shades of pink, making it a picture-perfect spot.
Ojos del Salar
The strangest of the lagoons in the Salar de Atacama, the Ojos del Salar are two small yet perfectly round pools of cold water located on the road to Laguna Tebenquiche. It is possible to jump into these pools, particularly during the summer when temperatures in the Atacama Desert can reach 90°F (32°C).
Advice for visiting Salar de Atacama and other nearby attractions
- Tours around the area can be organized with an agency in Santiago or with one of the many companies located in San Pedro de Atacama. Read our guide to Atacama Desert tours from San Pedro for more information.
- The Salar de Atacama is just one of a series of incredible highlights around the desert. A handful of days is normally sufficient for visiting the best selection, including El Tatio Geysers, Moon Valley and the exceptionally pretty Lagunas Altiplánicas, Miscanti and Miñiques.
- To learn about more about the region’s distinctive history, read our article about San Pedro de Atacama and the world’s driest desert.