Salar de Atacama

A high-altitude salt desert in Chile


Salar de Atacama, Chile

GPS: -23.499741625022, -68.24979149287

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The salt desert (or salar) of Atacama extends over 3,000 km². Wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, it is located east of the Cordillera Domeyko mountain range, in the Chilean region of Antofagasta. This desert is known to be the driest on Earth. Although the size of the Salar de Atacama is three times smaller than its Bolivian neighbour, the Salar de Uyuni, it is still the sixth largest salt reserve in the world. This place is more widely part of the Lithium Triangle, a huge territory prized for its mineral resources. It extends over part of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina on the high plateau of the Puna de Atacama (180 000 km²).

Born from a huge salt depression, the Salar de Atacama is south of the city of San Pedro de Atacama. Its soil of volcanic origin is covered with a solid layer of mineral salts to which nature sometimes gives surprising shapes, according to the wind and water emanating from the melting of the snow. The area is of great interest to the scientific community because of its ultra-arid environment and extreme living conditions, with similarities to the planet Mars. In fact, the Atacama Desert is regularly used as an experimentation area by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known by its acronym, NASA.

The Salar de Atacama is surrounded by high volcanoes with snow-capped peaks, such as the Lascar volcano (one of the most active in the Chilean Andes) or the Licancabur volcano (containing one of the highest crater lakes in the world). Its rocky and sandy landscapes rise to an average altitude of 2,500 meters. They contain geysers, thermal springs, and lunar sites favourable for stargazing. Rich in colour, the Atacama Salt Flat has many salt lakes that reflect the blue sky of the desert. They are known to attract half of the world’s flamingo species. Inhabited for 10,000 years by the Atacama indigenous people (also called Kunza or Likanantaí) despite the harshness of its environment, this region also conceals many archaeological sites and remains well preserved by time. Its extreme temperatures are combined with powerful radiation from the sun. Only the most resistant micro-organisms, at the base of the food chain, can survive year-round in the Salar de Atacama.

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  • Fascinating desert landscapes with salt flats, geysers, volcanoes, high altitude lakes and snow-capped mountains
  • The lunar panoramas of the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), Quebrada del Diablo (deep canyon) and Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death) west of San Pedro de Atacama
  • The geysers of El Tatio (best visited in the morning to see the fumaroles) and the thermal baths of the Puritama Hot Springs (a series of eight refreshing pools) located north of the Atacama Salt Flat
  • The Cejar and Chaxa lakes in the interior of the salar, ideal for observing flamingos (Andean flamingo, Chilean flamingo and James’s flamingo); the Lejia and Miscanti lakes in the southeast of the salar
  • The 10 or so volcanoes scattered over the eastern part of the salar (Licancabur, Lascar, Cerro Overo, Miñiques, Cordón de Puntas Negras…)
  • The historical remains of the villages of Catarpe, Caspana and Chiu-Chiu; the archaeological sites of Pukará de Quitor and Tulor (or Aldea de Tulor); the R. P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum in San Pedro de Acatama (large collection of pieces about the Atacama culture)
  • The volcanic stone village of Toconao, the oasis of Valle de Jere (place of production of many fruits in the Quebrada de Jere) and the geological site Piedras Rojas, located east of the salar
  • The sport and leisure activities of hiking, mountain biking, climbing, and stargazing
  • The variety of colours during a sunrise or sunset in the Atacama Salt Flat; the Atacama, Colla (or Qolla), Quechua (or Quichua) and Aymara peoples
  • The air around the Salar de Atacama is so dry that the view goes farther than usual, up to 70 kilometers on the horizon. The cities located not far from there are among the driest in the world.
  • Some species of animals manage to survive the harsh conditions of the Atacama Desert despite sparse vegetation and scarce water, including rodents, camelids (guanacos and vicuñas), birds of prey, felines and even penguins (along the dry and arid coastline).
  • The geothermal site of El Tatio concentrates the third largest field of geysers in the world after those of the Yellowstone National Park (United States) and the Valley of Geysers (Russia). With a total of 80 active geysers, this place represents the largest geyser site in the entire southern hemisphere. It is even possible to bathe in some of them at an altitude of almost 4,300 meters.
  • The lithium of the Atacama Salt Flats is obtained by a process of extraction of the water which is present in the form of brine under the crust of the salar (the brine of Atacama would be 10 times more saline than sea water). The ore is then extracted in a series of basins by evaporation of the water.
  • The intensification of lithium mining in the region leads to an over-exploitation of aquifer resources (it takes two billion litres of water to extract only one ton of lithium). In total, mining activities in the Salar de Atacama consume 65% of the water, to the detriment of local populations. They impoverish the ecosystems that already suffer from a water deficit under normal conditions. New technologies promise to considerably reduce water consumption, groundwater and river pollution. At the same time, researchers are working on new generations of lithium-free batteries using more environmentally friendly materials.
  • Australia is by far the world’s largest producer of lithium, followed by Chile, China and Argentina. Global demand is increasing exponentially every year.
  • Underneath the thick layer of salt of the Salar de Uyuni (Bolivian side) lies a hidden lake. A coveted treasure, the subsoil of this sabkha (the scientific name for this type of salt depression) contains the largest reserve of lithium on the planet – 40% of world resources. This “white gold” is a mineral used to produce rechargeable batteries for high-tech devices and electric vehicles.
  • The town of San Pedro de Atacama, located at the edge of the salt desert, is a vantage point from which to explore this vast territory. Numerous excursions from the town are regularly organized.
  • Another alternative is to discover this region on your own via The Andean Jewels, a road linking the salt deserts of the Atacama Salt Flat to the Uyuni Salt Flat (Bolivia).
  • Once there, be prepared to experience relatively hot days and particularly cool nights.
  • Other sabkhas (sandflats) located in the east and less frequented are also worth visiting such as Salar de Tara, Salar de Pujsa, Salar de Agua Calientes…

Where to eat

  • La Franchuteria
    (French bakery)
  • Estrella Negra
    (vegetarian menu)
  • Roots Café
    (charming little establishment)

Where to go

  • Los Flamencos National Reserve
    (flamingo sanctuary)
  • Copper mines of Chuquicamata
    (enormous site)
  • Large millimeter/submillimeter...
    (non-standard structures)

Where to stay

  • Hostal Desert
    (quiet hostel)
  • Domos Los Abuelos
    (atypical houses)
  • Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa
    (contemporary setting)