Atacama Salt Lake (Salar de Atacama), a salt deposit–coated lake, lies amid the Atacama Desert plains, framed by distant Andes peaks. Stretching more than 40,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers), it’s one of the largest salt flats and the largest lithium reserve in the world.
Explore several lagoons, most notably Miscanti and Chaxa lagoons in Los Flamencos National Reserve and Ojos del Sala, which resembles a gigantic pair of eyes. Or, swim in the salt-rich waters of Cejar sinkhole.
Explore at your own pace with a rental car or a private driver. Or, join day tours from San Pedro de Atacama, which typically combine a stop in traditional towns, such as Socaire and Toconao, with a visit to one or more lagoons. Alternatively, multi-day tours from Santiago take in all Atacama Desert highlights, including Valley of the Moon (Valle de Luna), El Tatio Geysers, Red Stone desert, and Atacama Salt Lake’s salt flats and lagoons.
Things to Know Before You Go
Pack sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water to combat the desert heat. Bring warm clothing for the evening, too, as temperatures can drop quickly—even in summer.
Most desert roads are unpaved and the terrain uneven, so a 4WD is advisable, and comfortable walking shoes are a must.
The desert has scarce cellphone service, and only a few San Pedro de Atacama hotels offer Wi-Fi.
How to Get to There
Atacama Salt Lake, at the Atacama Desert in northeastern Chile, is less than an hour’s journey from San Pedro de Atacama, the gateway to the desert. Regular taxis, shared taxis, and tours run from San Pedro de Atacama to the lake. The closest airport is in Calama, from where buses run to San Pedro de Atacama, 60 miles (97 kilometers) away.
When to Get There
Summer (December–February) is the most popular time to explore; with warm weather fit for swimming in the lagoons. Winter (June–August) visits can be equally rewarding, although temperatures can plummet below freezing at night. A trip after one of the rare periods of rainfall can be spectacular, with blooming wildflowers adding a burst of color to the dusty plains.
Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth with less than 3 mm of annual rainfall, is home to some surprising wildlife, including southern viscacha, the llama-like vicuna, and Darwin's leaf-eared mouse. The salt lakes also attract a number of rare birds, including the endangered Andean flamingo. You might also spot Chilean flamingos and James flamingos, Puna plovers, Andean gulls, swallows, and giant hummingbirds.