Looking for a swim in the salt in Chile

Polly Crawford stands in the middle of Salinas Grandes, a huge salt flat in Argentina.

Editor’s note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote “Perils of Polly.” She also has written a series of “Peril” columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.

Lago Cejar was certainly an elusive lake, for being so famous with the tourists who visit San Pedro de Atacama. No signs, no maps, no one to tell us where it is. Just a hunch. It has to be in this direction somewhere.


We began to understand that there were no signs or directions because tourists don’t just come here with their own cars and drive around. Almost all the tourists come by air or bus and have to take tours.

The sun was getting low in the sky. We were about to break our own rule about being out and about in a foreign country after dark. Finally, we spotted a sign! Cars were parked. We were here! We paid our entry fee and drove to the swimming lake — one of three salt lakes. I quickly stood behind the Kangoo and donned my swimsuit and watershoes and headed to the lake. What I really needed more than anything is either a walking stick or a stout man with good balance to lean on. This lake was ankle deep with mounds of crystallized salt on which I had to precariously balance the balls of my feet.

My balance is very poor anyway, and I didn’t see how I was going to be able to get out to the deep part. Finally, when the water got to be calf deep, I lay down in the water and walked with my hands instead of my feet. People around me chuckled but understood. I wasn’t the only one having trouble standing up.

Finally the shelf of salt gave way to open water of unknown depth. What fun! This water was saltier than the Dead Sea. There was no way to sink. I could just lie back in the water and stick my hands and feet out. The sensation was awesome and funny. I did learn, however, what not to do: don’t get water in your eyes or wipe your eyes with your fingers. Definitely don’t put your head underwater. I did get water splashed into my eyes, which set my contacts burning. Oh well. I couldn’t do anything about it. The burning finally dissipated.

I could see the sun sinking lower, so decided I’d better get out. My skin dried off quickly in the desert air and turned totally white. Whatever I touched turned white. I was one big salt lick.

We navigated the sandy road back to San Pedro, and didn’t even get lost. In fact, we were waved down by some other tourists and were able to tell them what others had told us: keep going — you’re on the right track.

A shower was in order for me, and this campground turned out to be much better — cleaner and quieter.

The next day we headed for the customs office, sailed through relatively quickly compared to the other ones, and headed over the Andes back into Argentina by way of Paso Jama, which included two 14,000-foot passes. The first climb was a straight-away that climbed steeply without us knowing it until we looked back. Wow! We pulled off and let our little Kangoo rest.

What followed was one of the most spectacularly beautiful drives we have ever been on, and this time we didn’t have to worry about negotiating bad roads as it was all paved. We drove through colorful mountain peaks, green valleys with red adobe Andean houses, mountainsides full of candelabra cactus. We saw vicunas, flamingoes, llamas, and donkeys.

In one flat area between mountains, we drove through Salinas Grandes — a huge salt flat. We got out and walked across it. It was all salt with about a half inch of water on top of it. It was being harvested in square chunks and then piled up. One mother was letting her two small children sit in one of the holes and play with the salt and water. Remembering my whiteness with swimming in a salt lake, I didn’t envy her clean up.

We saw thunderclouds and lightning in various places in the distance. We wondered what a violent thunderstorm would be like here. Looking at the mountains, mostly with no vegetation but colorfully eroded rocks, we figured this would be prime real estate for flash floods.

We entered Purmamarca in the early evening, just in time to find a campground. We passed several, looking for one mentioned in Lonely Planet, and instead of wandering everywhere, we actually drove right to it. We walked around the town, found a place to eat, and as we walked back to the campground, heard the rumblings of thunder with scary streaks of lightning. We were soon to discover what happens here in a thunderstorm.

Watch for the next installment of Polly’s perils on this week’s Recreation page.


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