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Argentina: Salinas Grandes

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Salinas Grandes | Argentina | Americas

[Visited: August 2015]

The morning in Tilcara has been calm and quiet, but when we set out on our way to Purmamarca, the wind starts to blow. In Purmamarca, we are stopped at a police checkpoint. Nothing wrong: they politely ask us to take a policeman to an accident site on the way towards our destination Salinas Grandes. While we drive up the mountain pass on the many switchbacks, the views get always better, and we get stuck behind heavy traffic several times. I notice the policeguy falling asleep, and cross the double line to overtake. The views back into the valley from close to the mountain pass reveal rugged mountains and the road lying in it like a fragile line with many loops. We drop off our passenger at a car in which 3 Chinese passengers had crashed during the night (the driver apparently escaped), and it looks pretty serious. The policeman will help tow the car down to Purmamarca. From the crash site, it is only another 12 km to the start of Salinas Grandes. We see a strip of white in the distance, but here, the wind is even stronger, blowing sand and dust around, seriously hampering visibility.

Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): The salt surface stretches on all sides towards the horizon

We drive on until we see a building with a small tower on our right. It is only when we try to open the doors, that we notice that there is a storm blowing around us: we have to push the door open with both hands, and be careful it does not slam close. The building turns out to be made of bricks made of salt; inside, the benches are made of salt, and so are most of the souvenirs sold here. We walk on the salt lake; there are narrow bassins hewn out of the salt lake, in which turquoise water contrasts with the white-brown colour of the surface of the lake. There are cracks in the crusted surface of salt, and the view reminds me of vast open spaces of thick ice. The salt seems solid, and we walk around to take in the view, struggling against the storm. There is so much sand in the air, the mountains that we know are lining the lake (one of them almost 6,000 metres high) are hidden behind the clouds of sand. We drive a little back from where we came, until we reach another parking spot with more souvenir stalls. On the lake, a large cactus and lama made of salt. We see two vehicles drive past a rope that seems to mark the end of where you are supposed to go, and when asked, it turns out that we can hire a guide and drive onto Salinas Grandes. Within minutes, our guide lowers the rope, and we drive out onto the salt lake.

Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): The storm sends sand and dust through the air at the shore of the Salinas Grandes

Driving across the great white plain is a special experience, and it is easy to follow the tracks left by other cars. Meanwhile, our guide explains the life cycle of Salinas Grandes. Once a lake, it dried up in the Holocene period. Every year, the surface of the thick layer of salt (up to half a meter) gets covered by water. In the process of evaporation, salt gets extracted. It must be a fantastic sight on a day without wind: more than 5,000 square km covered by water; then again, the lake cannot be entered in that period. Just after the water evaporates, the salt is clean and looks very white; now, half a year later, it is covered by sand and looks light brown. The guide carefully indicates where to drive and park, and we park in such a way to facilitate opening the doors. The guide explains that the crust is thin here, and we see small openings with water. We obediently follow the guide, and reach a few openings with choppy water: the so-called Eye of Salinas Grande. They have a different appearance, and the storm makes looking inside a little difficult. One of them has volcanic activity, but we cannot see the bubbles coming to the surface. Wherever we look around us, we see a salty, white-brown surface to the horizon, and that sight alone makes the drive out here worth the while. Pushed around by a relentless storm and surrounded by this enormous expanse of salt makes us feel very small. We see more mounds of salt, and bassins used to extract salt from the lake: the small community to which the guide belongs, lives from both that, and guiding visitors on Salinas Grandes. Once back on the main road, the storm pushes us back up the mountain pass on our way towards Purmamarca.

Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): Several small patches of water called the Eye of Salinas Grandes
Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): A water basin with mounds of salt in Salinas Grandes
Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): View of the vast salt lake with a few mounds of salt
Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): Rows of narrow water basins used to extract salt from the lake
Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): Row upon row of salt mounds on Salinas Grandes
Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): Mounds of salt on the salt lake
Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): Salt surface stretching until the horizon at Salinas Grandes
Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): Driving over the Salinas Grandes
Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): The salt lake of Salinas Grandes has a crusted appearance in some parts
Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): The salt lake of Salinas Grandes with heaps of salt
Picture of Salinas Grandes (Argentina): Building constructed with bricks made of salt

Around the World in 80 Clicks

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