Ride your Bike into the Salar de Atacama

Oct 2015

Pop quiz: you’re in San Pedro de Atacama without any transport and no money to pay the exorbitant prices for guided tours, what do you do? It’s obvious, isn’t it? Rent a bike and go for a 60km ride into the salt flat that is the Salar de Atacama.

More Choices

Waking up on our third day in San Pedro and having already completed a two-day bike ride into the Valle de Catarpe and Valle de la Muerte, we sit around the breakfast table of the hostel discussing the merits of either spending our money on guided tours or renting a car and self-driving to the places we want to see. It doesn’t take long to agree that we prefer the self-drive option. There is only one snag: none of the car rental agencies in town, that is to say the one Europcar office set up in a shipping container, had any vehicles available for rent. Not pre-booking a car was no doubt a rookie mistake. By mid-day we finally made the decision to book a car at the Calama airport for the next day. We would take an airport transfer, collect the car, and then relax knowing we can get to all the places we want in our own time, or at least, so we thought. But more on that part of the story in the next article.

“Outside San Pedro the surroundings give way to the arid and desolate landscape of the salt flats . A gruelling test of life’s tenacious survival skills”

Having booked the rental car we still had the entire afternoon to fill, and so we stopped in at our favourite bike rental shop for some ideas. Under the guidance of Carlos at Apacheta we poured over hand-drawn maps, stumbled along in broken Spanish and English, and eventually agreed to take on the long, but mostly flat ride into the Salar de Atacama to see if we can find the Los Ojos del Salar, two almost perfectly round fresh water lakes south of Laguna Cejar.

Navigation for this ride is extremely straight forward. The road heads south out of San Pedro and with only two right turns you really can’t get it wrong. As for difficulty, the salt flats remain true to the name with no climbs or descents on the entire trip, which means there is no need to tap into the secondary fuel tank on a steep hill; however, because it’s flat you are pedalling almost all the time, so by the end of the day you’re likely to be pretty tired. The road is also quite bumpy with plenty of potholes and every cyclist’s bane, corrugations, the ultimate test for the more sensitive parts of the body.

Laguna Cejar and Los Ojos

Outside San Pedro the surroundings give way to the arid and desolate landscape of salt flats where the sun beats down incessantly and the wind scours across the desert floor. A gruelling test of life’s tenacious survival skills. This time around we decided that sunscreen (protector solar) isn’t adequate and we geared up in long pants and long sleeve shirts and wide rim hats underneath our helmets. It’s also important to note that there are no water supplies along this ride. Make sure you have enough H2O molecules with you, and of course take a few snacks along as well.

The main tourist attraction in the Salar de Atacama is Laguna Cejar, famous for its high salinity water that has enough density to permit your effortless floating. The salt content is a function of both the water source that is enriched in salt and the extremely high evaporation rates on the salt flats. Carlos told us that swimming in Laguna Cejar itself is no longer permitted. The area contains the main lake and four secondary lakes, where lazy swimming is still permitted. Many of the attractions near San Pedro require an access fee. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for paying an access fee if it's relatively clear where that money goes, but I must admit that this is not the case for many of the sights here in the Atacama. The system might still in its early days and the infrastructure is probably still under development, but for now it just feels like someone decided that there is money to be made, installed a gate, and now ask people for money before they can go over there and look at the lake. Of course there must be a way of managing the flow of people to protect the landscape that brings them there in the first place, however, I also feel that monetizing nature is a bit like patenting a colour. I suppose it boils down to the lowest common denominator. There will always be people who lack common sense and decency. Those who don’t respect the natural world and throw their beer cans in that gully where no one will see it, or shove their cigarette stumps into a tree branch. My hope is that the access management system in the Atacama will develop to the benefit of the environment and not simply for the enrichment of those who control the access.

“Chile produces a large amount of the world’s lithium resources. This is great for everyting battery powered, but not so great for the fragile ecosystems”

That was a long-winded way of saying that you have to pay to see Laguna Cejar, and we simply didn’t want to do that, so we continued along the torturous corrugated road, which we started to believe would lead to Mordor, but thankfully, just before we reached the black gate we stumbled across Los Ojos del Salar. We set down the bikes and eased into the suprisingly icy water for a brief recovery session in preparation for the return ride. I am quite a fan of the scenic helicopter flight, and this is one service the tour operators of San Pedro has not yet tapped into. How many times do you flip through a travel magazine or browse a website and gawk at the spectacular scenery, but when you visit the same place it just doesn’t quite meet your expectations? I am convinced that this is because of the "aerial photography effect". On ground level Los Ojos del Salar is brilliant, but the aerial view gives you that spectacular broad perspective. And before I forget, if you end up setting up a scenic flight operation in San Pedro, just remember, I’ll claim 10%.

Lithium Mining from the Atacama Groundwater

I was intrigued as to the origin of the water in the salt flats and discovered the Lithium mining operation shown in the satelite image above. A recent study published in 2013 investigated three hypotheses for the recharge of water into the Soncor Ecosystem (the Puilar, Chaxa, and Barros Negros lagoons) of the Salar de Atacama. The figure on the right (taken from the publication) shows the three hypotheses: (I) from the east as underground sources and surface run-off, (II) from the north via the Vilama river, and (III) from the north west via the lower reaches of the San Pedro River. Based on chemical analysis of the water and an investigation into the underground geology, the study concluded that the surface water in the Soncor Ecosystem is recharged by a combination of groundwater and surface run-off from the east and north east of the basin. Water samples from the San Pedro and Vilama rivers have a different chemical composition than those found in the Canal Burro Muerte, the main tributary feeding water into the Soncor Ecosystem, indicating that these rivers are unlikely to contribute to surface water recharge in this area.

Water is a scarce and important commodity in the Atacama as it provides vital input to the local ecology and mining industries, both major contributors to the local economy. Chile produces a large amount of the world’s lithium resources using a simple and cost effective technique, which involves pumping brine from the aquifers beneath the Salar de Atacama into evaporation pools. There the water evaporates leaving behind a lithium-enriched residue ready for further processing. This is great for all of us who want the latest battery powered gadgets and cars, but not so great for the fragile ecosystems that rely on the same source of brine. The salt flats are home to many bird species including the Flamenco Andino and Flamenco Chileno. These and many other species rely on groundwater sources to provide nutrients to the organism they feed on. It seems that few, if any, studies have been done to assess the impact of the mining industry’s water usage on the ecosystems, but instinctively one has to agree that continued groundwater extraction has the potential to affect the health and distribution of the local fauna and flora.

Back to Base

By late afternoon we were running low on water and the heat had taken its toll. After a refreshing swim in the Los Ojos and riding a few laps around the lakes we pointed the wheels north and started the long and bumpy ride back to San Pedro. Once we dropped the bikes back at the shop we strolled over to our favourite corner coffee shop for a welcome glass of ice cold milkshake, only to discover that it was packed. Thankfully there was a table at the restaurant next door where we could grab a couple of beers, which, for some, is the better option to begin with.

If you ever visit the Atacama, don't miss out on this ride. Also see if you can arrange a visit to the mining operations to observe first hand where the lithium in your phone's battery came from. I think we need to understand the impact of our resource-heavy lifestyles, and the origins of the resources we consume.