Salar de Surire is a huge area of salt flats and lakes. It sits in the area of the Las Vicuñas National Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage region high up in the Andes of northern Chile. We were told this was a fascinating place to visit and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
We had an early start from our hotel in Putre to take the very long drive to get there – a journey of over 120km of winding mountain roads and dusty trails. It isn’t the sort of place I would have attempted to travel to alone to be honest. The combination of the 4,400m (15,000 ft.) altitude, the rough and winding roads and the lack of signposting present plenty of opportunity for amateur travellers to encounter problems. Add to that the complete lack of mobile phone coverage, and the absence of other people (apart from hundreds of anonymous truck drivers – more of that later) and the dangers of going it alone are clear.
We had the benefit of teaming up with our guide, Hein, and his driver Luis for the trip. Both are very experienced and knowledgeable local guides which made the journey not only safe, but also very interesting as we learned a huge amount about the landscapes and wildlife.
Along the 120km journey through fantastic scenery we came across Guallatiri, the only real village in the area. It is ancient, remote and very small, the population having dwindled over the years to around 10 people. Despite its size, it still has a very pretty old adobe church that dominates the village centre.
Eventually, we arrived at the Salar de Surire. The first things that surprised me here, was the vastness of the area. As Surire comes into view, your eyes are met with a huge expanse of yellowish white nitrates that fan out in every direction, which seems all the more dramatic as the whites seem to enhance the colour of the deep blue sky. The vista is further enhanced by the wild birdlife including bright pink flamingos standing lazily on the edge of the water. Very pretty indeed.
Having said all that, there is an issue with this area that is a bit of a shame, and that is that the nitrates here are a rich source of Borax, which is harvested 24 hours a day. Huge trucks are constantly collecting the nitrates for processing in distant factories.
They thunder along the dusty track creating billowing clouds of dust behind them. Somehow though, it doesn’t seem to matter too much. Once out on the flats, the trucks only seem to work in one small area at a time and frankly look so small against the landscape, they are like ants crawling in the distance (if you check out my Salar de Surire gallery you might just spot one in the distance).
As a result, nature feels largely undisturbed. There was no noise from the side of the salt lake where I was standing; the flamingos went about their lazy day and the birds continued to glide low over the water.
I suppose there is also a side benefit of having this nitrate harvesting operation going on, in that access to the area is made slightly easier by the dust track that had to be created for the trucks. Without that the area would be pretty hard to reach.
For our final port of call for the day, we continued on to the far side of Surire to another remarkable geological curiosity. Nestled against the hills is a large hot volcanic spring with steam drifting over its green water. It is very remote here, with not another soul around. It is as if it is completely undiscovered. We were told it was safe to bathe here, and that the mud at the bottom had great healing properties. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to bathe in our own private volcanic spring, so we went for a dip. I couldn’t tell you how hot it was exactly, but if I say it felt a bit like getting into a bath that was just that bit too hot, you get the idea.
To be able to experience an active volcanic spring in complete isolation that has not be commercialised into a tourist attraction was a real treat. I hope it remains so unspoiled for a long time to come.
To cap off the afternoon, while we were bathing and rejuvenating ourselves in the hot volcanic springs, our guides had kindly prepared a fantastic picnic of fresh bread, cheese and fruit which we enjoyed in the stillness of the afternoon in the desert wilderness.
Check out the photo gallery for some great photos from Salar de Surire