Location: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Distance: 42 km (Laguna Cejar)
Extension: 28 km (Laguna Tebinquinche)
Guidebook: Fodor’s Chile
Laguna Cejar is a popular tour offered in San Pedro de Atacama, sometimes with an extension to Ojos de Salar and Laguna Tebinquinche. It is also possible to visit all three locations on a bike, allowing yourself as much or as little time at each location as you wish. All three lakes lie within the Salar de Atacama, a huge salt flat which stretches for nearly 100 kilometres south of San Pedro.
There are several ways to reach Laguna Cejar: I used the older road which, although not in particularly good condition, had the advantage of having far fewer vehicles. From Laguna Cejar a dirt road in very bad condition continues to Ojos de Salar (11 km) and Tebinquinche (3 km extra). Although the route is flat the entire way, it should not be underestimated: the desert is incredibly hot and dry even in winter, there is no shelter or shade, and there are no places to buy water or other supplies after leaving San Pedro. The road, where paved, is generally uneven and full of pot holes; particularly on the way to Ojos de Salar there are many sections of sandy dirt which really suck in your tyres and add a lot of drag.
The entire way to Laguna Cejar the landscape has an otherworldly feel. The surrounding desert is covered with a fine white powder of salt which looks strangely like snow, while the Atacama’s famous volcanoes including Licanbur, Lascar, and Sairecabur loom ominously on the horizon. Virtually nothing stirs – very little vegetation, no animals, and no birds.
The entrance fee to Laguna Cejar is quite expensive by Chilean standards: 15,000 CLP (about $25). This does include access to the changing rooms and showers if you want to bathe in the lake (you need to remove the salt crust from your skin), but the price is the same even if you do not want to swim. Visiting in June, I was not overly impressed with the lakes (there are three of them in “Laguna Cejar”). All were pretty but not particularly impressive and there were no flamingoes and only one or two other birds on the lake shore. I can imagine that with the right weather (it was very cloudy when I visited) and at sunset the lake could provide stunning photographic opportunities though.
Right at the entrance to Laguna Cejar, a long dirt roads continues 11 kilometres to Ojos de Salar, and then 3 kilometres further to Laguna Tebinquinche. Ojos de Salar are two tiny ponds in the middle of the desert, right next to the road – impressive openings in the middle of the driest desert in the world. In the right weather their mirror-like surfaces can provide beautiful reflections of the sky and the surrounding landscape.
Three kilometres beyond Ojos de Salar, and well worth the journey if you have come this far, is Laguna Tebinquinche. For a much smaller entrance fee of a few thousand pesos, the lake is larger and more impressive than Laguna Cejar and has clearly marked paths around the shoreline. Just make sure you have enough in reserve to make it back to San Pedro de Atacama – the 35 kilometres takes a LOT of effort!