After experiencing my first Atacama sunset in the Valle de la Luna, exploring the many lagoons and salt flats on the Lagunas Altiplánicas tour, and biking to and hiking around the Pukará de Quitor, I had seen the most visited destinations in San Pedro de Atacama, with one notable exception. I opted out of visiting the Geysers del Tatio, as getting up at 4AM in the icy cold of this high altitude did not appeal to me; I had already visited geysers in Bolivia and decided that one very cold time was enough for me!
Instead, I decided to explore other options to take in even more the gorgeous scenery of the region. English-language guidebooks do not usually mention one of the most popular Atacama excursions: the Laguna Cejar tour. This tour runs in the late afternoon and includes three stops: Lagunas Cejar and Piedra, the Ojos del Salar, and Laguna Tebinquinche.
Most agencies offer this tour, and will coordinate with others so that you can still go even if they don’t have enough people signed up on that day. As it turned out, the one I booked through sent me to another, and this was incredibly lucky: our tour guide was patient and helpful and did not rush us through the stops like other guides!
The first stop on this tour is the protected reserve at Laguna Cejar. Laguna Cejar is famous for its incredibly salty water, said to be saltier than the Dead Sea; you can float in its water without any effort. Laguna Cejar itself is a flamingo habitat, as you can see in the photo above; people are not actually allowed to get into its waters. Instead, tour agencies take you to the adjacent Laguna Piedra, where you can brave the high altitude cold and get into the lukewarm water. If you find a current of warm water (heated by the thermal springs), it’s actually not uncomfortable. My tour companions convinced me to change into my bathing suit and try it out.
When we arrived, I learned that the tour doesn’t usually stop at the actual Laguna Cejar, which I really wanted to see. Our guide offered to drive me and three others to nearby Laguna Cejar while the rest of the group leisurely bathed in the salty waters. He would then pick us up en route to our next destination. This was an awesome experience; instead of loud, crowded Laguna Piedra, I got to hang out at peaceful Laguna Cejar practically alone.
Next, we headed to the Ojos del Salar, two round freshwater ponds located adjacent to each other, which look like eyes. Here, you can jump into the icy waters to rinse off the salt from Laguna Cejar. One of the “eyes” is a little warmer, although that is not saying much; it’s better to just jump into the frigid waters rather than easing yourself in as I did!
The other “eye” is like a mirror, and people take fun pictures of themselves in unique poses, capturing their reflections below. This was about the only time I wished I wasn’t alone on my trip, because it would have been fun to hand off my camera to someone trustworthy for a pretty memorable photo!
The final stop on the tour is Laguna Tebinquinche, a giant lake whose flat, mirrorlike surface reflects the mountains and color changes in the sky above. This was the real reason I took this tour; all my research showed that the sunsets were beyond impressive. I was not disappointed.
As in the Valle de la Luna, the light in this location is truly incredible, coloring the mountains all kinds of shades of brown, grey, pink, and purple.
Along the edge of the lake, the tour vans line up for a sunset happy hour event, with Chilean pisco sour and snacks. While others started enjoying the drinks, I kept my eyes trained on the colors of the changing sky. I was one of the few people left admiring the horizon after the sun disappeared from sight; I know that the best colors happen afterwards.
I was rewarded for my patience. Finally, I decided to join my group and celebrate this lovely sunset with a pisco sour. When offered a second pour, I accepted, making up for lost time. 🙂
As night set in, we packed ourselves back into the tour van for the trip back to San Pedro de Atacama. We were lucky; many groups had already rushed back to San Pedro, leaving as soon as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. Our guide let us linger and savor the moment, and I am very grateful for these memories.
Recommendations for San Pedro de Atacama:
- You absolutely MUST go on the Laguna Cejar tour. It costs 13.000 CLP and includes a pisco sour cocktail and light snacks at sunset. The entrance fee for Laguna Cejar is 2.000 CLP. Just when I thought my trip couldn’t get any better, I went on this tour!
- I booked my tour with Turismo Caur, but they actually sent me on a tour with a different agency since I was the only one who had signed up for that afternoon. That said, I thought they were very professional when I did the Valle Arcoiris tour the next day.
- It is worth putting on a bathing suit, even in the middle of winter, to float in Laguna Piedra. Because of the warm sun at this high altitude, the cold doesn’t last long, even at Ojos del Salar.
- Ask your guide to take you to the actual Laguna Cejar if the tour doesn’t already stop there. It is more beautiful than Laguna Piedra and you can see flamingos, albeit at a distance!
- Similarly, make sure you ask your agency but especially your guide how long they plan to stay at Laguna Tebinquinche. Be very clear that you expect to stay to enjoy all the colors of the sunset after the sun disappears and do not want to be rushed. After talking to other travelers, I realize how lucky I was to get to stay until it got dark; most tours don’t!