Salt Mountain Range ATV Tour (Cordillera de la Sal)

I have to confess, a quad ATV tour through the desert was one of the activities I was most excited about when I started planning our Atacama vacation!

For context, I feel like I should explain a couple of things before I go on:

  1. I did all of the planning for our trip to Chile. This is really unusual for us. If you’ve already read a little about us, you may have noticed that in our bio, I introduced Luke as our trip planner. (I had originally written that he was our travel agent, but he vetoed that one). Anyway, that’s because with my “part-time job” studying for actuarial exams after I get home from my full-time job, unfortunately, I don’t have as much free time as I’d like to hang out with my husband, play with our dogs, have a social life, and plan the coolest vacations. I can’t remember exactly why we decided I’d plan this trip, but we decided I would be responsible. (Probablemente porque yo hablo un poquito de Español y el se olvido todo su Español…) But whoa, travel planning is a LOT of work. Doing that work myself this time made me really appreciate all the planning he normally does for us. So, reason #1 that I was looking forward to the quad tour was that it was the only thing Luke requested we do on this trip.
  2. Lately, we’ve been a little obsessed with off-road excursions. Ok, a little is most definitely an understatement. On our last two trips before the Atacama, we rented a Jeep Wrangler to take the Chloride City Trail in Death Valley and the Medano Pass Road in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Next year, we’re also planning a week-long Jeep camping trip in Canyonlands, Utah. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to start my bio with: “Hi, I’m Kate, and I’m a Jeep-aholic…”.

Getting ready to take the Medano Pass road in Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, we can get back to 4-wheeling in the Atacama…

After our morning tour of Laguna Cejar, we met our next guide back in San Pedro de Atacama

and drove out of town to pick up the quads. Along the way, we got to know our guide a little better and met another couple joining us for the tour before getting fitted for gear and familiarizing ourselves with the quads.

Soon enough after that, we drove off into the desert, and we were on our way! Several minutes later, once we got away from the residential area, things started to get exciting.

Couple posing next to an ATV under a tree in the Atacama Desert.

“The last tree” before driving off into the lunar landscape.

Once we passed this “last tree”, it started to feel like we had entered an entirely different planet, and I knew we had finally reached the Cordillera de la Sal (the Salt Mountain Range). At that point, the landscape completely changed. There was no longer any vegetation and the ground turned this reddish-orange color with rock and salt formations everywhere that truly made it feel like you’d left planet Earth. Later, we learned that NASA used this area of the Atacama desert to test drive the Mars Rover before, you know, actually taking it to Mars! How cool is that?! 🙂

Volcan Licancabur behind the landscape of the Cordillera de la Sal.

Shortly after the landscape had shifted, it was my turn to drive! This was my first time ever driving a quad – apparently, I’m a natural! And, it was really fun. 🙂 At the end of the tour, the guide even complimented both of our driving skills, so I felt pretty pleased with myself.

My favorite part of the trip was following the trail along this winding river of crystallized salt. It was just so beautiful to see the stark contrast of the white salt against the vivid red Earth and blue mountains.

Salt river through the Cordillera de la Sal in the Atacama Desert.

Up-close view of a salt river in the Atacama.

There’s actually water underneath!

I would have expected that this was the salty remains of a river that once existed. But, to our surprise, we found water flowing underneath the salt. Supposedly there are places in the Atacama desert where no substantial rainfall has ever been recorded, yet there is a surprising amount of (very salty) water there for a desert. Many of the lakes and salt flats in the region were created from groundwater instead of rainfall or snowmelt.

Before heading back into town, we left the quads to take a short walk through the rocky formations. Without the noise of the engines, it was profoundly quiet. Quiet enough that while standing near the rock walls, it was even possible to hear the salt “cracking”. Because there are such extreme temperature variations between night and day, the salt makes a cracking noise as it warms up and expands.

Red rock formations in the Cordillera de la Sal in the Atacama Desert.

If you listen closely, you can hear the salt cracking from thermal expansion.

We were sad to turn back, but those mountain views on the return trip were spectacular!

Couple riding an ATV in front of the lunar landscape of the Cordillera de la Sal.

View from the driver's seat on an ATV through the Atacama desert.

Jumping tourist photo of a couple on a dirt road in the Atacama Desert.

Look at that jump shot!

Man, what a great first day in the Atacama – so far! We had a busy day, but we still had a few more plans for our evening. A New Moon was scheduled that night, so we were off to grab a quick bite and then to head out for a night underneath the stars.

Please check out the rest of our album back at the main Atacama page.


Tour: Salty Range Quad Safari

Total Time: around 4 hours

Activity Intensity: Moderate

Company: On Safari Atacama

*Disclaimer: These are not affiliate links, so I will not receive any commission when you click. Any links provided are for your convenience and for experiences we can wholeheartedly recommend based solely on our personal experiences. To aid in identification, I’ve formatted links to other locations within my own blog in navy blue and links to external content in royal blue.

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Kate Vista

Kate Vista

Hi there! I'm Kate. Welcome to my blog. In real life, I am an actuary, coffee addict, dog lover, and a newly minted blogger. In our spare time, my husband, Luke, and I like to hike in our home state of Washington. We also love active adventure travel to Scenic Vistas. See what I did there? :) I think we travel to some cool places and I just want to share our photos and experiences with you!

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