Chile, South America

The Eyes of the Salar

“They are bottomless. People have dived there but no one has been able to find where the spring comes from.”

The guide keeps his eyes ahead as he tells us more about the Ojos del Salar, two freshwater lagoons found deep in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

“They found out that the two lagoons are linked, underneath,” he continues. “But no bottom.”

Ojos del Salar: the eyes of the salt flats. I scratch my arm and brush off the white salt that flakes off onto my hardened bathing suit. The driver had picked a handful of us up this morning in San Pedro to take us to see the sights, and our first stop had been Laguna Cejar, a body of water so salty that we were unable to sink. I had bobbed on the surface like a cork.

The tour guide had water for us to rinse off with, but the salt was supposed to be good for your skin. High-end spas advertised Dead Sea salts and if the Atacama lakes had a higher salt concentration I wasn’t washing it away.

But it was itchy. I scratch again.

“You can wash it off in the fresh water,” the driver tells me, catching my eye in the rearview mirror. I smile back.

Suddenly his eyes open wide, looking past me, and I turn to follow his gaze.
“Look!” He points over his shoulder and slows down the jeep.

A flock of birds have lifted off from the lake we had just left behind and are arcing out into the sky. Flamingos. Their elegant necks, bent gracefully when they stand in the water now stick out awkwardly in front of them as they beat out a steady rhythm with their powerful wings. From a distance I can only make out one tiny patch of pink, on their wings.

They are rare and endangered because of us. Not tourists, but humans, mining the Atacama with enormous drill borers looking for copper, nitrate, gold, lithium, silver, potassium, iron, boron and bishofite, a super-mineral that’s used in everything from construction to medicine.

Los Ojos, the perfectly round, symmetrical lagoons, are they drill holes?

“Maybe,” replies the guide. “No one knows.”

When we reach them, I can only see more of the vast plains of dry, clay-colored rocks and white salt of the salar, broken in the distance by the Andes and the path to Argentina. I climb out of the jeep and follow the guide deeper into the desert where the eyes blink open in front of us.

Like two immense eye sockets, the round lagoons sit next to each other on a blank face of sand. As I get closer I see that they are inset with a line of scrub grass like a set of green eyelashes and are filled with water that stops six feet below the rim.

“You have to jump,” the guide explains, and leans over to brush off a well-worn patch of dirt near the edge of the lagoon.

I unstrap my sandals and take off my hat, piling them together into a little pyramid to keep them from flying away, stepping tentatively onto the packed earth. I lean over the edge and look down at the deep blue water below, so far away.

More vans have started to arrive and I can hear the din beginning to rise as more tourists begin to make their way to the ojos. I imagine them stripping off their clothes as they approach, revealing their swimsuits underneath, dried salt crusting off of them like a trail of breadcrumbs, wanting to line up behind me, wanting me to go faster.

I close my eyes, and leap.

I hit the water hard enough to go under, and the cold wraps around me, dissolving the desert and the layers of salt. When I resurface I can see that a line has formed along the rim, and people have started to jump.

Some step off tentatively, as if onto an escalator, and others somersault through the air, splashing down into a hail of water. They smile and wave to their friends on the rim, urging them to come in, but they lean over the rim instead, staring down at us, taking pictures.

I turn away from the crowd and swim to the farther end of the lagoon, where the cliff wall staggers slowly toward the water, making it too wide to jump. Then I dive underneath and swim down, down into the great unknown, and infinity.

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