Have you ever seen a sunset so beautiful that it took your breath away? In 2011, I experienced the most spectacular sunset of my life on the Salar de Atacama in northern Chile. Despite witnessing innumerable sunsets since, nothing has quite compared to the wonder and awe I felt as I stood practically alone in the middle of the Atacama Desert watching the sky catch fire around me.
Welcome to our first Flashback Friday! In this new bi-monthly series, I will be sharing quick posts that highlight a short story, favorite photo(s), or a funny or interesting anecdote from my travels. It’s been a lot of fun reading old journals and sifting through my travel photos to find the most compelling content for the series, and I can’t wait for you to see what’s in store! Don’t forget that you can also follow Flashback Fridays on the Full Life, Full Passport Instagram account.
First up is a brief account and sequence of photos from my favorite sunset spot, the Salar de Atacama. The salar is a salt flat located in the driest desert in the world, the Atacama. Ringed by mountains and volcanoes, it’s an impressive 1,200 square miles in size and well worth a trip from the nearby (relatively speaking) tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama.
I visited the salt flat in February of 2010 while on a three-month backpacking trip across South America. After spending the day exploring the surrounding area, our tour group arrived at the salar just as the sun was beginning to set.
What greeted us was a huge expanse of crusty white salt as far as the eye could see. It seemed to stretch all the way to the base of the far-off mountains and was unlike anything I had ever seen before. We had arrived at a geological wonder in what felt like the absolute middle of nowhere.
Parts of the salar were covered by a thin layer of water, forming what looked from a distance like a clear blue lagoon in the middle of the white salt. Spotting one, we quickly left the rest of our and the other tour groups behind to get a closer look.
Our footsteps crunched on the salty ground, and by the time we reached the nearest lagoon we were entirely alone. The sun was sinking lower. We were already awed by the beauty surrounding us, but we couldn’t have imagined how much more spectacular the evening was going to get.
Now, I’ve seen a lot of pretty sunsets in my life, including a rather impressive one the night before we visited the salar. The nearby Valle de la Luna was considered the “it” place to take in a sunset, and we had all readily agreed that it was gorgeous and well worth the trip. The next night, however, the Salar de Atacama put it to shame. Nothing compared to the way the sun set the salt flat ablaze and filled the whole area with more colors than I could imagine were possible.
To the east, the lonely, treeless mountains and the wispy clouds that topped them turned various shades of purple and bubble gum pink…
… while to the west the sky was filled with blues and golds that almost made your heart stop with their beauty.
The dying sunlight reflected off the thin sheet of rippling water, filling the salt flat with liquid gold. In the distance, the silhouetted mountains stood guard over the serenity of the experience. It was otherworldly. All alone in the middle of the salar with light and color all around us, it was like being physically enveloped in a sunset that was happening just for us.
We stood marveling for what could have just as easily been hours or seconds. Time seemed to stop; it felt as if the whole world had paused in awe of this moment. It was an experience that immediately shot to the top of the highlight reel of our three months in South America, and one that in all my travels since has never quite been replicated.
Eventually, though, we had to return to our tour group to head back to San Pedro de Atacama. As we crunched our way toward the waiting vans, we saw that even they were bathed in beauty.
Sunset on the Salar de Atacama was a spectacle I will never forget. There’s something about the wild, empty places of the world that can fill your heart in the most impactful way, and a stunning sunset was the icing on the cake. To have experienced it on such a beautiful night, far from the small crowd of other tourists, alone among the clouds and the mountains, was nothing short of amazing.
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This flashback to the Salar de Atacama sunset was first published on January 17, 2020 and last updated on January 17, 2021.
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