Updated May 14th, 2019.
If I told you that there is a beautiful salt lagoon outside of Arequipa that sees next to no visitors, would you believe me? If I told you that it is as white as Salar de Uyuni during dry season and as pretty as any lagoon in Patagonia in wet season, would you believe it? What if I told you that everything from wild vicuñas, Andean geese and even flamingos visit this magical place? Would you believe me then?
I know it is hard to believe but this is not a place out of a fairytale. This salt lagoon exists, just three hours outside of the city of Arequipa, Peru. When my boyfriend, Tim and I first got whispers of this hidden gem, I just knew we had to go there!
Owing to logistical difficulties with transport, very few tour operators offer this trip and there is no public transport to the lagoon. Luckily, we found the local company, Arequipa Tour, and boy am I glad we did! Our trip to the salt lagoon was one of my favourite things I did in Peru.
It was made even more special by the fact that our small group had the place to ourselves. No other people, no entrance fees, no tourist traps. Pure, uninterrupted, peace.
Read more about backpacking Peru here!
The day begins
Unlike our visit to Colca Canyon with Arequipa Tour, our trip to the salt lagoon mercifully had a later pickup time. At 7 am our guide Elly bounded into our hostel, full of beans. She introduced herself and then led us down to the car. We were then introduced to our driver Alberon.
Elly outlined our schedule for the day and said that first, we were going to get a proper look at the volcanoes. There are a few volcanoes surrounding Arequipa, most famously, Misti and Chachani. After taking in the sights from the viewpoint, we would stop in a small village (where we would hike on the way back to Arequipa) before continuing the rest of the journey to the salt lagoon.
A note of caution for wimps…
The salt lagoon is not an easy place to get to. The roads are rough and untamed which means without a 4×4, it is virtually impossible to get there. Prepare to be thrown about and bump your head during the journey. You will ascend mountain roads which are narrow in places and collapsed in others. If this is too much for you to handle, take my advice and avoid looking down.
As this is a virtually untouched place, there are no public amenities, nor will you come across any for the entirety of the day. Prepare to get your best squat on and become reacquainted with nature!
Scenic spots before the lagoon
On the outskirts of Arequipa, we stopped to take in the views of the volcanoes. Luckily it was a clear day and we could see the very top of Misti, a perfectly conical volcano. We also took in the sights of the Chachani and Picchu Picchu. Coming from a place as flat as the UK, these volcanoes were definitely an impressive sight!
A short while after we had stopped to admire the volcanoes, we arrived in a small town. Here, Elly led us around and explained that this would be where we would be trekking after we had visited the salt lagoon. Considering its proximity to Arequipa, it was clear that this was a town that sees few foreigners. The locals stared at us in wonder as we explored the tiny Plaza de Armas.
We checked out the church while Elly explained some of the meaning behind the symbols etched into the building. Owing to the town’s agricultural background, corn and grapes were a common feature in the decoration. After we had finished meandering around, we hopped back into the 4×4 to head to Salinas salt lagoon.
Salinas Salt Lagoon and National Reserve
After ascending through the mountains, Alberon announced that we had arrived at the salt lagoon. I got out of the car and looked around, completely awestruck. Snowcapped mountains reflected in the eerily still lagoon, the only ripples were made by the nearby geese and flamingos. I had never seen a landscape like it.
As we hiked around the lagoon, Elly pointed out different wildlife and explained a little about them. The Andean Geese that we saw are a symbol of love in Peru as they are monogamous. Their love runs so deep that if one dies, the other will intentionally starve itself as it can’t bear to live alone. These are the real-life bird versions of Romeo and Juliet!
We visited in the rainy season so we were able to see flamingos although these aren’t a feature year round. The Andean Flamingos were very surprising in that they were more white than pink. They also have red beaks and feet so visually appear quite different from the flamingos that we expected when Elly alerted us to their presence.
Even though the views at Salinas salt lagoon were world class, perhaps the most special thing about the trip was not having to share the landscape with anyone else. Elly, Alberon, Tim and I were the only people there. It is fair to see this is an off the beaten track trip!
During our hike around the National Reserve, we were able to spot more wildlife. Of course, there were llamas and alpacas which I had come to expect from rural Peru but we were also lucky enough to see some vicuñas too! At one point, these camelids were nearly hunted to the point of extinction so seeing them in the wild was really special.
We continued to trek around the reserve until the rains came down, right before lunch. How typical! Not wanting our picnic to be soggy, we all piled back into the car and headed back down the mountains, waiting for the storm to pass and a good lunch spot to present itself.
After around an hour of driving, we made it to a cute rural spot where we set up for lunch. Triple decker sandwiches had been prepared for us as well as fruit and other snacks. To drink, we sampled a medicinal plant that Elly had spotted in the mountains and made into a tea. This helped with the altitude headache that was coming on and was also delicious!
Owing to the location of Salinas, it is a great trip to do if you are heading to Machu Picchu. The trekking allows you to do some hiking practice while acclimatising to the altitude.
After we all had our fill, we followed Elly with renewed energy to complete our hiking for the day. She took us around the agricultural terraces where Alfalfa, is farmed for animal feed. The views were less awe-inspiring here than earlier in the day but still beautiful in their own right.
We trekked for the next couple of hours before we finished up in the town we had visited first thing that morning. The walk wasn’t too hard and it sure felt good to be out of the city and immersed in nature.
A Peruvian highlight!
For backpackers looking to get off the beaten track, Salinas is a dream. We had the entire reserve to ourselves and were able to explore as we liked. Whilst, of course, more touristy attractions such as Colca Canyon have their own merits, it was a refreshing change to enjoy something without being hounded by street vendors.
Elly was an incredible guide who did everything possible to enhance our experience by pointing out different plants and geographical features. As it was a private tour, it was also hugely flexible and Elly let us dictate the schedule of when/where we wanted to eat and how long we wanted to spend at each spot. She also takes a great picture which is definitely appreciated!
Our driver Alberon was also a star. I think generally, tour drivers can often be forgotten about but Alberon was brilliant. He was a specialised mountain driver which definitely helped put my mind at ease when we were traversing the steep, narrow paths. I wouldn’t say the roads were the safest so having a capable and confident driver is a must if you are going to venture to Salinas.
Although we visited in the wet season and didn’t see what you would expect from a salt lagoon, the trip was still completely worthwhile. Salinas salt lagoon is an incredible year-round destination that presents a beautiful landscape regardless of the time you visit.
I cannot rate our Salinas salt lagoon trip with Arequipa Tour highly enough. From the start, everything was well organised and communicated perfectly. The experience itself also delivered far more than I expected and this trip was without a doubt one of my favourite things that I did in Peru.
Right now, Salinas is a local secret but it won’t stay that way for long. Make sure you don’t miss out on your Peru trip!
What to bring to your Salt Lagoon trip?
- Rain jacket – The weather changes quickly at this altitude.
- Fleece – It is windy in the mountains.
- Camera – With all this wildlife around you are going to want to take photos!
- Binoculars – If you have them, these are a great way to hone in on the wildlife.
- Suncream – It is easy to catch the sun at this altitude.
- Hat – Extra sun/wind protection. It can get cold up there too!
- Trekking boots – The day will involve trekking so wear shoes that will stand up to the challenge.