An Unusual Oasis in the Desert: Salt Flats of Mexico

There is a beautiful vista of salt flats extending in all directions and very visible when flying into our airstrip at San Ignacio Lagoon. Located in the far northern reaches of pacific coast of Baja California, the lagoon provides the perfect environment for salt flats. Minerals leach down from the surrounding mesas, which, combined with the evaporation of water from high tides and rare rainfall, aided by warm desert winds, means the water doesn’t really drain but evaporates, thus creating the salt flats. Mike Lever, President of Nautilus Dive Adventures, shares why this glistening oasis is not to be missed…

salt flats

Salt Flats of Mexico: Salina El Cuarenta

Nestled under a towering mountain range, the Salina el Cuarenta salt flats appear to be in the wrong biosphere. Many of the flats are light brown in colour.  Some are more of a taupe or cream colour.  And some are an amazing brilliant white. The flats are huge, perfectly flat and extend for miles and miles. The north side of the lagoon is my favourite place to go ashore. The white sand beach and small dunes are as soft as talcum powder, and in my favourite location, are bounded by mangroves on one side, a 20-metre band of green vegetation and then light-coloured taupe salt flats as far as you can see, all the way to the steep sided mesas. The salt turns to white several miles away. Last time I was there, we were greeted by three coyotes and flocks of birds, including herons, ospreys, and beautiful white egrets. The place felt like it was teeming with life and a wonderful calm energy.  I am very glad of the opportunity to walk out into the flats under the desert sun and absorb the absolute stillness and beauty of it.

san ignacio lagoon

What Is a Salt Flat?

Salt flats are expanses of land covered in salt and other minerals, that gleam white under the sun. Salt flats occur when bodies of water appear in desert climates, where the rate of evaporation exceeds the rate of precipitation. As a result, water cannot drain into the ground and so remains until it evaporates. Over thousands of years, the salt minerals accumulate on the surface and form what can only be described as a ‘salty ice rink’.

The most famous flats in San Ignacio, the Salinas, are on the south side of the lagoon, brilliant white in colour and nestled against the distant mesas. Let your eyes adjust to the dazzling bright white and you’ll begin to notice the veins or hexagonal-like formations that spread out across the pan. These shapes are formed due to the freezing and thawing processes of water which creates a type of natural convection called Rayleigh–Bénard convection.

salt flat

Off-the-Beaten Track Adventure

It’s not easy to get to these flats but it’s worth it.  Last time I was there, we left camp in our 4×4 truck, drove through the small dusty local fishing village, past the garbage dump (perhaps not one of the most scenic highlights of San Ignacio) and out along a bumpy and rutted dirt road for 25 teeth rattling minutes, peering out for a tiny piece of wood painted white and faintly lettered “salinas” with an arrow… I’m not quite sure where we would have ended up if we had missed the sign!! Was the drive worth it? Absolutely!!  Pristine beautiful white salt flats as the far as they could see, we walked around for quite a while and didn’t want to leave. The only saving grace was that I got to bring a bag of genuine sea salt home for our kitchen.

salt flat at night

Camera, Lights, Action!

Insider tip: bring a camera! The aesthetic of these salt flats makes them a wonderful destination for avid photographers. Albeit tricky due to the harsh lighting, it will really test your skills in getting that perfect shot. With stunning sunrises and sunsets and a rigid mountain range in the backdrop, capturing this otherworldly place in all its glory will be a gratifying experience. Not to mention, the undisturbed view of the millions of stars above when visiting during the night.

If you’re looking for an alternative activity, a dream photoshoot location or even just some salt for your tequila, why not check out Salina el Cuarenta to add to your Baja Expeditions adventure!

Interested in visiting the Salt Flats of Mexico? Join our wilderness glamping expedition to San Ignacio Lagoon, and meet the world’s friendliest gray whales, explore the cactus-studded desert in search of coyotes and marvel at the white, gleaming salt flats of Salina el Cuarenta.

Image credit: David Serradell

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