I’ve written about elevation lowpoints previously including Lake Assal (Africa), Lake Eyre (Australia) and Death Valley (North America). It’s been awhile since I wrote about one of those so it seemed like a good opportunity to turn my attention to South America. I don’t provide as much content about that area as I should, probably because the best sources are in Spanish or Portuguese and translation software only goes so far.
The lowest elevation in South America is Laguna del Carbón within the Gran Bajo de San Julián, in Argentina at -105 metres (-345 feet). This elevation is repeated in numerous reputable sources including the CIA World Factbook so it seemed to be accurate. As stated in Geology.com for example,
San Julian’s Great Depression is located in southeastern Argentina. It is the lowest land location in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres. The deepest part is Laguna del Carbón, at approximately 105 meters below sea level.
Laguna del Carbón easily outpaced California’s Death Valley which registered at -86 metres (-282 feet), making the site in Argentina the lowest of the Americas. Yet, few people know about it and fewer people ever visit it.
Laguna del Carbón, Argentina
There didn’t appear to be much of anything at the lowpoint except for an intermittent salt lake at the bottom of a large endorheic basin, in Argentina’s arid Patagonia. It was so unvisited that I could not find a single image with a creative commons license to embed and share within this page.
Gran Bajo de San Julián
Argentina’s Province of Santa Cruz is its southernmost mainland province (only Tierra del Fuego sits farther south) and cuts across the width of the nation. The province’s official website included a Relief & Hydrography page, which described its general layout and included a nice elevation comparison map:
The territory has two well-defined zones: the Andean one, to the west, and the plateaus in the centre and the east. The Chico River is born in the plateau called "the Plateau of death", it flanks the central plateau from the south, branching out in various arms, and flows into an estuary in which the Santa Cruz River also flows.
Plateau of death. It didn’t sound inviting.
A depression formed on the plateau between the Chico River and the Atlantic Ocean, the Gran Bajo de San Julián. One can appreciate the depth and the suddenness of the depression from this random video I found on YouTube. One can also hear the howling wind of an empty, treeless expanse.
Exploring Laguna del Carbón
A tourism industry did not develop around Laguna del Carbón as it did around Death Valley. It remained private property and cannot be visited without permission. Nonetheless a few hearty explorers made the trek and shared their stories on the Intertubes.
South American Explorers posted all back issues of its magazine on its website including Issue 38 (September 1994). It contained the article "Exploring the Gran Bajo de San Julian" In the article, the author noted that the designation of Laguna del Carbón as the lowest point of elevation in the Americas had been fairly recent. The identification of Laguna del Carbón dethroned Death Valley, which was considered to be the lowest point of the Americas up until then. I didn’t find the year that official measurement happened although it would have been well into the second half of the Twentieth Century more than likely. Perhaps that was why the site remained closed to general tourism. Nobody thought it was special until recently.
A site called 7 Lows, dedicated to the noble pursuit of visiting the lowpoints on each of the seven continents, featured Laguna del Carbón even more recently.
There is no major logistical problem getting to the general region where Laguna del Carbón is. The nearest major airport is located at Río Gallegos which is about a 3 to 4 hour drive away. There are several commercial flights each day including flights from Buenos Aires. Laguna del Carbón is located on private land and the biggest logistical problem is obtaining permission to visit.
The trip report and photos included on that site are well worth checking out. Certainly people will travel out of their way to visit the spot. Maybe the economics will allow easier access and perhaps even a small tourism industry to blossom nearby someday.