Half-Day Tour of Atacama’s Rainbow Valley: What to Expect
As I mentioned in a previous article, I happened to take both the valley tours of Atacama. The first one was the must-do Valley of the Moon tour. The other was the Rainbow Valley (Valle del Arcoiris).
There are many tour providers to choose from in San Pedro de Atacama. By this time, I had already tried out a second tour provider from the town, having stumbled upon a unique full moon Andean astronomy tour. Feeling more open to take a risk, I tried a third tour provider for the Rainbow Valley.
This article describes the tour to the Rainbow Valley of the Atacama desert, and why this place is better with a guide. I also highlight which tips around choosing tours in Atacama that I think is more relevant for this tour relative to, say, the Valley of the Moon or the altiplanic lagoons.
- Rainbow Valley Tour
- The Andes Mountain Range has many rainbows
- The Rainbow Valley of Atacama
- Andean history at Los Petroglifos de Hierbas Buenas
- Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
Rainbow Valley Tour
Indicative tour price in 2017: CLP23,000 + CLP3,000 entry fees. (This was on the cheaper end of the range I found in San Pedro).
The altitudes involved in this tour are a little bit higher compared to San Pedro (~2800m ASL).
The typical Rainbow Valley tour is fairly simple, and consists of only two locations. It just takes you on a light hike around the Rainbow Valley, and then to an Andean petroglyph (rock art) site. I think this makes it much more suitable for a half-day duration than the typical Valley of the Moon tour, which is also a half-day tour (but IMO should be longer).
The second location was what actually made me take a chance with this less popular tour. The Valle del Arcoiris tour is the only ‘standard’ Atacama tour that had some element related to Andean culture.
This tour seems to be a morning tour, from my observation of tour brochures in San Pedro. I think it’s because one of the other reasons to go to Valle de Arcoiris is for birdwatching; maybe the birds are more active in the morning.
Since I went with a tour provider from town, the meeting point was at the tour office. We were all picked up from there, and we were also dropped off back in town a little after midday.
The Andes Mountain Range has many rainbows
When I first decided to stop by South America after going to Easter Island, I initially thought I’d go to Peru. So I had a long list of places I wanted to pick up ‘along the way’. Aside from Macchu Picchu, it also included the Nazca lines and the Rainbow Mountain, which has recently exploded in popularity.
I subsequently developed a more realistic sense of how far apart things are in South America, even within the same country, and decided to be more sensible. I ended up swapping all of that itinerary for the Atacama desert.
So when I saw a ‘Valle del Arcoiris’ tour in the San Pedro brochures, I was intrigued. Rainbow?
Then I realised the obvious: the Rainbow Mountain exists because the Andean range is made by tectonic and volcanic activity, pushing and exposing the colourful mineral-rich layers to the surface. While it’s possible that the Rainbow Mountain could be unique, given the length of the Andes where this plate subduction is active, it’s actually not unreasonable to find similar sites in the region. For example, in Peru itself, there is another ‘rainbow mountain’ than the Insta-famous one, and it’s much less crowded.
And now it seems that the Atacama desert itself has parts which are colourful! Except that here, it’s a valley rather than a mountain.
The obvious plus point to this is that the hiking altitude is far, far less than the 5200m ASL altitude of Peru’s Rainbow Mountain, making it a much easier physical activity. What I’m trying to say is, you can avoid contributing to overtourism, if you are just more open to exploring new places. Often, it makes for a more interesting trip anyway. And sometimes, you wouldn’t even miss out on the original thing you wanted to see!
The Atacama valley that isn’t dry
Valle del Arcoiris is located in a different direction again, from the other Atacama tours I had already taken. This time, we were headed north from San Pedro, across absolutely flat and barren desert landscape, which then eased into scrubland. We spotted the occasional vicuña in the distance.
But then, the landscape changed. The road began to descend, weaving around the mountain’s shoulders. Then we went offroad, and in between walls of red clay was an unexpectedly green valley.
There was water running through this valley. I couldn’t see an actual stream, but the ground was clearly damp, and the verdant grass was a giveaway. As the road dropped further to be level with the valley floor, you could see how tall the plant life was in some parts. There were a lot of donkeys in this part of the valley, wandering the boulder-strewn landscape.
The Rainbow Valley of Atacama
But we left the grassy valley behind, and the landscape became dry again. The way ended in a sort of natural cul-de-sac of mountain, where you could see the main three colours of Valle del Arcoiris – green, white, and red.
We were given some time to simply wander around the area while breakfast was prepared. Our guide pointed out some notable features, such as the turtle-shaped rock, and a sort of secret chimney alcove within the nearby rock wall, but otherwise left us be.
Exploring the trail head
Although the Rainbow Valley is basically tricolor, the dominant colour is red. The trail head gives a fairly faithful snapshot of what you can expect from the entire trail later.
Though the reddish clay ground doesn’t make it obvious, this valley is also littered with gypsum, just like the Cordillera de la Sal where the Moon Valley is. The scaly gypsum crystals lie as chips on the ground, sparkling with the sunlight. I took one to ask the guide what it was, and he confirmed it was gypsum.
Of all of the Atacama locations I toured, the Rainbow Valley was easily the most life-friendly. Even in this apparently sparse-looking area, I actually found a really interesting diversity of flora.
As we had our breakfast, I spied lizards moving across the ground, seeking hiding spots in some woody-looking shrubs.
A walk through the Rainbow Valley
We began our hike after a simple breakfast. It was an easy hike, mostly flat ground. The trail was not wide for the most part, allowing you to see the different colours of the rock fairly up close.
Not super close, though. Climbing on the slopes is not allowed under park rules, for conservation reasons.
Midway through the walk, we came across another group of tourists, who were trying to climb the slopes to take photos. They didn’t seem to have their own guide. For the third time on this journey, Chilean tour guides impressed me by intervening. Our guide excused himself, went to the group he was not in charge of, and told them to come down from the restricted zone. He waited until he was obeyed.
You don’t really have to climb the slopes, anyway. Even from the trail, you can see close-up examples of the white layering within the red, looking chalky. The green parts look like the rock is covered with lichen, but the guide said that the encrusting layer is mineral.
Double check language when booking tours in San Pedro!
The tour was run primarily in Spanish, so I only received a summary every now and then, because I was the only one not fluent in Spanish. So there was probably a bunch of other things I missed in his explanation of the minerals, because he does not usually run the tour in English.
That was not his fault though; I was told by the lady selling me the tour that it was an English speaking tour, but the guide was not told he had to deliver it bilingually.
Birdwatching in the Rainbow Valley
However, it never occurred to me that there could be a birdwatching area of interest in the Atacama desert – I mean, aside from the flamingoes in the altiplanic lakes! It was during the walk that I realised that Valle del Arcoiris is a birder’s draw. There was a birdwatcher in our group, who had specifically chosen the tour for this reason.
I’m not a birdwatcher myself, but the guide pointed out specific birds so I didn’t feel left out. The pace of the hike was fairly slow, allowing some flexibility for the birdwatcher to pause now and then to listen for bird calls. But I get the feeling that he would have liked even more time to watch for birds.
While the birdwatchers did their thing, I busied myself examining more of the flora in the valley. There was a very particular kind of cactus that seemed to be common, a particularly nasty-looking one encrusted with spikes. I remember it because of its memorable name in the local language! See if you can pick it out from the images below – the caption gives the translation of its name!
Rainbow Valley’s trail end
The hike was less than an hour, and the best views of Rainbow Valley’s tricolor rocks were at the end. After experiencing the entire trail, to be honest the Rainbow Valley of Atacama isn’t an equal alternative to either of the Rainbow Mountains of Peru, based on pictures of the latter. The rock colours are more limited, and it doesn’t stripe like the Rainbow Mountains.
That said, it is still visually and geologically interesting, and a strikingly different landscape than the other Atacama locations. And if you’re into birding, then you might have a special interest in Valle del Arcoiris.
Andean history at Los Petroglifos de Hierbas Buenas
The second part of this tour was not too far away. The petroglyph site of Hierbas (or Yerbas) Buenas is on the way back, and is a rock outcrop rising out of the land. Park facilities are present here, so this is when you’d have access to a bathroom on this tour.
Various drawings depicting people and animals are etched into the relatively soft rock, and are dated back to 10,000 years old. We hiked up and around the outcroppings to see the various drawings.
Why the Rainbow Valley is better with a guide – in your best language
Hierbas Buenas was where I really felt the language gap, and why of all the standard tours, this is the one that has to be in English, if you are not competent in Spanish. The guide explained the carvings to us, but also its relevance to the history of the land.
For example, while most of the Hierbas Buenas petroglyphs represent the art style of the local Atacameña people, apparently particular ones are a different Andean art style, which reflect more of a Bolivian people. This type of historical/cultural content is a lot more difficult to translate than science facts, and I could feel him struggle to summarise it for me.
Our guide did let off the rest of the group to explore so that he could sit with me for a while to explain the worldview of the Andean nations. He drew a sort of quadrilinear pattern in the sand, and explained how it was a map representing the relationship between the main Andean nations. Each quadrant represented a direction and location of a different nation.
I got that much, but would really, really, have liked to know more. Realistically speaking, no amount of Duolingo cramming before the trip would have given me the Spanish for this level of content, so I was really annoyed over not actually receiving a promised English-speaking tour.
At that moment I had a flashback to an Australian tourist in San Pedro repeatedly asking whether the tour he was interested in was in English. Like, the whole tour. Every part of the tour, right? Are you sure?
I didn’t understand why he was so insistent then, and nurtured uncharitable thoughts. Well, karma bites!
Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
I went to Atacama Desert as part of a longer journey around the world. Visiting Atacama Desert specifically, assuming return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Calama via Sydney and Santiago, produces carbon emissions of approximately 15,383 lbs CO2e. It costs about $77 to offset this.
Would you find Valle del Arcoiris and Yerbas Buenas as interesting as I did? Learn from my mistakes!