When I first decided to stop by South America after my dream trip to Easter Island, I initially thought I’d go to Peru to see Macchu Picchu. I had a long list of places I wanted to pick up ‘along the way’ to Macchu Picchu too! The list included the Nazca lines and the Rainbow Mountain, which had recently exploded in popularity among travel bloggers.
But 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.
- The Rainbow Valley, or the Rainbow Mountain?
- The typical half-day tour to the Rainbow Valley
- The Atacama valley that isn’t dry
- The Rainbow Valley of Atacama
- Andean history at Los Petroglifos de Hierbas Buenas
- Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
The Rainbow Valley, or the Rainbow Mountain?
So when I saw a ‘Valle del Arcoiris’ tour in the San Pedro brochures, I was intrigued. Rainbow?
Then the obvious struck me: Peru’s Rainbow Mountain exists because the Andean range came to be through 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’ aside from the Insta-famous one, and it’s much less crowded.
And it seems that, being part of the Andean range, Atacama also has similarly colourful locations! Except that here, it’s a valley rather than a mountain.
I have still not been to Peru’s Rainbow Mountain, so I can’t say which one is more beautiful. I can only describe my experience of going on the tour to the Rainbow Valley. However, there is one plus point I can say for the Rainbow Valley. Its hiking altitude is far, far less than ~5000m ASL altitude of Peru’s Rainbow Mountain, making it a much easier physical activity.
Another consideration is that the Rainbow Valley tour includes a side trip to an Andean cultural site. It is the only ‘standard’ Atacama tour that had some element related to Andean culture. This was what made me take a chance with this relatively less popular tour.
The typical half-day tour to the Rainbow Valley
There are many tour providers to choose from in San Pedro de Atacama. Though I stuck with the tour operator affiliated with my hostel at first, by this time I had 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 for the Rainbow Valley.
The typical Rainbow Valley tour is fairly simple. It consists of 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 I think should be longer than half a day.
This tour seems to be a morning tour, from the tour brochures. I think it’s because another reason to go to Rainbow Valley is for birdwatching. I reckon the birds are more active in the morning (any birders can confirm?). As the tour departs early, it includes breakfast, but does not include lunch.
For the Rainbow Valley tour, there are two things you need to pay for, and they’re both normally shown on the brochure. One is the tour price itself, and the other is the park entry fee. This is because a lot of these desert attractions in Atacama are also National Reserves.
The altitudes involved are around 2800m ASL, slightly higher than San Pedro (~2400m ASL). If you arrived from a low altitude location, this makes it a good option for one of your first tours in Atacama. It would allow you time to acclimatise before embarking on tours that go to even higher altitudes.
Double check the tour language when booking in San Pedro
Price range for tours vary little in San Pedro, although if you really shop around you can find better deals. However, if you aren’t fluent in Spanish, make sure that you’re not skimping on the price only to find that your guide isn’t fluent enough in your language (usually English) to make for a satisfying tour.
In 2017, my tour cost CLP23,000. The entry fee to Valle de la Luna was CLP 3,000. This was on the cheaper end of the range I found in San Pedro. The lady selling me the tour assured me that it was an English speaking tour. But I really ought to have double and triple checked.
When I was picked up, I realised that the tour will be run primarily in Spanish. So I only received a summary every now and then, because I was the only one not fluent in Spanish. There were probably lots of things I missed during the tour, because the guide does not usually run the tour in English. That was not his fault though; he was not told beforehand that he had to deliver it bilingually.
This issue matters more for some tours than others. It wouldn’t really have mattered for the Valley of the Moon, because on that tour you’re mostly just gawking at the otherworldly landscape. However, it does matter for the Rainbow Valley tour, because otherwise you won’t get the most out of the Andean petroglyph site. Culture isn’t something that you can sort of guess at and follow along with your own basics, unlike nature or scientific explainers.
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 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 become 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.
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. 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.
We got some free time to simply wander around the area while our guide prepared breakfast. He 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.
As we had our breakfast, I spied lizards moving across the ground, seeking hiding spots in some woody-looking shrubs.
Walking through the Rainbow Valley
We began our hike after a simple breakfast. It was an easy hike on mostly flat ground. The trail was not wide for the most part, which means you’ll 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 do exactly this to pose for 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 they obeyed.
You don’t really have to climb the slopes, anyway. Even from the trail, you can see close-up examples of the chalky-looking white, layering within the red. The green parts look like the rock is covered with lichen, but the guide said that the encrusting layer is mineral.
Birdwatching in the Rainbow Valley
Aside from the flamingoes in the altiplanic lakes, I didn’t know that there were any important birding areas in Atacama desert. 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 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.
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.
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 took less than an hour. The best views of Rainbow Valley’s tricolor rocks were at the end. After experiencing the entire trail, I suspect the Rainbow Valley of Atacama wouldn’t really be an equal alternative to either of the Rainbow Mountains of Peru, based on website pictures. 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.
The attraction here are the ancient drawings depicting people and animals etched into the relatively soft rock, which have been dated back to 10,000 years ago. We hiked up and around the outcroppings to see them.
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.
Why the Rainbow Valley is better with a guide, and in your best mutual language
The guide explained the carvings to us and 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 specific ones are a different Andean art style, which reflect more of a Bolivian people. This led to speculation over whether this place had once been a meeting point for different Andean peoples.
There were more details in Spanish, but this type of historical/cultural content is a lot more difficult to translate than science facts. I could feel our guide struggle to summarise it for me. He did let off the rest of the group to explore, so that he could sit with me 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. No amount of Duolingo cramming would have given me the Spanish for this level of language sophistication, so I was really annoyed over not actually receiving the promised English-speaking tour. In hindsight, it should have occurred to me to record him, and then I could ask a Spanish-speaking friend to translate it later.
At that moment, I had a flashback to an Australian tourist in San Pedro who I overheard 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!