It was purely coincidental that I happened to take both the valley tours of Atacama. One was the famous Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) tour, which this article is about. The other was the Rainbow Valley, Valle del Arcoiris. It was mainly because both are half-day tours, and I wasn’t interested in the other ones.
As for the remaining day tours, they all involve getting up far too early, or going to altitudes colder than I had the clothes for. I just couldn’t cope with that so soon after recovering from altitude sickness.
The Valley of the Moon, on the other hand, is widely agreed to be the other must-do attraction in Atacama. It is located at a different part of the Atacama desert than the altiplanic lagoons. East and south of San Pedro is a region of dry, rocky, dusty landscape that really does look like the surface of the moon. The landscape is so alien that space scientists literally test their Mars rovers here!
- The typical half-day tour to the Valley of the Moon
- Trekking through Cueva de Sal
- There’s never enough time at the Valley of the Moon
- The dunes of Valle de la Muerte
- Watching the surreal Moon Valley sunset from Mirador de Kari
- Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
The typical half-day tour to the Valley of the Moon
If you’re just interested in the Valley of the Moon, you can actually go on your own fairly easily if you have rented a car or even a bicycle.
However, taking a tour is more convenient, and you get to see additional places. Even then, the tour only needs to take half a day. Although it’s called the ‘Valley of the Moon’ tour, these tours usually stop by other spots in the Salt Mountains area, the key ones being Cueva de Sal and Valle de la Muerte. This tour is also invariably an evening tour, because the finale is the epic sunset view at Mirador de Kari.
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.
For the Valley of the Moon 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.
In 2017, my tour cost CLP18,000. The entry fee to Valle de la Luna was CLP 4,000.
The altitudes involved in this tour are approximately similar to 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.
Trekking through Cueva de Sal
The first stop was Cueva de Sal, the Salt Cavern. It is located in the Cordillera de la Sal region (the Salt Mountains), a valley landscape powdered over by a white dusting of calcium sulphate.
I have to admit that when I was on the tour (and even after the tour), I felt like the Salt Cavern stop was not necessary. Generally we all felt that we just wanted more time at Valle de la Luna.
However, after more time has passed, and I think back to this trip, I was glad that we began with the Salt Cavern. It was the part of the tour where we got the closest to the salt mountain landscape of the valley, because we had to trek through a tight cavern. So we got up close and personal with the cavern walls.
In fact, it’s so tight that the guide specifically highlighted that anyone who was claustrophobic need not do this part. Moreover, for parts of it, it’s dark enough that you need to use your phone for a torchlight.
A naturalist is a slow trekker
Being me, I was always falling behind. This can be inconvenient, because there were other tour groups traversing the same cavern. So you had best be able to recognise your own group!
But if you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I don’t simply trek through a natural landscape, like other tourists. If the cavern’s name is ‘the Salt Cavern’, I will be taking a minute to examine the salt! That’s why it’s so important for me that a tour gives enough time for observation.
The guide said something about the gypsum in the rock, and he seemed to refer both to the white powdering on the rock, as well as the transparent, glassy mineral crystals. The gypsum crystals are embedded in the rock, and I later learned that it’s basically selenite.
At first I was confused, because as far as I knew gypsum boards are ceiling panels, and they’re plastery and white. But indeed, they are one and the same.
Another reason why I take more time than other travellers, is that I try to take a glance behind me every so often. Sometimes up, and other directions too.
Like this view of the sunlight glowing through the tunnel. This is a view you don’t see going forwards on the trek. You only see this by looking back.
There’s never enough time at the Valley of the Moon
The next stop is the main attraction, the Valley of the Moon. Our Valle de la Luna segment starts with being dropped off in the valley itself, so that we can take our time to walk across it.
The valley part of the Valley of the Moon, called ‘Amfitheater’, was wide and majestic. To one side, you can the stratovolcano Licancabur, a cool grey cone beyond the red-brown valley landscape.
On either side of the dirt road were bare plains covered over by gypsum dust, making it look like there was an impossible dusting of snow which was somehow not melting at the base of the hot, dry, red hills.
And it was hot. The sky was cloudless and there was no shelter.
But the empty, lunar-like landscape was fantastic to behold. And eventually we reached the other side of the valley, where the van waited.
Stopping at Las Tres Marias and the Dinosaur
The van wound up the road to get us up onto the ridges where we could view the Valley of the Moon from above.
But along the way, we stopped by a curious set of rock outcrops called ‘The Three Marias’. There was also another one next to it whose name I don’t recall, because in my head I’ve already dubbed it ‘the dinosaur’.
To be perfectly honest, I could have given this site a miss. But I guess it was just on the way, and we didn’t stay long anyway.
Looking down on the Valley of the Moon’s Amfitheater
The hike up to the mirador ridge line was not too hard. But because of the heat, and perhaps I was also still acclimatising to the altitude, I could feel myself putting in effort. The ground was sand over rock, fine enough to lift and skim over the ground with the occasional light wind down the valley slope.
The ridge line was long, and you ascended to it at the middle. So you’d have to choose to go left, or right. One path followed the rocky ridge line and the other would have you walk on the dune ridge. Our tour group debated over which side we should choose. Some of us asked returning hikers about their verdicts and asked if anyone had done them both.
In the end, we chose the rocky path, keeping Licancabur in sight, and even then we would have gone further had there been more time.
This was one of the things I thought could be better, rather than the ‘standard’ half-day Valley of the Moon tour you’ll find in San Pedro. I would totally choose a longer tour that gave enough time to explore all the vantage points of the mirador. This tour really needs to be a bit longer! It would be worth it, I think. The lunar-like landscape that gave the valley its name was simultaneously alien and enchanting from many angles.
The dunes of Valle de la Muerte
There are actually two valleys that you’d visit on a typical Valley of the Moon tour. Typically, the tour will also take you to Valle de la Muerte.
Now, the story is that the valley was never meant to be named ‘Death Valley’. It was supposed to be dubbed Valle de Marte (Valley of Mars), since it supposedly resembled the Martian landscape. But the people who were with the guy who saw it misheard, and thought he said muerte rather than Marte.
How Martian-like the landscape really is, I can’t say. We only had a very short time here – just enough to wander up the dune slopes a bit – because it was coming up to sunset soon. By then we need to have reached Coyote Rock for the sunset view over the the Valley of the Moon.
It was not an uninteresting stop. But our tour group unanimously agreed that we would rather have had more time wandering on the ridges of the Valley of the Moon, rather than make this stop. More places do not equal a better tour. Our guide agreed, but said that his company insisted that it should be so.
Reflecting on this now, I suppose the other way is to make the tour longer, for those who want more time both for the ridge line views and properly exploring the Mars Valley.
Watching the surreal Moon Valley sunset from Mirador de Kari
We moved on to the tour’s finale: the sunset over the valley. The famous viewing point is the area near Piedra del Coyote. By the time we arrived, many other tour groups were already there and staking out their viewing spots. Coyote Rock itself already had several people upon it, so Rachel and I wandered along the cliff as close to the edge as seemed safe. It was a steep cliff. The strange lunar texture of the valley began to glow orange and cast shadows as we waited.
Some idiot on Coyote Rock decided to sit right at the edge, with his legs dangling down the side. Quite obviously for a photo – it’s probably safe to assume, Instagram photo. One of the Chilean tour guides intervened, sharply commanding him to retreat. He reluctantly did, and consequently failed to qualify for the Darwin Awards.
Rachel commented disapprovingly on her own generation’s penchant for personal endangerment to gain mediocre fame. I was mostly quietly impressed by how quickly and effectively a random Chilean tour guide intervened against a paying tourist. Really, Southeast Asia tour guides need to have that level of self-respect!
The wait was uneventful after that. The orange glow upon the rocks intensified as the sun’s angle placed it directly in opposition. The shadows in the valley deepened, sharpening the contrast with the white salt scattered across the ridge channels and valley flats.
Desert sunsets must be seen in person
My friend, who had taken me around in Oman, once spoke movingly about sunrises and sunsets in the desert. That the shifting colours were beyond words, and must be seen in person.
A haze began to cloud the line of mountains with a smear of yellow, over orange, over pink. A long line of colour, glowing all across the long horizon, topped by the clear periwinkle blue of the sky. A lavender purple line emerged as the sun sank further.
Then, all too quickly, the yellow was extinguished, and the changing colours settled to an orange pink twilight.
She was right. It was amazing.
But as amazing as the Valle de la Luna sunset was, I did not forget. I knew it was close to the full moon, so the real moon the valley is named after would be opposite the sun.
I turned around.
The waxing moon rose later and later each day, but it was still quite high near sunset. Though the sun had fallen below the earthly horizon, in space its light was still hitting the moon full on, and the clear desert sky impeded little of the light it reflected back on Earth.
Without competition from the sun, the contrast showed me the brightest moon I had ever seen. The moon hung there, at an angle to Licancabur, looking like it didn’t even belong there. It seemed more like a silver circle someone pasted onto the sky.
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.
Valle de la Luna is the closest you can get to walking on the moon! This is a must-do for the Atacama desert – pin it!