Half-Day Tour of Atacama’s Valley of the Moon: What to Expect

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. The other, was the Rainbow Valley, Valle del Arcoiris. 

While I was happy with both my tours, there were some things to take note of if you’re choosing between tour variations. There are many tour providers to choose from in San Pedro de Atacama. While some popular tours are pretty standard, there are sometimes slight differences in what’s included.

This article describes the must-see Valle de la Luna tour of the Atacama desert, and may help you choose your tour (or… whether you visit with a tour at all). 

See my next article on what to expect from a typical half-day Rainbow Valley tour

Valley of the Moon Tour

Indicative tour price in 2017: CLP18,000 + entry fees CLP4,000.

The altitudes involved in this tour are approximately similar to San Pedro (~2400m ASL). 

Although it’s called the ‘Valley of the Moon’ tour, the one I took actually stops by other spots in the Salt Mountains area, the key ones being Cueva de Sal and Valle de la Muerte. Whether or not this is too much could depend on your tour preferences. 

This tour is invariably an evening tour, because the finale is the epic sunset view at Mirador de Kari. Since I kept to the tour provider attached to my hostel, I was picked up from there, but we were dropped off in town so that we could more easily get dinner before returning to the hostel on our own. 

Atacama Desert’s Cordillera de la Sal

Canyon edge in Cordillera de la Sal with the brown Atacama dune landscape beyond

Canyon in the Salt Mountains

The valley of the moon is located at a different part of Atacama desert from 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

Called Cordillera de la Sal (the Salt Mountains), the valley landscape is powdered over by a white dusting of calcium sulphate. So the first stop of the tour across the Salt Mountains, was the Salt Cavern. 

Trek through Cueva de Sal

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 felt that we just wanted more time at Valle de la Luna.

Cordillera de la Sal slope of craggy rock pillars

Follow the red arrow to find the path through the rock pillars

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. 

Why 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 is named ‘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.

  • Calcium sulfate white salt-like encrustment over the rocks in Cordillera de la Sal in Atacama desert
    The mineral giving the 'salt' appearance to the Cordillera de la Sal area

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, gypsum goes into making plaster. 

Remember to look back

Oh, and another reason I take more time than other travellers.

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 see this by looking back. 

A view back through the trail across Cueva de Sal tight canyon passage with yellow sunlight glowing in the centre

Some views are only for those who look back

Valle de la Luna – the Bright Side of the Moon

The next stop is the main attraction – the Valley of the Moon. Our Valle de la Luna segment starts by dropping us in the valley itself, giving us time to walk across it. 

The ‘Amfitheater’ was wide and majestic. To one side, the stratovolcano Licancabur can be seen, 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 an impossible dusting of snow 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. 

Walking within the Valley of the Moon with the red cliffs in the background

Hiking it across the Valley of the Moon – thanks Rachel!

Pit stop at Las Tres Marias and the Dinosaur

After being picked up by the van at the other end of the valley, we wound up the road to get up onto the ridges where we could view the valley from above. 

But first we stopped by a curious set of rock outcrops called ‘The Three Marias’. There was another one next to it whose name I don’t recall, because in my head I’ve already dubbed it ‘the dinosaur’. 

Rock outcrops sticking out of the valley landscape in Valle de la Luna called 'The Three Marias'

The Three Marias. To be honest, I can’t really see how they’re womanlike, but I guess if you squint really hard…

Small rock outcrop next to Las Tres Marias looking like the head of a dinosaur with an open mouth

The Dinosaur… or Pacman?

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 getting used 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 at the occasional light wind down the valley slope. 

Once you mount the ridge, you could go either left or right – but there was not enough time to double back to go both ways.

For me, this was one of the things I thought could be better, with 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 Amfitheater. This cannot-miss tour really needs to be a bit longer!

A view along the ridge line and down the other side of the Valley of the Moon (not the famous amphitheatre side)

Beautiful ‘lunar’ landscape

One path followed the rocky ridge line and the other would have you walk on the dune ridge. We debated over which side should be chosen. 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 could have gone further had there been more time. 

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. 

Valley of the Moon landscape

Lunarlike and strange

Hiking up the dunes of Valle de la Muerte

There are actually two valleys that you’d visit, going on a typical Valle de la Luna 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 reminded whoever it was who was taken to see it of the Martian landscape. But the people who were with him misheard, and thought he said muerte, rather than Marte. 

How Martian-like the landscape really is, I can’t quite 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 Moon Valley.

Footsteps on the sand dune at Valle de la Muerte in Atacama desert

Just enough time to go up the dune

All of us felt that we would rather have had more time wandering on the ridges rather than make this stop, that more places is not better. Our guide assented, but said that his company insisted that it should be added. 

Reflecting on this much later, I suppose the other way is to make the tour longer, so that there could be more time both for the ridge line hikes and properly exploring the Mars Valley. Because, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind that either. 

Mirador de Kari: The Atacama sunset over the Moon Valley

We moved on to the tour’s finale: the sunset over the valley. The famous viewing point is the area near Piedra del Coyote, and by the time we arrived, many other tour groups were already there and were staking out their 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 guides intervened, sharply commanding him to retreat. He reluctantly did, and consequently failed to qualify for the Darwin Awards.

Tourists on Piedra del Coyote bathed in warm glow of sunset in Valle de la Luna, Atacama desert

Sunset bathing the lookout in orange light

Rachel commented disapprovingly on the millennial trend of personal endangerment for mediocre fame. I was mostly quietly impressed by how quickly and effectively just a random Chilean tour guide intervened against a paying tourist. Really, Southeast Asia tour guides, we need to have more 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. 

Sunset in the desert – don’t forget to turn around

My friend, who had taken me around in Oman, once spoke to me 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. It was a long line of colour glowing all across the long horizon, topped by the clear periwinkle blue of the sky. A lavender purple line began 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. 

'Valley of the Moon vs. Rainbow Valley: Both Are Amazing' travel guide article on travel blog Teja on the Horizon |Desert sunset in Valley of the Moon in the Salt Mountains of Atacama, Chile

Sunset in the desert valley

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 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 reflection.

Without the 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. Unreal. 

Moon rising as an impossibly bright silver circle over Licancabur volcano after sunset, contrasting with a dusky blue-orange-pink twilight sky

Surely that’s not real…

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! 

'Valley of the Moon vs. Rainbow Valley: Both Are Amazing' travel guide article on travel blog Teja on the Horizon

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6 Responses

  1. This is yet another great post by you, filled with detail, observations … and a magic moment with the moon. Plus, I appreciate that you have your eye on sustainability at all times. Bravo!

    • Teja says:

      Thank you! I try my best, and on this blog I try to make these little decisions and thoughts manifest, so that hopefully my readers start to feel more used to having a sustainable attitude being always present rather than a ‘thing’ you ‘do’, much like being polite is not what you do, but who you are.

  2. Chocoviv says:

    Such beautiful photos!

  3. Rhonda Albom says:

    Atacama was the first stop on our South American adventure, and like you, I fell in love with the landscapes of the desert. Your photos brought back wonderful memories. My favourite of your shots is the salt caves looking back. It actually was the way I came out as they got too narrow for my comfort.
    Rhonda Albom recently posted…My Dengue Fever Experience in South AmericaMy Profile

    • Teja says:

      9 times out of 10 I take a quick glance around and see nothing special. But it’s that 1 out of 10 that delivers! That golden glow was so unexpected.

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