San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: Valle de la Luna & Fulfilling a Travel Dream!

Valle de la Muerte, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

As with most trips, my backpacking journey around South America did not end up taking the same form I imagined when I started planning.  I originally thought I’d visit friends in Buenos Aires, experience Uruguay, and practice Portuguese in Brazil before heading back to explore central and northern Peru; instead, I saw more of Argentina and Chile than expected and managed to spend nearly a month in Ecuador!  However, I had one travel dream that I was determined to fulfill, no matter what: visit San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

When I lived in Buenos Aires in 2002, I saw a picture of the Atacama Desert showing an expanse of one of its salt flats with blue skies and white clouds reflected in a mirror-like puddle that had collected after a rainfall.  I knew I had to experience this amazing landscape for myself.  For this reason, I decided to head south to Chile immediately after finishing my year volunteering in Peru: I wanted to make sure I had enough time and money to fully explore the area around San Pedro de Atacama.

After getting my travel bearings in Arica, I took an overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama with Tur-Bus.  Due to some last-minute planning, I ended up having to splurge for the VIP/salón-cama seat, which led to an amazing discovery:  I realized I could actually sleep on overnight buses as the wider “full-bed” seats gave me enough space to sleep on my side!  This discovery saved me time and money throughout the rest of my trip since I could arrive relatively well-rested and ready to explore my next destination and save on a night of lodging.

Early in the morning, I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town with a huge tourist presence.  From there, I walked to my hostel, Hostal Sonchek, which is conveniently located near the bus station and offers cozy, friendly four-bed dormitories, while not catering exclusively to budget backpackers.  I grabbed some snacks and an empanada from the small grocery store across the street and wandered around San Pedro, taking in this tourist town for the first time.

First, I stopped by CosmoAndino Expediciones to confirm my tour to Valle de la Luna later that day.  CosmoAndino has a well-deserved reputation for offering the highest quality tours around, including extras that other operators may not include.  Even though they are pricier than other tour agencies, you see a lot of budget backpackers on the tours because they are absolutely worth the splurge, especially for photographers, as they emphasize extra time to really take in and experience the wonders of the Atacama.  As I describe my trips with them, you’ll see exactly what I mean!

After checking on my tour, I wandered into Heladeria Tierra del Sol, an artesanal ice cream shop, lured in by a friendly guy and an inviting porch swing.  It doesn’t take much to convince me to eat delicious ice cream!

Checking out Valle de la Muerte from above, Atacama, Chile

The Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) tour is the traditional “first stop” for anyone visiting the Atacama.  With CosmoAndino, you start the tour a little bit earlier so that you can do some light hiking through the red rock cliffs of Valle de la Muerte, getting some exercise and fresh air along with a broader perspective of the area.

Valle de la Muerte, Atacama, Chile

According to our guide, David, Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) was named by accident due to some confusion caused by a foreign accent – it should actually be called Mars Valley (Valle del Marte) after the alien landscape!

Valle de la Muerte, Atacama, Chile

Once inside the valley, you can watch the people sandboarding on the dunes. I much preferred walking around the valley to climbing back up that dune! After appreciating the views from inside the valley, we met up with our van to head over to the Valle de la Luna in time for the sunset.

Checking Out Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

As an experienced guide, David knew the best strategy for really experiencing Valle de la Luna.  Most groups congregate right near the entrance to the ridge you see above.  Our group walked all the way to the end of the permitted pathway because this meant we would have more time to appreciate the colors of the landscape, which would only become more beautiful and interesting after the sun finally disappeared.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

The golden glow of the last rays of the sunlight illuminated the valley.  Look in one direction, and the hills looked brown and orange, reflecting the sun’s warm glow.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

Look in another direction, and the mountains turned shades of pink, purple, and blue.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

As other groups cleared out, we remained there, taking in the still-changing colors. As an experienced sunset-watcher, I know that the best colors come after the sun goes down. I’m just glad I went with a tour company whose awesome guide understood that, too!

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

The pink shades really made the valley look otherworldly, like the surface of the moon.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

Finally, the park’s guard came over and asked us to leave, and we made our way back down the dunes to our waiting van. Even from inside the valley, we could see the magic of the still changing light.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

Unfortunately, the national park no longer allows people to camp overnight in the valley, but you can just imagine what the stars must look like from inside this barren, alien landscape.  As you can see, this was a great start to my time in San Pedro de Atacama.  I couldn’t wait to explore more of it the next day. 🙂

Recommendations for San Pedro de Atacama, Chile:

  • Stay at Hostal Sonchek.  They offer four-bed dormitories for 8.500CLP (about $15USD) along with private rooms.  Wi-fi is available in the courtyard, there is plenty of outdoor seating, including a relaxing backyard, and they have a small but well-stocked kitchen where you can prepare your meals and meet other guests.  They also have consistent hot water in nice bedrooms, and the staff is friendly and helpful.  Because this is a small, family-run hostal, they are less crowded and more flexible than other places which cater exclusively to backpackers.
  • If you like photography and want to be more active on your tours, book with CosmoAndino Expediciones.  That said, there are other tours to parts of the Atacama that CosmoAndino does not visit (Laguna Cejar, Valle Arcoiris, etc.), and you should definitely visit these places too!  Do your research – there is a lot more to visit in the Atacama than the English-language guidebooks mention.  I will highlight these places in future posts.
  • For long-distance bus travel, take Tur-Bus and consider splurging for the “full-bed” seats.  It’s worth it.
  • It costs 2.000CLP to enter the Valle de la Luna national park in addition to whatever your tour costs.
[July 6, 2013: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile]

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