Our journey ends here in the highest and driest place on Earth, where the thin air and otherworldly landscape take breaths away both literally and figuratively. We were capping off an incredible year of travel by spending our last three days in the Atacama Desert to explore stunning wonders such as Valle del Arcoiris, Valle de la Luna, Piedras Rojas and Salar de Atacama.
Atacama’s arid and crinkly landscape of glowing red rocks, blinding white salt flats and towering volcanoes is often compared to Mars due to its unique geology and extreme dryness. Because the soil chemistry is similar to that of Mars, the Atacama Desert has become Nasa’s playground to test its Mars Rovers. It’s also an astronomer’s wet dream! Atacama’s high altitude, clear skies and low-to-zero light pollution offers exceptional conditions for stargazing that some of the world’s leading scientific observatories are based here. In recent years, astro-tourism has become a thing here where some observatories offer public tours and an opportunity to watch the night skies. Yes, that’s a thing!
We were staying in the quaint adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama, the tourist center of the Atacama Desert, an oasis in an otherwise stark landscape. We spent our time walking the narrow dirt roads browsing the cute Andean shops, eating at one too many over-priced restaurants and passing tons of tour offices all promising a lifetime adventure in the desert. For being in such a remote area the town was surprisingly overflowing with tourists.
Now In Technicolor
Over the next couple of days we made several excursions into the surrounding desert to sample its diverse terrain.
Our first excursion was to Laguna Cejar, a sinkhole lake whose turquoise waters stand in contrast to the bright white salt flats. We were hoping to see flamingoes, which are known to hang out here, but instead we were greeted by loud hairy Eastern Europeans lounging in the pristine lagoon like they were in some public bathhouse back in Europe. Spotting no flamingoes we did a quick walk around and took some pictures before getting back on the road to head to our next destination.
Our next excursion was to Valle del Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley) which got its name from the rich concentration of minerals that paint the hills with layers and layers of brilliant colors. Getting there was a bit tricky. Signage wasn’t great and google started freaking out telling us to turn left down a questionable dirt road that disappeared into the dark narrow valley. Even if we were to listen to google we weren’t confident our cheap two- wheel drive rental would survive the trip.
Not wanting to be another “death by gps” statistic, we continued on the main road ignoring google’s warning that this would add hours to the trip. About 20 minutes later we spotted a ranger station for the Hierbas Buenas Petroglyphs and a sign for Valle del Arcoiris. Whew! It turned out we were heading in the right direction. Take that google!!
Since we were here, we stopped off to check out the petroglyphs. There were cool glyphs of llamas, foxes, etc. but the confusing self-guided brochure only gave a description of the glyphs but no story behind it. About halfway we turned back anxious to get to Rainbow Valley.
After consulting with the ranger, we continued on the paved road towards Rainbow Valley before turning left down a really bumpy dirt road dodging llamas in colorful costumes along the way. The deeper we went the worse the road became as we had to cross several shallow streams and avoid large rocks and deep ruts. Eventually we came to the end of the road when the valley appeared before us in all its vivid technicolor glory.
We were like Dorothy in OZ marveling at the spectacular pageantry of green, reds, purples and yellows that were on displayed.
Our next destination was Valle de la Marte or Muerte (Valley of Mars/Death) but we couldn’t find the entrance so we continued on to Mirador Coyote in Valle da la Luna (Valley of the Moon). After speaking with the ranger, we were told that the Mars/Death valley wasn’t accessible to tourists. (As of this writing there are reports of people visiting the valley, so who knows).
So we continued on to the lookout to take in the spectacular panoramic views of the crusty and rocky lunar-like terrain. We weren’t alone as the lookout was full of vans doing the extremely popular Valle de La Luna sunset tour.
We hopped back on the highway and re-entered the main entrance for Valle de la Luna to take in the scenery up close. Our first stop was at Caverna de Sal (Salt Caverns). It was a bitch to find the trialhead but a line of tourists hiking single file up the valley wall clued us in on the location. We’re smart like that. It was slow going with hikers of all ages and abilities in front of us. We had to duck down in a few places and scramble up to get around the crowds. The crystal formations were actually pretty impressive.
From there we drove to our next stop, Tres Marias (The Three Marias), an unusual rock formation made of gravel, clay, salt and quartz. Along the way we stopped off at some interesting viewpoints, but signage was non-existent so we had no idea what we were looking at. Eventually we reached the end of the road where we found the Tres Marias striking a dramatic pose against the surrounding white salt flats. After taking a few pics it was time to scout out a location to experience the area’s legendary sunset.
On the way out we stopped at one of the interesting looking hikes to a high point called Duna Mayor, where we climbed to where we could see over the surrounding hills. As expected, the dune was crowded with people trying to catch the same sunset. The sunset was nice but I wouldn’t necessarily call it legendary. The rangers kicked us out immediately after sunset, so we weren’t able to see the clouds light up with brilliant colors from top of the dune.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Parina Atacama was hard to find. It didn’t help that we didn’t have gps to find the place. Thanks to a map in the Lonely Planet guide book we found our way to the Tourist office where we were able to get directions. Good thing! The hotel is located in the outskirts of town and we would not have found it otherwise.
The Parina Atacama are actually apartments. Our loft style apartment had a small kitchen, eating area and a large upstairs bedroom. The apartment was super quaint and cosy. Breakfast was served in the apartment. Parina Atacama is about a 10 minute walk from the main center. There was plenty of street parking.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Good local food located on the main tourist drag. Beautiful building with high ceilings, dark wooden floor and adobe fireplace in the middle of the restaurant. G had the Chanchito Campero (Pork with mashed potatoes) and D had the Pastel de Choclo (Corn Stew). The Pork was good. Choclo was OK. Creamier than Galindo but flavorless. Expensive.
La Parada del Desierto
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
We wanted to get away from the touristy restaurant and went to Licancaber street away from the main tourist center. We found this divey restaurant filled with locals that served only rotisserie chicken, salchichas (sausage), papas (fries) and arroz (rice). The chicken and fries were really good. Cheap and filling.