The Atacama Region
There are many Valle de la Luna (Valley Of The Moon) in the world but none quite as famous as the Valley Of The Moon near San Pedro de Atacama, one of the driest places on Earth in northern Chile. The Atacama Desert is a 105,000² mile (149,000² km) strip of land pinned between the Andes and the smaller Chilean Coast Range.
The average rainfall over the entire desert is just 15mm a year although some locations rarely see more than 1-3mm. Increasingly erratic weather patterns sometimes bring snowfall (2011) and flooding (2012 and again in 2015) but the Atacama remains not only the oldest desert on Earth but the unique geography of the area makes it the driest non polar desert too. Studies of the region show that the area has been hyperarid for the past 3 million years. Look at the mountain peaks, generally mountains over 5000 meters have glaciers as they trap the passing moisture but there is no moisture to be trapped here and the mountain peaks remain glacier free.
Getting To San Pedro de Atacama
The Valley Of The Moon is situated in the Salt Mountain Range, 13km west of San Pedro de Atacama. The area is one of the most popular excursions thanks to its relative proximity to the main tourism hub of San Pedro and is well know for its moonscape and stunning sunsets.
Getting to San Pedro isn’t the easiest but don’t let it put you off. The nearest airport is 100km north west in Calama. From Calama to San Pedro its about 90 minutes by road and dirt track. There are many bus companies that make the trip daily if you prefer not to drive. From the capital of Chile, Santiago, Lan America operate 5 daily flights to Calama (or it’s 20 hours by bus). San Pedro is 521km south west of Uyuni in Bolivia, famous for it’s Salt Flats, via the Hito Cajón border pass. A more popular route is a 10+ hour bus from Salta in northern Argentina that runs 6 days a week. The cost is around US$50 one way.
Staying In Sen Pedro de Atacama
The town is the popular choice for many tourists that visit the region. Tourism is now the mainstay of the several thousand townsfolk since the once prolific mines that dot the area have been closed leaving ghost towns in their wake. You will be hard pressed to find a 5 star spa resort here but there are some very good hotels and cheaper hostels to choose from
They add to the laid back atmosphere in town and its great to sit outside under the stars Milky Way that illuminate the sky with new found friends and share your experiences of the day while planning what to do once the sun rises again. You can get organised tours that include a stop off in San Pedro but please make sure they include more than 1 night. There is too much to see and once you get used to the laid back charm, fantastic local food and warm hospitality you will want to stay for longer.
Valle de la Luna
You can get an organised tour of the valley or, if you’re feeling particularly energetic, you can hire a pushbike and spend the day cycling there and back. Be aware though that San Pedro and Valley Of The Moon are at altitude. If you haven’t had time to acclimatise then you may find even walking around town will get you out of breath. If you have had time to acclimatise then I would recommend you get a tour there instead. The Atacama Desert is not somewhere you want to be pushing your limits.
The most popular time to go is mid afternoon so that the day ends while looking out over the Atacama as the sun sets so be prepared to queue for a little to pay your entry fee into the park. Once inside there are numerous stops people make.
- Anfiteatro – See across to the border with Bolivia.
- Las Tres Maria – A natural stone formation surrounded by dried salt. This is as close to walking on the moon on Earth.
- Caves – Walk a trail through a small cave system. Particularly stunning at sunset
- Valle de la Marte – A valley ridge popular to watch the sun set over the Atacama.
Valle de la Luna is the most popular spot in the Atacama known for its stunning otherworldly landscape. Once you visit you will instantly know why. You have never seen anything quite like the Valle de la Luna and you will want to stay for longer and see what the rest of the Atacama hasn’t in store.