“You must go to Valle de la Luna”, the Chilean woman at the Cejar Laguna told me, “It’s like a different world”. And so Valle de la Luna was solidified on my bucket list! Out of all the daily adventures my mother and I took in the Atacama Desert, considered the driest place on earth, Valley of the Moon happened to be the closest to our accommodations in San Pedro, being only 13 kilometers (8 miles) west of town.
After getting our tickets and map at the ticket office my mother and I began our journey into Valle de the Luna and very early on, we could see how this ancestral location got it’s name “Valley of the Moon”; the terrain was certainly out of this world. The landscape was a combination of salt flats, sand dunes and mountains and the hues were like something out of impressionist paintings.
Exploring the Caverns
Our first stop was at the caverns and we quickly found the entrance to the long corridors of climbing orange rock on either side of us against a bright blue sky. As we walked through the narrow and winding path we could hear the mica rock expanding within the cavern walls, creating a sound much like opening an old creaking door.
The cavern eventually led to the entrance to a cave…a very dark cave, and I suddenly felt my heart pounding in my chest. This was not the first time I would enter a cave with nothing but a flashlight, but it was still rather anxiety-inducing, especially as my eyes adjusted from the brightness of day to the sudden blackness that I was walking into. I found myself checking all the crevices for big insects that I had encountered in previous caves in Guatemala and Laos and inched my way forward with my mother behind me.
Our flashlights had just enough light for us to see what looked like sparkling salt crystals on the sides and ceiling while the ground was sand that was so fine it could be described as dust. When we decided we had seen enough, we turned back towards the entrance feeling magnificently triumphant, a feeling that lasted all the way back through the cavern and across the street to the car.
After driving past a large sand dune to the left we came up to what has been aptly named “The Amphitheater”, a perfect panorama of beautiful scenery. The salt looked like a blanket of snow covering every surface and the formations jutted out of the ground making the entire area reminiscent of pictures of the moon. I found myself almost getting frustrated with taking pictures because no photo I shot seemed to do this amazing location justice!
Although we did not stay for sunset, I could easily see how the Amphitheater could turn into an ever-changing show of colors as the shades of pink, orange and yellows passed over the white salt.
Shortly after leaving the Amphitheater, we came across a small parking lot on the left and a sign that read “Mirador”, Spanish for viewpoint. We decided to climb the very short path towards what we thought was the top having no idea what we were in for. What began as a short stop to get yet another gorgeous picture, turned out to be the highlight of the day for me.
Once we arrived at the top of the steps we could see that the trail continued up the sand dune to the right and so we walked and walked. As the hot sand burned my feet, I was painfully aware that I had stupidly stepped out of our house that morning wearing only flip flops! But I continued to climb somehow knowing that arriving at the top would be worth the mild pain at my feet.
I was expecting a beautiful view of the surrounding area at the top of the dune that seemed to go on and on, but I had no idea just how incredible the panorama would actually be. In every direction was something exquisite to look at, with layers of dunes and the most interesting rock formations set to the backdrop of colorful mountains and volcanos. The view could only be described as breath-taking and my mother and I were once again feeling very triumphant.
And so we stayed there for awhile, basking in our discovery, enjoying the perfect combination of cool breeze and warm sun while we appreciated the incredible panorama that seemed to be just for us and questioning how it was possible that we were the only ones there! As we approached the bottom of the trail we saw a large tour bus arrive to let off about 30 tourists. “What good timing”, we thought as we greeted each tourist telling them that the climb was worth it.
Next on our list was the viewpoint over the Tres Marias, which are formations, composed of gravel, clay, salt, gems and quartz, created by immense erosion over time. After reading that they were about one million years old, we decided that these formations warranted, at the very least, a short visit.
Abandoned Salt Mine
After viewing and getting photographs of the Three Marias, we continued on the main road and made a quick left onto the bumpiest road we had encountered in the Atacama Desert. This might not have been much of a big deal if we had a truck or jeep, but our little rental car we had named Bluette rattled and shook the entire ride out there. Perhaps it was the drive or perhaps it was the last stop on an adventure that produced one amazing view after another, but we found ourselves a little disappointed with the salt mine. While it might have been abandoned as a salt mine, it was clearly still being used as a makeshift place to sleep and a toilet. We did enjoy our short walk however into the actual mine as well as the surrounding views before climbing back into our little car for the bumpy ride back.
Tickets, Tips and How to Get There
Adult tickets cost 2000 Chilean pesos ($2.85US) with slightly cheaper tickets for children and seniors. The ticket office opens at 9:30am and the entrance fee includes a map in either Spanish or English.
We recommend bringing lip balm, sunscreen and LOTS of water as well as a good flashlight if you are planning on exploring the cave at the end of the walk through the cavern. You could easily spend the entire day at Valle de la Luna so pack a lunch.
To get to Valle de la Luna from San Pedro leave town using Route 23 towards Calama and just a very short way along the road make a left following the sign and Valle de la Luna will be on your right hand side. There is plenty of place to park while you purchase your tickets, ask questions and visit the small museum outlining what you can expect to see there as well as some history of the location.