Exploring the Valley of the Moon

17 May 2022

Exploring Atacama Desert Chile

Scott Dunn South America Specialist Jon Dunne recently traveled to Chile’s Atacama Desert for the first time. Here, he tells us why the so-called Valley of the Moon – one of the driest places on the planet – should be on your bucket list.

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to experience the vastness and luna-type landscape of the Atacama Desert for myself, and it’s safe to say it did not disappoint. El Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) is located west of San Pedro de Atacama, approximately 45 minutes’ drive from the town. The landscape is made up of various stone and sand formations which have been carved by wind and water over millions of years, creating a vast range of colors and textures, giving it an appearance somewhat similar to the surface of the moon. The area is dotted with dry lakes, where the composition of salt creates rough, white surface, embedded with layers of gypsum which glisten like diamonds in the ground. The first stop of our tour was at a viewpoint overlooking the Valley of the Moon. The panoramic view of the jagged cliffs and bone-dry valleys was incredible. In the other direction were the volcanoes.

  • Atacama Desert, Chile
  • Atacama Desert, Chile
  • Atacama Desert, Chile

After a short walk we arrived at an abandoned bus from a former salt mine. The bus was used to transport miners from the town to work at the salt mine, but the mine didn’t last very long as it became too expensive to operate and – much like the bus – the mine was abandoned and left to the elements of the desert. As you stand at the base of the rockface, you can hear the mountain ‘chiming’ as the sun heats the rock face, almost as though it is trying communicate or sing to anyone who is prepared to stop and listen. We continue our journey one more stop to climb up to a viewpoint and walk along the top of the rock face to the top of a sand dune. Most then head back to the bus, however our guide suggested that we could continue along a narrow trail along the top of the rock face to the next sand dune further along – something she informed us she is the only person who suggests this to guests, but hardly anyone attempts!  

  • Atacama Desert, Chile
  • Atacama Desert, Chile
  • Atacama Desert, Chile

After all agreeing to do the extra trek, I can see why many people don’t attempt the trail. The path seemed fairly easy from a distance, but once on the trail we found sections in the middle which made you hold your breath and think twice about why you agreed to attempt this walk. There was a sheer drop either side. The additional trek is definitely not for the faint hearted, but the views into the distance of the utter vastness made it worth attempting the extra distance. At the end you were greeted by an immense sand dune that was pristine and smooth – you felt as though you were the first to set foot on this untouched dune. After taking photos of this epic expanse of nothing, it was time to head down to our awaiting van. Obviously, what goes up must come down, and the best way to reach the bottom was to run as fast as you can… I felt like a big kid again running down the dune! 

  • Atacama Desert, Chile
  • Atacama Desert, Chile
  • Atacama Desert, Chile

Walking through a natural wonder such as this is definitely better than seeing it slide by your tour bus window. The opportunity to marvel at the salt-covered desert from up close, walk among massive rock formations, listen to the mountain sing and run down the sand dunes at full speed is a really surreal and beautiful experience and one you will never forget.

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