Valle de La Luna in Chile’s Atacama Desert

San Pedro de Atacama is your jumping off point to all areas of interest in the Atacama desert in northern Chile. A two-hour flight from Santiago gets you north to Calama. No reason to stop there. Get a “transfer” for about 12 bucks an hour and change away to San Pedro de Atacama. A transfer is a white van that will drop off you and the other backpackers at any hostel you want when you get to town. The caveat is that food is extremely expensive there (European prices; I paid $25 for dinner for myself- was not happy.) Other than the expensive food, you can get a hostel bed for between $15 and $25 (still steep for those of us who are accustomed to Central America backpacker prices, yet definitely cheaper than European backpacking).

San Pedro is kind of like the “desert for dummies.” You pretty much have to take tours everywhere. Your rental car won’t do you any good, because there is virtually no signage. A friend of mine and I joked that there must be some kind of conspiracy amongst the tour agencies– that perhaps they go out into the desert and remove street signs so that tourists are compelled to purchase the tours. Actually we weren’t just joking. We were hiking to an archeological site and could hardly find it (we eventually did) for want of signage.

Once you forfeit your independence and acquiesce to the fact that you are subject to the pre-fab tours, you’ll have a great time. The tours range from $16 to $50. The one I describe below ran me about $20. It was a four-hour tour including transport.

Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) reminded me of Badlands National Park in South Dakota.


The erosion patterns look similar to those in South Dakota.

Upon closer inspection, the terrain looks like this:


After observing the gorgeous evidence of erosion, we entered into a small cave system and enjoyed taking photos inside. Bring a headlamp.


After exiting the cave with our group intact, the tour moved on to more exposed, vast, desolate areas filled with sand dunes and striking rock formations.

My favorite rock formation in this part of the desert reminded me exactly of one of my all-time favorite paintings. Dalí’s Average Bureaucrat includes the smaller hills that form of the backdrop of my own image. In my photo below, the rock would take the place of Dalí‘s father’s head in his painting.

Some in our group said the structure looked like a heart. Others said T-Rex in Jurassic Park. I’m with the latter.


You’ll also see the Tres Marías. The locals refer to them as the Marías, because they say that they look like Mary praying in various bent / leaning positions. Unfortunately María on the left, which now looks like a toad, used to be more of a María until a dumb tourist climbed up on her and broke off the top of the rock formation. So, now it’s a toad and two Marías. A good lesson in being a conscientious traveler.


Ironically our tour bus broke down as we approached Valle de la Muerte for sunset. Luckily they sent another bus within twenty minutes, after some feeble pushing attempts.

Thanks to the delay, we were able to enjoy the sensational sunset. The desert becomes so rainbow-striped at sundown.


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