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As mentioned in my San Pedro de Atacama post, there are a lot of tours to get busy with in the area. They vary in price, length and other details, but more often than not if you book more than one package with the same tour company they’ll give you a special price. That’s what happened in my case when I booked the Valle de la Luna tour and El Tatio Geyser tour at the same time – getting them both for an impressively low price!
Valle de la Luna
Have you seen The Martian with Matt Damon? Well it legit could have been filmed here in the Valle de la Luna (translated as Valley of the moon). You are surrounded by the most incredible landscapes – caves, dunes and weird looking rock and sand formations, carved completely naturally by wind and water.
The tour begins at 3:30pm with pick-up at your hotel. It’s an afternoon tour because the intention is to end up at La Piedra del Coyote to witness the sun setting over the desert, drowning it in colours you up until then didn’t even know existed.
Quite a short drive from San Pedro, first stop in the valley is Las Tres Marías.
The formation (the one on the right) is shaped in such a way due to intense erosion, and was given its name due to the fact that it clearly depicts three women praying. The lady on the far right is on her knees praying. The lady in the middle is standing, hands raised towards God. And the third? Well, I couldn’t tell you because it was destroyed a few years ago by some silly tourist trying to get a picture up close. Because destroying a one million year old structure for the sake of a photo is so worth it. No matter how many Marías are still standing, it’s still amazing to think that this shape came about completely naturally and over such a long time.
These days you can’t get closer to the figures than this photo – they’ve been ‘cordoned off’ by a bunch of rocks placed on the ground, of which you’re not supposed to cross.
Next up was a short hike up one of the sand dunes. Our guide Juan Pablo told us that not all tour groups offer this. As there is so much to see in the desert, different guides have their own preferences about what to do with their group at this point. Many do elect to take them up a sand dune, but Juan Pablo said that it is just he and one or two other guides that choose this particular dune.
It’s a relatively difficult hike – about 15 minutes in total. Dragging your feet through a bunch of sand combined with the altitude and the blistering wind makes it physically draining, and quite hard to breathe.
But the view from the top is worth it.
The hike down was a lot easier than the way up, although there were a few sketchy parts where loss of footing would inevitably have resulted in plummeting to your death.
From here we moved on to Valle de la Muerte (translated as Death Valley) and this salt thing:
I apologise for referring to it as a salt thing, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it actually is. If anybody does have any idea, feel free to let me know.
Juan Pablo gave us a brief lesson on the history of the name, and how despite it being the driest point on earth nobody has actually ever died here, despite rumours. The name came about when Gustavo Le Paige, one of the lead researchers in Atacama culture of all time, wanted to name the area Valle de Marte (Mars Valley) due to its features being so reminiscent of what we know about Mars. However, Le Paige was Belgian and had a thick accent, so when he announced this to the people they misheard him as Valle de la Muerte, and the name stuck! However, these days the government have renamed it Valle de Marte and are in the process of changing all signs and other official documentation to portray this.
Due to its slightly morbid name, there have been many, many stories cropping up over the years of people being killed or dying naturally in the area. There is one in particular – I forget the specifics – but it involves Spain, fighting and eventually a bunch of heads being displayed on sticks. This apparently did happen, but quite a few kilometres away from San Pedro.
The final stop was near La Piedra del Coyote to watch the sunset. Juan Pablo told us that although the sunset itself was spectacular, what we really needed to do is look to the opposite side, where the sun setting casts incredible colours over the landscape and the Andes range. I did just that, and it was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.
El Tatio Geyser
Honestly, I enjoyed El Tatio a lot less than Valle de la Luna – I don’t know if it was the 5:30am departure or the -5C temperature or the fact that I don’t really understand what a geyser is, but whatever it is it felt like there was something lacking. Don’t get me wrong, watching a bunch of hot smoke come up from the ground at random intervals is interesting, but I just wish I knew why it was happening. Something to do with the surrounding volcanoes apparently, but it wasn’t really explained. I guess knowledge of what a geyser actually is is a pre-requisite for this tour.
First stop was the El Tatio geyser field itself.
We ate breakfast (included in the tour) at the geyser field. Of course by breakfast I mean bread, cheese, ham and jam, though not all together.
So a quick Wikipedia search has revealed the following:
“El Tatio is a geyser field located within the Andes Mountains of northern Chile at 4,320 meters above mean sea level. Its name comes from the Quechua word for oven. It is among the highest-elevation geyser fields in the world. El Tatio has over 80 active geysers, making it the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world. Its geysers erupt to an average height of about 75 centimetres, with the highest eruption observed being around 6 metres.
…Visitors generally arrive at sunrise when each geyser is surmounted by a column of steam that condenses in the cold air. The steam plumes disappear as the air warms up.”
So that explains why we had to leave so early! Still doesn’t explain what a geyser is though…
After the first geyser site we went to another one a little lower down the mountain, where there was the opportunity to take a dip in natural hot springs. There was no way on this earth I was willing to take my clothes off outside in -5C temperature so I passed on this, and it’s a good job I did as we later heard from other people on the tour that only one corner of the springs was even remotely hot. The rest was lukewarm at best, mostly freezing!
Instead I walked around and looked at some of the other geysers, trying my best not to inhale too much sulphur.
When the crazy hot springs people were done we boarded the bus again and began to make our way down the mountain, back to San Pedro.
Along the way we stopped at this little indigenous village that was completely destroyed by a flood many years ago. Following the flood many of the people moved to San Pedro or Calama to work and rebuild their lives, but in recent years they’ve decided to come back, to rebuild their community and their village.
When the floodwaters died away, the only structure still standing – and still standing to this day – was the church.
I’m not overly-religious but I love stories likes this, where among all the tragedy and destruction, faith still stands strong.
After a quick llama kebab and toilet break (neither of which I participated in) it was back to the bus for the final two hour journey back to San Pedro, back just in time for lunch!