Important note about my frequent travel: these are my experiences and observations I share eagerly and enthusiastically. I receive no compensation in cash/kind/discounts, etc. of any kind from any business/locations I’ve visited. None of the businesses paid for my travel expenses or offered any free services.
Our third day in San Pedro de Atacama (SPdA) I finally woke up without a headache and felt normal. The down side was, we had to check out of San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Exploration (SPACE). If I had known just how amazing this place was, I would have stayed here the whole week. Instead, we’ll be staying at Hostal Solor for the next few days. It’s a budget place in the town and it’s not bad. We had a clean and comfortable room with a private bathroom. It wasn’t anything fancy but it also cost less than half of what we paid at SPACE. I still wish I had stayed at SPACE a few more days. It would have been worth it.
Our first stop for the day was Tulor archaeological site, about 10 km from SPdA. It was a little difficult to find it using google maps but maps.me was much more accurate. The entrance fee is 6,000 CLP ($9 USD) per person. This is the site of a pre Columbian ruins from 800 CE to 1200 CE. At the entrance, there are many circular rooms. Some of the rooms have artifacts like pots, pans, jewelry, weapons, etc found at the site. Another room had information about flora and fauna found in the region during the pre Columbian civilization but all the information was in Spanish.
We walked down a long-ish path towards the replica of the circular homes made from mud. This site is very close to Valley of the moon. In fact, we can see Valley of the moon as we walked to the hut. From the hut, there is another pathway to the actual site of where 22 homes used to stand. I feel like we would have liked it a lot more if we could understand/learn the history. This is definitely a place you should visit with an English speaking guide. We spent about 45 mins walking around before continuing to Valley of the Moon.
Entry fee to Valley of the Moon is 2,500 CLP (about $3.80 USD) per person before noon and 3,000 CLP (about $4.50 USD) after noon. There is generally lots of parking spots but late afternoon, it gets crowded and parking can be tricky. This is one of the most popular tourist destinations so expect lots and lots of tour vans and buses in late afternoon. Driving through the park with a 2 wheel drive was fine and at no point did we feel like a 4 wheel drive was necessary.
Another option is to rent bicycles from SPdA for the day. We saw a lot of people going for this option surprisingly. A few of them definitely did not look very happy because Valley of the Moon is not flat. Parts of the park are very hilly and in the sun I can’t imagine this was easy. But, if you are healthy and want a challenge, its certainly an option. Make sure you take lots of sunblock and water with you. It’s probably the cheapest option available.
Valley of the moon is about 8-10 miles from SPdA and it consists of stone and sand formations carved out by wind and water. It’s part of the Cordillera de Sal, Salt Mountain Range. The lack of humidity in this region means there is no life here, making it one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Because of the terrain, a prototype of Mars rover was tested in this region. The landscape is supposed to look like Moon but to me it looked more like Mars. Maybe because of the red color everywhere.
The first stop we made at Valley of the Moon was Caverna de Sal (Salt Caves). There are two short hikes and we picked longer of the two. As the name suggests, you hike through a cave system and there are many parts of the hike where you have to crawl because the space is so small and tight. It’s one of those rare times when being short is actually helpful. It’s also a good idea to bring a flashlight because many parts of the cave are very dark. I used my cell phone flashlight but a miners head lamp would have been very useful. This was my favorite hike at this park. Click here for a short video of the hike.
Our next stop was Mirador Achaches. This is another short hike to the view point and it’s totally worth it. The hike is uphill in the sand which is a lot harder than it looks. At the top, you see the valley below and in the distance there are snow covered mountains. We stayed for about 10 minutes before hiking back down. The downhill hike in the sand is a lot easier than going uphill. The top of the hike is a great place to have a snack and take in the sight. The view of the valley below reminded me of a smaller version of Badlands National Park.
Next, we went to Tres Marias, salt formations formed by process of erosion over 1 million years. These formations are made of salt, quartz, clay and gravel. For me, this was probably the least impressive sight in the park mainly because we’ve also visited Arches National Park. I was more stunned by the untouched sand dunes across from the Tres Marias. I wish I could have walked around the sand dunes but it’s protected. We didn’t stay here for too long because sunset was in about an hour and we wanted to get a good spot.
The staff at Valley of the Moon told us the best place to watch sunset was from Mirador de Kari (Piedra del Coyote). The hike is again short but the uphill part in the sand is harder than expected. At the top, you have magnificent view of the canyon below. We got there more than an hour before sunset and the place was mostly empty. We snagged the best seat before tour groups came. There are more untouched and protected sand dunes on one side and rocky formation on the other side. As the sun started to set, the colors of the rocks, shadows, and the salt everywhere looked like a painting.
As soon as the sun set, temperature dropped and I’d forgotten my jacket in the car. I hiked down very fast to the warm car and also to beat the traffic. By sunset there were a few hundred people at Mirador de Kari. The drive back to Hostal Solor was just stunning. The sky was so colorful, shades of pink, blue and orange with snow capped volcanic mountains as the backdrop. The view was absolutely incredible. I wish my cell phone could have captured a better picture.
For dinner, we decided to try pizza from a restaurant called Bakan. It was a short walk from the hostel. We ordered the Espanola pizza which had salami and chorizo for 6,500 CLP (about $10 USD). Unfortunately, the pizza SUCKED. It was by far the worst pizza we’ve ever eaten. I could barely finish one slice even though I was starving. We threw away the pizza and got sandwiches from a food stall. After dinner we wanted to go back to the hostel and relax. Turns out, our room was very cold because the heat doesn’t come on until 9:15 pm. I guess, it’s a more budge place so they cut costs wherever possible. Once the heat came on, I fell asleep almost immediately.
Click here for more pictures of Valley of the Moon.