An Out-of-This-World Adventure
If you’ve ever wanted to take a walk on the moon, this is the place for you. Set in the Cordillera de la Sal (or Salt Mountains), west of San Pedro de Atacama (about a 2-hr. flight from Santiago) and south of the new highway, the Valley de la Luna (or Valley of the Moon) has an otherworldly feel. The unique formations of reddish-brown stone, petrified salt, and sand have been molded by floods and winds over thousands of years. Virtually no rain has fallen here to alter the landscape or help things grow; the Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth.
The best way to explore this surreal terrain is to climb the massive sand dunes, and the prime time to do it is in the late afternoon. As dusk falls, the light casts long shadows on the vast expanses. The wind whisks grains of sand back and forth, creating a sort of moving mountain beneath your feet as you make your way across the flat peaks of massive dunes. Walking across the narrow top of a sand dune at such a high altitude is a bit dizzying, but mostly you feel like the “King (or Queen) of the Mountain.” Once you get your balance and some confidence, walk faster or run. Just make sure you’ve reached a good spot to witness one of the world’s most magnificent sunsets.
The temperature drops quickly after the sun falls, so roll down the dunes and head back to the tiny town of San Pedro for dinner. Afterward (or the following night if you’re too tired), dress warmly and head out into the darkness to gaze at the countless stars twinkling in the sky. Because of the desert’s high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover, and lack of light pollution or radio interference, it‘s one of the best places in the world to conduct astronomical observations. You can see this for yourself on an astronomical tour—led by French astronomer Alain Maury and his wife—called SPACE Agency, Caracole St. 166 ( 565/585-1935 or 569/817-8354; www.spaceobs.com). You’ll take a van to the couple’s home, where you’ll view constellations and nebulae through brilliant telescopes in their backyard, followed by an indoor slideshow and hot chocolate. Don’t miss this eye-opening experience.
If you’re staying in the area for 4 or 5 days, you’ll find plenty to do. San Pedro itself is well worth exploring. In fact, when you first arrive, walk around the town for a day before embarking on any hikes or potentially exerting activities. You’ll need to adjust to the altitude, and set up your tours for the things you want to do (like Valle de La Luna). Other area highlights include the El Tatio Geysers, Lagunas Altiplanicas, and Salar de Atacama. After your many adventures, relax by bathing in the volcanic hot springs at Termas de Puritama.
Tour: Choose from one of the many tour operators along the main street in San Pedro de Atacama.
When to Go: Apr–Nov, late afternoon before sunset.
$$–$$$ Hotal Aliplanico Atacama ( 56-55/851-212; www.rapanui.cl).