The hub of tourist activity in north Chile and more specifically in the Atacama desert region is the little town of San Pedro de Atacama. This is the main street, Caracoles.
Valley of the Moon
The easiest major sight near San Pedro is the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) and its Great Sand Dune. Note walkers on the crest of the dune.
The Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), part of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Chain) contains The Amphitheatre (pictured above, background), a salt-rock canyon, caves and some weirdly eroded shapes but the best sight of all is from or of the monstrous dune (above, foreground) at sunset.
You will not be alone there, unfortunately, unless you’re an early riser and choose to get there for sunrise instead.
The Valley of the Moon is about 14kms (9mls) from San Pedro and doable by mountain bike if you’re fit.
Another shot of the Valley of the Moon, this one showing a more moony aspect. Note walkers in the background. The Three Maries (Tres Marias), on the right in the picture, are made of salt, quartz, clay and gravel and are about 1 million years old.
The Valley of the Moon is bikeable and well signed, the Valley of Death is bikeable and not signposted at all.
How long to stay in the Atacama region?
It would be possible to see El Tatio and the spectacular altiplano/mountain scenery in one day and do the Salt Lake and Valley of the Moon in another, though that would be rushing it, particularly since you may need to acclimatise for two or three days in San Pedro (2, 400m) before heading for El Tatio (4, 500m). 4, 500m is quite high enough to squash your eyeballs into a different shape and starve you of oxygen so you go wobbly and/or nauseous, thus making the expensive and magnificent trip into an unpleasant endurance contest.
Perhaps spend two or three days doing the Salt Lake, the two valleys and whatever else takes your fancy before venturing up to El Tatio’s heights.
Taking an afternoon dip in our private hot pool in the Atacama Desert. Well, nobody else there so it seemed private.
Renting a car for Atacama exploration
Another valley just a few kilometres from San Pedro, much favoured by sand boarders (boards rentable in San Pedro), encouragingly named ‘The Valley of Death’ or Valle de la Muerte in Spanish.
If you have reasonable financial resources, speak some Castellano (Spanish) and like a challenge then hire a vehicle. For serious exploration it should have high ground clearance, though 4WD is not vital.
Air conditioning is close to essential unless you don’t mind arriving at your destination with a melted face and dressed like you’ve just climbed fully clothed out of a swimming pool. The Atacama is a very hot.
Many of the rentals are 4 seater pick-up trucks, presumably since that’s what locals want when the car gets sold on a couple of year down the line, though it’s not ideal as you clearly can’t lock your baggage away nor can you protect your peanut butter from melting in the blazing sun.
On the positive side people who get car sick from the inevitable bouncing over very rough tracks are magically cured by rides in the back, clutching the roll cage and road surfing.
The easiest place to rent wheels is on arrival at Calama airport, needing just an hour’s drive to get to San Pedro.
p. s. If you’re planning to drive to El Tatio, a spectacular sight, you’ll certainly need a 4WD and a guide.
A typical Atacama gas station.
Pukara de Quitor & Tulor
Pukara de Quitor fort, 3kms from San Pedro and barely worth the trouble of getting there. Photo by Lastutok
A pre-Inca fort famously stormed by Pedro de Valdivia’s 30-man cavalry, overcoming 1, 000 defenders. This sight is within easy reach of San Pedro but it’s still only just worth the trouble to visit (and pay an entrance fee) unless you have a special interest.
Tulor is another sight that is of arguable value. It was a village of up to 2, 000 people from about 800 BC, with interconnected, thick-walled buildings. The villagers moved to the present San Pedro location when the river dried up. There’s very little visible now part from sagging mud walls and walking through the ruins is not permitted, so over to you, the viewer. . . vale la pena?