Giant sand dunes, angels praying… the Virgin mother… dinosaur heads… a map of South America.
What do we see in the rocks? “Use your imagination,” our guide Cristobal Soler urges. We are in northern Chile in the famous Atacama desert region in the Valle de la Luna—Moon Valley—famous for its resemblance to the moon surface and salt and rock formations that look like dinosaur heads, angels and more.
We hike up to the top of a Great Sand Dune, probably formed by the accumulation of sand. Literally, this area is a mountain range of salt that combined with sand and rock. We peer out at the third largest salt flats in the world and the mountains beyond.
Moon Valley is 15 miles long and thirty miles across, in the middle is a great round crater. Amazingly, we are 8,000 feet above sea level! “You feel the spirituality of the desert,” Cristobal, who went to high school in Wisconsin, tells us. As we hike through a small canyon area, he tells us to be silent—so we can hear the rocks cracking. “You hear your heart beat in the silence,” he says.
It is an awesome place. We walk by an abandoned salt mine, seeing the large veins of salt in the rock. Today, salt is taken from the ocean—less work! “This is a very special place,” Cristobal Solar says. “It is an adventure to come here.”
We had traveled from one end of Chile to the other—from Patagonia in the far south to San Pedro in the far north—a journey that took us two flights and four hours in the car. But it is so worth it!
We are ensconced in a beautiful hotel, Tierra Atacama just outside San Pedro, the town of about 4,000 people where we stay in desert-like casitas which boast outdoor and indoor showers, a pool overlooking the desert and mountains, a spa and comfortable areas around outdoor fire pits. It is a comfortable, beautifully designed space run by the same family who own Portillo Mountain Resort, the ski area not far from Santiago.
Even though we arrived nearly at 11 p.m., the manager greeted us and the other guests with drinks and sandwiches and this morning, we had our choice of excursions. There is so much to do here!
While my daughter Mel and I explored Moon Valley, my daughter Reggie and her boyfriend Dan Foldes opted for a more rigorous hike to Guatan canyon, crossing rivers and scrambling over rocks. Some of the Candelaria cactus date back some 500 years! “They were huge,” Dan and Reggie said. “It was just really pretty, and cool views,” Reggie said.
There are walks that focus on archeology and petro glyphs, walks to visit an abandoned mountain village—at 13,200 feet—with the chance to see llamas, alpacas and birds, bike rides past Inca ruins and the chance to swim in the salt flats. There is also the chance to walk up to 18,645 feet to the peak of a volcano.
Tonight we’re going to watch the flamingos in the sunset! What a sunset– the mountains turn peachy; the sky is pink and orange. It is flat out gorgeous.