CYCLING TO THE MOON IN CHILE’S ATACAMA DESERT
The beautiful shades of Valle de la Luna
It’s weird. Sometimes we don’t realize until much later how special certain places were that we have been to. This happened to me today when I browsed through our thousands of pictures. I stumbled upon a folder with the name “Valle de la Luna”, clicked on it and a series of pictures with incredible shades of red, brown and blue appeared on my screen. I heard myself saying “Why have I totally forgotten about this beautiful place? And the feelings we had when we arrived there?”
This is the story behind those red and blue pictures…
We just finished a 2.5-day tour through Bolivia’s Andean Plateau with the world’s biggest salt flat. I still remember that strange feeling that Lars and I had when we crossed the border from Bolivia to Chile. We passed the gate of Bolivia’s border control, where we were only surrounded by rocks, sand and a volcano. Just a few meters away we saw a new paved road with shiny crash barriers and new street signs. Here, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Also a brand new bus was there, waiting for us to board. Our stomachs didn’t really know what to feel. We just experienced one of the absolute highlights of our whole journey in South America’s poorest country and suddenly we were in the neighboring country, the richest of South America. Just within a few kilometers.
The abondoned border control in Bolivia
On the one hand we were happy because we felt somehow safer from the first moment on (I guess that’s the feeling a brain produces when it sees modern busses and perfectly maintained roads) but at the same time we felt bad. Bad because of the people who struggle for survival in Bolivia every single day and who will never have the chance to cross this border.
And for us it was so easy. We just showed our passports, got a stamp and a quick “Safe travels!” Just my Bolivian banana wasn’t allowed to enter Chile.
Sitting in this air-conditioned bus we didn’t know anything about our next destination, San Pedro de Atacama. We just heard it’s a touristy town, full of travelers who arrive from Bolivia, like us, or who come from the south of Chile to see one thing: The Atacama Desert.
Very often we had heard this name before… Atacama Desert. But what did we actually know about it? If somebody had asked me what I know about it, I would have answered „It’s a desert.” I couldn’t have said more.
Relaxed atmosphere in the streets of San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama was a very cozy town that is also given the nickname San Perro de Atacama by the locals. “Perro” means “dog” and many street dogs feel also very comfortable in this small town that mainly consists of bars, restaurants, hostels and hotels.
After checking in at our accommodation we already planned our next trip down south to Valparaiso. At the bus terminal we realized that the ticket price would be much lower for a ride two days later so that we decided to stay for two nights and to enjoy San Pedro de Atacama.
“What are we going to do tomorrow?” asked Lars. In that moment we remembered a young French couple that we met on our tour in Bolivia. They recommended the Valle de la Luna – the Valley of the Moon.
On the next morning we rented two bikes. The Valle de la Luna was only 10km from San Pedro de Atacama and we were looking forward to sit in bicycle saddles again after a very long time. It was still morning but the sun burned so strongly from the sky that we had to make a short break after the first kilometers. Our mouths were dry. We were surrounded by red dusty sand and on the horizon a beautiful volcano appeared.
We arrived at the entrance of the National Park where a helpful man gave us a map of the Valle de la Luna. Of course we wanted to see all highlights that were marked in the map. Highly motivated we pushed the paddles.
The magical atmosphere in the rock tunnels
A few kilometers later we spotted a wooden hut with a bicycle rack. We stopped and saw an entrance to something, something that made us curious. The path guided us to some amazing rock formations and a tunnel. The red rocks were sharp and we bent our bodies to get through narrow crevices. At one point we had to crawl on our knees. Sunshine came through the crevices and gave this surrounding almost a magical atmosphere. Different shades of red and brown surrounded us and when we had a closer look on the rocks we realized that it was all salt. Rocks covered with salt. Salt covered with red sand. On the way back to our bikes we took the path above the tunnel and again we saw this impressive volcano on the horizon.
The street became steeper and the wind created small sand dunes on it. The sand got too thick and we had to walk our bikes for some meters. Behind the next curve we did our next stop. We followed the red arrows that indicated us the way along a meters high rock face and suddenly a giant sand dune was right in front of our feet. Wow! A giant dune of dark sand was lying between immense barren rock formations.
On top of the dark sand dune
From up there we had a fantastic view on a basin that was covered with a layer of salt. The whole area seemed unreal. Also little golf ball BoB was amazed by the landscape. It was a landscape that absolutely looked like how we imagine the surface of the moon.
Stunning landscape with impressive rock formations and views as far as the horizon
We didn’t see a single person as far as our eyes could see and we felt like being on another planet. Or a place on earth that nobody else had discovered before. It was just us, two human beings and a little golf ball. 🙂 From the top of the sand dune we could spot the road that would lead us through the basin.
Back on our bikes we felt the sun getting stronger and our bodies got tired. Already. But we wanted to see more of this stunning moon landscape and another highlight, the „Tres Marias“. By now the road conditions got worse and gave our bikes and us a good shaking. But finally they were in front of us, the three rock formations that look like three women praying. We needed some imagination to recognize those three praying women and I have to admit that we expected something more impressive.
One highlight of the Valle de la Luna, the Tres Marias
We checked the map and due to the heat and the low water level in our water bottles we almost decided to turn around and head back. But another mark indicated an abandoned salt mine close to where we were. I still hear us saying “That can’t be far, let’s give it a try!”
After the first hundred meters the road became so bad that we thought that must be a joke. How can they send people here? Our bikes jumped from one pothole to the other and it was impossible to sit in our saddles. The ride was super exhausting and our motivation was falling. At one point we finally spotted a destroyed hut. We put our bikes down and followed a path that was built into the rocky surroundings. At that point used to be the Mina Crisanta and we could still see a bit of the salt and a small lake.
An abandoned hut at the salt mine
It was just a short visit because it was time to head back to San Pedro de Atacama before it got dark. On the way back we enjoyed a long last view of the volcano on the horizon. It was Licancabur, 5,920 meters high; with a crater that features one of the highest lakes in the world.
Lars with his bike with Volcano Licancabur on the horizon
Looking back to that day in the Valle de la Luna I still feel this amazing moment when we were solely surrounded by this moon-like landscape that only consisted of red rocks covered with powder of salt.
But what I didn’t realize back then was the fact that we were in the driest place on earth! There are places in the Atacama Desert that went without a single drop of rain for more than 400 years. I also didn’t realize the fact that the driest place on earth is located on the Pacific Ocean, the largest body of water on earth. It’s such a contradiction. Knowing about those facts today it makes me even happier that we jumped on our bikes and cycled through this rough scenery.
If you have the dream to travel to the moon one day, skip the 384.400km. Instead, fulfill your dream here in the Valley of the Moon in Chile’s Atacama Desert. You will love it ;).