I had planned on timing my visit here to San Pedro in Atacama, Chile with the new moon. “Why” you ask? The Atacama desert is known as the driest place on earth. In fact, not even bacteria can survive in the most arid regions of the desert. Does this mean bodies don’t rot? Not sure if I want to test that theory. As a result, the air is dry and at an altitude of 2,400metres, makes an excellent place for star gazing.
Being pretty much useless most of the time at sticking to a schedule and in true Jimmy Dau fashion, I managed to arrive just after the full moon from the Bolivian side of the border. This meant that there would too much light pollution in the sky to see many stars. As a result, the star gazing tours didn’t operate the three days either side of the full moon however, I couldn’t let that ruin my stay here. After checking the bus timetables to Salta, I discovered that they only left three times a week, meaning I only had two nights available in San Pedro unless if I wanted to stay an extra two nights until the following bus. In my opinion, if I wasn’t going to get the best conditions for star gazing then there wasn’t much point sticking around.
Until then, I thought I’d may as well check out what else the area offered. As we’re in a desert, the option of sandboarding was available and as I was missing out on snowboarding this year, I thought I’d give this option a whirl. The tour would start in the afternoon, followed by a tour of the Chulacao caves and canyons of Death Valley and then conclude with a view over the Valley Of The Moon on sunset.
The trip to the dunes is not far from San Pedro and the entire day can be done on rented bicycles. We did see some folk peddling their way around but the heat plus as I would discover later, hiking up the dunes to board down would be overkill. Yep, what was I thinking that there would be chairlifts or the 4WD would drive us up?
Being the first people up there in the day meant “freshies” like conditions if we can apply the same snow terminology to sand. It’s a steady 3-5min hike up the dune on an angle until you reach the ridge and then you hike another 5 minutes to keep going higher. Whilst catching your breathe, you realise it’s well worth the effort as the views are stunning on each side of the dune ridge.
After the first run I spoke to the guide about the difficulty level as I thought we could go a little faster. Turns out the it as the beginners level and that they only take tours to the other steeper and longer runs when the group is more experienced.
Afterwards, we piled back into the van and headed for a quick tour of the Chulacao caves. Upon arriving there would have been about another hundred people, literally. Walking through the arrow caves and canyon system. The entire place is covered in salt and in some places the crystals are so densely packed that they change colour if you shine a torch close to them .
The valley and caves are a result of years of ice formations during the ice age. As the ice melts and turn into rivers, caves and valleys are eroded away. As you look upwards then you can see the patterns that mark the sides of the valleys, like a multi-layered cake.
Our guide then took us to a quieter area away from the other tourists. In the silence you can hear a hollow popping noise. The changing temperature in the valley from daytime to dusk causes the salt crystals in the rock to expand and contract, resulting in the popping sounds.
We have a bit of daylight left and the guide takes us to his personal favourite site to view the valley of the moon from. From the site where we park the van, it’s a 10 minute hike firstly up a steady slope and with the final 5 minutes up a pretty steep hill. It was definitely worth it as the views were simply breathtaking. For the next thirty minutes, we take hundreds of photos as the setting sun continually painted the moon like landscape in a different tint every minute. All of this whilst enjoying a well earned Pisco Sour as well 😉
The Atacama certainly surprised me even though I didn’t end up catching any clear views of the milky way on this trip. Off the high of the Salar de Uyuni tour, I didn’t think any more views of the desert could get any better, but I was wrong. This continent continues to surprise me when I think it when views like these couldn’t get any better.
Other Useful Information
Stayed: Hosteling International. Dorm rooms for US$15 were ok sized but got moved to another room without any warning because another group had booked. Standard bread and jam breakfast provided. Kitchen available to cook in and most tours can be organised from there.
Sandboarding and Death Valley/Valley Of The Moon Tour: Booked through the hostel but they used Sandboard San Pedro as their operator. A very professional outfit and very knowledgable guide. Be sure to tip if they give good service. Total cost is US$30. It’s also another US$4 to enter the national park where the Valley Of The Moon is.
What to bring: A couple of litres of water, sunscreen, snacks for energy, a warm sweater as it will get cooler at sunset. Wear shorts as pants will get quite sandy and dirty and hiking boots to protect your ankles.
Have you been sandboarding in the Atacama Desert or elsewhere? How did you find it and do you prefer it over snow?