Here in the driest desert on earth, in a rocky valley populated by withered pillars of salt and stone and an enormous sand dune that doubles as a pedestrian highway, I find myself scrambling, hands and feet, up a jagged outcropping ... and waiting for the sun to set on the "Valley of the Moon."
This is Chile's Valle de la Luna, the legendary moon valley, crowned on all sides by volcanic peaks that cascade as far as the eye can see. It's these peaks that grab my attention now. One by one they're painted in the pinks and reds of the setting sun, and the valley becomes a kaleidoscope of new shapes and colors. If this quiet lunar landscape seemed eerie before dusk, it's downright alien now.
A dozen or so fellow onlookers buzz to life once the evening shadows take root. Soon it will be dark, and we still have to navigate the windswept crest of the sand dune back to our cars and, eventually, to the tiny desert oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama—my home base for this trip to northern Chile.
Sunrise and sunset in northern Chile
Valle de la Luna is about nine miles west of San Pedro, a tiny town that boasts a surprisingly developed tourism infrastructure given its remote location. Travelers on a tight budget can seek out one of the many local tour operators who lead trips to Valle de la Luna for about $7 a person.
The moon valley is just one of many unforgettable places transformed by the cycles of the sun here in northern Chile, though. Another is El Tatio geysers, a vast geothermal field of volcanic origin that consists of about 80 gurgling blowholes, each producing thick, steamy plumes that can climb as high as 33 feet. This happens every morning, and only in the morning, which makes getting there in time to see the phenomenon an adventure all its own.
Most tours start around 4:00 a.m. in San Pedro, followed by a bumpy two-hour ride to an elevation of 13,120 feet. What would be a cold trip even at midday is literally freezing before breakfast. It's all worth it, though, when you arrive to see the pillars of steam erupt as the sun rises and brings warmth to an area more than two miles above sea level. When it ends an hour later, there's almost no evidence that the fuming geysers ever existed—until the following morning when the scene repeats itself.
Chaxa Lagoon, about 35 miles south of San Pedro, is easier to reach, and rewarding in another way. A shallow salt lagoon that doubles as home to countless Andean and Chilean flamingos, it has footpaths carved right into the petrified salt. These allow you to wander deep into a natural flamingo habitat without disturbing the birds. It's especially compelling at sunset, when the dying rays of sunlight wash over the still waters and mirror the pale pink flamingos. This is a bird-watcher's dream.
Getting to northern Chile
Chile's capital city, Santiago, is the country's international gateway. Flights from Santiago to Calama—the starting point for most visits to the Atacama Desert—take about three hours, and from Calama it's another hour's drive to the town of San Pedro. LAN Airlines operates flights to Santiago from New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities.
There are scores of guesthouses and hotels in San Pedro, ranging from the ultra-affordable Residencial Juanita for about $14 to the Explora resort just outside of town that goes for about $2,000 for four nights, including guided adventure activities. I stayed at the adobe-style Hotel Altiplanico, which costs about $130 a night.
LAN Vacations, the vacation package wing of LAN Airlines, offers both airfare-inclusive and land-only packages to Chile's Atacama Desert region. Both are loaded with activity options, including trips to Valle de la Luna, El Tatio geysers, and the altiplano lagoons like Chaxa. Many packages also include active pursuits like hiking in Cordillera de la Sal ("the salt mountains") and horseback riding.
At the time of publication, LAN Vacations' land-only packages start around $379 for a quick three-day trip. Airfare-inclusive packages tend to be longer and usually include the Atacama Desert and another region, such as Chilean Patagonia. These start around $2,000. The better bargain of the two if you're flying from the U.S. is the airfare-inclusive variety. The land-only trips are a good value if you've already made travel arrangements to South America and want to add on a few days in this unique part of the world.
Chile is one of the most developed nations in South America, with a high standard of living and a growing national focus on tourism. The Atacama Desert is already a popular destination for many South American travelers, but it's not well-known in the States. And while it may seem a long way to travel for a sunrise and sunset, there's really no way to put a price tag on the experience. Where else can you go for a walk on the moon?