Atacama Desert: Moon Valley and The Highest Geysers on Earth

We landed mid-afternoon in Calama and hopped on a shuttle for the 90 minute drive to San Pedro de Atacama. This is a small mainly tourist town located in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on the planet. The Atacama only gets 1 millimeter of rain on average per year. In some places, rainfall has never been recorded.

We booked multiple excursions to various places in the desert, including Valle de La Luna and Geysers del Tatio.

Valle de La Luna

On our second day in San Pedro de Atacama, we took the Valle de La Luna tour. We signed up with Desert Adventure and wound up using them for all three tours we took in the Atacama Desert.

Our first stop the Valle de la Luna tour was Muerte Valley, which means “Death Valley”. This is not the correct name. The original name was Marte Valley, which is French for Mars Valley. The name given was based on its resemblance to Mars by a Belgian Priest that had settled in the area.  The locals mispronounced the name, and thus Death Valley stuck. The local parks group is trying to correct this mistake, even posting a “Marte Valley” sign right at the entrance.

From there, we went out to an area in the Salar de Atacama, or Atacama salt flats. We got to climb up right next to one of the biggest sand dunes, saw an example of what the old salt mines looked like, as well as the type of accommodation where the miners lived. All I can say is I am glad I never had to mine salt for work in such a harsh climate.

One of the more intriguing parts of this trip was that we noticed the desert looked a little wet. As it is an El Nino year, the Atacama had a little rain each day for 10 days straight. This is very rare, and had occurred only a few days before we arrived, which is why you could still see remnants of the rain.  

After seeing the old mines and workers accommodations, we went up to a look out over the Valley de la Luna to watch the sunset. It was a pretty nice sunset that we shared with a few hundred new friends.

Geysers del Tatiosteaming geysers in the atacama desert

The final tour with Desert Adventures required us to get up well before the sun. We were picked up at 4:30am for the 80 minute drive to the highest geyser field in the world, El Tatio.  Most folks slept on the way up, but I have never been one that does well sleeping sitting up. I tried to observe the surroundings as much as one can before sunrise.

We arrived at the Geyser fields and had a quick Chilean breakfast (white bread, ham, cheese, cookies), and then we were set to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately with the temperature being a bit cold, and Geysers containing water at ~86oC, which at that altitude is the boiling point of water, there was too much steam to really get to see the sunrise. The steam production was a pretty cool sight to behold.

We continued to explore the rest of the Geyser field, and for the more insane souls, there was an opportunity to take a dip in a thermal bath. We had heard the day before that the pool wasn’t that warm and that a lot of the tourists take advantage of this opportunity. Emily and I had much more fun walking around and checking out the other Geysers.

Llama Kebabsman eating llama kebab

On our way back to San Pedro, we stopped in a small village called Machuca. The town is supported via tourism alone, so they were ready for all the tourist busses. We had a chance to try a Llama kebab. One word: delicious. Of course, it didn’t make eating it easy for Emily when not 30 feet away from the BBQ, there was a baby Llama that you could pet and take photos with for a small fee!   

We ended up back at our hostel around noon and took a nap.  We proceeded to get our last lunch in San Pedro after we woke up. As we discussed the past few days, Em and I agreed that this location has been our favorite thus far. I think we would both come back here, and encourage you all to check it out if you can.