San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
San Pedro de Atacama, a small desert town, was my entry point into Chile after crossing the border from Bolivia. Big blue skies and dry desert air characterize the Atacama Desert – the world’s driest, non-polar desert that covers the northern tip of Chile. Though I was recovering from a three-day Jeep trip in the Bolivian Salt Flats, I wanted to make the most of my (limited) time in the Atacama Desert. There are several tours you can book in San Pedro de Atacama, including star gazing, horseback riding, and ATV tours. I decided to forgo the organized tours and opted for a more economical and independent option – renting a bicycle and riding out to the Valley of the Moon.
You won’t have any problem renting a bicycle at the many tour agencies lining the scenic streets of San Pedro de Atacama. Depending on how far you want to go, you can rent for a half day (typically under 6 hours) or a full day. The hostel I was staying at had bikes for rent, so I figured that to be the most convenient option. I think it costs around $10 for a half day rental.
It’s about 8 miles from San Pedro De Atacama to the Valley of the Moon. Most of the trip is on fairly flat and paved road. You’ll leave San Pedro de Atacama and bike on the highway for a half mile or so before taking a left towards the access road that leads to the Valley of the Moon. After a few miles, you’ll come to the ranger station where you have to pay a small entry fee ($5 or so). Continue onwards for another few miles until you get to a checkpoint. After the guard checks your ticket, your destination awaits just around the bend…ready to welcome you to its otherworldly terrain.
The Valley of the Moon
Welcome to the Valley of the Moon! The road is no longer paved, but is still comfortable to ride on. Here are a few places you shouldn’t miss at the Valley of the Moon:
The Salt Caves will be your first stop in the Valley of the Moon. There’s a trail that leads into narrow salt caves that are pitch black and require you to navigate on all fours at a few junctions. As I peered into the dark cavern, I second guessed myself as to if this actually part of the trail. I peered into my daypack and prayed that I had brought my headlamp…and there it was. Phew. All alone with no one else in sight, I entered the cave hoping nothing would go wrong. Ducking, diving, and crawling through the passageways revealed incredible rock formations and views atop the cave. Just watch your head. I highly recommend bringing your bike helmet into the caves. It saved me from what would have been few painful bruises on my noggin.
Great Sand Dunes
The Great Sand Dunes offer impressive vistas of the wind swept dunes, as well as the surrounding expanse of the Atacama Desert. One caveat: you have to earn that view. After parking your bicycle, you’ll have to hike uphill for a bit to reach the viewpoint. Though not particularly far as the crow flies, you’ll be hiking in deep sand, which can be pretty challenging in the desert. No worries – it’s worth it and you’ll be glad you made the effort.
Las Tres Marias
The bike ride from the Great Sand Dunes to Las Tres Marias is a blast. You’re surrounded by desert dunes and bizarre earthly moonscapes. And, it’s all downhill, baby! Just remember…that does mean it’s uphill on the way back. So enjoy the downhill while it lasts. A few travelers that had biked a similar route were disappointed by Las Tres Marias, partly because they expected something that makes for a great picture. But it really is incredible. The three adjacent geological formations are made of quartz, granite, salt, clay, and other gems, and have been weathered by the wind over the past million years. The sheer age of Las Tres Marias was hard to wrap my mind around. It’s hard to fathom this place a million years ago.
Practical Tips for your Bike Trip
Bring Plenty of Water
At least 2 liters. I brought a liter and a half and I was parched the entire ride back. This place is extremely dry, don’t underestimate it. Snacks, like energy bars, are a good idea as well.
Sunscreen, Sunglasses, Sunhat
Blue skies, no clouds, and an intense sun. Welcome to the desert. Make sure you apply and reapply sunscreen regularly. A sunhat, bandana, etc. would be helpful to ensure further protection from the sun. And a pair of fresh shades, of course.
Flat Tire Kit
You don’t want a flat tire in the middle of the desert, miles away from where you will be returning. Make sure you have a flat tire kit with you. It’s also a good idea to know how to use it beforehand. Chances are you won’t get a flat, but you never know. Better safe than sorry in the desert!
It’s a strange feeling being all alone in a desert. The sun beats down upon the rugged moonscape with little to no rainfall during the year. No wonder I was all alone out there…the desert isn’t exactly welcoming to living organisms. But it is a fun place to visit…just bring plenty of water and a friend, if you have one. You should definitely visit the Atacama Desert. It’s about as close as I’ll ever get to the moon, or Mars (space rovers destined for Mars were tested here because of similarities in terrain). Some areas in the Atacama haven’t had rainfall in years. It’s a really unique place.
And if you have time, stay for sunset and then stargaze afterwards. No pollution and perfectly clear skies make for an unforgettable astronomical experience!