Lazy start to the day

After breakfast we strolled about the empty hotel compound taking in the sheer desolation of the place. Quite a few tripadvisor commenters liked the quiet isolation that lodge altitud offered and compared to the busy cities we’d be in earlier I could understand the appeal of some solitude.

I had planned to squeeze in another tour prior to the Valle de la Luna (which started at 2pm). But decided against it given the distances we had to cover. Instead I chose to organize the transportation for tonight to Calama (our entry point into Bolivia). I settled on an airport shuttle which would take us to Calama airport but we’d need a taxi to the city (there was a huge cost saving by this disjoint route). The tour would end by sunset and we’d be in the hotel by 7pm by which time the shuttle would pick us up. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d be juggling with multiple transport hops.

Pisco sour

I’d had a Pisco sour in Argentina but I’d wanted to try to try this brandy cocktail (native to Peru & Chile) on home ground. We got our chance at a lunch spot in town and it was quite satisfactory.

After lunch we looked about for a Cambio (Money Changer) to change our Chilean Pesos & USD for Bolivianos.

All the streets in San Pedro de Atacama were sandy and fairly wide giving the look of a town from the Wild West. We managed to find a few cambios down a street (side by side) and settled on one with the best rate. English was limited but a Calculator usually communicates better in such circustances.

We then headed to the tour office to await our pickup.

The Desert Tour

The minibus was operated by a very humorous Chilean guide who spoke English fluently. He described the climate and geology of the atacama as well as the ALMA radio telescope built on the higher plains of the Altiplaino to take advantage of the deserts low-humidity (which affects the transmission of radio wavelengths).

After collecting park entry tickets from the park office we proceeded to our first stop.

Lunar Landscape

We were dropped off at the edge of a sheer cliff overlooking the Vale de la Luna. Some tourists posed on the overhang while we took in the bizarre geology ahead of us.

#Windy Desert

One of the first things I noticed on the cliff was the strong gale-force winds that lashed this desert. I struggled to keep my hat and jacket from being torn off me.

This combined with the overcast weather meant that rather than a burning hell we had earlier envisaged, we were frozen by cold howling winds.

The Dune Run

The guide displayed his knowledge history by pointing to an Incan-era outpost from which the locals resisted the Spanish conquistadors. After which he guided us up a hill which involved more of a cardio workout.

He then lead us to the edge of the sandy plain and pointed to the minibus in the distance below. He then jokingly offered us 2 options to get to the minibus:

• Run down the 250m sanddune
• Take a very long detour to the bottom

Needless to say no one took option#2.

He offered us some tips on how best to safely run down a sand dune.

1. Run, don't walk (easier to maintain balance running than slowly walking)
2. Run in a zig-zag path

With that we started running down the hill one after the other (to avoid collisions). I almost lost a shoe coming downhill and fell down once but recovered and managed to get to bottom with a shoe filled with fine desert sand (it remained sandy till my return to Singapore).

My co-traveler got stuck mid-way down the hill due to a combination of steep incline & a quicksand like footing (it was a very steep one probably 70 degrees) . The guide took the challenge to charge up the sand dune (barefoot for ease of grip apparently) and rescue my friend. It was quite an impressive feat of cardio for his part (he was quite winded after it) :D.

Salt pools

We made a quick stop by some dried salt pools. These were formed naturally by action of the little rain that fell in this region combined with the rock salt to form pools of salt crystals.

The guide noted the destruction caused by careless tourists in the form of deep footprints made in these pools (which last till the next rain, which maybe a very long time from now). The guide was very particular about the safety of the guests aswell as the preservation of the natural wonders we were visiting which hinted that I’d made the right choice of Cosmoandio.

Salt Caverns

The next stop on our tour was a salt cavern. It was a lot more claustrophobic than expected and involved a lot of squeezing between rocks (body flexibility helps).

We moved between narrow gorges of salt-walls to dark caverns and the flashlights provided proved their value.

Despite the discomfort we witnessed some impressive geological structures.

The rock salts & slow erosion of the land played a role in the formation of these caverns.

As we exited the caves and scampered up the rocky boulders to reach what appeared to be a congested photo-op zone with people from other tour groups all jostling for the perfect selfie.

Salt Mines

Prior to the Copper & tourist industries of the late 19th & 20th centuries, Salt mining was the main economy of the atacama region. The tour guide took us to an area of the lunar valley that looked that it had been snowed over, only to realize on close inspection that it was actually encrusted with salt.

The guide took us about an abandoned mining outpost and gave an account of the typical day of a mining family. There were several relics left behind by the miners.

A salt pit A corroded generator

Communal toilet

According to the guide, Salt mining became difficult in the Pinochet-era due to restrictions on the use of dynamite (anti-terrorist laws) and as demand tapered off for rock salt in the 80s, mining became uneconomic. The area was apparently littered with abandoned salt mining outposts.

Fiery Sunset

The guide promised a spectacular finale to the tour, at the highest point of a mountain ridge which gave a panoramic viewpoint to take in the explosion of colours that a atacama sunset provides (owing to the various mineral salts in the surrounding landscape).

The hike up the rocky ridge required both stamina and some balance as the path up the rocky hill wasn’t defined.

We then sat down to wait it out for the sun to set. Within 30 minutes we were presented with a dazzling array of colours as the last rays of the sun reflected off the many salt & mineral sands in the valley to give a fiery sendoff to a long day of touring the desert.

As the darkness started to envelop the area, the guide quickly ushered us down to the minibus (the path was not lit). As the minibus hurtled into the falling dusk we settled down in our dusty clothes and rested before the next commute onwards to Calama.


The Vale de la Luna tour was probably the most value-for-money guided tour I had on the Altiplaino in terms of the number of places visited, Quality of the guide, Operational efficiency and overall cost. The Choice of tour company is critical in the overall experience and can find optimal cost-to-value options via the tripadvisor ratings online. My only regret was to have to cram so many things on one day (including the onward journey to Calama on that very night).