National Geographic had a lot to answer for, as to why we were in the Atacama desert. Their glossy pages a siren with incredible images taken at both Valle de la Muerte, Death Valley and the more infamous Valle de la Luna, Moon Valley
We had opted for the slightly longer hike around Valle de la Muerte. Mars Valley, or Death Valley as it is confusingly also named; allegedly the Priest that named the valley “Marte” was misunderstood by the Spanish speaking population. Either way, it is a strangely stunning place, pretty much devoid of any vegetation which kinda makes you wonder how the numerous caterpillars survive that we saw. From the imposing cliff top you can clearly see the gorge and road cut into the mountain-side, by sulphur miners many yeas ago. Jagged ridges of mountains with vertical strata lines, suddenly give way to weather worn drifting sand banks and huge dunes.
Dropping down from the cliffs onto the ridge of the ‘Great Dune’, our guide, Cezar, suggested we take our boots off. We didn’t need to be asked twice. Off they came and we took off along the ridge, feeling like we had struck gold when our feet found cool moist sand below the surface. Like a bunch of kids we ran down the steep side of the slope, each stride sending a mini avalanche of trickling sand with it. Yep, if you are up for sand surfing, this is the place to do it…. Pity about the achingly long slog back up..!
After a cold beer and tasty lunch of ensalada, followed by vientre de cedro, pork belly with savoury rice at the lodge, we were ready to hit the trail again. This time to the infamous Valle de la Luna.
There is an very compelling reason by NASA tested it robots out in this part of the Atacama – otherworldly rock formations, huge layer cake salt mountains in an barren landscape pock-marked with a few salt basins and a vast crater – it’s the closest they can get to Seeing how primitive life forms can survive, on this planet.
Sheer high rocky walls and a sandy valley below, make it look similar to the Grand Canyon in places; sand banks and rocky paths, a strange trip to the seaside. Natural erosion has sculpted weird and wonderful shapes out of the rock; the three Mary’s – now two and a half (one lost it’s head!) and strange twisted fingers of rock point eerily skyward.
We huffed and puffed our way up layered dunes, across the crunchy salt rock strata to Piedra del Coyote or Cari viewpoint, as it is sometimes called. It was so worth it. At dusk the valley took on the most incredible hues; the clay and mineral salt mountains turning everything from gold, burnt orange to cardinal red, fuchsia and deep purple before us. We sat in silence, wrapped up in warm fleeces and hats as the light faded, totally mesmerised.