The Atacama desert is a 600 mile strip of land along the Pacific coast stretching from southern Peru through the northern half of Chile. It is the driest desert in the world. The average rainfall is around 0.59 inch per year with some weather stations in the Atacama having never recorded rainfall. However there are some oases that appear here and there. One of these is San Pedro de Atacama (photos).
It is a small adobe village that looks as if it rose up out of the desert and is in the heart of some of northern Chile’s most dramatic scenery. The cone of volcan Licancábur which tops out at over 19,500 feet hovers nearby and the valleys nearby have otherworldly rock formations. The population of San Pedro is less than 5,000 but the opportunity for climbing, trekking, sand boarding, hiking and just plain gawking at the natural beauty draws a regular group of visitors.
Interestingly, San Pedro was one of the most expensive places we have visited in terms of accommodations, food and tours. I suppose this is due to it’s relative isolation and its tourist draw.
We took advantage of one of the tours that visits some of the nearby valleys late in the afternoon in order to see them during sunset when the surrounding hills get painted with a very vibrant palette of colors. We visited Valle de la Muerte, which we were told was originally named Valle de la Martes because it was thought to resemble Mars due to the red color of the rocks. However, one of the early leaders of San Pedro had poor speech causing the people to think he was saying muerte instead of martes so the name stuck. So there is no tale of death that led to the naming of the valley. In any case it is quite beautiful.
We also visited Valle de la luna just before sunset and waited there to watch the show. I can’t do better than the Lonely Planet guidebook. “As you sit atop a giant sand dune, panting from the exertion of climbing it, drinking in spectacular views and watching the sun slip below the horizon, a beautiful transformation occurs: the distant ring of volcanoes, rippling Cordillera de la Sal and surreal lunar landscapes of the valley, are suddenly suffused with intense purples, pinks and golds.” It was just like that.