Chile 2012: Atacama Desert, Day 1

by | Mar 31, 2012 | International Travel, Travel

Valle de la Luna / Valle de la Muerte
This excursion was recommended for our first day as it was beautiful but not too strenuous – the town is at ~7,900 ft, so oxygen is thin (for us). We lucked out and were the only room to sign up for this day. Our guide met us in the lobby and escorted us to the van, which took us about 15 minutes out of town to an amazing unmarked overlook over the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon).

us in the Valle de la Lunes
A sense of scale

salty landscape
Valle de la Luna

Our guide told us that there was an unusually high level of white salt encrusting the hills due to the recent rains. Referencing the rain would become a consistent refrain during our Atacama excursions… This first day in the desert was also the clearest, and our guide pointed out a volcano that was over 100 miles away!

We then drove to a short distance to a second overlook, this time of Valle de la Muerte (though the original namer had meant Mars, bad pronunciation lead to modern name Valley of Death).

entering the Valle de la Lunes

We had booked a longer hike through the Valle de la Muerte for our second day and these views definitely whetted our appetites for more.

The third part of our excursion was a short hike in Valle de la Luna. After a short walk along a dirt road, we took a path up a hill to a cliff with an amazing vantage point over the valley floor. Lots of photos ensued:

Valle de la Lunes
looking left

so much salt!
looking right

We hiked back to the van and then drove through the valley seen in the above photo.

road to Valle de la Luna
the road cutting through the photo taken on the right above

Half way across we stopped to view the Tres Marias, small rock outcroppings on the salt floor.

Three Marias

What is amazing here is the floor of the valley– solid crystal salt, and distances that are hard to estimate due to the lack of trees for scale.

After a nice morning we returned to the resort to relax, have lunch, and relax some more before our afternoon excursion.

Atacama Salt Flat (Chaxa Lagoon & Flamingo Reserve)
Around 4p we made our way to the reception area for our second excursion of the day, this time a longer drive out to the briny Chaxa Lagoon in the hope of seeing some flamingos. Along the way we get a sense for the beautiful, desolate surroundings.

near the salt flats

Atacama salt flat

We were a little unlucky in that the recent rains had reduced the salinity of the water, thus driving some flamingos to more remote lagoons. Altogether we saw about 10 flamingos and several other water fowl.

andean flamingo
it’s surprisingly difficult to photograph them with their beaks out of the water…

algae = food for brine shrimp = food for flamingos
red algae = food for brine shrimp = pink feathers on flamingos

On our way back to the resort we stopped for a quick tour of Toconao. The chapel in the village square featured unique cactus wood in parts including the door, a curving staircase and a portion of the ceiling.

door made of cactus wood
cactus wood door

We also visited a small local shop which had a few llamas in the backyard.

llamas in Toconao

fancy llamas

On the way out of town we had a nice view of the gorge created by a river that allows the village to farm in the desert.

gorge near Toconao

Clouds were building on the horizon, and that evening would provide quite a light show courtesy of mother nature.

Sunset and Storms
The sun was setting as we returned from our second excursion, lighting up the valley and resort with an amazing glow.


clouds on Licancabur

Shortly after sunset we began to see a number of lightning strikes on the mountains, so I grabbed my tripod to see if we could photograph the storm. We headed up to the main reception area which had a good view of the Licancabur volcano and valley. Over the next 45 minutes we sat outside watching the storm roll over the Andes.

lighting in the desert

Clearly this was not a normal event as a number of employees came out to watch too, and everyone was talking about the storm the next day. Even in the driest place on earth you can still get a rain! The resort received a few drops of rain but nothing like the mountains. After enjoying the storm (with a cocktail) we headed in for dinner and discussed our plans for day 2.

Our Itinerary

2024 Trips

San Diego, CA (Jan)
Sarasota, FL (Feb)
Madrid, Spain (Mar)
Valencia, Spain (Mar+Apr)
Palma, Mallorca (Apr)
Croatia (May)
Faroe Islands (Aug)
London, UK (Sept)
Bari, Italy (Sept)
Rome, Italy (Oct)
Frankfurt, Germany (Oct)

2022 Trips

Florida (Feb)
NC Mountains (Apr)
Washington DC (Apr)
Valencia, Spain (May)
Hilton Head, SC (May)
Pacific NW (Jun)
Long Island (Jul)
Florida (Sept)
Chicago (Sept)
Poland (Sept)
NC Mountains (Nov)
Euro Xmas Markets (Dec)