Sandboarding And Sunset In The Atacama Desert, Chile

“They call this Death Valley because of all the people who don’t make it out alive,” our tour guide, Steve, whispered in a haunting voice.

Staring at the enormous sand dunes and unworldly rock formations, I felt fearful of what I was about to do. Of course, Steve was joking. The name actually comes from a mispronuciation by a Belgian priest, Gustavo Le Paige, who thought the landscape looked like Mars, or Marte. Because of the way he spoke, locals believed he said “death,” or muerte.

I found myself here after booking a “Sandboarding in Death Valley + Sunset in Moon Valley” excursion with Atacama Inca Tour. It was during a trip to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, where tour agencies occupy every other storefront. However, this company was the only one I noticed offering this unique combination package. For 12,000 Chilean Pesos (about $25), plus 2,000 $CLP (about $4) to enter Moon Valley, you get transportation, a sandboarding lesson and about two hours of sandboarding, a tour of the Chulacao Caves, which are covered in edible salt, an uphill trek to a viewpoint in Moon Valley to sip Pisco Sour while watching the sunset and a free DVD of the afternoon. The tour also stops at many lookout points, so you’ll be able to get many photos. While Death Valley holds a surreal beauty, Moon Valley has some interesting landscape as well. In fact, the area gets its name due to its resemblance to the moon’s surface.

For a more visual idea of the day, check out the photo gallery below.


Astronomers In Chile Searching For Clues To Origin Of Universe

Don’t look now, but in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates a hardy type of human beings are gradually beginning to thrive. Perched on the empty, windswept plains of the Atacama Desert, a high-altitude expanse of desolation that ranks as one of the driest places on the planet, astronomers and researchers are braving the otherworldly terrain for a chance to gaze deep into the fringes of outer space.

At elevations that push 17,000 feet above sea level, teams of international scientists in ultra-modern observatories endure the elements in a land where light pollution is virtually non-existent atop one of the highest plateaus in the world.

Now, after years of building these high-altitude, high-tech labs, some really wild events are starting to come out of Northern Chile.

Just last week it was reported on the Huffington Post that astronomers at the La Silla Observatory claim that, based on extrapolated findings, there could potentially be tens of billions of habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone.


Now, as recently reported on the Economic Times this week, astronomers at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) station, an outpost located 9,500 feet up in the Chilean desert, are actually setting out to search for the origins of the universe.Wait. Did you just say ‘the origins of the universe?’ That’s pretty heavy.

You’re right. It is heavy. According to the ALMA website, the project is going to be “the largest astronomical project in existence.” Using radio waves as opposed to optical light, researchers with ALMA are hoping to peer into the “dark” parts of space where traditional telescopes are unable to see.

In search of the ashes of exploded stars that existed a few hundred years after the Big Bang, astronomers hope to gather signatures of life from a time period collectively referred to as “cosmic dawn.”

It is all a bit mind-boggling for this travel writer, though I wish the astronomers the best of luck on finding the origins of the universe. In the meantime I recommend stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama, the backpacker hub of the Atacama Desert set beneath a nightly blanket of stars.

[Image: jurvetson on Flickr]

Tierra Atacama: luxury base camp for desert adventures

For the past few days, I’ve been sharing stories about my recent travels to the Atacama Desert, located in northern Chile. I’ve mentioned several of the highlights of that destination and even wrote about my climb to the top of an 18,000-foot volcano. Hopefully those stories conveyed a sense of the adventure that can be found in the Atacama, which is amongst the most beautiful and diverse places that I’ve ever visited.

While visiting some remote destination, adventure travelers often find themselves huddled inside tents and making do without their favorite creature comforts. I’m happy to report that that doesn’t have to be the case in the Atacama however, as San Pedro has a number of options for nearly any budget. Options range from youth hostels all the way up to all-inclusive luxury resorts, with a number of options in between. During my stay in Chile, I had the pleasure of staying at the Tierra Atacama, a resort that falls on the higher end of that spectrum.

We first told you about Tierra Atacama last summer, when it was awarded a Juli B style award for “Best International Resort.” At the time, it was lauded for mixing both adventure and luxury in a fantastic natural setting. Now, having visited the place first hand, I can appreciate that combination even more.
I arrived at Tierra Atacama after more than 24-hours of travel that included four flights, three layovers, and an hour long car ride from nearby Calama. Needless to say, I was quite exhausted, but upon my arrival, the resort staff were extremely accommodating and within minutes I was checked in and whisked off to my room. The accommodations were spacious, comfortable, and featured a large comfy bed, indoor and outdoor showers, and free WiFi Internet service that was far better than I had any reason to hope for. The room had no television whatsoever, but one glance out the sliding glass doors, which led out onto a comfortable, private deck, explained why. The view off of my room was nothing short of spectacular, with snow-capped peaks dominating the horizon in all directions. Who has time for television, when you have that to look at?

As you would expect in an all inclusive resort, your food and drinks are part of the package at the Tierra Atacama. But what I didn’t expect was that that “all inclusive” also meant that adventure was part of the package as well. The resort has quite an extensive list of excursions available to its guests, and within 30 minutes of my arrival, I was sitting down with a staff member to plot out my own adventures for the duration of my stay. We came up with an excellent scheduled that allowed me to see as much of the desert as possible, in an efficient manner, while also keeping me plenty active, at the same time. Excursions can include everything from desert hikes and mountain bike rides, to day trips to visit the local salt flats and challenging high altitude climbs up local volcanoes. Each excursion is led by a friendly and knowledgeable, bilingual guide, who have forgotten more about the Atacama Desert than most people will ever know.

After a long day of exploring the desert, you’ll definitely want to refuel in the resorts dining hall. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served on a regular schedule, and the food was always excellent. The offerings varied greatly from day-to-day and meal-to-meal, ranging from classic gourmet fish and beef dishes to more traditional local fare. The chefs never ceased to impress with their creative and tasty combinations, which often included liberal uses of fresh fruits and vegetables as well.

Meal times at the Tierra Atacama are something to look forward to, and not just because of the great food. The atmosphere at the resort is one that is conducive to being social, and the dining room made it easy to gather around with your fellow travelers and swap stories about your daily excursions while enjoying the fine food or a cool beverage. Other communal areas, such as sun decks and observation lounges, were regularly occupied by guests as well, with visitors from around the globe sharing the Atacama experience with one another. It was not uncommon to walk past a table and hear multiple languages being spoken in excited and jovial tones.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the resort also has a full service spa, but alas it was not something that I took advantage of. It seemed very popular with the other guests however, many of whom were visiting the Atacama for a little rest and relaxation. I did take advantage of the hot tub on my final night at the hotel however, relaxing in the hot water, while a blanket consisting of a billion stars twinkled overhead.

While I made my visit to the Chile solo, couples looking for a romantic, yet adventurous, getaway, should consider making the journey as well. Tierra Atacama is a fantastic destination for a romantic escape, as you’ll spend the days exploring a unique destination, unlike any other place on the planet, only to return to the resort in the evenings for a comfortable and relaxing night around the fire or sitting out under the stars.

The resort also sits right on the edge of San Pedro, the town of 4000 inhabitants that serves as the unofficial capital of the Atacama. It is close enough to easily stroll into town for a little shopping, sightseeing, or to simply enjoy a Pisco Sour while watching the tourists and locals go about their day. The proximity to San Pedro adds a healthy dose of local color to your trip, as the town has plenty of character to spare.

In short, a stay at Tierra Atacama offers travelers adventure, luxury, romance, and culture. What more could you ask for on your next journey?

Climbing a Chilean volcano

Earlier this week a volcano erupted along the border of Chile and Argentina, sending ash and smoke into the sky, and disrupting air travel throughout the region. The images that we’ve seen from that eruption have been both beautiful and terrifying in their displays of raw natural power, reminding us that the Earth ultimately still controls our fate. That sentiment hit home particularly for me, as less than a week before the mountain blew its top, I was climbing a similar volcano not far to the north.

At the time, I was visiting the Atacama Desert, an amazingly diverse destination with a number of fantastic landscapes to explore. The region is one one of the driest on the planet, thanks to a natural rain shield from the Andes on the east and the Domeyko Range on the west. But amongst those surrounding peaks are a number of volcanoes, both active and extinct. Having a bit of a pre-disposition toward high altitude adventures, I had made a goal for myself to climb one of those volcanoes while in the area, selecting the 18,645 foot El Toco as my challenge.

Fortunately, El Toco is an extinct volcano, having blown its top thousands of years in the past. Because of this, its summit profile is flatter and not so imposing as some of the more jagged, pointy peaks that ring the Atacama. The approach along its south ridge is also a non-technical route, meaning I wouldn’t need any special skills or gear to reach the top, just a good pair of boots and a decent level of conditioning.

The biggest obstacle in the climb would be the altitude, but after spending several days acclimatizing throughout the Atacama, I felt that I should be ready to give it a go. I’ve been at high altitude before, and seldom have any real issues, although the day before I was to climb I was feeling a bit under the weather, which put serious doubts into whether or not I should even make the attempt. Luckily, I felt much better on the morning of the climb, and while I wasn’t at 100%, I also didn’t want to give up an opportunity to scale Toco. After all, when would I be back in the Atacama again?Later in the day I met up with my guide, an accomplished young climber by the name of Gustavo, and he and I hit the road for the mountain. It turned out that no one else was interested in climbing with us that day, which meant that not only could we go at our own pace, we would likely be the only two people going to the summit that day. Both of those factors made me feel even better about my chances of topping out.

About an hour into the drive from San Pedro, the unofficial capitol of the Atacama, to El Toco, we suddenly veered off the smooth, well-paved highway, and onto a bumpy, narrow dirt road. We has been steadily climbing for some time, and my ears had already popped on more than one occasion, but we still had some distance to go before we started our trek. San Pedro is located at 8035 feet above sea level, but we were driving up to 16,500 feet, where we would find the trail that would take us to the top of the volcano. That would be a significant altitude gain before we ever started to hike, and I would know very quickly if I had recovered from how poorly I had been feeling the day before.

Eventually our truck rolled to a stop, and we jumped out to finish preparing for the climb. After slathering our faces and necks in sunscreen, and pulling on an extra layer for warmth, Gustavo and I organized our backpacks, grabbed our trekking poles, and hit the trail. As we began our ascent, he advised me that we should go at a slow but steady pace and that it would take roughly 2 – 2.5 hours to reach the top.

Once we started moving, I immediately realized that I was feeling good and the sluggishness of the day before was long gone. I followed behind Gustavo, and kept going at a measured pace, breathing in and out slowly and working to maintain my breath. The thin air was definitely noticeable, and there were times when I felt like I couldn’t get a deep enough breath to keep going, but those moments soon passed, and we made very sure and steady progress towards our goal.

In my previous high altitude excursions I learned several valuable lessons. In addition to keeping a measured pace, I also discovered it was best to avoid looking up towards the summit too often. It can be quite discouraging to see how far away your goal is when you are struggling to make progress and catch your breath. With that in mind, I concentrated on using my trekking poles to cross the loose rock scree and navigate the patches of snow and ice that were common along our route. On occasion, we would stop for a moment or two, and I’d glance up to see how we were doing, but for the most part, I kept my head down and stayed focused on the ascent.

About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, we broke clear of a sheltering ridge, and the full force of the winds started to buffet us. Not only were they strong and constant, they were also quite cold. It seemed that the final leg of the trip would be a chilly one. But we were making great progress and the views around Toco were spectacular to say the least. While I might not let my eyes stray up to the summit, I definitely was drinking in all the sights unfolding below us.

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Gustavo and I found ourselves on the trail to the top of the peak. I glanced at my watch and was surprised to find that we had only been climbing for about an hour and fifteen minutes. We had actually reached the summit, located at 18,645 feet, in about half the time that it typically takes, which was a sure sign that we were feeling good and moving more quickly than I had thought. It was a great feeling to walk out onto the summit and look down into Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina simultaneously, with a bright clear, blue sky surrounding us in all directions. The horizon was dominated with mountains in all directions, and more than one had a plume of dark smoke rising from the top. Active volcanoes, biding their time.

Gustavo and I shook hands and took out our cameras. Snapping a few photos from the summit and laughing at how quickly we had managed to bag the peak. Dropping our backpacks, we settled in behind the shelter of a large rock, and enjoyed a cup of tea, well protected from the howling winds. We stayed there for 35 minutes, chatting, relaxing, and just enjoying the view, before we decided we had better head back down. As the day goes on, the winds would continue to pick up, and temperatures would drop even further. Having completed what we had set out to do, we turned back down El Toco and for home.

Now, any mountaineer will tell you that climbing to the summit is only halfway to the finish line. While the descent was a quick one, taking just 20 minutes to return to our vehicle, it still offered up its challenges. Sliding down across the ice and rocks makes it more difficult to keep your footing than when you’re moving up, and the winds were conspiring against us even as we retreated away from the summit. But for the most part, it was a relatively routine descent, and we were soon on our way back to San Pedro for a much deserved cerveza.

All in all, climbing Toco was easily one of my most enjoyable days in the Atacama. It was a wonderful experience that fulfilled the promise of great views and an overwhelming sense of satisfaction at the top. If you’re traveling in the region, and have the time to both acclimatize and make the climb, I highly recommend that you do so. And for the more experienced mountaineers, there are plenty of fantastic routes and mountains to enjoy as well.

Who knew that I’d come to the desert and discover great mountains as well?

The Atacama Desert’s Valle de la Luna

Yesterday we introduced you to the Atacama Desert, a dry, yet strikingly beautiful destination, located in Chile‘s northern region along that country’s borders with Bolivia and Argentina. Protected on its east and west sides by towering mountain ranges, the Atacama seldom sees rainfall of any kind and as a result, it is amongst the driest places on the planet. Those dry conditions, combined with centuries of carving winds, have created landscapes that appear otherworldly at times, while still maintaining their ability to take your breath away.

One example of this is the famed Valle de la Luna or the Valley of the Moon, which is so named because of its eerie resemblance to the surface of our closest celestial neighbor. Its towering dunes, strange rock formations, and twisting canyons have made it one of the desert’s most popular destinations, drawing adventurous travelers from across the globe. The valley has even served as a testing ground for NASA scientists, who visited the place to put the Mars rover through its paces before shipping it off to the Red Planet nearly a decade ago.While located just a short drive from San Pedro, the town that serves as base camp for most adventures in the Atacama, the Valle de la Luna never-the-less feels like a completely different world. Its surface is covered in some of the finest and softest sands you’ll find anywhere on the planet, and the larger dunes tower as much as 40 meters into the sky. Rock outcroppings almost appear to have been sculpted by man rather than the natural forces of the Earth, and the maze-like web of canyons just beg to be explored on foot.

When entering the valley for the first time, there are two things that will immediately strike you. First, there is an amazing array of colors that mark the landscape, including plenty of reds, oranges, and browns of course. But there are also a surprising number of greens, pinks, yellows, and whites to be seen as well. This rainbow of colors is often the result of the mineral deposits that are so plentiful in the area, including copper, salt, and many more. The surprisingly colorful landscape is augmented even further when viewed during the rising –and especially the setting sun. During those magical hours, the entire valley is bathed in a soft light that only further enhances the otherworldly feel, and presents a vision that will almost certainly become a lasting highlight for any visitor.

The second thing you’ll notice about the Valle de la Luna is just how quiet is is there. Sounds seem to be absorbed and muffled by the sand and rocks, and when you stop for a moment to listen, you’ll pick up only the whisper of the wind and the ever so slight popping of salt deposits buried inside the rock walls themselves. The silence only helps to further enhance the feeling that you’ve left the Earth behind, and are instead exploring an alien world that couldn’t exist back home. Some travelers will no doubt find the quiet a bit unnerving, while others will enjoy the peacefulness of it all.

Any visitor to the Atacama will want to have the Valle de la Luna on their “must visit” list for sure. But I’d recommend making that visit in the early evening so you can enjoy the setting of the sun over the tranquil landscape. And once the sun has dropped below the horizon for another day, linger a bit longer and enjoy the night skies, which are an amazing sight in their own right. If you’re lucky enough to have a full moon, the pale light will making the valley all the more unique and wonderful.

It is locations like this one that make the Atacama so unique, and while the desert remains a bit of a hidden travel gem at the moment, it is definitely a destination that every adventure traveler will want to make plans to visit in the future. The Valle de la Luna is just one of any number of attractions in the desert, and the others are just as amazing to see.