Sunday, August 11, 2013

Valle de la Luna

Located 13 kilometers (8 mi) west of town in the Cordillera de la Sal, Valle de La Luna is a part of the Reserva Nacional los Flamencos and was declared a Nature Sanctuary in 1982. This is a huge reserve managed jointly by the indigenous communities and CONAF and is the place to be for sunset. We are going into Sector 6 which is part of the Coyo community. At the entrance, there is a small visitor’s center and we are given a map of the reserve with the best vantage points for watching the sun set. The first view point we come to are some natural salt caves called Cari’s Broken. Set a little way back from the road, these caves go deep into the mountain and there was a tour bus visiting so we decide not to stop. We pass the dunes which we will come back to and watch the sun set but keep driving to the end of this sector as there is an interesting formation we want to see. As we drive we can’t help but notice the total isolation of this valley. One of the driest places on earth, it is barren, inhospitable and brimming with extraordinary rock formations, so it’s easy to see why this unique setting gets its name. Carved by wind and weather, the various stone and sand formations, which have an impressive range of color and texture, look somewhat similar to the surface of the moon. In fact a prototype for the Mars rover was tested here by scientists because of the valley's dry and forbidding terrains. There are dry lakes where the salt composition makes a white covering layer of the area. At the Tres Marias (Three Marys), the three rock formations which look like bent, broken fingers stretch high from the desert floor particularly the center one. The result of an intense erosion process, they are approximately one million years old and composed of clay, salt, gravel and quartz. With plenty of places to photograph and be photographed we spend quite a bit of time here. We then head back the way we came to an area called “the amphitheatre”. This huge formation in the Cordillera de la Sal was formed by layers of sand, clay and salt which were moved and shifted vertically by earthquakes and the tectonic plates moving. Then with wind erosion, a sequence of giant peaks grew. From here we can clearly see the Andes and more dramatic, a chain of volcanoes including a fabulous view of Volcan Licancabur which towers over the town of San Pedro. It is now late in the afternoon and we make our way back to the sand dunes to get the perfect view for the setting sun. Over thousands of years, strong winds have created this huge field of sand dunes. However, in this valley populated by withered pillars of salt and stone is an enormous sand dune called “The Great Sand Dune” and this is the one which we climb to see the sunset. I find myself scrambling, my feet sinking into the sand and my hands clutching at any jagged outcropping to get to the top. This narrow path is steep and I would have given up long before the top if it had not been encouragement and a helping hand from Tom every so often. At the top, the sand, the scrambling at times on both hands and feet, were well worth it. The view is quite simply, spectacular. This is Chile's “Valle de la Luna”, the legendary moon valley, crowned on all sides by volcanic peaks that cascade as far as the eye can see. It's these peaks that grab my attention now. One by one as the sun gets lower in the sky, they're painted in the pinks and reds of the setting sun, and the valley becomes a glowing kaleidoscope of new shapes and colors. Breath-taking. By the time the sun had set and we had scrambled back down the “Great Dune”, it was getting quite dark. Driving out of the reserve the dark looming shapes started to look more alien than in daylight. We are going to spend the night, parked just outside the park’s entrance by the visitor’s center. After all the visitors had left and the rangers had locked up for the night it was one of the quietest nights we have ever spent in our three years of traveling. Oh, and on this clear, cloudless night away from any city lights, the stars were almost as spectacular as the sun setting over the valley. Almost!

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