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Travel Adventure - Backpacking Latin America's Gringo Trail Backpacking Latin America starting in Cuba, then travelling from East to the west coast of Mexico before making our through Central and finishing in South America.

Moon Valley and stargazing in the desert of San Pedro de Atacama

CHILE | Friday, 4 September 2015 | Views [1202]

it was kind of strange to drive in to a town after day after day of incredible, expanse landscapes. San Pedro is a town in the Atacama Desert so it was very red. It was also really hot and dry, which we kind of weren't expecting since we had been in the desert for the last 3 days in Bolivia and it was cold, but we were now lower in altitude. It seemed like a bohemian, hippy kind of town and the buildings were all low and looked like they were made from clay or something. It was pretty cool! So weird you wake up in the morning in Bolivia, then by lunch your in Chile! 
After the bus dropped us at the bus terminal we walked to our hostel. It was a cool little homely kind of hostel with an outdoor area with fire pit and nice communal kitchen. We rested for a little bit, we were pretty tired from the last three days on the move then walked to the main square, which had a parade with a band and dancers in colourful costumes. There were also lots of cute dogs around. I'm not sure if they were strays or peoples pets but they were bigger dogs like German shepards, retrievers etc and they would just be chilling on the streets and walking in and out of shops and cafes etc. Pretty funny/cute. We needed to get Chilean money out, put a load of laundry in (neither of us had any socks left from wearing boots and shoes all the time lately), get some food and figure out what tours we wanted to do here. A lot offered tours seeing the salt flats and lots of things we had already seen in Bolivia or similar sights in Chile. We researched that Moon Vally (Valle de la Luna) was a must do and also a stargazing tour. San Pedro is the place for some of the best stargazing in the world because of its clear and cloudless nights (it only gets 50mm of rain per year) so you're able to see incredible amounts of stars. Even NASA has telescopes etc set up here. I really wanted to do some stargazing here but as we found out (and didn't realise) that tours don't run on a full moon and a few days before and after because it's too bright and you can barely see any stars. Full moon was last night so we were screwed tonight and weren't sure if we would be able to go on one tomorrow either as we would probably want to leave the day after. 
Tour companies ran afternoon/sunset Moon Valley tours so we decided to book one for this afternoon, even though we were pretty tired but if we happened to get a stargazing tour we could do that tomorrow. We grabbed some take away empanadas and got on to the tour bus and it was only about 20min out of town to the entrance of Moon Valley where we had to pay a small fee to assist in the preservation of the area. We drove further and got out to do a 30 min walk up the 'big dune'. It was really impressive! Red earth and rock formations. It got its name because the area resembled what looks like the moon, a very red moon! It did seem like we had stepped on to another planet. At the top of this sandy red dune - Cronulla sand dunes on steroids! ;)  we looked back down to a flat which had white salt washed through it. Similar to what we had seen in the salt flats. Our guide was a young Chilean skater guy and was pretty funny. For some reason reminded me of Borat. He gave a brief explanation then we could walk further up the ridge which reminded me of a dinosaurs back. It was extremely hot and instead of humid, coz we were in the desert, a very dry heat. After this we drove to a part in the Moon Valley called Las Tres Marias, three rock formations which apparently resembles three arms praying to the Andes and were told a story about a guy using this formation to try to persuade people to believe in God and join the Christian religion. We walked a bit through Moon Valley then got back on the bus to go to Death Valley (Valle de la Morte). This was very similar to Moon Valley but apparently got its name, not from people dying in this valley etc. but because someone who came here thought it looked like Mars and couldn't speak very good Spanish and pronounced Mars in Spanish wrong and instead said Morte - Death, hence why it's now called Death Valley.
We then drove to Coyotes Rock to watch sunset. There was an amazing view over Moon Valley which meant some great photo taking opportunities for everyone. This is where everyone comes to watch the sunset over the mountains and it ended up getting really packed but our guide said as the sun was about the go under the horizon to turn the other way and watch the opposite horizon where the moon rises over the Andes and the sky turns purple for a better view. It was pretty (and got really windy as soon as the sun set) but not as beautiful as the one I saw this morning in Bolivia. The moon hadn't risen yet when we had to leave. 
We had a shower, finally! when we got back to the hostel and even though the hostel owner said they have limited hot water, this shower water was boiling hot! It was even hotter than Wild Rover! I was in ecstasy standing under it. We then walked to town to get dinner. We were trying to find a place TripAdvisor recommended called Roots but I don't think we could be bothered to go searching for it so went to one called Lola de Luna or something. It had a fireplace at the entrance so was very inviting and had a cool interior (we came to realise all the buildings had this which was a clay like interior). It ended up being really bad service, I don't know if the waiter was new or something but it was really awkward for some reason and he just kept avoiding us. I ordered a quesadilla which wasn't too bad but Matt said his lamb pizza was terrible with no flavour at all. We were pretty keen for bed and a sleep in tomorrow morning.
 
We didn't really get a sleep in, one - coz I think we were used to getting up early from the past few days and two - the three people in our dorm got up at 7:30 to do a bike ride to Devils Throat, which I had been told about was supposed to be a good ride, not far from town. We laid in bed for a bit but then decided we needed breakfast and had to do a couple of things before we decided we would do Devils Throat. I was pretty keen to do nothing today but at the same time I wanted to see as much as possible. We were going to book a bus to Salta, Argentina for  tomorrow, breakfast, change some left over Bolivianos we had, pay for a stargazing tour called SPACE I emailed (and was highly recommended on TripAdvisor) and ended up getting a reservation for tonight and then find somewhere to hire bikes for our ride. We changed the money and had breakfast at Roots (the one we were going to go to last night). It was really cool with a black and white photo wall of all famous people like Bob Marley, Janis Joplin etc etc. and sold Bob Marley coffee, with a sign saying 'Stir It Up'. The 'Roots' breakfast was really good too. Yummy fruit, granola and yogurt, bread with homemade jam and eggs how you like it and a fresh juice. We then paid for our tour which was confirmed for 9pm. Tonight was the first day they were running again after 6 days off coz of the full moon. We then hired bikes and rode to the bus terminal to book our bus to Salta tomorrow. There were spots left for us, but we needed our passports to reserve. We had to ride back to our hostel get our passports and ride back. We then had to show proof of this Argentinian visa Matt had bought over the Internet in La Paz for us but we hadn't printed yet. We asked to use her computer to access it on our email but the attachment wasn't there and we couldn't figure out what the website was to log in to the account to access it. Matt gets extremely frustrated in situations like this, which doesn't really help the situation. We ended up getting on to the site with the help of the bus ticket lady and then continued to process the booking. She didn't accept card so we had to pay cash but we didn't have enough cash on us. So Matt had to ride back to the main square to get more money out and then ride back to the terminal to pay while I went back to the hostel to print out the visa form. Heavy sigh! 
So after a bit of a speed bump to our morning plans, we didn't end up leaving for our ride until around 1pm.  
It was hot, I think our map was wrong and Matt and I got the shits at each other coz we were slightly lost and we were only about 10 minutes in to the ride. I went in to a shop to ask someone for directions. He spoke English, had a cute Labrador puppy and explained where to go. We got on to a main track and Matt and I had different ideas on which direction we were supposed to be going when another cyclist came past, we stopped him to ask for help. He was from England and riding to Devils Throat aswell. We were saved! We would just follow him and have another person to chat to on the way. It was about an hours ride to the entrance of Devils Throat. The land here, because it is so red actually reminded me of the desert in the middle of Australia and the rocks also reminded me of Ayers Rock. Same colours there was just more rock in San Pedro where as in NT there's just one big red rock with lots of land around. We got to the entrance of Devils Throat which is a part where the rocks form in to a cave. It was really cool riding through the cave and actually lasted a lot longer than I thought it would. We rode for about 45min until we got to the end. Finally! I had water coz it was so hot and then we climbed to the top of the highest rock which gave a good view back over Devils Throat and also of San Pedro and the Andes over the other side in the distance. It was a lot quicker heading back (probably 20min) than in coz I think it was slightly down hill. We cruised home, now that we knew the way and saw two dogs herding a herd of sheep along the road. When we got back to town we took our bikes back to the place we hired them from and decided to sit down as we were buggered after the hot ride, to have a refreshing glass of water and a drink as we had a bit of time up our sleeves before we had our stargazing tour in the night. It was a cool outdoor pub /bar/restaurant, Matt tried a beer from Mendoza and I had a caprioska. I don't know if it was the heat, I hadn't eaten since breakfast, the long ride or my drink was really strong but I felt so drunk off that one drink! I started talking crap to Matt and he looked so tired haha. 
We went back to our hostel to shower and rug up, as we would be outside looking at the stars all night. We walked the streets which were quite lively and funky at night and picked a restaurant called Abode. We were glad we did coz the atmosphere and service was really good and the food was probably up there with the best we've had all trip. The restaurant was indoor but a section of it had a wide open roof that you could see all the stars through and an outdoor fire pit in the middle. They had a Chilean band playing and it was a nice cosy setting, again with the clay like interiors. Matt ordered a hot pot with chicken, garlic, chilli and potato in it and I couldn't choose out of a quinoa and mushroom risotto with sweet tomato and Parmesan or a Julian vegetable salad with pear, baked ricotta, nuts and a caramel balsamic, olive oil dressing. So I got both and Matt and I shared the salad. It was all so good! 
We then had to meet at the office of the stargazing tour and waited for a bus to pick us up that would drive us about 20min South of town to where there was no light pollution and an observatory. As soon as we left San Pedro the night sky was full of stars it was pretty spectacular. Our guide was a Canadian astronomer, with a very thick Canadian accent and made lots of 'Dad' jokes which made the tour quite entertaining. First we looked at the night sky through the naked eye and our guide gave us an explanation of how people used to look at stars back in the day, not really knowing what they were, how they formed the constellations and facts about stars, planets etc and the universe. The moon was 2 nights off being a full moon and hadn't risen yet so it was really dark and you could see millions of stars in the sky in one the best places on earth to see them! A particularly good view of the Milky Way. We also were pointed out with a crazy huge lazer pointer Scorpio, the signet, Saturn, the southern Cross, the teapot and a few other stars and constellations, I can't remember now. He was very knowledgeable and shared lots of mind blowing facts about how big, hot and far away in light years a lot of these stars were etc. and how really we are only such a small spec in this universe. How humans always want meaning behind everything so the star constellations were made up (also to help them prepare for harvest each winter etc) and also how astrology is also made up (in case you didn't already know that ;) but quite fun and interesting how the zodiac is laid out in the night sky and how certain stars and planets etc. revolve around the earth/sun etc. at the same time each day/month/year etc. It was about 9:30ish when the moon rose. Unfortunately as it was so full it was extremely bright and flooded out a lot of the stars around it. But it was an extremely impressive sight seeing this big bright round ball slowly rise above the silhouette of the Andes. After looking at the sky with our naked eye and the guides large green lazer pointer, we then walked over to the telescopes set up to look at 10 stars and planets up close. I had never looked through a telescope before so it was pretty cool and surreal to be looking at the night sky so close up. We saw constellations such as the colourful jewellery box, one that looked like a butterfly and another which had a cluster of millions stars all together (this was through a telescope which was the largest in the world for public viewing). We saw a dead star which had exploded and just looked like a grey smudge in the sky through the telescope. We saw Saturn with its rings around it and did not look like the detailed image you see in pics and what I thought it was going to look like... and a pretty clear look at the moon, especially since it was almost full, you could see the craters and hills on the moon! It was quite remarkable. They even had a telescope set up where we could take these detailed pictures of the moon which was pretty cool. Although coz we had to line up to take a photo most people started heading in to the room where we were given hot chocolate and Q&A time with our astronomer guide. Coz we were the last to take the photo we were last to get to the room and as soon as we sat down we barely heard the answer to the last question then everyone clapped and got up to get back on the bus to go back to town while Matt and I had to quickly skull our hot chocolates. I didn't think that was very fair since the Q&A is part of the tour for everyone and they didn't wait for us. I think Matt and I need to be a bit more pushy so we get the best of everything instead of being polite and letting everyone before us haha. But anyway it was a really awesome experience and the guide was really good so was definitely worth it. 

Tags: death valley, desert, devils throat, dry, earth, hot, moon, moon valley, stargazing, stars

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