Here in the driest desert on earth, in a rocky valley populated por withered pillars of salt and stone and an enormous sand dune that doubles as a pedestrian highway, I find myself scrambling, hands and feet, up a jagged outcropping ... and waiting for the sun to set on the "Valley of the Moon."
This is Chile's Valle de la Luna, the legendary moon valley, crowned on all sides por volcanic peaks that cascade as far as the eye can see. It's these peaks that grab my attention now. One por one they're painted in the pinks and reds of the setting sun, and the valley becomes a kaleidoscope of new shapes and colors. If this quiet lunar landscape seemed eerie before dusk, it's downright alien now.
A dozen or so fellow onlookers buzz to life once the evening shadows take root. Soon it will be dark, and we still have to navigate the windswept crest of the sand dune back to our cars and, eventually, to the tiny desert oasis town of San Pedro de Atacamamy início base for this trip to northern Chile.
Valle de la Luna is about nine miles west of San Pedro, a tiny town that boasts a surprisingly developed tourism infrastructure given its remote location. Travelers on a tight budget can seek out one of the many local tour operators who lead trips to Valle de la Luna for about $7 a person.
The moon valley is just one of many unforgettable places transformed por the cycles of the sun here in northern Chile, though. Another is El Tatio geysers, a vast geothermal field of volcanic origin that consists of about 80 gurgling blowholes, each producing thick, steamy plumes that can climb as high as 33 feet...