Are you ready to explore the Atacama Desert’s Valle de la Luna by mountain bike? A grand (and sweaty!) adventure awaits you! Lunar-like landscapes, geothermal geyser fields, salt lakes to float in, wrinkly hills like a French Bulldog’s rolls and martian valleys form Chile’s Atacama Desert – the driest non-polar environment on our planet.
Taking a mountain bike out into the Valley of the Moon calls for the active and adventurous traveler. This adventure is for those who prefer to save a small fortune and those who enjoy exploring to the beat of their own drum. But let us warn you, it is not for the fainthearted!
The climate is inhospitable. Relentless sun, altitude and exposure create a recipe for problems if you’re not careful. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure you’re prepared for the challenges!
You can see geysers in Yellowstone, you can float in the Dead Sea, but you can only visit one lunar landscape in the driest Desert on Earth.
Ever dreamed of going to the Moon? Unfortunately, we can’t get you there, but we can do the next best thing in Chile. If you only hit one tourist attraction from San Pedro, make sure it is this one.
Further Reading: Valle de la Luna is an amazing spectacle, but there are plenty of other fantastic sightseeing opportunities in the Atacama Desert, here’s our list of the 20 best things to do in San Pedro de Atacama!
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Where is Valle de la Luna?
There are a number of so called ‘Valley of the Moon’ regions in the world, three of which are in South America. The Valle de la Luna we are interested in exploring by mountain bike is close to San Pedro de Atacama in Northeastern Chile.
Entrance to the Moon valley is only 6km (3.7 miles) from the center of town and is easily accessible using good quality road surfaces. San Pedro is popularly known as the gateway to the world’s driest desert: the Atacama.
To reach San Pedro de Atacama, take a flight to Calama airport and then either hire a car at the airport (we advise you do this in advance as their availability is surprisingly low) or hop on one of the regular tourist bus shuttles.
Santiago flies directly into Calama and is the most common route from the South. From the North you can enter from Bolivia, hopefully finishing your Bolivia Salt Flats tour in San Pedro for most efficient travel in the area.
The border crossing can be dodgy up here so take extra care and don’t take any sh*t!
What is Valle de la Luna?
Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, is a landscape that has been likened to the surface of the Moon. It is located in the center of the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile in the Cordillera del Sal, or Salt Mountains.
A combination of wind, water and dry salt lakes have created an astounding topography. Rustic red and burnt orange valleys made from dry stone and sand, complimented with a dusting of dry white salt result in lunar appearance comparisons.
There are caverns to explore, dunes to climb and vista’s to marvel at in Moon Valley. The valley is also a part of the Reserva Nacional los Flamencos which was declared a nature sanctuary in 1982.
For us, visiting Moon Valley was similar to seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. It’s one of those few times you genuinely can’t believe what you are seeing when you first lay eyes across the horizon. One might say the experience was ‘out of this world‘ … Yep, we said it!
Why Hire A Bike to See Valle de la Luna?
We have to be up front, cycling this route will be tough in the harsh conditions. You will sweat, a lot! But you’ll get an endorphin releasing sense of satisfaction that you successfully explored Chile’s moon valley using just your legs.
We realize that mountain biking won’t be for everyone. There are a startling amount of tour options in San Pedro de Atacama, it’s actually a little ridiculous. It must have the highest amount of tour operators per building in a town we’ve ever seen!
But it does result in healthy competition for the consumer. So, if you take a tour, please make sure you shop around and research the operators before booking.
Alternatively, you may have hired a car from Calama airport, or even Antofagasta. In which case, you may be thinking ‘why would we cycle when we have the car?’ and that’s a fair question.
The answer is three-fold. Firstly, Valle de la Luna is one of the only attractions close enough to San Pedro you can use a bike to visit. Secondly, trust us, you will rack up a lot of time in the car during your time in the desert. And thirdly, it’s way less fun! Have we convinced you yet?
We promise you’ll enjoy the experience more by cycling than driving. Or at least you will have a greater appreciation for the extremely rugged terrain!
So, grab a mountain bike, get pedaling towards Valle de la Luna’s fascinating terrain and your own improved wellness.
Best Time to Bike Valle de la Luna?
Best Time of Day to Bike Valle de la Luna
The best time of day to hop on your bike depends on what you want from your day and how you can fit Valle de la Luna around other attractions in the area. Most of us only have a few days to tick off a huge list!
Are you into hiking, cycling, photography or art? Get an early start. Be outside the bike shops for when they open at 8am ready to set off for the valley. The sun isn’t as fierce in the morning, so you have plenty of time to pedal on to the viewpoints.
That’s where you can take countless photographs, hike on the marked pathways or pull out some paper and a pencil to draw the unforgettable landscape. Frame that baby back at home and you will have yourself a truly authentic personal souvenir!
If you’re more interested in seeing the sun setting over the desert, leave later in the day but give yourself a good 2-3 hours before the defined sunset time. Be sure to check the last entrance time before you set off, otherwise they might not let you in at the ranger station entrance.
If you ride later in the day, please wear your high-vis jackets, plus take some robust bike lights and torches with you! Most bike rental shops in town will also provide you with this gear.
Best Season to Bike Valle de la Luna
The best season to visit depends on your preferences and travel style. Do you mind crowds?
The Summer months of December, January and February are most popular for visiting the region. Therefore prices are inflated and it will be busy at all tourist spots.
Shoulder seasons are a good time to visit as you get better value and less people, but still benefit from decent weather.
If you are traveling through San Pedro as part of a wider South American adventure, do not plan around the weather here. You will need to focus on the weather for Machu Picchu and/or Patagonia as they are far more volatile.
Important note: Every man and his dog dreams of a heart warming and unforgettable sunset over the Atacama Desert. If you visit in Summer (Dec-Feb), bear in mind that you will not be alone (in the universe – we’re full of them!). There will be hired camper vans and fleets of tourist buses littered across the valley floor with endless tour groups dotted around the viewpoints. Which could defeat the purpose of searching for an isolated “we’re the only people out here” feeling. Like being on the Moon.
Our Valle de la Luna by Bike Plan
If you’re traveling long term and have a budget you’ll discover that San Pedro will not be a cheap place for you to visit.
Reluctant to blow half of our 9 week South America funds in one town, we needed to be savvy and shrewd with our spending. But we still wanted to take advantage of the major sites of the Atacama desert.
Before we arrived, we’d read about others taking mountain bikes out into Valle de la Luna and we were enthusiastic to do the same. It’s moon-like landscape is what made us book a flight to Calama in the first place.
We debated renting a camper van for 4 days, but after researching decided against it. Next, we discussed hiring a car for 4 days. But we were planning fluidly as we went. Last minute hire car bookings at Calama airport are either not possible or outrageously priced. You can take a bus into Calama town to hire there, but we just booked the bus direct to San Pedro.
So, we were left with a Valle de la Luna tour or hiring the mountain bikes.
Tour Versus Mountain Bikes
Going for the tour – It was scorching and the tour vehicle will probably have AC.
Going for the bikes – Our natural draw towards being active and defeating challenges that pose themselves, plus we wanted to see the valley by day at our own pace.
After a few minutes of google mapping for clarification, we determined that it was only 10.5 miles to the absolute furthest point and then 10.5 miles back to town from there. It was actually only 3.7 miles to the entrance checkpoint along the main roads, not too far, right?
A bit of quick maths, average cycling pace 10-12 miles per hour, divide that in half because of dirt roads and heat = let’s just low ball it to be on the safe side: 5mph. Therefore, 4 hours of cycling and 2 hours of sightseeing, we concluded.
We slightly misjudged the 2 hours of sightseeing! It ended up more like 4. We also definitely low balled cycling time, it was less than 3. Back in town for 2.45pm and straight into the best Empanada place on the planet – Emporio Andino!
Hiring a bike for Valle de la Luna
Making the decision to mountain bike Valle de la Luna is half the battle. The other half rests upon bike selection.
There are plenty of bike hire places in town. Most open around 8am and we would highly advise being there at 7.55am to beat the inevitable crowds on tours. Try to scout out the locations the day before. Check opening times and see how busy/professional they look.
Bike rental will set you back between 3000-6000 pesos depending on how long you hire them. We think 6 hours is enough if you’re doing only Valle de la Luna, perfect for those on a budget. If you plan on hitting Valle de la Muerte with a sand board as well, go for 12 or 24 hour hire.
You will be given a helmet, high visibility jackets, a lock for the bike, a repair kit and a pump included in the price of hire. It goes without saying that you should wear helmets and high-vis jackets.
Make sure you shop around for bike quality. Prices will be similar throughout town. It’s very important you pick up a bike in decent repair. Try it out first, make sure it fits your frame. Check the gears and brakes, you’ll need them! Listen to the chain, does it squeak? Get it oiled!
It’s dry as a bone in Valle de la Luna and you don’t want to get stuck. Worse, you don’t want your friends finding it easy, while you’re bike is letting you down but it looks like you can’t hack it!
Hopefully you’ll get an Apollo mountain bike to orbit Valle de la Luna, one like Apollo 11 as opposed to Apollo 13!
Biking into the driest desert on Earth is sounding pretty adventurous, right?!
Essential Pre Trip Advice
You’re about to cycle around one of the driest places on Earth at 2,400m (7,900 feet) altitude in 20-25C (70’s F) sunshine, completely exposed at all times. Take as much water as you can comfortably fit into your backpack.
If you don’t have a backpack big enough, borrow or buy one. You need water. A lot of water.
We began with 2L each but we knew it wasn’t enough so we bought a 1L Gatorade bottle at the entrance checkpoint for backup. It’s the last place you can stock up so be sensible! You’ll also be inhaling a ton of dust in the valley so your mouth will be as dry as the desert.
You’ll be surprised how quickly that fluid goes in the relentless heat with no shelter. No, you’re not in the Sahara, but its still going to be 25C (high 70’s F) in Summer.
Factor in the altitude of 2,400m (7,900 feet) and you, my friends, have arrived at your destination: sunburn central. Sun block is an absolute necessity. Do not take the chance up there.
Speaking of altitude, you’re borderline into the altitude sickness zone here. If you’re feeling dizzy, do not do exercise, give yourself a few days to acclimatize.
The sun is at it’s strongest around 4pm so if you get out there early you should be back in town before the UV rays are at their most dangerous.
Do we need to mention wearing comfortable sports gear and footwear? We better cover all the bases! Take warm clothing layers, snacks and a first aid kit just in case you end up stranded.
Also, you need to consider wind. Often the wind can whip up to a fierce 10-15mph, especially in the afternoon. Just be aware of dust clouds and wind burn.
The last thing to note is that the road inside the valley consists gravel, sand and dust. There are a few hills and one in particular where you need to pump your back brake on the way down, otherwise the tires could slide out beneath you as they go over thicker sand/dust.
Where to go by Bike in Valle de la Luna
Do you have concerns about road conditions leading to the entrance? Fear not.
You can rest assured that the main road between San Pedro and the ranger station entrance has (relatively) recently had a fresh covering of tarmac. When you traveled by road from Calama you will have noticed the high quality of the roads.
Also, you won’t be on them for long and you won’t have to share them with many other vehicles. The roads are wide and flat, with a nice wide shoulder for bikes. It’s actually the easiest part to cycle by a long way!
In fact, getting out of San Pedro will be a much more interesting task. The roads are not of a good quality in town! Check your map to make sure you head West out of town and onto road 23. Cross the Rio San Pedro and 750m later take the left turning at the main junction.
This is where Mark attempted to channel his inner Tour de France because the surface was so smooth. However, the bike was far from a racer! There was significant squealing as the dry and dusty chain caused binding in the rollers, screaming out for lubrication. Reinforce point about checking for high pitch squeaking!
Plan Your Itinerary: Are you visiting the Atacama Desert anytime soon? Be sure to check out our San Pedro de Atacama itineraries for both Hiring a Car / Camper OR going it alone / booking tours. The in depth guide also covers Getting to San Pedro and Accommodation!
Pay Entrance at the Ranger Station
Continue straight for 2.2 miles (3.6km) until you reach a fork in the road. Stick to the right hand side of the road, ignoring the left fork. In 600m you will see a right turn and a building.
This is the Valle de la Luna entrance ranger station, where you can leave your mountain bikes locked up outside and pay to enter.
The ranger station is kitted out with tourist information, maps of the valley, snacks and importantly – water! This is your last chance to grab some water or electrolyte sports drinks before heading into the dusty desert.
They have clean toilets and a shower block if you need to use those facilities.
Entrance in the morning is $2,500 CLP (just over US$3). You beat the crowds, heat and inflated prices! There is a price increase to $3,000 CLP (almost US$4) after 12pm.
Ready to orbit the valley of the moon on your Apollo 11 mountain bike? Let’s do it!
The best things in life are never easy, right? Well, the same applies here. Yes, you have entered the valley, however, you are at the boundary and need to make headway into the valley.
The bad news? You have just over 3 miles (5km) of cycling to go before you hit the first major spot on the trail.
The good news? You’re on a dirt road now. That means potholes, rocks, uneven ground and hills. The reason you have a mountain bike and not a road bike! It’s at this point the fun really starts and the scenery begins to transform around you.
Look for fissures on the ground where dried salt under harsh and persistent sunshine has cracked the barren earth. For photographers, this marks the beginning of what will be an exceptional day of shooting.
Caberna de Sal / Salt Cavern
As you can see from the photograph, the salt cavern was closed the day we visited. How about this for bad luck? In a place rarely splashed with a drop of water, a flash flood occurred just days before we arrived. The cave was flooded. Damn! But as the famous saying goes: you win some, you lose some!
The salt cave is the first stop on the tour bus so arrive early to avoid the masses. Traversing the cave requires some physical fitness but if you’ve taken a mountain bike you will have no problems.
We were told by the rangers that the cave can become dark and tight in spaces. If you suffer from claustrophobia, maybe give this one a miss!
Duna Mayor / Major Dune
A further 1.2 miles (2km) will lead you to one of the most impressive views this valley offers. Duna Mayor is a gigantic sand dune with a footpath snaking its way to the top. It’s an easy hike up, just wear comfortable footwear and follow the little red arrows.
And once you reach the top, you will be blown away with your first jaw dropping wow moment of the day. The view is special. You might find your vocabulary being a broken record stuck on a replay of ‘wow’.
Take some time up here to enjoy the spectacle. If there are others around, give them time to thin out.
You are atop a sand dune ridge that has been battered and shaped by harsh winds over the years. The top of the sand dune has a vista over the Anfiteatro Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon Amphitheater.
This spot will be packed with tour groups later in the day for sunset. Hopefully, you have arrived earlier and there are no other people around so you can absorb the alien landscape in silence.
Does it feel like you’re on the moon? Of course not, you don’t have a spacesuit on and you can’t jump 3 meters in the air, chilling out up there with a hang time of 4 seconds. But it’s easy to imagine yourself being on the moon, or Mars, or anywhere but Earth.
Standing alone in the tranquility, red and white craters made of sand and stone as far as the eye can see, beyond the horizon. It could be the closest you will come to leaving Earth. Even if it is just for a moment.
Valle de la Luna Amphitheater
A half mile (1km) cycle slicing through the red rock valley will bring you to the Amphitheater at ground level.
The enormous protruding rock formation sprinkled in a light dusting of dried white salt makes it difficult to concentrate on the road! Be careful of other vehicles around the corners. Roads and pathways are marked with small rocks on each side.
Certain areas of the Atacama have more of a look of Mars than of Earth and the amphitheater in Valle de la Luna is no exception. This martian landscape hasn’t gone unnoticed by NASA, who have tested innovative technologies on the red surface, with the intention of sending them to Mars.
Unfortunately, the amphitheater isn’t actually what you might imagine with acoustics and echos. It’s just the great big rock in front of you. However, it is still an impressive sight.
This is the perfect place to snap photographs of the stone formation from below. As you can see, we weren’t the only lunatics to hire mountain bikes to tour Valle de la Luna!
Mirador Achache / Lookout Achaches
Ready to make your way up to your next panoramic viewpoint? Check out the photo ops on this one!
Just 100m further you’ll find another bike locking area. This is the beginning of the footpath up to the lookout, another easy climb.
Is the initial wow factor wearing off a little? Rediscover the novelty of your surroundings. Remember, you don’t see things like this every day. Look again at the jagged stone formations rising out of the sand like thousands of half buried Stegosaurus.
Direct your attention to the North and East. Snow capped Volcanoes such as the towering Licancabur await your gasp of amazement at its grandeur. The top of its cone stands at an impressive 5,916 meters high.
Further in the distance, the mighty Andes mountain range looms over the region as contributor to its arid climate. This is a place to be impressed by topography!
By this point it’s probably getting towards midday, be careful in the sun and keep hydrated.
You might even have some dogs for company. A word of warning, at one point there were around 10-15 dogs who got a little over excitable. Just keep in mind they are stray animals. For the most part they will be fine and we even had a lovely fluff ball follow us all the way up and back down again.
Mina Victoria / Victoria Mine
You have now seen the best of the valley of the Moon. If you want to complete the sites, you have a further 1.9 miles (3km) to the three Marias and back again. That’s an additional 4 miles (6km) on top off getting all the way back to San Pedro. Think carefully at this point.
It’s entirely up to you to decide now based on weather conditions, water supply and your own physical condition whether to continue.
We cycled the half mile (1km) on to Victoria mine, but it probably wasn’t worth the effort. There are a few remnants of what used to be the mine, but it’s mostly just salty white rocks, dramatically less impressive than the earlier viewpoints.
Las Tres Marias / The Three Marias
If you continued onwards, it’s a further 1.2 miles (2km) to reach the three Marias from the Victoria mine. Las Tres Marias is a unique rock formation in the area that wind has carved out. It used to be three thin columns but only 2 remain.
There’s not much of a story to tell here, but it would mean you completed the route. We turned back at the mine as the sun was evaporating us and turning us into salty humans to add to the rocks!
The full route all the way to the end at the three Marias is 7 miles (11km) from the visitor center both ways. Don’t take too much on if you’re not up to it. To be perfectly honest, it’s not worth going any further than Mirador Achache.
Valle de la Luna is a must see in the Atacama. Not interested in cycling or hiring a car? Do you prefer to be picked up at your hotel and have a guided tour of the area in order to learn more about the landscape? A tour could be the perfect way for you to experience the valley with none of the hassle of organizing. There are plenty of tour operators in town but if you’d like to book in advance, this is the tour for you.
And there we have it, you can now orbit Valle de la Luna by mountain bike! We hope you have a blast in the Atacama! Let us know if there’s anything we missed or if you’ve already been and enjoyed the Valley of the Moon! If you need help planning your San Pedro de Atacama itinerary, please feel free to contact us either below in the ‘Comments’ or by using our Contact form!
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