Riding bikes on the moon : Valle de la luna

By Sydney Tong on March 26, 2018. Read time: 6 min.

I've often dreamt of spending an afternoon on the moon. The ability to float around this terrestrial body without the constraints of gravity seemed endlessly freeing, the thought of life without gravity seemed to coax the daydreams to the forefront of my mind.

However, in all of my wildest daydreams, I never foresaw myself riding an old rusted mountain bike on the way to the Valley of the Moon. Here is my story how that damn bike almost killed me.

San Pedro is a dusty town situated in the center of the Atacama desert, and it is where our adventure begins. The dry rocky terrain is strikingly similar to conditions on the moon which is where the valley gets its name.

We rented our bicycles from a small bike shop in San Pedro for a few thousand pesos each, equivalent to USD 7. We soon realized that our small budget was not enough to ensure us a decent quality bike. The bikes had been neglected of routine maintenance and had rust forming on the gears and wheels. Each rotation of the wheel felt as if it would be the last and I worried that my bike wouldn’t last the entire duration of my trip.

Pay more for a better bike. It will make the trip much more enjoyable.

Our rides Our rides

The Atacama Desert is known for its extreme weather conditions, and my body was not adequately prepared for it. The desert sits at 7000 feet above sea level, and many incoming visitors experience extreme cases of altitude sickness upon arrival.

Each rotation of the peddle required extra effort as my body had not yet acclimated to the Atacama's elevation, heat, and dryness. My lungs were not accustomed to the thinner oxygen levels at this altitude and were struggling to keep up with the physical exertion. With determination, I downshifted my gears and started to work my way up the mountain.

Allow your body a few days to acclimate to the altitude before heavy physical exertion and drink lots of water.

I felt like physical exertion was causing my mind to play tricks on me. There seemed to be snow covering the red landscape. My mind dismissed it as a mirage as there was no way there could be snow on these boiling hot desert mountains.

As I got closer to the mountains, I could see they were covered with a thick crust of salt. The stark contrast between the red earth and the salt enhanced the mountain’s features making them look even steeper.

My muscles were aching from using so much energy. I moved my attention back to my breath and tried to steady my pace and ignore the pain. The ascent up the mountain was steep and the two-wheeled clunker I was peddling made it near impossible.

The pain in our thighs quickly dulled and was forgotten as we entered the Valle de la Luna. The landscape was barren except for a few odd rocks structures that had been carved out by ancient lakes and rivers that had dried up thousands of years ago. The surrounding mountains were impressive, the lack of water in the valley had left them impervious to erosions since the lakes evaporated. Stuck in time, incapable of aging.

We should've known something bad would happen We should've known something bad would happen

The layer of salt was thicker here than on the road up, and it blanketed the landscape. Out of curiosity, I reached down to pick up a pinch of the sparkling white grains, and I tasted it. Yup, it was salt.

The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world, with some areas, have been without rainwater for hundreds of years. Not a single speck of green lives in the valley. The conditions are too harsh, and the salt prevents anything from flourishing.

The lack of a breeze added to the lifelessness of the surroundings. Not a single cloud or bird lingered in the sky. Everything was still. The stillness was unlike any other experience I’ve had on Earth and transported my mind to the moon.

The desolate landscape intensified the valley's desert beauty. We timed our ride so we would be able to enjoy the sunset on the moon. We witnessed the beginnings of the colorful sunset as the bright hues of orange and pink danced on the mountains. I could already tell this evening was going to be memorable.

Taking a break on the way up the mountain Taking a break on the way up the mountain

Then the disaster began

Then something strange and unusual for this part of the world began to occur. Clouds began to appear in the orange sky, not the average fluffy, friendly neighborhood clouds that you would typically see in the desert. These stormy clouds were swollen and ready to burst with rain.

We were miles from shelter and were about to experience the deadliest rainstorm this desert has ever seen. We ditched the remainder of the sunset to begin our quick descent down the mountain to outrun the storm.

We furiously rushed our way back to our hotel with fat raindrops hitting our face and drenching the road. We barely made it back before the storm hit the town, but by this time the sky was dumping buckets of water on San Pedro.

San Pedro is a dusty town in the middle of the desert. The roads aren't paved, and the houses are built out of the mud. They typically receive 1 millimeter of rain a year and do not have the proper infrastructure to survive flash floods and heavy rains. In less than 24 hours they received more than a year's worth of rain and the resulting flood was disastrous.

The roads quickly became flooded and were impossible to cross. Some people who tried to cross the road to reach their homes were chest deep in mud. The electricity and the telephone wires were out, and the town sat in darkness.

Our hotel, La Candelaria is a mud-built hotel on the outside edge of San Pedro. For fear of getting stuck in the mud or stranded on the wrong side of the road, we decided to wait out the storm and return the bikes when it was safe.

We waited out the remainder of the storm in our dark room using our headlamps as a source of light. The thunder shook the ground, and the lightning lit up our room.

The lightning strikes were close, with less than 2 seconds between the flashes of light and the booming thunder. The strikes were frequent, at the height of the storm, there was one every couple of minutes. After several hours of waiting and watching we fell asleep.

By the morning the storm had dissipated, and the roads had cleared. We woke up to an aggressive knock on our door. The shop we had rented the bikes from was furious that we had not returned the bikes and were at our doorstep to collect.

The lady was threatening to hold our passports until we paid for another full day for the bikes. We tried to explain to her that the road was completely impassable the night before and the bikes would have been ruined if we had attempted to cross the mud.

Our attempts at reasoning with her were futile, and she demanded to know why we didn't attempt to call her. Well, lady, because the electricity and the phones were completely dead. After an hour of arguing in Spanish over the uncontrollable situation, she gave us our passports back.

The area experienced 31 confirmed deaths, 2,000 homes were destroyed, and 6,000 were severely damaged. There was no way we could have safely returned those bikes that night. It was a freak storm.

That is my story of riding bikes on the moon. Valle de la Luna was one of the highlights of our trip. The scenery is other-worldly, and it fulfilled my fantasy of being on the moon for an afternoon. The adventure that came after the ride was unexpected and it is highly improbable to happen on your trip.

I'd recommend riding bikes over taking a tour, if you are willing and able to, of course. We passed by one tour on our way up the mountain they were not getting as rich of an experience as we were. We had the opportunity of experiencing the landscape up close and personal and not from behind a window.

What does it feel like to be on the moon. What does it feel like to be on the moon.

How to do the trip

The ride up to the valley was incredible, and our experience is something that we will never forget. Here is some advice to make the trip better for you.

  • Check the weather and prepare accordingly.
  • The whole adventure will take about 4 hours if you are in relatively good shape.
  • Bring lots and lots of water and salty snacks. There aren't any gift shops.
  • Do not attempt this adventure on the first day or you might experience harsh altitude sickness.
  • Stop by the entrance of the park to pay the 2000CLP entrance fee,
  • Pay extra for a better bike. I promise you it will help you on the steep ride up to the valley. Expect to pay 3000-5000CLP for a day rental.
  • Wear sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses.
  • If you are going around sunset time, bring a flashlight or a headlamp with you as you will be returning home in the dark. There aren't any street lights on this route.
  • Ask if a helmet and a lock are included with the rental.
  • The roads to the valley are well marked but here is a map to show you where you need to go!

Bienvenidos de Chile! Bienvenidos de Chile!

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