Caves, San Pedro de Atacama
This is a weird, vertical pit carved on the salty walled hillside of the NE end of the Cordillera de la Sal, which has an underground, 16-kilometre (10 mile) long cave (see next tip).
Although purported as originated by a meteorite impact, it actually was because of the water flowing across it, and that was carried by an ancient river, the same that carved the underground cave.
It is actually much deeper than it looks: people can see the first 20 metres or so from its rim, but the first “step” is 35 metres below, and from there, it is possible to explore it for at least another 100 metres (330 ft.) or so, before the technical challenge gets serious.
In any case, after the first step, the air gets rarified (as one enters into a completely dark subterranean chamber) due to noxious gases, maybe coming from the bat’s waste –sometimes, they can be spotted hanging ‘round the place- and mineral emanations, so a gas mask is mandatory after that point.
I found once some mummified animals there (an owl, a fox, some bats) below the 25 metres, which I supposed dead from inhalation of poisonous gas (owls and foxes sometimes shelter in the salt caves elsewhere).
If caving there, there’s no safe securing point for ropes, so take a truck and secure your gear to it...and tell somebody in town what you’re doing there, just in case.
Until a few years, this amazing cave was almost unknown for most visitors to San Pedro, but recently it was included in the schedule of tours visiting the Moon Valley.
I used to visit it at least once on every trip to San Pedro, and slept inside it every time I could, as it is a nice place to spend the night.
The cave was formed by a prehistoric underground river –some scientists date it at around 4 million years ago- which carved the bizarre (to say the least..) inner shapes, which resemble those of an ear, and also the pits and chambers deep inside of the cave: there are places so low that one only can go through them crawling on the belly, and others where inner “cathedrals” and domes rise 10 metres up from sandy floors.
Tours –even the dedicated ones- go only for the first metres, and no more than 300 metres from the entrance, although it is possible to explore it for at least 4 kilometres, with relative ease, in 1 or 2 days.
The cave has some “hatches” leading to the top of it, which are useful if you want to take a breath of fresh(er) air...or if somebody feels claustrophobia.
In the night, stand in complete silence in it, and listen for the salt making crackling sounds as it expands and contracts according to the changes in the temperature, but as well due to the humidity and heat of your body, which makes it crack too.
A headlamp is ESSENTIAL, as well as spare batteries and water, because all what surrounds you is salt, extracting the water from your body like a sponge. Clothing that covers your skin is necessary too, as the salt floor and walls makes bruises and wounds that take long time to heal, and so do the sharp salt needles protruding everywhere.
After the first kilometre, there are deep pits, so be careful if exploring beyond that point.
It can get chilly in the night, as a cold desert breeze runs along the tunnel; this breeze gets in through the hatches.
When we took a tour which combined the Death Valley, Moon Valley and Quebrada de Kari I didn´t really know what this part of the tour would be like. It is a relatively recent addition to some of the available tours and involves a bit of a trek which was what attracted us to going on it.
For me, this part of the tour was a highlight of my trip to San Pedro de Atacama. I found the deep canyon which is where the Salt Cordillera ends, formed by an ancient river, stunning to look over and the salt deposits that are left behind each time it rains in the area are simply fascinating to look at. The tour has you walking right through the river bed and through some caves which are literally covered in salt.
This tour we took through Cactus Tours and the total cost was 4000 pesos plus 2000 to enter the Moon Valley which is a national park.