CHILE – Back in history in the Atacama desert & cactus valley

It is time to share with you more about my experience in the Atacama desert. This time I will write about cactuses, pre-Columbian cultures, petroglyphs and the Rainbow Valley with its magical colors. These excursions fit perfectly in a day trip and do not need any acclimatization due to the altitude. Rainbow Valley is preferred in the morning. During midday I did some relaxing at the pool, got a massage at the SPA. And in the shades on the terrace I sipped some cocktails made with local liquor. In the afternoon I did the hike through the cactus valley. What more a human wants? Luxury at its best at the Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa Hotel.

Colors at the Rainbow Valley

The Rainbow Valley or also called Valle del Arcoiris is a geological formation approximate an hour drive out of San Pedro de Atacama. The Raindbow Valley is a beautiful desert landscape where you find rocks, hills and other formations in various colors. The minerals in the soil give the area the rainbow look from brown to yellow and white to green. The best time to visit is in the morning when the sun gives the best colors, but also in the afternoon there is enough to see. You can walk the area and see the most beautiful places in about 2 hours’ time. The Rainbow Valley is not visited by the gross of tourist but certainly worth it if you can spare the time.


the minerals in the soil give the area the rainbow look from brown to yellow and white to green – just amazing!

Just a 20 minute ride from the Rainbow Valley you will find rocks with various petroglyphs from pre-Columbian cultures. You will find various images of lamas, people and other animals. You can learn from the petroglyphs how people lived centuries ago. Around the rocks there are remains of caves and shelters used by the people of that time. A lot of history and it’s very interesting to see how the driest place on earth had inhabitants for centuries already. The site is not too big so you will finish it under an hour. It’s a great combination with the Rainbow Valley as they are kind of next to each other.

Climbing Pukará de Quitor before lunch

Just outside of San Pedro de Atacama and a five minute walk from my hotel is the pre-Columbian fortress Pukará de Quitor. These remains are from a 12th century fort build at this strategic place. What mainly remains are walls build out of rock stones. You can walk up the mountain and see the layout of the old fort. Behind the fort you can climb a hill to get a great view over San Pedro de Atacama. I did both. To see the fort you are done in 20 minutes. To climb the hill give it another 40-50 minutes if you keep stepping at a moderate speed. It’s worth the view at the top as you can see all of San Pedro with the salt flat in the back, mountain ranges with volcanos and the valleys in between. A nice shower after and a super 3-course lunch with the best Chilean wine got me tired. So I opted for a massage at the SPA and sipping cocktails in the shade before the afternoon excursion started.

Avoiding falling into a cactus at the cactus valley

As it comes to hiking I’m only into that if it will show me something unique. At the cactus valley this is for sure the case. The valley or gorge is about 4KM long with a nice cool water stream in the middle. A few bigger and many small waterfalls make this a great spot to rest and relax with your feet in the water cooling down from the scorching heat of the sun. These so called Cardon cactuses grow at a speed of only 1cm per year. With the tallest in the valley over 9 meters in height you can calculate how old these cactuses really are.


waterfalls make this a great spot to rest and relax with your feet in the water cooling down from the scorching heat of the sun

Back in time they were cut into planks for building purposes and in some older buildings you can still see this cactus wood. Now the Cardon cactuses are protected due to its uniqueness and slow speed of growth. Interesting to know is that the arms of the cactuses are actually other cactuses growing on top of them. You can walk the valley in about 2-3 hours pending how much time you spend. Make sure you have a transport which can pick you up at the other side to avoid having to walk the whole way back.

The above is easily to do in a day and will give you a lot of new views and experiences. These places are not the biggest tourist attractions but this also gives them the charm. At most places you will find yourselves alone for most of the time. This is the reason I planned these excursions in my northern Chile itinerary which mainly included the Atacama Desert but also Iquique. Relax & enjoy!

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Did you visit the Rainbow Valley and Cactus Valley too or do you have questions? Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Love to hear from you!


Click an image for a full screen gallery of more photos taken during this trip. If you like to use any photo for commercial, private or editorial use please contact first for permission and/or pricing.


    • Jenny, (I answer in English if ok). Yes there is much to do in South America 🙂 I still have 3 trips Bolivia in schedule (each 6 days approx, or just 3 weeks in one shot) but I still choose something else 🙂 Personally I like Chile over Argentina to be really honest.

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