Of all the thrilling excursions and spectacular places we had heard about in the Atacama Desert, the Valle de Arcoiris wasn’t a hotspot that immediately captured my imagination. It was only by chance, on the flight from Santiago to Antofagasta, that the Llama read about a hike into the valley from the Sky Airline magazine. We tore out the page, folded it up and stuffed it between the pages of the guidebook I often carried but rarely consulted.
After three days spent road tripping through the desert, awed and humbled by the spectacular landscape, we were frankly sort of “cooked” and cranky. Noisy tour guides, large groups of tourists, side-schemes galore and lots of hot sun: we were keen to keep exploring, but anxious for more freedom. A hike off the beaten tourist path sounded like salve to our souls, so we pulled out the magazine article and tried to decode the writer’s words to make it to this secret location.
The challenge posed in finding the Valle de Arcoiris was undoubtedly part of the charm for the Llama and me, as we delight in solving travel puzzles, particularly to arrive at spectacular hidden places. We followed spotty GPS down a dirt road only to “arrive at our destination” at the bottom of a long dry river bed with a sign saying “Prohibido la Entrada: Solo Llamas.” The Llama managed some fancy shifting in the sand to turn the little Rio around without getting stuck.
Back on the paved path, we turned down another unmarked gravel road which seemed to lead in the approximate direction of our destination. Again we reached the bottom of a river bed, but this time a shallow stream flowed through, so we parked the car on land to cross on foot. Twenty minutes later, uncertain about our location and nervous as the sun set, we turned around and hiked back to the car, convinced we were in the wrong place. It took until the next day, when we pulled into the welcome station of the Hierbas Buenas petroglyphs, and asked an elder of the Rio Grande community about the trail.
“Can we hike into the Valle de Arcoiris from here?” I asked him, almost afraid of his answer.
He gave me a hesitant yes, and stood to explain the layout of the petroglyph display installation. First he pointed out the petroglyph path, obviously marked with spray-painted red flechas to direct tourists along the stopping places to view the carved markings on the rock.
“Are there red arrows all the way to Valle de Arcoiris?” I pressed, and he gave me a resigned “no” as he realized we wouldn’t be distracted.
“But there’s a trail…?” I led on. And he seemed to think about it for a moment, and pointed off into the distance.
“See the canyon in the shade? If you follow the dried river bed into the shaded canyon, continue to the end. There, you’ll see a mule path up the hillside. But it’s not marked and easy to miss.”
I repeated the directions he had given back to him to be sure I understood and had them clearly. He nodded.
“I don’t recommend it, going without a guide,” he said. “You could get lost.”
I looked over at the Llama, who didn’t seem deterred.
“How long should the hike be?” I asked.
“About 3 to 4 hours,” he responded.
“If we get to the top of the right hillside, can we see the valley from there?” I asked
“Yes, it leads right down into the valley and you can see all the colors. Very beautiful, red, green, white,” he trailed off.
“If we get to the top and we are lost, we’ll come back,” I promised.
“Good luck,” he responded, and the Llama and I headed off in the direction of the shaded canyon. With the morning sun at our backs, it had the unreal and overly optimistic quality of the start of a wild west film, or perhaps a quirky indie comedy. I felt almost certain we’d end up lost, but skipped with delight at the excitement of the adventure regardless.
The open plain was exposed and full of treasures. Though still early in the morning, the sun had already eliminated the shadows but the temperature was refreshing and cool. We walked along happily, removing layers as the day warmed. We followed along informal paths cut into the ground by fat 4×4 wheels and flash flood rain waters, both of which had torn violently through the loose dirt, leaving exposed interesting rocks and cacti. The two of us zig-zagged across the plain, adjusting constantly to ensure we were headed for the shaded canyon, which was quickly losing its shadows as the sun rose. For as far as we could squint our eyes into the distance, we were the only human beings alive.
When we cut through the canyon we found ourselves watched by guanacos with their diving gait and lizards sunning themselves before rushing to hide beneath stones. Rock formations loomed tall on both sides of the canyon and we spotted petroglyphs carved in precariously high places, unmarked, of course, by red tourist arrows.
As we made our way deeper into the canyon, we started guessing at “trails”leading up into the cliffs. Places where water had cut through the ground made appealing starts, but as our eyes followed the line up to it’s natural conclusion, it was easy to tell that no mule was getting up those steep rock faces, and neither were we.
Finally we came across a cairn which seemed to mark a trodden place resembling a trail and we made our way uphill. If we were indeed in a movie, this is where it would all go wrong. The Llama and I scrambled up boulders and loose rocks, passing bristly vegetation and occasional piles of rocks – perhaps cairns or perhaps result of natural rock fall.
But at the crest of the steep climb we were rewarded with a tantalizing view of unreal colors and shapes. We saw primitive markers and congratulated ourselves on having successfully found Rainbow Valley.
Descending along a rough path into the valley, the colors on display intensified at every turn.
The earth sparkled, as if gemstones had been placed on hillsides, jewels cast into the sand, and crystals set upon rugged rock formations. If this was where rainbows come to rest, they tossed aside their pots of gold in exchange for glitter bombs. We explored gleefully, dwarfed by colorful rock giants and their cathedrals.
It’s tempting to say that nothing grows here because the landscape is so blank on first review, but it isn’t true. Hiking through the rocky terrain, stinking of sweat and sunscreen, I caught sweet wafts of herbal freshness carried on the wind. The Llama and I determined the source as a twiggy shrub with small purple flowers called rica rica, I stuck a sprig behind my ear and found it left a pleasant residue on my fingers and in my hair.
While we explored the base of the valley, three Jeeps arrived carrying small tour groups of 4 to 6 people. They entered via the shallow stream canyon the Llama and I had abandoned the night before, and soon after their arrival, four wild mules approached, clearly seeking treats from the visiting groups. From this I would surmise that the destination is on the menu for visiting tourists; but it hasn’t reached tourbus level–yet. I also cannot overstate the feeling of satisfaction we got from having found the trailhead and hiked across the rugged and varied terrain. It made the colors brighter, the sparkles more magical, and our water taste sweeter.
We hiked back the way we came, over the steep hillside and into the canyon, now exposed to the searing afternoon sun. The heat was oppressive as we crossed the open plain, and we were careful not to take our last sips of water until we are within sight of the car. At last, we arrived at the registration office and met the elder who stood in the doorway to see us approach from a distance, greeting us like estranged relatives at the end of a happy movie.
“You arrived!” he commented to us, a youthful smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
“We did,” I responded, sweaty with delight and satisfaction.
Valle de Arcoiris: Rainbow Valley. If anyone is interested in more specific instruction on how to accomplish the hike, I’m happy to answer questions and provide a more detailed description.
Sky Airline: Chile’s low cost airline, mostly flying within Chile, but with a few international flights to places like Mendoza, Buenos Aires, Lima, and Montevideo.
Prohibido la Entrada: Solo Llamas: Entrance Prohibited: Llamas only. Even though I refer to the Llama as the Llama, he’s actually a person, not a llama, and so neither of us were allowed to be there. Whoops!
Hierbas Buenas: More on this destination to come!
Rio Grande: More on this destination to come!
guanacos: Related to the llama and alpaca, but never domesticated due to courser hair, the guanaco is a funny, awkward, and deer-like. The Llama and I tried to decide how to describe the movement of the guanaco, and could only compare it to a dolphin diving in ocean waves, kind forward-heavy (especially when chased by the Llama with camera!).
rica rica: A sturdy herbal plant that grows in the Atacama Desert region, reminding me of almost a blend of lavender and mint, or perhaps rosemary. It is very fragrant and distinctive, and can be used to soothe the stomach by making a tea with the sprigs. I found it much more pleasant than the grassy coca leaves you’re meant to chew on or drink to assuage the effects of altitude.