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Geological localities

Valle de la Luna

La Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) is a fantastic geological landscape at the gate of San Pedro de Atacama, the famous touristic village at the foot of Licancabur Volcano that crowns the western edge of the Altiplano-Puna Plateau in Northern Chile. San Pedro is also the gate to the Salar de Atacama, a 100 km-long and 80 km-wide flat valley. The formation of the Salar is similar to that of the spectacular Salar de Uyuni. It hosts one of the largest Lithium deposits, which covers 30% of the world consumption in Lithium.

Moon Valley at the foot of Licancabur Volcano

Sunrise on Moon Valley

What are striking in the surroundings of San Pedro are the incredible sceneries, notably at the Moon Valley. And its name fits very well with the feeling of the visitor who could really believe that he walks on the moon. The red colors of the hills contrast with the white deposits that look like snow.

Sunrise on Moon Valley

Sunrise on Moon Valley

How did this fairytale landscape form? It results from a competition between erosion and tectonics. And the erosion here is not usual: the rocks are made of salt and so dissolve when it rains (rarely though, this is the driest region in the world…). The dissolution of the rocks produced these strange reliefs.

Salts of Valle de la Luna

Salts of Valle de la Luna

The visitor can find this kind of landscape along the Cordillera de la Sal (the Salt Range) that bounds the Salar de Atacama on its western side.

Map of salar de Atacama

In addition, once the salt was dissolved in the rainwater, the water quickly evaporates due to the arid conditions of the area, and precipitates the salt it contained, leaving these white deposits that look like snow. To understand how it works, you could pour salty water on your table and let dry…

Salts of Valle de la Luna

Where do these salty rocks come from? In fact they result from an old part of the salar de Atacama. They formed exactly the same way as the salts are deposited currently in the Salar de Atacama and in the Salar de Uyuni. At the time of their formation, a few million years ago, the Salar de Atacama was much larger and salts deposited over a large area to the west of the current salar.

Since then, the Andean tectonic compression deformed the salt deposits, broke them and overall folded them. The principle of rock folding is very simple: if you take sheet of paper on a table, and you put your hands on each side of the sheet. Then you move one hand toward the other to shorten the distance between them, such that you “shorten” the sheet of paper. The sheet folds and forms a relief. This is how rock folding produces mountain ranges, such as the Cordillera de la Sal.

Folded strata of Valle de la Lune

In the sceneries, it is possible to follow the twisted strata of salt that form the Cordillera de la Sal. This is thus the tectonics that lifted up the rocks and formed the Cordillera de la Sal, but it is the erosion that shaped the landscapes how they are today.

Folded strata of Valle de la Lune

 

 

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