Sandboarding And Sunset In The Atacama Desert, Chile

“They call this Death Valley because of all the people who don’t make it out alive,” our tour guide, Steve, whispered in a haunting voice.

Staring at the enormous sand dunes and unworldly rock formations, I felt fearful of what I was about to do. Of course, Steve was joking. The name actually comes from a mispronuciation by a Belgian priest, Gustavo Le Paige, who thought the landscape looked like Mars, or Marte. Because of the way he spoke, locals believed he said “death,” or muerte.

I found myself here after booking a “Sandboarding in Death Valley + Sunset in Moon Valley” excursion with Atacama Inca Tour. It was during a trip to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, where tour agencies occupy every other storefront. However, this company was the only one I noticed offering this unique combination package. For 12,000 Chilean Pesos (about $25), plus 2,000 $CLP (about $4) to enter Moon Valley, you get transportation, a sandboarding lesson and about two hours of sandboarding, a tour of the Chulacao Caves, which are covered in edible salt, an uphill trek to a viewpoint in Moon Valley to sip Pisco Sour while watching the sunset and a free DVD of the afternoon. The tour also stops at many lookout points, so you’ll be able to get many photos. While Death Valley holds a surreal beauty, Moon Valley has some interesting landscape as well. In fact, the area gets its name due to its resemblance to the moon’s surface.

For a more visual idea of the day, check out the photo gallery below.


Vagabond Tales: Is sandboarding better than snowboarding?

Contrary to what you may believe, the ocean in Peru is not very warm. In fact, it’s not warm at all. It’s freezing.

Other than desert outposts in the northern reaches of the country where it’s still possible to surf in boardshorts (Mancora, Vichayito, etc.), the Humboldt current–which swings northward from Antarctica–renders the water in Peru so cold that much of the coast is a seascape of lonely gray populated by neoprene-clad surfers suffering from ice cream headaches (surf slang for intense pain in the temples felt when diving beneath a frigid wave).

For this precise reason there was little part of me which wanted to surf in Peru.

But wait, Peru has some of the best waves in the world. Chicama, Pacasmayo, Cabo Blanco? These places are legendary. What’s wrong with you?

Standing on the rocky shores of Huanchaco, a beachfront suburb of the colonial city of Trujillo, the thought of removing my warm flannel and thrusting my ceviche-laden body into 51° water held remarkably little appeal. That, and the waves simply just weren’t that good. Admittedly, a fair weather surfer I will be.

Having already toured the ruins of Huaca de Sol and Chan Chan, ancient cities of the Moche and Chimu people who began inhabiting this coastline around 400 AD, my wife and I were simply going to have to find adventure elsewhere.

How about sand boarding?

For years I had seen photos of warm-weather renegades riding down sand dunes from Morocco to New Zealand to here on the coast of Peru. Still, I was skeptical. It’s sand. Not snow. Or water. How fun can it possibly be?Hiring out the services of a local guide named Jaime we hopped into a 1980’s era red van that appeared to contain half of the dune already embedded into the interior. For over an hour and a half the three of us bounced our way over dirt roads and past rural farming hamlets in search of a shimmering white dune which, ideally, would be protected from the stiff coastal breeze.

“This”, I initially reckoned, “is absurd.”

I could be lounging oceanfront back in Huanchaco sucking down a bucket of cold cervezas and watching tourists head into the surf on caballito de totoras, traditional boats made of thin reeds which many historians believe were potentially the world’s first surf craft.

Instead, I find myself 50km inland driving through scrub brush with a man named Jaime who’s keen on throwing me off of a sand dune on a board akin to a skateboard without wheels.


As I would find out after my first successful run down the dune, however, this is a sport that could grow on me, and it was growing on me fast.

The first notable difference between sandboarding and snowboarding is the exhausting lack of a ski lift. The absence of a lift of course leads to a lot more trekking uphill, which when performed in sand up to your ankles is harder than you might imagine.

This, it would seem, is a massive downside to sandboarding.

On the contrary, it only leads me to offer the first point for why sandboarding may be better than snowboarding:

With sandboarding you get an incredible workout.

Furthermore, when a titanic amount of effort is required to reach the top of a dune it only adds a sense of accomplishment to the ensuing ride down.

Unless, of course, you happen to fall on the ride down. Then the 20 minute walk to the top feels like a waste. While perhaps true, the idea of falling introduces the second reason why sandboarding may be better than snowboarding:

When you fall, it doesn’t hurt.

No ice patches, no bruised butt muscles, no broken vertebrae, just forgiving folds of sand waiting to absorb you and your miserable descent.

True, you may end up getting sand in your shorts, but this raises the third and final reason why sandboarding may be better than snowboarding:

Sandboarding is warmer than snowboarding.

Given the nature of the climates where massive sand dunes thrive, rarely will you need more clothing for sandboarding than your favorite bathing suit. There are no expensive gloves, pants, jackets, goggles, earmuffs, or shivering on top of a mountain. Swap them all out for a pair of boardshorts and call it a day.

Do I feel this reasoning will create any converts? Absolutely not. But I at least feel compelled to make the argument, invite you to try it, and let you make the decision for yourself.

Interested? Check out Sandboard magazine to find a dune location near you.

Read more of the Vagabond Tales here

The Atacama Desert: Chile’s Other Adventure Destination

When adventure travelers reveal a list of their top destinations, Chile is often amongst the favorites. The South American country is well known for its majestic landscapes, remote, wild places, and adrenaline inducing activities. In the south, Patagonia is widely considered one of the best backpacking and climbing destinations on the planet and Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the world, is the jumping off point for travelers heading to Antarctica. But what many don’t realize is that the northern part of Chile may be the country’s best kept travel secret.

Far to the north, nestled along the borders of Bolivia and Argentina, lies the Atacama Desert, a destination that offers an amazing a mix of natural beauty and cultural emersion. The Atacama has the unique distinction of being the driest place on the planet, thanks to a rain shadow created by the Andes Mountains and Chile’s Domeyko range, which stretches along its Pacific coast. Those two mountain ranges conspire to block storm clouds from moving over the Atacama, and as a result, there are places in the desert that have not seen rain in recorded history.

But that doesn’t mean the Atacama is a desolate wasteland. Far from it in fact! Rainfall in the surrounding mountains does run off into the valleys below, creating an oasis and bringing a surprising amount of life to certain areas. Centuries ago, those oasis’s attracted human settlements, some of which still exist to this day, including San Pedro de Atacama, the unofficial capital of the region.

In many ways, San Pedro is a typical tourist town. Its streets are lined with small shops, packed with all manner of goods, including a dizzying array of handcrafted jewelry, scarves, pottery, and other local items. Industrious shopkeepers compete with one another to find ways to separate you from your pesos, while packs of stray dogs wander the narrow alleyways. A small museum offers insights into the evolution of the Atacama region and an unofficial North Face gear store provides overpriced adventure apparel for those who forgot to pack the proper gear. Still, there is a certain charm about the place, and you’ll soon find yourself settling into one of the sidewalk cantinas, enjoying a cold cerveza or pisco sour, and watching the world go by.The town of 4000 residents also serves as base camp for your adventures in the Atacama Desert. In addition to the small shops, you’ll also find plenty of tour operators, each promising to show you the local sights. For example, you’ll be able to book excursions to visit the nearby salt flats or geyser basin, as well as rent mountain bikes or go sandboarding on one of the towering dunes. The more adventurous may want to explore the desert on horseback or take a trek though one of the gorges that are so prolific throughout the area. If you’re really up for a challenge, try bagging the summit of one of the many volcanoes that ring the Atacama. Most tower over 18,000 feet in height, with routes that range from a simple walk-up to a full-fledged, technical mountaineering experience.

While the array of activities available in the Atacama is quite impressive, it is the landscapes themselves that will likely leave you with the most lasting impressions. There simply aren’t enough superlatives to express the degree of diversity and beauty that can be found there. You’ll continually be amazed at how the terrain can vary from dry and desolate to lush and fertile, and yet still remain so incredibly breathtaking, and just when you think you’ve seen everything it has to offer, the desert will surprise you with something new once again.

A spectacular natural light show, provided by the rising and setting sun, paints the desert in incandescent reds, yellows, and browns, that simply have to be seen to be believed. In that light, the natural landscaped glowed like no other place I’ve seen in my travels, adding yet another dimension to an already amazing place.

And when the sun goes down, and those lovely landscapes are blanketed in complete darkness, one only has to glance upwards towards the heavens for your next breathtaking view. The skies above the Atacama are clear and open, offering a view of the night sky that is quite possibly unrivaled by any other place on Earth. The stars are countless in number and appear in layers like some kind of epic 3D projection that can normally be seen only at your local planetarium. The Milky Way makes an appearance as well, painting a bright white streak overhead, while constellations only visible in the Southern Hemisphere twinkle back at viewers below. It is an awe inspiring and humbling sight to say the least.

If my description of the Atacama Desert has you intrigued, then there are a few things you should know before you go. For starters, even the desert floor is located at altitude, which can be an issue for some travelers. San Pedro, for instance, is situated at just above 8000 feet, which can have a significant impact on your visit if you’re unprepared. It is not uncommon for visitors to experience slight altitude sickness upon arrival, so spend the first few days acclimatizing before trying any overly active pursuits. A shortness of breath or mild headaches are typical symptoms, both of which tend to go away after a day or two. (On the plus side, alcohol tends to have more of an effect at altitude as well, making San Pedro a great place to tie one on!)

Getting to the Atacama is a fairly simple affair. You’ll want to book your flights through Chile’s capital, Santiago and then continue on to Calama, a small mining town on the edge of the desert. From there, it is an easy one-hour drive to San Pedro, where your adventure will truly begin. The drive in will give you an excellent glimpse of what the desert has in store for you as well.

In a testament to just how off the beaten path the Atacama is for most travelers, while checking in for my overnight flight from Miami to Santiago recently, the ticket agent noticed the second leg of my journey on to Calama, and actually asked me where it was I was going. He didn’t recognize the airport code and said that he had never booked a passenger through to that destination. I had to explain to him exactly where I was flying, which was a bit surprising considering I was about to board a Chilean based airline, with Chilean’s working the counter.

My experience wasn’t much different after my arrival in San Pedro either. Once there, I met plenty of visitors from within Chile itself, as well as Brazil. There were also travelers from as far away as Japan, the U.K. and Fiji, but very few Americans. In fact, the only other person from the States that I ran into was another travel writer working on a story of her own. It seems for now, the Atacama Desert is virtually unknown to American travelers.

But for anyone looking for a fantastic destination with a lot to offer, minus the large crowds, Chile’s northern region is an exceptional choice. Just be fair warned, with its spectacular landscapes and boundless opportunities for adventure, the Atacama may spoil you for similar destinations in the future.

Volcano Boarding: Sledding Down An Active Volcano

The New York TImes has the scoop on a new sport that can trace its origins back to the slopes of Cerro Negro, a 2388 foot tall volcano in western Nicaragua. The new extreme sport is called Volcano Boarding, and participants use a small piece of plywood to rocket down the side of a sometimes active volcano, reaching speeds of up to 50 mph.

The article credits Darryn Webb, an Australian tour guide working in Nicaragua, with coming up with the idea behind volcano boarding. Webb grew up in Queensland, where he learned to sandboard, which is a bit like snowboarding on sand dunes. Back in 2005, when he first set eyes on Cerro Negro, he immeditely began plotting a new way to go down its slopes.

Webb says they tried a variety of different concepts when looking for their “sled”, including boogie boards, mattresses, and even a minibar fridge (!), before eventually going with their current design, which is little more than reinforced plywood with formica on the underside to increase speed. Boarders don a jumpsuit and goggle designed to protect them should they become separated from their rides, and begin the arduous 45 minute climb to the summit, carrying their board.The ride down is, as you would expect, unlike anything else. The writer reports of high speeds, but also a very bumpy and noisy run, in which rocks, dust and ash flew everywhere. Controlling your speed is a challenge to say the least, and when using a technique for slowing down that was shown to her by an instructor, she ended up crashing out of control. But once the ride was over, she wanted to go again, which says a lot for the experience as well.

For extreme sports junkies, hurling down the side of a mountain isn’t nearly extreme enough of course, so the lure of an active volcano makes it all the more exciting. Cerro Negro is young, geologically speaking, and still very active. Since 1850, the volcano has erupted 20 times, and I suppose there are some who come to ride its slopes who have visions of outrunning lava flows as they go. So far, that hasn’t happened, but then again, this is a new sport.

Where On Earth (Week 8): The Dunes Outside Swakopmund, Namibia

We had a number of guesses for this week’s Where on Earth? Jake guessed the right country, but Buddha was more specific with his answer — the coastal sand dunes in Namibia — so the big gold coin goes to him. Snapped by gakout, this image reminds me of one of my worst mornings — and one of my best days. After about a year of service in the Peace Corps in Zambia, my friend Jesse, and I decided we needed a break, so we arranged a trip to Namibia. From where I was stationed, the 4-day trip to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, required I ride:

  • 1 bicycle
  • 2 pick-up trucks
  • 3 taxis
  • 2 mini-buses
  • 3 full-sized buses
  • 1 dugout canoe (to cross the border between Zambia and Namibia)

It was quite a journey.

Shortly after arriving in Windhoek, we arranged for a trip through northern Namibia. We wanted to see the giant red sand dunes of Sossusvlei. The next day, we headed to Swakopmund, Namibia’s second largest city — and perhaps the weirdest place on earth. Here, at the end of a long, dusty, desert drive, is a coastal town that looks like Hansel and Gretel might stroll up at any moment.

With its rich Bavarian architecture, signs for strudels and sausages, and road names all ending in -Straße, it felt like we had left Africa and headed for Germany. In any event, we signed up to go sandboarding the following day. Excited about no longer being in Zambia; thrilled at the prospect of being in a clean, unusual place; and eager to get sandy the next morning, we began drinking.

And we drank.

And we kept drinking.

You can see where this is headed.

I drank Tafels and Windhoek lagers. I did shots of imported Gilbey’s gin. Ordinarily, I don’t drink that much, but I was delighted to be able to drink cold, draught beer. The beers I was used to in Zambia were always warm and in filthy bottles.

So I drank some more.

The next morning I was so hung over, I thought I wouldn’t be able to participate in the sandboarding; I could barely roll out of bed. Fortunately, Jesse made me go. On the bus ride to the dunes, no one would sit beside me, because I was ashen white, and I had to stop the bus several times to, um, to puke. I was disgusted with myself. Everyone else on the bus was disgusted with myself, too. Jesse thought it was hilarious.

When we got to the dunes, I looked at how high we’d have to trudge, and I refused to go. “Just go once. If it takes all morning, then you don’t have to go back,” Jesse encouraged. I agreed. Amazingly, lumbering up the dunes was just what I needed: the fresh air, the clear skies, and the anticipation of zooming down the hills made me perk up immediately. I was cured!

For the next few hours, we raced up the hills and flew back down. We were told we could reach speeds up to 35 miles per hour on the waxed plywood boards on which we rode. Laying on my stomach, with my nose 6 inches from the sand that was rushing past, it felt like 350 miles per hour. Quite honestly, sandboarding in Namibia is one of the most fun thing I’ve ever done.

Plus, at the end of the day, they fed us lunch. I hadn’t had a ham sandwich in almost year. I was in heaven.

Believe it or not, I think I felt like having a beer to celebrate.