Sandboarding Amidst a Star Wars Landscape

San Pedro de Atacama Travel Blog

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Valle de la Lune
I love a good change, especially when it's from a rough, frigid, high-altitude adventure to a comfortable, desert resort town.

Welcome to the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world.  It's so dry here that many restaurants have large, roof-free sections - they just have gaping openings to clear skies by day and to a sparkling starry dome by night.  To combat the cold desert nights, these unique restaurants are usually equipped with a large, comforting stone oven fire in the center, or in  the case of one restaurant I visited, an open bonfire, strategically planted in the middle of  an open area.  It's the ideal toasty refuge to the inhospitable surroundings, and well, the contrast and combination of cold open air, huge warming  fires, and excellent food is clearly one of the selling points of this resort town.
Valle de la Lune


Stepping aside, upon arriving in Chile, I notice three things:

1) How clean it is.
2) How expensive it is, relative to Bolivia.
3) How I don't understand the rapid and slurred Spanish spoken here.

OK, a fourth thing:

4) Probably San Pedro only - the plentiful number of dogs on the street.  Not mongrels, but healthy, well-groomed large ones most dog lovers would love.  And they're all lazily sleeping in packs littered all over the streets.

What I also find oddly amusing is that some of the most stunning scenery from the last 3 days of the great overland trip can simply be viewed from the main paved highway leading into San Pedro de Atacama.  This is not to say that one should bypass the great overland journey, but it is an option if you're short on time.


San Pedro is a resort town, and the dusty pedestrian streets lined with freshly designed restaurants and cafes gently coax my new travel mates and I into spending a day in doing-nothing bliss.   At night, we converge with others at the only bar in town to watch the Brazil-Chile football match.  As one of my buddies is Brazilian, we sheepishly cheer for Brazil amidst the chuckles of a friendly pro-Chilean crowd.  It's also easier to root for a team that's guaranteed to win than, like the rest of the bar, grudgingly watch your team get decimated (6-1 was the final score). 

Morning loops around and I'm ready to forge a new adventure, though getting locked out of my hostel late the night before after hanging out with some locals was pretty interesting in itself.
Sandboarding in style
 

I beeline it to one of the multiple sandboarding shops in central San Pedro, grab the nicest board I can find, rent a mountain bike, and dart out to the dunes along with two friends.   We leave San Pedro almost immediately and it gives way to the phenomenal Atacama desert landscape.   Colonies of wild, stalagmite-like rock formations eventually give way to a rough, sandy trail which winds its way through an interesting shallow canyon.  I swear that some of the desert scenes from the original Star Wars trilogy were filmed  here.  Unfortunately, the ride to the dunes is too arduous for my mates, and I make my way there solo only to be greeted by a handful of sandboarders upon arrival.

Sandboarding for Snowboarders 101:

How does it compare?  Well, I'm riding a a modified snowboard, but  the sand and friction makes it feel like a really heavy snowboard - literally, like it was lead.
Valle de la Lune
  To get any speed, you have to hike up to the really steep sections -  I suppose the equivalent of at least a black diamond run, without the trees, moguls, French Canadian tele-skiers and er.. snow.  There's also a lot of waxing involved, and to attain any decent speed and carving, you must ride leaning back hard on your tail, to keep the nose from becoming engulfed in sand and converting your board into a giant shovel, which for most beginners, means a complete loss of control.  I dialed it after three attempts, but three attempts was all I was going to make, because slowly hiking up a steep sand dune in the blazing hot desert afternoon, complete with sand whipping  violently at times from the wind, really, really sapped away my energy.
Valle de la Lune
  I'm also left wondering on how jumps are built - sand, after all, doesn't adhere to anything unlike snow.

Tip: Don't bring your camera up the dunes, unless you want to give yourself a good excuse to buy a new camera.  The sand will kill it.

My pocket camera (for videos) died on the dunes, but my SLR camera survived.  Barely.  Once I return to Canada, I'm going to have to take it to the camera hospital for a cleaning, or perhaps to a skilled, cheap, but uncredited, warranty-breaking hack cleaner in Lima, depending on how much I love my SLR. 

Note: I will delete the above paragraph, along with all references of abuse to my SLR, when the time comes to sell it, even though the physical scars are clear giveaways that I've taken it  rock climbing, sandboarding, parajumping, and to the birthday party of a three-year-old. 

On the bright side, upon viewing my pictures, the sandboard rental agency offered me free sandboarding in exchange for more pictures of me carving and jumping for their logo/banner.  Unfortunately, I had Other Great Plans, so I reluctantly declined.

Other Great Plans involved cycling out to the Valle de la Luna (Moon) to see the sunset over a dazzling landscape of rock formations and colour.  It's a popular destination for tours, and all the buses leave in a convoy for the valley at 3pm.  I depart San Pedro on my bike at around 4:30pm.  Needless to say, I got a bit worried as I barely left the town limits when I was greeted by the throng of returning tour buses.  But, after an hour and a bit of hard uphill against a harsh early evening desert wind, I find myself in blissful solitude with the deep red hues of the valley.  I am so mesmerized by the protruding shapes, the vastness of the valley, and artistic colours that I stay until the sun has almost completely set. 

And I realize that after all this travel, that this is the longest piece of serenity I have had thus far.

Go figure.

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Valle de la Lune
Valle de la Lune
Valle de la Lune
Valle de la Lune
Sandboarding in style
Sandboarding in style
Valle de la Lune
Valle de la Lune
Valle de la Lune
Valle de la Lune
San Pedro de Atacama
photo by: eefab