I am ashamed to admit that I knew nothing about Chile before I arrived, except that I simply had to go to San Pedro de Atacama. I knew this because everyone I spoke to who had been there insisted upon it. And they were right. Tucked away deep in the heart of the Atacama Desert (the driest in the world, don’t you know), San Pedro is an oasis of tranquillity and boasts some of the most impressive scenery in the country to boot. Yet as sleepy and leisurely as the atmosphere is, this is the perfect holiday destination for adventure seekers.
The dust-faded streets of the pueblo are crammed with tour operators all offering pretty much the same excursions; this is definitely a commercial corner of paradise. Possible activities include flamingo-spotting, salt plain and geyser tours, volcano-climbing and laguna-diving to name just a few. Undoubtedly one of the most popular — and fun — is sand boarding.
Sand boarding tours generally take place in the late afternoon, as the strength of the desert sun is too strong in the middle of the day. Thrill-seekers are driven out to the “Valley of Death” by the instructors, who in our case were extremely knowledgeable about the region and were keen to teach us about its geography. Climbing out of the jeep and glancing up nervously at the surrounding dunes it wasn’t difficult to see how the valley got its name; the rolling hills rose dauntingly high and shimmered in the baking heat. The instructor grinned knowingly.
The principle of sand boarding is basically the same as snowboarding, but — yep, you guessed it — on the dunes. You climb a hill made of sand, strap your feet to a board, an instructor pushes you over the edge and you try not to die. Easy, right? Well, as a matter of fact, it is, and a two-hour session is enough time to grasp at least a few of the basics. By the end of the afternoon most of our group had honed their technique enough to make it down a dune without any major injuries.
It might be less dangerous than snowboarding but it’s not completely without risk, as I learned on several occasions, almost annihilating a number of innocent boarders. One of the trickiest things is trying not to scream or laugh too loudly — as well as drawing attention to yourself, this will inevitably lead to a mouthful of sand (learned the hard way). The other crucial difference between sand and snowboarding is the lack of a ski-lift; clambering back up to the top of the dunes with a heavy board in the blazing heat is an absolute killer, but totally worth it for the slide back down.
Tours generally culminate in a trip out to the “Valle de la Luna” to watch the sunset. Covered in sand and with aching muscles, we watched the sun sink behind the purple mountains and reflected on our afternoon; the perfect introduction to San Pedro.