Snowboarding in the world’s driest desert. San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

July 27, 2010 at 6:00 pm Leave a comment

Arriving in San Pedro de Atacama feels like reaching the very end of the earth only to realise that everyone else has arrived before you. On the bus journey from Argentina we had seen tantalising glimpses of the other worldly landscape we were expecting from the region – huge stretches of chalky white ground; looming burned red cliffs; imposing volcanoes; gaping craters; and bottomless cracks splitting the parched soil. How could a thriving tourist town exist in this barren landscape where only llamas and crazy South American deer seemed to survive?

After 12 hours, several dodgy bus sandwiches, one Michel Thomas CD, two border crossings and two more passport stamps (hurrah!) we were starting to wonder if San Pedro de Atacama was really just some mythical traveller paradise like The Beach or The Lost City of Atlantis. Settling back onto the bus after a stressful Chilean border crossing (should we declare our balsamic vinegar or risk losing all four of our legs and our firstborn in Agricultural Department fines?) we started to believe that we were really headed for a labour camp or worse, the wrong side of Valparaiso when suddenly out of the sand rose what looked to be the outskirts of a town.

San Pedro de Atacama was like nowhere we had ever seen before. Neat rows of single-storey clay buildings painted white or not at all lined narrow alleys that no-one had ever bothered to pave. Everywhere we looked was red – red clay streets, red clay walls, red-clay-covered dogs. In the centre of town was a small square with a few spartan flower/tree beds, a bench or two and a beautiful little church washed in dazzling white and blue. It was exactly the idyllic, rustic, dusty little town you would expect to find in this, the driest desert in the whole world and was it not for the four girls tanning in the main square, magazine pages flicking in unison and sunnies reflecting the harsh desert rays, San Pedro de Atacama could have passed for a Wild West movie scene. That and the fact that every single building was a crafts shop, restaurant, hostel or tour agency.

Still, the food was fantastic (if a little overpriced), the vibe was relaxed, the company was good (we had reunited with Paul, Sophie and our Santiago friend Swati) and for once there was an endless amount of things to do. We planned on spending one of the town’s 300 clear nights a year star gazing; we were going to cycle to Valle de Lunar to see one of the most spectacular landscapes this side of the equator; and we had earmarked another day for horse-riding around the desert. First though we were going to try our hands at dune boarding on one of the ferocious sand dunes that sat just outside of town.

Determined to do it alone outside of rush hour traffic (around 3pm until sunset) we rented some bikes and boards and headed for the hills. The dunes were only 2km or so from the town limits so how hard could it be? Unfortunately we hadn’t factored on the altitude (we were over 2000m above sea level), the perils of cycling with a snowboard strapped to your back and the difficult relationship that exists between dry sand and bicycle tyres. Upon arrival it didn’t take us long to decide that the dunes were worth every back-breaking, sun-burning, lung-ripping moment on the bikes of death. Mountains of powdery burnt orange sand screamed out to be conquered by our newly waxed boards and who were we to deny them?

The first run was a bit of a flop. Gary and I had never strapped into a snowboard before so predictably we fell five or six times in one run, moving at little more than a snail’s pace when we were vertical. Of course fresh off the New Zealand snowboarding slopes, Sophie and Paul had a pretty full skill set to start with, managing somehow to make it from the very top to the very bottom of the dune without eating sand even once. With every run Gary and I gathered speed though and by the fourth run we were practically professionals. Well, practically.

I had figured out that if I strapped on my board while standing at the top of the dune I could get more speed (or “air” as us pros call it) and, since the tour groups had recently arrived in their droves I was keen to show off my incredible balance to an audience of 50 or so amateurs. So in I strapped and off I went at top speed, looking cool as hell in my Chanel sunglasses, tank top and shorts. “Check me out!” I thought as I moved faster and faster with less and less control. Just as I started to estimate roughly how painful it would be to hit a parked pick-up truck at full speed my silent victory was interrupted by a painful crack crack crack. The adoring crowd gasped collectively, releasing their sharp breaths in a hissing oooooooooh. Meanwhile my face had connected with a patch of sand that wasn’t half as soft as it looked from a 5ft something height. My face was quickly followed by my collarbone, chest, stomach, thighs and face again as I backwards rolled downhill and came to a stop at Gary, Paul and Sophie’s feet.

With a touch of whiplash and an injured ego I reckoned it was about time we left and, unwilling to drag themselves and their boards up that torturous sand dune even one more time (especially now that queues of tourists were forming and the wind was whipping sand in everyone’s eyes) the others happily agreed and we freewheeled our bikes back into town.

Now that we had one activity ticked off our list we were ready to take on the rest. Unfortunately the Atacama desert had other things in mind and what had looked at the outset like a slightly annoying turn in the weather soon became a full-blown sand storm that had us barracaded inside our hostel for the next two days. Hugely disappointed but with no other option, we decided to change our plans and accompany Paul, Sophie and Swati on their cross-border tour from San Pedro to Uyuni, taking in the Bolivian salt flats enroute. If we thought we had reached the end of the world in this dusty little village, we had a hell of a surprise ahead of us…

There are more pictures from San Pedro de Atacama available in the gallery

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In search of the perfect town. Cafayate, Argentina What’s flat and salty and dusty all over? San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, Bolivia

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