Feeling physically sick to my stomach, I looked down the massive sand dune at my feet. Reluctance, shame, and thoughts of a wasted opportunity went through my head. Here I was in one of the most dazzling desert landscapes I would probably ever witness, and I wasn’t having fun. Too many factors had collided, creating a condition for a bad time, including feeling nausiated. Sandboarding in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile is not as easy–and dare I say, not as much fun–as you might be expecting.

Let me explain what it’s really like to try sandboarding in the Atacama Desert. And so I don’t come across as a total Debbie Downer, I will tell you what about the experience was worth it.

sandboarding in the atacama desert

What was I doing in the Atacama Desert?

Several years ago, I did three months of volunteer English teaching in a small town in Chile. During those three months, I was lucky enough to have an entire week of vacation. With another teacher in my program, I bussed 24 hours north to the small town of San Pedro in the Atacama Desert.

The Atacama Desert.

The driest desert in the world.

The highest altitude desert in the world.

One of the coldest deserts in the world.

The centre of which no rainfall has ever been recorded.

Extreme.

Desolate.

And yet, one of the most visually stunning places in the world. (my opinion)

At 2,408 metres above sea level, it is not uncommon for new visitors to experience mild altitude sickness for the first day upon arrival in the small town of San Pedro. My entire trip to the Atacama Desert seemed to have been plagued by altitude sickness. The strange sensation of lightheadedness and dizziness on my first day would turn out to be a sign of worse to come. (Spoiler: I passed out on the car ride up a 4000 m volcano, but that’s not what this post is about.)

My initial thoughts on Sandboarding

In my quest to find things to do in the Atacama Desert, my friend and I discovered sandboarding.

Growing up near mountains, I spent most of my weekends on the slopes. Snowboarding that is. I’m not going to humble myself. I was a good snowboarder. So surely, a snowboard repurposed as a sandboard couldn’t be too much different. Some of my snowboarding skills could be applied to sandboarding. Right?

I wasn’t too naive to think it would be exactly the same, but I thought my snowboarding background would come in handy. Turns out, not so much. Perhaps I went into the experience with too much confidence. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. This applies to ego, too.

This was my first mistake.

Getting to the sand dunes

I’m not sure what we were thinking, but my friend and I decided to try sandboarding alone rather than join a group tour. Maybe we were cheap, maybe it was my ill-informed confidence. Anyway, instead of going by car to the sand dunes, we went by bicycle. Just the two of us.

My second mistake.

It was about a 30 minutes bike ride away, and at first everything was fine. We strapped our boards onto our backs and happily peddled down the dirt road and out of town. Eventually, we made it to the entrance to the sand dunes. It was quite remarkable. To get to the sandboarding area, we passed between high walls of rock and salt on either side.

As we got closer, the ground became sandier. And I don’t think you need me to tell you, sand is a far from ideal surface for biking. It was also getting hot, what with the combination of biking through sand, and you know, being in the desert. So we dismounted our bikes to walk the rest of the way, while vans full of sandboarding tours rolled past us. Vans full of people smarter than me.

Eventually, we did arrive, somewhat exhausted. There were several tour groups at various stages in their sandboard-learning. Some just climbing out of the van. Some slowly making their way up the hill. Others sitting in groups at the top. And a few people already on their way down, in one way or other.

There are no chairlifts when you go sandboarding

There’s only one way to get to the top of the sandboarding hill: by walking. No chairlifts. Not even those pulleys where you hold a bar and get dragged to the top. Just the strength of your own two legs. After over 30 minutes of biking and walking, I was already feeling tired. But with no other choice, I sucked it up and trudged up the sandy climb. My first, but not last time, climbing up giant sand dunes.

If you’ve never climbed up a sand dune, it goes something like this: one step up, half step down. And  shoes and socks full of sand. It is quite an ordeal, and even more so with a sandboard in your hands.

If I thought I was tired when I was at the bottom, it was nothing compared to the exhaustion when I arrived at the top. It felt so good to sit and get some rest. There were others at the top. Sitting. Waiting. Resting. Watching. Eating. Talking. Taking photos.

I felt a bit uncomfortable in my stomach and thought it was because I hadn’t eaten enough. I took a day old empanada from my backpack, hoping some food would abate the strange feeling in my stomach.

My third mistake: not eating enough food before doing something strenuous.

Finally trying sandboarding the the Atacama Desert

After enough stalling, it was time to actually do the thing I came here to do. I took the candle I got from the tour operator and rubbed it all over the bottom of my board. Just like snowboarding (and apparently surfing, though I’ve never been), the wax reduces friction between the board and the sand so you actually move.

Let’s all take a moment to admire the messy bun.

I watched other people. A lot of them were falling. Face first down the hill, to be met with days of sand in unpleasant parts of their body. Others were simply sitting on their board and using it as a sled.

Reaching into the recesses of my brain, I pulled out all years of my snowboarding experience. I stood up, facing forward down the hill, and tried to turn by swinging my right leg behind me. It didn’t swing, and I immediately fell forward where I was met with days of sand in unpleasant parts of my body. I think the trick is to go down straight rather than trying to turn. But how would I know, I didn’t bother to pay someone to teach me. See my first mistake.

Sandboarding is hard.

Getting to the bottom was a struggle. I quickly learned, sandboarding is nothing like snowboarding. And if I’m honest, I didn’t feel satisfied or accomplished when I reached the bottom. I felt like I had failed. So I turned around and trudged back up the hill to try it again.

The altitude

I already alluded to altitude sickness at the beginning of this post. Here’s where it started to hit me. When I made it to the top of the sand dune the second time, that strange feeling in my stomach was much worse. It was a pain, an unpleasantness. I was physically tired and feeling vomity.

I blame it on the altitude.

It was my first time to be at this high of altitude. I had just biked in the desert, under the sun, with hardly any food in my belly. I had just climbed up a difficult hill. Twice. And was feeling easily winded by anything slightly strenuous. Having only arrived at this altitude days before, I wasn’t ready to be doing physical activity like this. I consider myself an active person, so I was put in my place. You might want to try a less active tour when you first arrive in San Pedro.

My fourth mistake was not letting myself adjust to the altitude.

Why it wasn’t all bad

By now, I’ve explained all the mistakes I made when I tried sandboarding in the Atacama Desert. There were several poor choices I made that resulted in a less-than-stellar sandboarding experience. The altitude is the one thing that really brought it all together in a recipe for a bad time.

But it really wasn’t all bad. Yes, I was tired, my stomach hurt, and my pride was damaged. But trying sandboarding brought me into a little recess of the desert where I could see even more of this magnificent plateau. From high up on the sand dune, I could look out far and wide over the desert. I could see rock formations, plateaus, and volcanos in the distance. It really wasn’t all bad.

Things to keep in mind when sandboarding in the Atacama Desert

Somewhat embarrassingly, I only went down the hill twice. And not well. The second time, I must have just let myself fall down rather than putting in much effort. I just couldn’t do it. My friend resorted to using the sandboard as a sled. I was too tired and felt too sick try a third time. And I was ashamed of all of it. I was overly and wrongly confident and unprepared for the whole thing. Here is my advice for anyone thinking of trying sandboarding in the Atacama Desert:

  1. Join a tour: Don’t try and do it yourself. Let someone teach you how to sandboard–even if you already know how to snowboard.
  2. Go by car: Don’t bike there. It will take too much of your energy and make you extra tired.
  3. Bring food and water: Or else eat before you go. I’m the kind of person who can’t do physical activity without food in me. Also make sure you bring lots of water. You’re in the desert, don’t forget.
  4. Allow yourself to adjust to the altitude. Don’t try sandboarding your first or even second day in San Pedro. Give yourself time to adjust to the lack of oxygen. And when you are at the sandboarding hill, don’t rush around up and down the hill trying to do everything quickly. You’ll need extra time in between runs and getting up the hill, as you’ll tire much quicker.
  5. Don’t forget to enjoy the scenery. You could argue whether the purpose of sandboarding is to sandboard or to get a better view of the amazing Atacama Desert. Even if you’re not a great sandboarder, savour the views and the scenery of this amazing place.

Takeaways on sandboarding in the Atacama Desert

Sandboarding in the Atacama Desert was … an experience. In my case, I didn’t do a fantastic job of planning and preparing for the whole thing. And the high altitude made everything even worse. While I didn’t do a very good job of actually sandboarding, the whole experience wasn’t bad. I could explore desert sand dunes and rock formations and see the vastness of the Atacama. And I had a lesson in pride.

Not all adventures turn out they way you think they will, but there is always something positive in the whole thing. In this case, sandboarding was difficult and not a lot of fun. But the desert itself was incredible and worth the physical pain and humiliation in the end.

Despite everything, I wouldn’t take back my less-than-wonderful experience. It was part of my adventures in the Atacama Desert. And now I have stories to tell.

What are your thoughts on sandboarding? Let me know in the comment section below!

Read more of my hiking adventures:

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16 Comments

  1. Quite the adventure on the dunes, Jen. I have to say I empathise with your trudge up the dunes. I had to climb dunes in Thar Desert (Rajasthan) on my darling’s insistence and how I hated it when he made me run down one. I was on the brink of suffering the same fate as you — sand in places not desired! xx

    • Sand dunes make for a difficult hike. But the That Desert must have been amazing. Alas, I didn’t make it to the dunes when I was in Jaipur.

      • This was in a small place, an army cantonment called Suratgarh, where my father-in-law took me to show life in the armed forces. It was fascinating though I certainly kicked up a fuss during a tank ride in the desert and called sand dirty, which did not amuse him. 😉

  2. My thinking would be the same as yours as I also snowboard! Good to know that it’s diffferent. Good on your for trying it out 🙂

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