Chillin’ in Chile

by • February 20, 2017 • 61 North, Feature Photos, HighlightsComments (0)19685

Sand boarding: It’s like snowboarding, but different

Sand boarding in the Atacamba Desert in Chile is not as easy as it looks — even for an experienced snowboarder. But the adventure is well worth the effort. Sarah Zerkel.

Sand boarding in the Atacamba Desert in Chile is not as easy as it looks — even for an experienced snowboarder. But the adventure is well worth the effort. Sarah Zerkel.

Familiarity in a new landscape brings a sense of balance amid adventure.
“You lean back like that because you are frightened,” my guide said, extending a hand. I met his grip and pulled myself off the sand, mustering the equilibrium not to fall backward again. Then, like a cartoon frog, I hopped until my snowboard was beneath me once again. Balance achieved.
Even in travel, we tend to do what we know. I fancy myself an adventurer, a seeker of the different, the new, the things I don’t yet know. But now, standing in a completely different hemisphere, I found myself in the Atacama Desert, enjoying the familiar.
I watched as other tourists lugged their boards up the salty hills and prepared myself to climb once more. No stranger to strapping my feet to a board and sliding down a slope, I thought I’d have an easy time with sand boarding. I even chuckled to myself as I watched other would-be adventurers in their jean shorts eat sand on the way down.
“Tut, tut. Rookies,” I thought. But now, on my third tussle with this Martian dune, I realized I wasn’t quite as cool as I thought and imagined the sand burns lining my forearms stinging days from now just as much as they did at this moment.
Back at the top once more, I prepared for descent. I leaned forward tentatively at the ridge – a bunny hill compared to the surrounding terrain. Heeding my guide’s advice, I leaned the nose of my board toward the hill’s base and shot off the ledge. Down I glided. Finally. Maybe wearing my GoPro wasn’t overkill, after all! Then, just as I was getting the hang of it I felt that familiar wobble, and my skin once more met the sand. I fell – ass over teakettle, as they say. Taking this as divine revelation, I called it quits, snapped a few photos and hopped in the van.
Sand boarding is best described as snowboarding, but different. The board is the same, the boots, the bindings, the helmet, all the same. But, for someone accustomed to the fluidity of snow, sand boarding feels herky-jerky, sticky almost. And, unlike boarding in fluffy white powder, falling on sand with exposed skin hurts. One false move and momentum is kaput. Yet it is, at its core, an activity I enjoy at home and – despite my scuffle with the sand – abroad.
That’s the shtick of the Atacama though. Even with its Chilean flair and language, it’s familiar. And in many ways that was just what I needed after snaking my way up from the southern half of Chile – and entirely unfamiliar journey. San Pedro, an urban center in the Antofagasta region of northern Chile, was my home base in the Atacama. Arriving felt like taking off hiking boots after a long trek – plush hotels, gleefully crowded bars, earthy cafes, drip coffee, ahhhh.
It’s the tourist town you’ve seen dozens of times before, with an economy driven by frat boys, active couples, and Euro-American triathletes enjoying familiar fun. Along the sandy roads, tour companies stacked like hot cakes offer similar activities – bike tours, sand boarding, lagoon visits and the like. I stayed for several days enjoying the heat, the bars and typical tourist haunts. It was a nice departure from the days before of 13-hour bus rides, stomach flus and language barriers. Here, in this little oasis in the middle of the desert, I didn’t have to use made-up sign language to place my espresso order and I suddenly wasn’t the only one slathering on SPF like it was going out of style. Yes. It was alright here. Comfortable.
But, as I exhausted my touristy options, my stay came to an organic end and I hopped on a bus back out into the unknown. It was time. Besides I’d had enough balance for now.


turnagainThe Alaska Alternative

WHERE: Turnagain Pass- Tin Can Route
WHEN: December-March

You won’t find mounds of grainy sand here. Instead, board or ski down that white fluffy stuff! Tin Can is a great spot in Turnagain Pass for backcountry beginners, but make sure you have basic avalanche gear and you know how to use it. And remember, you’re not in the desert so bundle up for a day in the snow.
INSIDER TIP: If you can swing a midweek trip, you’ll find better parking and get the slopes all to yourself.
INFO: Always check avalanche conditions before you head out in the backcountry so you can enjoy the mountains safely. Go to

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