Visiting the Sand Dunes in San Pedro de Atacama

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The Chilean Atacama Desert is famous for many reasons and is a popular tourist destination because of its close proximity to attractions such as huge salt flats, high altitude geysers, the famous Valle de la Luna National Park, antiplano lakes and of course the massive sand dunes situated on the outskirts of San Pedro town. One popular tour that we saw advertised everywhere in town was sandboarding and for a whopping CHP20,000pp ($40AUD) you can join one of these many tours for 3 hours of sandboarding or “dune climbing” as one agency more accurately described it.

We were keen to give sandboarding a crack but reluctant to pay the excessive price so we sought out another option, our aim was to go it alone. We heard you could rent boards in town and the local tourist information center pointed us in the direction of 3 agencies that did just that, they also rented bikes and other bits and pieces. We spoke with all three agencies and managed to get a board with helmet and chunk of wax for only CHP3,000 (prices ranged from CHP3,000-5,000) for 6 hours of fun in the sun! We decided one board between two would be sufficient.

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With our sandboard in the back of our van and our spirits high we were off to the dunes, located inside Valle del Muerte just 3 kms out of town. If you don’t have a car it is an easy bike ride from town. We arrived at the gate to the national park at around 10am and presented our student cards to the ranger allowing us to get the discount meaning entry was only CHP2,000pp instead of the regular CHP3,000pp. Once through security we drove along the well maintained sand road, more difficult for bikes, surrounded by amazing red rock formations for around 10 minutes until we reached the carpark packed with tour vans at the base of the 200m high sand dunes that we would be climbing.

We soon learnt the meaning behind the park name as we passed recently deceased sandboarders who obviously did not have adequate levels of travel insurance. Not wanting to waste a second we quickly got out the board and headed towards the well trodden path leading up to the peak of the dunes. We hesitated close to the top and decided we might take a few practice runs down on the lower dunes before attempting the beast, which was entertaining to watch both success and failure as person after person rode down to the bottom with varying levels of grace.

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Once again novices in all things snow related, Bonny and I both took turns testing out our new board next to a young family doing the same. We both stacked it on our first run and had a good laugh, but after a few more attempts we were getting the hang of it and had accumulated enough confidence that we decided it was time to take on the big one. Right after some well earned lunch we trudged slowly all the way to the top of the dune and did our best to dodge the crowd along the way.

Once we reached a position in which we were confident we would not collide with another boarder, Bonny set up to take the first run while Keiran made himself comfortable at the top with the camera poised for action. The first couple of runs were a bit bumpy due to the foot path marked out half way down so we decided to move further along the ridge to a steeper incline. Bonny executed her next set of runs perfectly while Keiran proceeded to get better and better at stacking it down the bottom of the dune, check out our video on Youtube.

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After a couple of hours of dune climbing we decided it was time to checkout the mirador, a short 1km walk from the now empty carpark as all tours had finished for the day. The walk was further along the same sand road which we used to enter the park, however this section was innavigatable by 2WD cars. The mirador looked out over the massive sand dunes and the desolate valley beyond, from here you can also see the mountain range of volcanoes that runs along the Chile-Argentina border.

Once satisfied we had taken enough photos we headed back down to the carpark to have one more crack at the dunes. Either due to exaustion or lack of confidence we couldn’t quite find the speed that we made during our previous descents and after two more turns each we decided to call it a day. We had spent nearly 6 hours within the national park and it was time to leave and get ourselves set up for the night.

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We thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Valle del Muerte sand dunes and would recommend it to anyone visiting the area. During the 6 hours with our 1 board we each had 10 runs, enough to wear us both out and had collected enough sand to fill a car. Comparing the cost of CHP3,500pp, plus the cost of a shower, to do it alone or potentially CHP20,000pp to do it with a tour, it is definitely worth considering the former.

Although our level of insurance with WorldNomads (they do offer a range of additional add-ons) does not cover injuries from such activities, we walked away almost scott free, Keiran injured his elbow during one of his stacks. You would have to be really unlucky to do any serious damage. Even for travellers who aren’t seeking thrills and spills, the National Park itself is still worth a visit boasting many less trodden sand-eros with unique landscapes.

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If you enjoyed this article checkout our other post How to get the most out of your campervan in Chile.

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