I committed the cardinal sin for a traveller in the North of Chile by travelling too fast. I missed stuff. In fact I missed a lot but that didn't stop me enjoying this often bleak but always beautiful part of the country and one day I'll be back to enjoy it again at a more leisurely pace. My number one reason for heading this way was getting to Bolivia. This does the North of Chile a disservice as there's lots here to enjoy as as I discovered when I was forced to slow down in San Pedro de Atacama. I'd come to San Pedro, like so many others, for the 4x4 that would take me over the high plateau and salt flats to Uyuni in Bolivia. Unlike (probably) everyone else whose ever been to an Pedro I'd also stopped here for a PhD interview. Scheduled for the early morning my Skype based interview was quite an introduction to the climate of the high Atacama. I'd stayed up late the night before as the results from the UK's general election had trickled in via the BBC and was slightly bleary eyed as I found a quiet spot outside my hostel where I could still get a wifi signal. The interview itself did not go well. A gruff old academic shot unanswerable questions at me but worst of all was the sunrise. It was distractingly beautiful and turned the air from teeth chatteringly cold to pleasantly warmin 15 minutes. As a result I spent as much time stripping off layers as I did answering questions and both parties signed off feeling like they'd almost made a big mistake.
After the interview debacle the day improved markedly. I picked up a awesome llama wool hat and a pair of sunglasses to help save my eyes from the ferociously bright high altitude sun and then prepared for the days main event. Dune boarding. Much like snow boarding dune boarding involves sliding, side on, down a steeply sided slope whilst strapped to a shaped stick. The difference is in the substrate over which one slides. There's a shortage of snow in a desert which receives an average of 0mm of precipitation every year, but there is an abundance of sand. When piled up into towering dunes this sand is an irresistible target for thrill seekers looking to spice up their wait for a slot in a 4x4 heading for Uyuni. Falling on snow can lead to a trickle of icy water down the back, falling on sand typically results in a mouth full of geology and more grains of sillica in your pants than there are stars in the known universe. The walk back up the dune (which sits at all but 4000 metres of altitude) is also the most exhausting thing its possible for a human to attempt. Despite these downsides dune boarding is excellent fun. Forget turning and forget snow boarding. Pretend you're surfing and have just taken the drop on a 30 metre wave, carve down and across the face is one fantastic arc and then try to miss the rocks at the bottom...
Contemplating the drop
My instructor described my first attempt at dune boarding as the most suicidal he had ever seen. My trousers would never recover and for almost a week the gaping holes, particularly those around the pockets and crotch would both shock and amaze all who encountered them. Indeed some time later the same holes would bring tears of laughter to an entire bus full of Bolivians.
Dune-boarding at 4000 metres
Lunar Valley, evening sun
For sun set our dune boarding "instructor" drove us over to the Valle de Lune. Full of backpackers but still staggering beautiful as it was bathed in sumptuous evening light. looking North East we could see 6000 metre volcanoes giving off what looked lie little puffs of smoke as they turned purple against a pink sky. Two days later when I bounced past the same volcanoes at a much closer proximity their geological might was more frightening than wondrous to my oxygen starved mind. Fighting for breath would turn into a common theme for the first half of my stay in Bolivia but that didn't stop it being one of the best countries I've ever been to. Chile had been wild and remote, friendly and expensive. Bolivia would be higher, louder, cheaper and hotter. Oh, and I adopted an orphaned spider monkey.