Sandboarding South America: Death Valley vs Huacachina


“This is faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarked!!”

…Max was screaming.

“This is faaaaaaaaaaaaaaarking amazing!!”

…I responded.

There we were, strapped in a sand buggy (to my mind) / death launcher (to Max’s) hurtling over the dunes of Huacachina with 10 other people, our lives in the hands of our crazy-eyed driver.

With the adrenaline already slurping messily through our veins, we were about to be presented with sandboards to enable our further enjoyment of those same mental slopes.

Happily, I’d already skidded haphazardly down a sandy mountain before – in Chile’s Death Valley – and was excited to replicate the experience.  However, I prayed that more coordination and less face-planting would be had this time.

Both places offer a lot to people who are not adverse to plummeting down dunes…and then locating sand days later in places where one should never find it.

So here it is:

The Great South American Sandboard Off:  Death Valley vs Huacachina.


Sandboarding in San Pedro
Dolling out equipment.

Death Valley was named for a miscommunication back in the days of yore.  After a French priest / mad hiker working in San Pedro de Atacama stumbled upon it, he excitedly tried to tell everyone that it looked like marte (Mars – which he’d obviously visited).  But he was misunderstood as having said muerte (death).  Happily, this meant that the mountains of people I’d imagined had tried to cross the desert before dying horribly and drying up quickly was simply my own morbid conjecture.

I went along for the ride with a jeep of other bouncing travellers, and was regaled with stories of the area during the journey to the Valley.  Once there, we were divided into groups based on experience.  The old hats all headed straight up the slope to begin being awesome, while us rookies received instruction on braking (very important) and acceleration (to be saved for later).

Freaked out faces.

Along with my friend Victoria, I was barely faking confidence – but tried to keep a straight face and an open mind about the slope before us and my chances of making it down it still attached to my legs.

My first try was terrible with a capital T.  I spent the entire run sabotaging it, causing myself to fall backwards so as not to fall forwards and eat sand.  Bit by bit, several much better runs followed, before at the end I was able to sliiiiiiiiiide down sans stacks in a manner which might possibly look somewhat professional.

Sunset Valle de la Luna
No words.

Our time on the dunes was followed by a tour through El Valle de la Luna before we shimmied up to an ideal little mountain top location to look over the two Valleys, drink some pisco sours and watch the sun setting spectacularly over the hills.


Sand Buggies and Dunes
A crappy high speed pic.

According to legend, the Huacachina oasis was formed when a princess bathing in its small pool was frightened by a passing huntsman (why there’s always a huntsman hanging around in these legends is my question, but do let’s move on).  Startled, she fled, turning into a mermaid as she dived into the waters to escape the man; her robes being carried up by the winds and settling to form the dunes we see today.

Dunes at Huacachina

Huacachina’s dunes seem more expansive than those in Death Valley, almost like you might expect Aladdin to pop over them to say g’day.  In any case, whether grander or not, you do certainly become very intimately acquainted with the dunes while rocketing over them at a rate of knots in a metal cage on wheels.

Your Huacachina sandboarding adventure will include an initial heart-stopping bounce up and down the dunes before you are taken to some baby ones to begin sandboard practice.

Ready to 'board
With our driver. A crazy man.

The boards you’re given here are not actual snowboards as in Death Valley, and so are not equipped with proper foot straps.  Neither are you schooled in techniques (Huacachina’s tours don’t promote themselves as including it).  For this reason, most people simply opt for flying down the dunes on their bellies, using the Velcro straps as handles.  Others (oddly, mostly Canadians) do try going down standing, using the straps as best they can to attach themselves to the boards.

We feel suitably rad.

We had a chance to practice on three sweet little slopes (and felt rather profesh afterwards) before being picked up by the buggy and taken to the first of the big mommas.  Here, our guide lost his crazy eyes and gave us some heartfelt advice on How To Not End Up as Sandy Pulp at the bottom, before seeing each person off individually.  We were shown how to support ourselves on our elbows, keep our heads up and use our knees or feet to brake our fall as we went.  Four such enormous dunes followed.  The ride down them can only be described as feeling like you’re going headfirst down a rollercoaster.  Yet safe.  An odd combo.


  • Tours to Death Valley leave from San Pedro de Atacama on a daily basis and are run by a dizzying variety of companies.  Prices will be around $12,000 Chilean pesos (USD$24) and include all transport, equipment, tuition and a much needed pisco sour at sunset.  I went with Atacama Inca Tour and would recommend them for safety and quality of equipment.
  • You can organise your Huacachina tour at the oasis itself.  Remember that the experience here is not about learning the skill of sandboarding (in the vertical, upright sense of the term), but you will become well acquainted with gravity regardless.  Your time in the dunes of Huacachina will be around S/.30 – 40 Peruvian soles (USD$10 – 15), inclusive of equipment and transport (rocketingly fast transport) in the buggy.  The difference in cost here is due to not receiving the same level of tuition (though remember that the equipment does not require such a high level of skill) and in not continuing on to other locations afterwards.

Both spots are great for beauty and fun times.  San Pedro wins for skills acquisition and pisco sours.  Huachachina for price.  And for that buggy, man…which is quite possibly radness incarnate.


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