Sandboarding the Dragon: Iquique, Chile, Nestled between the Pacific and the Atacama Desert, Is the Birthplace of Dune Surfing

By Edwards, Cristobal | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), November 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

Sandboarding the Dragon: Iquique, Chile, Nestled between the Pacific and the Atacama Desert, Is the Birthplace of Dune Surfing


Edwards, Cristobal, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


When the sun begins to set over the south Pacific Ocean, sandboarders make their pilgrimage to the summit of Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill), the magnificent sand dunes that guard the port city of Iquique (e-KEY-keh) from the parched Atacama Desert. This is an evening ritual--sandboards slide faster when the dunes have cooled down.

We trudge steadily through the sand all the way to the top. The sandboarders' legs are pumped up. From the sinuous crest of Cerro Dragon the view of the city, the coastline, and the desert is breathtaking. The hike is too. The climate is like that of the central coast of California: never too cold, never too hot, always mild, often cloudy. Many foreign backpackers traveling to the mystical Atacama stop in Iquique to enjoy its cool ocean waters, and some of them fall under the spell of sandboarding. I soon find myself falling under it too.

First practiced in Chile in 1987, sandboarding gained widespread attention around 2000 as "that ski sport in the sand." Only a few hundred Chileans sandboard, but they adore it. I traveled two hours south by plane from my hometown of Santiago, the capital of Chile, to join a group of five friends on one partially cloudy fall afternoon. They are happy to have a visitor. The sandboarders are in their 20s, all quite fit, and easygoing. They have funny nicknames for each other--one is jokingly called "Chato," meaning "pothead." They wear baggy shorts, sweatshirts, and bulky sneakers. So far this is mostly a guy sport, but a few girls are as good, they say. They treasure their boards, some of which they make themselves by hand out of fiberglass and a wooden core. They decorate them with graffiti art stickers.

They scout the dune in silence to spot the best slides--the ocean wind changes the shape of the dune continually. They share ideas, jokes, and a big bottle of soda while they smear candle wax on the under side of their boards. Next, they fasten their feet to the bindings, and off they swoosh downhill and up into the air in agile antics. They are silhouetted against the purple sky, lifting slashes of sand. They do it over and over until it's too dark to tell the sand from the air, then go back home sweaty and smiling. "This is too cool," says Juan Carlos "Custom" Herrera, a slim and swank 23-year-old engineering student and champion of national sandboarding tournaments. I like his attitude and poise.

The next day it's my turn on a board. Diego Guerra, my instructor, is 24 and hunky. He wears a baseball cap that flies off when he jumps high on the dune. He can be a daredevil sand-boarder--like his buddies, he has won several tournaments. But he's also a dedicated instructor. First, he tells me it's important to figure out which foot goes forward on the board. I take a natural stance with my feet parallel and almost together, and he slowly pushes from behind until I start to fall over. I move my right foot in front of me. "That's the foot that goes forward on the board," he says with a smile.

I stand on a board, my feet unfastened, and learn how to keep balanced by flexing my knees and leaning forward a little. Then he grabs my shoulders to push me lightly until I pick up a little speed and slide down the sand for a few seconds. I am now ready for the real thing.

I go back to the top of the dune, strap my feet to the board, and slide down. I fall. I get up and slide some more, faster this time. I fall again, harder. A couple of hours later I am going nonstop almost to the bottom of an amateur sand bowl--pretty fast, I think, but not fast enough, because when I try to make a turn I fall flat on my chest. …

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