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Sandboarding the dragon: Iquique, Chile, nestled between the Pacific and the Atacama Desert, is the birthplace of dune surfing.

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. Thump! And my face is buried in the sand. "Are you all right?" yells Diego from the top of the sand dune. I am, and I'm determined to become one with the board at the sweet speed that thrills sandboarders.

Like snowboarding, its sandy cousin is all about balance and speed. The first two days are rough because you often fall. Unlike skiing, on a board you can't increase the base of your balance by moving your feet apart, because they are locked onto the board. It's basic physics: If you move slowly when your center of gravity moves past the edge of the base, you fall. But when you pick up a little speed and you lean over, you carve a big turn. As your speed increases, the turns get smaller.

Diego and Custom do a few laps before we check the gigantic electronic clock on an adjacent hill; it's time to go back to Iquique. This bustling city of 200,000 people and Caribbean-colorful buildings is already known as one of the best ocean surfing spots in South America for its long and tall waves: U.S., Brazilian, Peruvian, and Argentine water surfers join locals at play and in competition. Many also take advantage of the city's cliffs and strong ocean winds to practice paragliding. That sporty image survives only during the daytime because Iquiquenos have a reputation for partying hard in the bar and dub neighborhood at the southern end of town.

As we walk down Cerro Dragon to the van, I ask Diego if they also sandboard in the morning, when the sand is cool.

"Hardly. We party too much," he says and smiles slyly, his expression summing up the feeling of the whole sport.


Sandboarding is becoming quite popular where there are sand dunes: Nevada, Southern California, the Sahara, southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, northern Chile, and Peru. (The annual world championships are held in Germany, of all places.) Wear high-top hiking shoes or sneakers--never sandals, or your feet will suffer. Shorts and long-sleeved T-shirts are recommended, along with a fleece jacket if it gets cool. Goggles can be handy. Experience with surfing or snowboarding certainly helps, but most people who are fit learn quickly. [Dial 011 before the following non-U.S. numbers.] Miguel Combina offers sandboarding excursions and lessons in Iquique (56-9-450-3298). Chile's LAN Airlines (866-435-9526) flies to Iquique from Santiago and cities in northern Chile, with connecting flights from several U.S. cities. When staying in Iquique the best views of the south Pacific Ocean--and of the sand dunes--are at the marble-hall Terrado Suites Hotel and Marina (Los Rieles 126; 56-57-488-000; $100-$143). Hosteria Cavancha (Los Rieles 250; 56-57-431-007: $64-$90) is right next door and has similar views, but its decor is very 1960s. Eat at El Tercer Ojito (Patricio Lynch 1420A; 56-57-426-517; $12-$20), a courtyard nirvana for fish, seafood, and vegetarian dishes. El Viejo Wagon (Thompson 85; 56-57-411-647; $10-$15), is decorated like a sailors' canteen and offers fine local dishes. Drink and dance with the surfers at Kamikaze (Bajo Molle km. 7 Manzana K; 56-57-440-194), a hangar for 1,400 thirsty and hyped college-age people. It's also Iquique's top venue for popular bands and DJs. You might think it's pretty straight until you realize that most local gay people mingle with everybody else. The only gay bar in town is Buddha Bar (Arturo Prat 810), complete with drag shows, in the historic district.
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Title Annotation:SWEAT
Author:Edwards, Cristobal
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Nov 8, 2005
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