San Pedro de Atacama: Part 2

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile offers endless adventurous activities.

From Sandboarding in Death Valley to the Salt Marshes at the Salar de Atacama.


So, in my last post, San Pedro de Atacama: Part 1, we explored the Moon Valley, the Lagunas Cejas, and las Termas Puritamas. Here’s the rest. Enjoy.

Day 4- Sandboarding in Death Valley:

There are many speculations as to how Death Valley got it’s name. Some say that it’s because there is no life there, but that’s not true because we passed a few bushes, foxes and falcons on the way. Some say that the area was a sacred place where shamans came to die. Our guide from San Pedro Sandboard told us that the real name came from hippie guides who came out to San Pedro to work in tourism and named it Death Valley to make it more commercial and attractive to visitors. Whatever the reason, it’s still pretty badass to say that you went sandboarding in Death Valley.

As our van rocked and swayed through the high rock walls and dodged giant pot holes, our guide explained that La Valle de la Muerte is similar to La Valle de la Luna in that it is a salt mountain range, which more or less means that it was molded by desert rain, wind and sun overtime to raise vertically, giving the region a unique natural sculpture with different colors due to a variety of minerals. (Shout out to my high school science teacher, Doc Rachell. If you’re reading, Doc, how’d that sound?) I tried to grasp the science behind the scenery while I kept an eye out for Tusken Raiders.


Our guide, a sun-and-wind wrinkled dreadlocked chainsmoker, turned up the deep-bass electro music as we pulled up to the bottom of the valley. We all stood sweating in the sand as he passed around ancient snowboarding boots that fit no one and pushed people who didn’t already know if they were goofy or regular to see which foot they instinctively landed on.


Once we all had a board, we trekked diagonally up the sand mountain, taking small steps to conserve energy. About fifteen of us lined the tip of the ridge and strapped ourselves into our boards as the guide dragged on a cigarette and explained how to ride. The thumping bass at the bottom of the hill was amping me up, and I tuned in and out of the guide’s speech. This was the same as snowboarding, I assumed, and I kind of knew how to do that. An eager German who was the first one to strap himself into his board went down the hill first. Everyone waited hesitantly when he made it to the bottom, reluctant to attempt the feat in front of everyone else. A cool Aussie with a wicked beard named Blake was the next one down.

At the top of the sand mountain looking down.

I looked around again at the nervous tourists and decided I’d be the first girl to go. I jumped a bit to get some sand off my board and slid down.




The first turn I tried to make, lifting my toes and leaning a bit on my heels, had me on my ass. The sand is much thicker and more resistant than snow, and the only way I could make it down fast and with any adrenaline rush was to point my board straight down and lean on my back leg, something I’d be terrified to do on a snowboard.

It was over as quickly as it began, and I stared up at the hill, reluctant to carry my board up it again. I made it up and down again three more times before I was too exhausted to continue. Walking in the sand is hard enough without the added stress of wearing heavy, uncomfortable board boots and carrying the board up. The people of San Pedro truly needed to invest in sand lifts.


Day 5- Salar de Atacama:

As you might have gathered thus far, it is nearly impossible to see any of the desert sights in San Pedro de Atacama without booking a tour. Or maybe I just didn’t try. Anyway, you catch yourself conversing with other tourists in your hostel or in a restaurant or just on the street because, let’s face it, San Pedro is literally made up of tourists and the people who serve them, saying things like, “We’re doing the Moon Valley tonight and the geysers tomorrow,” or “Nah, we’re not doing the salt marshes or the geysers because we just came from Uyuni and did all that in Bolivia,” or “Yeah, I have to book my Uyuni tour and buy a few rolls of toilet paper for it.” It almost makes you not want to participate. Almost. But I didn’t take an overnight bus all the way out to this uninhabitable desert to kick it at my hostel. I had already done the Moon Valley sunset tour, the bike ride to the Lagunas Cejas, the day at the hot springs, and sandboarding at Death Valley. The two big leftovers were the geyser field called El Tatio, which would have me up and at it in below freezing temperatures at 4 am, and the Salar de Atacama, at 7 am. The geysers, bursts of hot air and water shooting out of the ground, were obviously the cooler choice, but silly me I forgot my winter coat and I definitely forgot my will to wake up before the sun rose. So, salt marshes it was.

I have this annoying habit of booking tours without doing proper research about said tour. Maybe I should put a stop to this. My tour group of about thirteen people piled sleepily into a minivan. We stopped in the peaceful village of Toconao, known for some church of San Lucas, which is made of volcanic stone and adobe, causing it to be warm when the sun is out and cold at night, like a cold-blooded snake. The wood that makes up the ceiling is made of dried cactus, an aesthetically cool, light-colored wood. On the outside of the church are carvings of a llama and a donkey to signify the unification of Chile and Spain. Our tour guide, who conducted the tour in Spanish making me strain to listen before my first cup of Nescafe, talked about the four characteristic trees of the region and their respective uses, like making flour for bread or something.

Church of San Lucas


staircase in church made of dried cactus wood


The town of Toconao boasts their hand made crafts. We stopped in one shop that sold Alpaca wool weavings, among other things. Their ancient loom sat in the back with the llamas, and as our guide fed the spunky animals hay, he explained that the people here don’t eat llamas, but they do eat llamos, the males. I thought that was OK.

old school loom


Toconao, meaning, “place of stones” in Kunza, the language of the Atacameno people, is made up of about 1000 inhabitants who mostly work in agriculture, cultivating potatoes and corn or making sweet wine and pisco.

After our short, but informative tour of the village, we settled back into the car and drove next to views of limitless desert. The air around the looming sand mountains was wispy in the distance. I would have thought it was fog if I didn’t know how arid this desert is, so I deduced that it must be a combination of sand in the wind and wisps of smoke from the active Lascar volcano.

Our first breathtaking stop in the Salar de Atacama was the Los Flamencos National Reserve, which is managed by the Atacameno community of Socaire, along with the National Forest Corporation. Not that this place was a forest, in any common sense of the word. The reserve itself covers 180,000 acres of desert. We stopped in the Soncor Sector and watched pink and black flamingos create a mirror image in the Chaxa lagoon, dipping their heads in the water and wriggling their long necks like snakes as they searched for tiny shrimps to eat. The three rather graceful species of flamingo that live here (James, Andino, and Chilean) spend twelve hours a day with their heads in the water, devouring 800 grams of shrimp a day.



The salty pathways through the garden of white volcanic rock and salt crusts crunched and sparkled beneath my hiking boots. I didn’t know flamingos could fly, and was in awe to see their pink bellies soaring above my head and against the background of the valley of San Pedro and the five principal volcanoes surrounding the 100 kilometers of salt marshes, each one marking the border with Bolivia or Argentina. Dragonflies whizzed by my head and mated over the crusts of sulfur along the shores of the lake, giving them a yellow color and making the air smell like how I imagine Munchkinland smelled after the Wicked Witch threatened Glinda and then left in a huff.

flying flamingo



While at the reserve, our guide prepared us a lovely breakfast, complete with rolls, mashed avocado, scrambled eggs, cookies, coffee, tea and more.


What would a tour in South America be without more churches? The purely tourist church of Bartolomeo de Socaire is made of adobe and stone and topped with a hay roof. It was whatever. The building was surrounded by crops of corn, alfalfa, green beans, sunflowers, potatoes, quinoa…yada yada. The town Socaire is the last town before Argentina and it is made up of a whopping 150 residents. Moving on…



We drove on smooth, paved roads that wound rhythmically around the mountains and volcanoes and through fields of rocks and sturdy, yellow tufts of sun-stained grass called paja brava. If you squinted as you sped by the plains, you could trick yourself into looking at a field of poppies or sunflowers.


When we arrived at the Miscanti and Miniques lakes, spreading out before us like a couple of large sapphires, you could feel in your bones how fresh the air was at a 4000 meter altitude. The lakes aren’t fresh water, and bits of salt crusted along the perimeter of that royal blue lagoon. According to the guide, the lakes were formed thousands of years ago when the Miniques Volcano erupted and blocked the waters that ran freely from the high system of mountain ranges, damming the rivers and streams. The area around the lakes was empty of tourists. In their place were vicuñas munching on the yellow grass, a type of camelid that are so climatized to the cold, high weather that they can run up to 40 kilometers an hour.





All in all, it was a very pretty tour. But like I said earlier, I wish someone had told me that it would just be pretty before I woke up at 6:30 in the morning.


by Rebecca Bellan

San Pedro de Atacama: Part 1

San Pedro de Atacama offers endless activities for adventurous backpackers.

Watch the sun set at the Valley of the moon or ride through the desert to float in the salty Laguna Cejar.


The sun seems to touch every inch of the plateau of San Pedro de Atacama, 2,400 meters above sea level, and definitely quite far from the sea. The gridded tourist town is made up of perfectly white, sun-bleached adobe huts that aesthetically match the uniform exterior of brown, wooden lettering on all the buildings and the light tan dirt streets. While the center is filled with great cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, hostels and tour agencies, the surrounding areas of the city are made up of cement shanty towns where the locals who serve the tourists reside, satellites studding the tin roofs and stray animals finding shade under dusty pickup trucks.

The town itself is merely a watering hole for the surrounding sites and activities, nearly all of which you end up booking a tour for. While I didn’t get around to all of them, due to a lack of funds and will, I saw my fair share, and thoroughly enjoyed my time in the desert.

Day 1- Town and Valley of the Moon:

the main plaza
typical street
very long artisan market


Laura and I checked took an overnight bus from Arica to Calama, and then a two hour bus to San Pedro from there. (There are direct buses from Arica to San Pedro, we missed ours.) We checked into Hostal La Florida, a newer hostel in the middle of town that I HIGHLY recommend. I loved the laid back feel, the cheap tours offered, the fully stocked kitchen, the warm beds, and the hammocks. The showers weren’t bad either, if you went one at a time. After a quick jaunt around the plaza and in the markets, buying yet more Inca-inspired gifts for friends and family back home, we went on a sunset tour of the Valley of the Moon, Valle de la Luna.

Through the driest desert in the world we went, the expansive scenery around us looking as if it were painted on. Literally, as far as the eye could see, the orange, red and brown sand dunes rolled like waves against the cloudless blue sky. It looked like a choppy sea had frozen in time and turned to sandstone. Some parts were jagged and treacherous, and others were soft and curved, as if a river were running through the canyons. I wondered if thousands of years ago, it was possible that this desert was once an ocean, but seeing as how it may be the oldest desert on earth, experiencing extreme hyper aridity for over three million years, I began to doubt it.




Our first stop on the tour has us walking for about fifteen minutes to the edge of Valle de la Muerte, Death Valley, where we stood at the edge of a gorge, staring at the surrounding volcanos. The wind was strong and made it impossible to hear our guide as he pointed out some ancient route that the native Atacameña people would take to Calama. All I could hear, besides the whooshing in my ears, was the clinking sounds of million year old, light tan igneous rocks under my feet. I found it interesting that volcanic magma could turn into such a light colored rock, after spending a few months in Sicily last year, where the evidence of Mount Etna’s eruptions was evident in large black rocks studded throughout Catania.

Check out what the wind did to my ponytail
Check out what the wind did to my ponytail
Laura and me over Death Valley


light as air igneous rocks
the old route

Our next stop was the Rock of the Coyote, as in the coyote from the roadrunner cartoons. We all took our pictures on the jutting ledge before moving on to some caves.


Las cuevas were a cool retreat from the endless sun and wind. The high walls were formed from wind erosion, and you could taste the sand in your mouth as you bent low and stood up when necessary. A few young New Zealanders that Laura and I walked with made us laugh by making Lord of the Ring jokes as we crawled through the tight spaces.





Back on the bus for our last stop, the pièce de rèsistance, the Puerto del Sol of the Valle de la Luna, the gate of the sun in Moon Valley. As we walked the length of a road (unnecessarily in my opinion- we had a van) to the slow climb up the valley, the wind picked up, and sand hit the back of our calves and neck like hundreds of tiny needles. Tourists lined up along the top of the valley’s ridge to await the setting sun. Before it sank, it filled the untouched sand of the valley, making the land below us look like a golden carpet for the gods. The sunset itself, I thought, was a bit overrated. At our high elevation, we were very close to that star, and even with sunglasses on, I couldn’t watch the sunset without being blinded by light. When it finally settled out of our field of vision, the cold was immediate. We huddled in our sweatshirts as we made the steep ascent down back to the minivan.

the path to the puerto










Day 2- -Bike ride to Laguna Cejar:

In an attempt to save money on tours and to beat the late afternoon rush of tourists, Laura and I decided to rent bikes from the hostel and head over to the Laguna Cejar, in the morning. We were told that the salty lake has an effect like the Dead Sea in Israel, causing you to float, and that it was 18 km from town. It took us an hour and fifteen minutes to make it there. We seemed to be the only ones on the long, bumpy desert road, so there was no one to ask directions from when we wanted reassurance that we weren’t just trailing aimlessly through the desert only to get lost and die of dehydration and be eaten by buzzards or vultures or whatever carnivorous desert bird is common in Chile. Despite my hard pedaliing, I noticed that I barely broke a sweat, as if the thirsty desert air was drinking up my persperation before I got a chance to let it cool me down.






Finally we made it, exhausted and hungry and kicking ourselves for not packing a lunch or eating breakfast. There were two lakes, one for show and one for swimming. They sat like two turquoise eyes on the desert’s face, a proper oasis if the water wasn’t too salty to drink. There were only a few others there enjoying the views. We basically had the place to ourselves, and we realized later on that in this part of the world, the hottest part of the day isn’t actually noon, when we were there. The temperatures usually peaked around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, hence why the tours to the lakes happened later in the day.

The “for show” lake




Sunbathing by the “for swim” lake






Unlike the Dead Sea, the water was absolutely frigid. We waded out slowly, our feet numbing with each step across the shallow plane before we reached the edge of a sort of underwater cliff. The water was so clear. I held my breath as I let my toes curl over the top of the shelf. I turned to face Laura, posed for some pics, and sat into the freezing water, trusting the salt concentration to keep my head above water. I forgot the cold as I buoyed in the water, giggling at the wonders of the world and hovering over the deep, blue sink hole.






dried salt on my skin




Day 3- Puritama Hot Springs

Laura and I were feeling a bit exhausted after biking it to and from the lagunas the day before on empty stomachs in the hot, hot heat, so we decided to treat ourselves to a chill day at the hot springs.

Las Termas Puritamas are located about 40 minutes outside of San Pedro. The babbling creek spreads out in a curving line below you as you walk along a cliff from the parking lot. A red boardwalk lies parallel to the little brook, with the regular platform before each small pool. We picked one and laid out our towels before dipping into our chosen pond. The water was not hot. It was warm, but still pleasant. The rocks along the sides and bottom were slippery with pond scum that also gravitated in furry green clumps to tickle the sides of your body. The water from each pool spilled over the sides of mossy rocks and fell into the next pool, and when we weren’t sitting lazily in a pool, we used the boardwalk to follow the waterfalls, each little paradise more beautiful than the next.

"Hi, I'm Elle Woods."
“Hi, I’m Elle Woods.”





the walk to the hot springs
the walk to the hot springs

I think you’ve all read enough. Check out my next post to read about the rest of my adventures in San Pedro.


by Rebecca Bellan

Eureka for Arica

Arica, Chile is a chill beach town on the border of Peru.

Enjoy perfectly sunny days by the salty Pacific.

The small beach town of Arica, known as the city of eternal spring, was the perfect place to recuperate after a month of jungle, high altitude, and constant learning about Inca culture. I couldn’t wait to see the ocean again, work on my tan, and rub salt water from my eyes.

Laura and I took the night bus from Puno to Tacna, a small desert town near the border of Chile, and then took a cramped colectivo (Colectivos change from city to city. This one was a 4-door that fit 5 passengers) across the border into Chile. After a few immigration procedures (Note to self: If you ever go back to Peru, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, lose the customs form you get when you enter the country. You will have to pay a fine upon leaving.) that were oddly strict about bringing in fruit from the other side, I was again sandwiched between the driver and Laura in the front seat of the taxi. Three pushy Peruvian women with bags of groceries and God knows what else hogged the back seat.


The air in Chile was already different than the air in Peru. Maybe it was me, maybe it was the oxygen levels, maybe it was our proximity to endless ocean, but it felt simply more pleasant. I would soon learn that the people were, in my opinion, kinder and more patient than many people I dealt with in Peru. The sun was bright as it rose over the desert we were driving through at record speed. The driver began to point out a blue fog to our right, claiming it was the sea. I got butterflies. You could see a city and a tall, sandy cliff forming through the mist. Arica. Where flat square buildings painted bright orange, yellow, and pink studded the streets before the impossibly calm, light blue ocean and old ladies swept the sand from their tiled front porches. I couldn’t wait to strip off my many layers and slip into a pair of flip flops and a bikini.

We booked at Hostelling International Dona Ines, due to the good reviews about the staff and breakfast on Hostelworld. While the hostel is a little outside the main part of town, we chose this hostel over one closer to town due to the importance of having wifi in bed.

The main mode of transport in Arica is via colectivo, albeit slightly different from the colectivo that took us across the border and the one that took us from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. These shared taxis are more organized than desperate Peruvian colectivos. Each passenger pays 600 pesos (about $1) to ride in the assigned route of the shared taxi. (PS- Yeah, spending thousands of pesos each day took a lot of math and a lot of getting used to, especially when we’re talking big numbers in another language.) The colectivos that we’d get to know so well were the A and the 4, which passed through the town center, the bus station, and took us more or less directly to our hostel at the corner of Chapiquiuna and Blest Gana.



A door in the middle of a cool mural opened to reveal an outdoor space filled with colorful art, a Christmas light covered tree, and a pool table. The walls were covered by notes to the hostel and funny jokes or insightful quotes, to which we naturally added. We were greeted by an old brown pitbull named Randolf and a long haired, sleepy-eyed Chilean named Brian. I dumped my multiple bags on the nearest table, removed my poncho, and sat on the floor to pet the good boy.






We checked in quickly to a three-bed dorm with a hungover, sleeping Frenchman, a mini-kitchen and a private bathroom, raced into our swimsuits, and walked a half an hour in the sun to the beach, getting honked and whistled at the whole way. Normally, the raging feminist in me would have gotten mad at the audacity of these pigs forcing unwanted attention on me. But, I was in a good mood that day, so I smiled and waved at passing cars, feeling like an utter celebrity when they stopped to let Laura and me walk across the street rather than almost run us over like the drivers in Peru.

our room



walking over to the beach
walking over to the beach

The beach in Arica was windy and the water was cold, but Laura and I convinced ourselves that our blood could handle it. We were Northerners, after all, used to braving the nearly arctic Atlantic waters of New York and Ireland. Well, this water can’t have been much colder than what we were used to, but the wind chill made the 70 degree air feel like 60 degree air, and here we were without a towel or change of clothes. We air-dried as we walked the length of the beach and into town, stopping every ten minutes or so to apply baby powder to our chub rubs whenever we were in areas free of leering Chileans. (To be clear, I was never creeped out by the Chilean men, and never felt threatened. They only looked and said hello. Everyone here seemed too nice to cause harm or to offend.)






The walk along the pavement was filled with bright colored street art and buildings to contrast the hazy, light brown sand. The city center was pretty chilled out. We found the main streets where one can dine or buy things one doesn’t need, both of which we did. Calle 21 de Mayo is a long, white-tiled pedestrian street. Restaurants, bars and stores line the sides while the pathway comes alive with shoppers, skaters, locals, tourists, and people selling handmade jewelry or bouncy balls or homemade sandwiches. The cliff, known simply as El Morro, which I hear offers a beautiful view of the city and sea, greets you near the bottom of the downhill commercial center, towering high and tan.


These sites were enough to keep us entertained for our first day, so we set off back to the hostel, stopping first at the supermarket to pick up some ingredients for dinner.

Brian is a good DJ, and the chill waves of indie electro were already bumping when we returned. The over-excited, very friendly host Robert, who refers to every female as his “future ex-wife,” explained to us that we were going to party that night. So, after dinner, Laura and I put on makeup for the first time in a month and a half. I wore a dress that I hadn’t worn before or since. It felt nice looking like a real person instead of a hairy-legged, baggy-eyed, harem pants-clad traveler. Oh, did I mention that this was also the first time I bothered to engage in leg hair removal on this trip?

The four or five other guests all began to filter into the courtyard, along with a few older friends of Robert’s. One very large man I recall roared an awful lot. Rib-flavored Lays potato chips and airy cheese puffs were passed around as bottles of vodka, rum and whiskey were slowly emptied. When I wasn’t sitting quietly and happily, munching on free chips and listening to the conversations around me, I made my rounds, having engaging discussions with guests and visitors alike. I spoke to a Bolivian guest about threats to the rainforest, argued with an Aussie about who the best characters are from A Song of Ice and Fire, dabbled with the idea of letting Brian tattoo a wave on my back, and learned about the specifics of paragliding from one of Robert’s pilot friends. My hosts were gracious and generous, and wonderfully 420 friendly, and I slept peacefully after a night of good food and good company.

The next few days, Laura and I really took it easy. We went back to the beach and rented boogie boards from Punto Surf. The waves were too small to ride and we were soon too cold and freaked out by the giant jellyfish to continue playing. We checked out a smaller beach past the cliff, walked with our feet in the clear water, and enjoyed the feel of the sun on our skin. When we got hungry, we found a restaurant called Cafe del Mar on 21 de Mayo, which we returned to the next day because the food was so delicious. I highly recommend any of the crepes and the Churrasco, a steak sandwich that is very popular in Chile.





churrasco sandwich
churrasco sandwich
cheesey chicken mushroom crepes
cheesey chicken mushroom crepes

For us, Arica was a chance to chill out. When you’re traveling and constantly moving, it’s nice to afford yourself some time to be lazy, walk along the beach, and take advantage of strong wifi. Our next adventure would come in a few days with our trek to the beautiful desert of San Pedro de Atacama. Stay tuned!


Below you will find our additions to our dorm room wall:







by Rebecca Bellan

Surfing, Iquique

Iquique, Chile is a great place to learn how to surf.

After two cheap hours of surf lessons, I was standing up on my rented board on the salty waves of Iquique.


Not many people can say that they stared at a desert while being rocked by ocean waves. But as I balanced on my stomach on a surfboard facing the shore, waiting for the next wave, I kept my eyes on the tan sand dunes rising in front of me under a clear blue sky. Closer in my field of vision was my instructor, his long hair wet and stringy, his hands steadying the tip of my board, his eyes intensely scanning the water behind me, occasionally scurrying forward, pushing me back, a sign which I learned meant that too big a wave was coming, and to lift my ribs up so the crest wouldn’t smack me in the back of my head and knock me over. With my hands grasping the side of the board, I waited patiently for him to say, “Dale, rema, rema!” and give my board a push towards the shore. I’d paddle hard like he told me to, until I felt the wave start to break and pull me forward, then I’d swiftly put my hands back on the board, push up, and bring my feet to a crouching position, riding the surf a few triumphant feet.

learning how to surf in Iquique, Chile
learning how to surf in Iquique, Chile
learning how to surf in Iquique, Chile
learning how to surf in Iquique, Chile
learning how to surf in Iquique, Chile
learning how to surf in Iquique, Chile

There’s not much to do in the little beach town of Iquique but shop, drink, surf, or paraglide. While paragliding seems like fun, an expensive tandem glide through the air wasn’t my idea of a challenge. Shopping is always fun when you’re traveling, so that was a no-brainer.

Peruvian artisan making jewelry in Iquique, Chile
Peruvian artisan making jewelry in Iquique, Chile

That left drinking or surfing, so obviously, I picked surfing. I can drink in Boston. Now is the time to try every extreme sport possible.

surf lessons, Iquique, Chile
surf lessons, Iquique, Chile
learning to surf in Iquique, Chile
learning to surf in Iquique, Chile

At noon, I made my way to the EcoRiders tent on the beach a block away from my hostel, Backpacker’s Hostel Iquique.

EcoRiders tent on beach in Iquique, Chile
EcoRiders tent on beach in Iquique, Chile

A skinny, indifferent instructor told me to run the length of the beach and back to warm up. I ran past hordes of young men playing four square and volleyball, who were kind enough to stop what they were doing and catcall at me as my breasts moved around uncomfortably in my bikini.

beach in Iquique, Chile
beach in Iquique, Chile
grafitti on the beach in Iquique, Chile
grafitti on the beach in Iquique, Chile

When I returned red-faced to the tent, my instructor (I think he said his name was Liter, so we’ll go with that) had me do Russian twists and push-ups and other core/arm exercises to warm me up for the cold, salty Pacific waters. It felt good to engage in strength training after a few months without. After some stretches, he handed me a wet suit and left me to figure it out while he put on his own. It probably took me about ten minutes to pull the thing on. I grunted and yanked and panted and fell in the sand, realizing that all my training with stockings and leggings would be no use with this thick, still-wet, ankle-to-chin fabric. When I finally got suited, Liter had me top off my skin-tight onesie with a bright green, newbie-alert t-shirt. He wore a bright orange instructor shirt that he tied behind his back like a girl would when wearing her boyfriend’s t-shirt. I held the surf board while we walked to the shore, Liter occasionally calling out to fellow brown, long-haired surf friends, giving them the universal ‘surf’s up, dude’ hand gesture. A few practice runs pawing at the sand and standing up quickly, and we were heading into the water. Seaweed clung to my ankles as I tried to dodge rocks and crabs and jellyfish.

“Arriba,” he said once we were hip-deep in the water. Ok, we’re doing this. Up on the board, and the balancing act began. I tried not to look like the fool I was, teetering from side to side as I managed to inch my head to where it was supposed to be. Liter told me that my nose should touch the logo on the board. If I’m too far forward or back, I could tip the board. Not thirty seconds into it and he’s telling me to paddle hard. I did as I was told, and listened for him to tell me to stand up. I tried, got my feet planted, and fell off. Not bad. This went on a few times, me kind of standing and then plopping into the shallow water, landing easily on my feet.

learning to surf in Iquique, Chile
learning to surf in Iquique, Chile

“The waves aren’t big enough,” I complained in Spanish. “They don’t have the power to bring me anywhere. They slow me down.”

“You can feel that?” he asked me seriously.

I said that I could, and told him I wasn’t scared of a big wave. He smiled and I could tell that I was starting to melt his indifference and probable boredom with the mundane task of teaching a gringa how to nail a baby wave. He pointed me in the direction of a few big ones, which I almost landed, when I didn’t get inside my own head. I was getting better the more I focused on how I could complete the task at hand rather than how I could fail. So, as I looked out at the desert and watched Laura appear and pull her iPhone out of her bag, I reminded myself what I would have to do when I began to feel the wave crash under my board. Stand up quick, stay low, lean on your back leg and straighten your front leg. Like snowboarding and sandboarding and kiteboarding. Easy.

“Puedes sentirlo? Can you feel it?” I asked him.

“Que?” Liter asked in return.

“This is the one,” I told him, making us both laugh.

Not ten seconds later, he got that look on his face like, it’s time, and he didn’t even have to tell me what to do. I paddled as hard as my tired arms and shoulders would allow me, and I did it. It was cake. See for yourself.


by Rebecca Bellan