It's a strange fact when you are travelling that you don't see many American backpackers. British, French, German, Australian, some Japanese, but the richest nation on earth doesn't seem to produce its fair share of travellers.
I have to confess I hadn't given this matter too much thought before, but then a young American woman on the minibus for our sandboarding trip (more below) mentioned that her parents were ready to have her committed to a mental institution when she told them she was quitting her boring finance job to go and explore South America. Apparently gap years and OEs are unheard of in a country where getting your boss to give you two weeks' summer holiday in one stretch is pushing it.
And I thought Donald Trump was reason enough not to live in the US.
Anyway, sandboarding: now there's something I hadn't put on the itinerary. But an organised trip was available from San Pedro, and Sam was keen, so he and I headed out to some dunes in an area rather ominously called Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), about 15 minutes outside town. You turn off the main drag onto a track cut between high, dramatic red rock/earth formations, and come out in an area of dunes surrounded on one side by rock walls, and with more folded red rock shapes below you. And beyond them, those fabulous snow capped mountains. The views are stunning.
Sandboarding, as you may have guessed, is just like snowboarding, but on sand. The equipment is exactly the same - boots, board and helmet. Once knitted out you trudge up the ridge of a sand dune carrying your board, and then attempt to slide to the bottom without falling over too often. I don't know if anyone has invented a tow lift for 20-metre-high sand dunes, but if so, it isn't being used in San Pedro de Atacama. And walking up sand is hard going.
Sandboarding is also hard, I found. But then I've never done any sort of boarding (skate, surf, snow etc) and as my Pilates instructor can attest, balance isn't my strong point. Still we had a great time, Sam and I. The joy of sandboarding, as opposed to any of the other boardings mentioned above, is that the landing is very soft. Sand is also nice and warm. I may still have grains in my ears when I get back to New Zealand from numerous plantings and rolls, but it didn't hurt a bit.