The calmness of Irish lads who happened to be sitting next to us was a sharp contrast to the pulsing of my ear piercing screams.
The dune buggy may have looked like an oversized go-kart, but in actuality was a gravity bending instrument to be feared!
Mountains of sand lay everywhere the eye could reach; a pale golden sea.
We locked in an afternoon of sandboarding on the dunes of Huacachina, again blindly overlooking my fear of anything that would excite a thrill-seeker. It shouldn’t have comforted me when they took care strapping us into heavy-duty, roller coaster-style seats.
I thought they were being overly cautious, but I should have known better; this was Peru.
The first whip started my adrenaline. As we raced, engine struggling, up to the crest of each mountain of sand, the driver would slam the brakes, let gravity tip us, and would blaze the engine again so our heavy bottom wouldn’t send us toppling to our sandy destruction.
My knuckles were white as I squeezed the safety bar in front of me. The Irish lad smiled, almost silently, he and his friends ‘taking the piss’ out of each other while I got mentally prepared for death. When we slowed at what appeared to be just another sand dune, I was relieved.
Still with adrenaline pumping through me, I stepped out into the sand. My scuffed Converse sank inches deep into the sand. Catching my breath, I took in what was around me.
There was nothing. Rolls and rolls of sand were all I could see in every direction. This was my first desert. Being engulfed in desert brings about a different feeling than being engulfed by the ocean, though equally vast.
The ocean has an entire world beneath, waves continuously rocking and crashing, the whole thing stirring back and forth in an endless rhythm.
A desert is still. It’s silent.
As I looked out to the sand I felt my eyes trying to widen. I couldn’t open them big enough. As my mind tried to wrap itself around this new world, I willed my eyes to grow bigger to take it all in. It contained so much but also nothing.
“I have always loved the desert.
One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing.
Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”
The snowboards were passed out. I happily waxed my board, feeling pretty cool as I looked down to the modest hill that would be our first ride. I wasn’t scared but actually excited. Some braver souls took the hill standing up, clearly comfortable with being on a board.
I laid face first. The guide fixed my arm and hand placement before giving me a gentle shove. I glided down silently, with a big smile plastered across my face. That was cake! As I stood up, I looked to the next slope I’d have to climb.
Filled with confidence, I trudged through the sand (which was quite a task) only to have it replaced with fear when I saw the next slope.
To me, we had started on a bunny hill and had moved straight to the black diamond of sand dunes. “I don’t think I can do it,” I admitted to my best friend, Noah, who was standing right next to me with the same look on his face.
My fear of heights hadn’t lessened at all since canyoning in Baños, Ecuador a few weeks before. The guide could see it in my face,
“Qué pasa, guapa?” What’s up, pretty?
I giggled nervously, pretending to not be scared shitless.
“Tienes miedo, guapa?” You scared, pretty?
“Si…tengo mucho miedo! Es demasiado alto para mi!” Yeh… I’m really scared! It’s too high for me!
“Ayy, nooo. No es dificil. Sólo hay que poner sus manos acá…y por eso…” Ah no. It’s not difficult. You just have to put you hands here.. and for that…
He showed me how to do it properly, then gave me an encouraging look and guided my limbs into their proper positions, so all I had to do was signal for a push. Clever trick.
I imagined myself rolling off the board, twisting violently in the sand before breaking a hip, but I had to push those images/fears away. So I stopped my destructive train of thought, inflated my chest like a puffer fish, feigning confidence, and said, “Listo!” before I could regret or question it.
I picked up speed instantly and rocked down the mountainous dune.
Grains of sand pierced my chest one by one. My every muscle was clenched, my hips pressed tightly together to not eat the sand cloud in front of me. My heart raced.
I held the exact same position the whole way down to ensure I wouldn’t throw off my own balance, and I didn’t. I made it, though I couldn’t say I enjoyed it. Ten more dunes to go. Oh god, I’m in deep shit.
I took on each new dune as its own challenge. There was no getting out of this one. The only way out was down. And then up again, and then down again, until we reached the finish line. I watched in awe as one red bandanna wearing chick eagerly took off first down each massive dune, like she’d been doing it all her life. I envy that kind of fearlessness sometimes. I may have courage for some things, but I’m still no thrill-seeker.
I’d lost count of the dunes about midway through as I focused on one at a time. After trudging up yet another tall heap of sand, thighs burning like hell, I reached the top and noticed… Is that… excitement??! I was excited for the next ride!?
Noah and I had since separated, each of us tackling our fears individually, pacing ourselves as need be. Instead of delaying my ‘take off’, I stepped up with confidence for the first time all day.
I saw the guide watching me get on my board and we exchanged another look; a look that felt like he knew I had it in me all along. But how could he have when I hadn’t expected this of myself?
I dug each of my hands into the sand to grip and catapult myself down. I no longer felt the grains of sand piercing my pink chest or the disturbing thoughts of what could go wrong. As I glided down the sandy slope I felt true joy. I was riding the desert, after all!
But what hit me the most was the purity and bliss of the ride. I wasn’t just smiling, but laughing to myself. I was screaming a different kind of scream.
As a cloud of sand billowed behind me, I felt like a sparkler on the fourth of July, leaving a trail of smoke at my back as I absorbed those brief, thrilling seconds.
I slowed at the bottom, then sprung up, energised from my sustained lack of fear. I rode them all down, my smile sneaking out each time. My terror had been transformed. This was a first for me!
Going canyoning, riding roller coasters, even surfing, all feel terrifying to me before, during, and after.
But sandboarding in Peru turned out to be, honest to goodness, one of my all time favourite experiences of the entire month and a half I spent in Peru.
If someone gave me a choice to either spend another day at Machu Picchu or a day sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru, I’d obviously choose sandboarding. For me, the adventure was unforgettable.
Heather Richards is a free spirit who fell in love with slow, meaningful travel when she studied abroad in Australia in 2009. She has lived on 4 continents and has traveled in 27 countries (so far). Heather openly shares her stories of stumbling through misadventures, connecting with sometimes the most unlikely characters, and of learning so much from and about the incredible people she meets along the way.
Being a foreigner is an exciting thrill for Heather and she lives to soak up one culture at a time through her slow travel. Heather hopes to inspire other people to get out there and explore this beautiful world. She also hopes to send the message that anyone can travel, you just have to want it bad enough.
You can find Heather’s inspiring or embarrassing stories on her blog, The Free-Spirited Foreigner, or reach out to her to talk travel on her social media channels: