“It is now dark, time for you to run full speed down the side of this 150-metre high sand dune. Go.” At first I thought our guide was joking. He wasn’t.
So, after necking a Pisco Sour, Sophie and I launch ourselves off the deep-red rock cliff and let the momentum carry our legs into the abyss below.
On reaching the valley floor it emerges that our dirty desert rat of a guide has sent us over the top, while he sneaks off to take the 4×4 option.
As we return half of the Atacama Desert from our shoes back to the sandy ground beneath a heated discussion erupts among some slightly scared characters in the group about which direction to take.
There’s just a sliver of moonlight and a scattering of star twinkles to lead us, but eventually we wind up at a dirt track and keep our fingers crossed that we’ll meet our wayward guide at some point before the real desert rats get stuck into us.
Of course a few minutes later a minibus comes screaming around the corner and with a grin as wide as the Atacama Desert Juan says: “Was that fun or what?”
He receives a fairly lukewarm response, but I have got to admit descending a giant dune in the near pitch black is pretty exhilarating.
Before our kamikaze leap of faith we’d witnessed a beautiful sunset in the desolate Valle de la Luna or Moon Valley another desolate spot in the most water-sparse desert on the planet.
It’s a tough, barren landscape which can spell the end for even the most hardy of animals.
Nearby Death Valley is so named because a group of llamas seemingly took a wrong turning, got disorientated and with nothing but sand to munch on starved to death.
Years later the discovery of their piles of bones revealed their grizzly fate.
In the area around the dusty town of San Pedro de Atacama there are a plethora fascinating geographical sites of interest.
Not least the salt-rich waters of the Cejar lagoon.
With a sodium percentage in excess of 30 Sophie and I are able to experience the strange sensation of floating on water.
However, we are not advised to dip our heads under the surface because apparently the high concentration of salt gives the eyes a real sting.
Attempting to swim is also not recommended unless you want to look like an arthritic poodle attempting doggy paddle.
Trying to make progress in the super-buoyant water is like swimming with a lifejacket on.
The lake is cold and it’s rough underfoot thanks to the sharp rocks below so we don’t paddle in it for long. Once out it’s a drip dry situation.
My towel is used not to get rid of the water, but once dry to brush away the remaining salt residue.
My shivering miraculously stops as soon as I am presented with a Mango Pisco Sour.
Another spectacular and very different landscape lies slightly further away from San Pedro de Atacama – the highest geyser field in the world.
In the icy morning air boiling hot streams of smelly sulpher water bubble up to the surface to provide much appreciated natural heat.
While they may look like natural jacuzzis, these geysers need to be respected, for they have claimed the lives of two clumsy visitors who fell in and were literally boiled alive. Nice.
Of course it is not long before the sun comes out and the temperature rises to a fry-an egg-on-the-floor level.
The eclectic landscape also incorporates dusty white salt flats and when it comes to manmade wonders the church in San Pedro de Atacama made entirely from cactus wood is pretty striking, but it is time to get on the road again.
As I gaze out of the window on the overnight bus headed toward the border with Peru I am once again struck by the juxtaposition of the surrounding scenery where the bleak contrasts starkly with the beautiful. An ever present feature across South America.
And while it might be a little unnerving, perhaps sand dune running in the dark is the best way to fully appreciate the awesomeness of the Atacama.