Greetings from the desert oasis of Huacachina, Peru.
The tiny town (population 115) of Huacachina is built around a small natural lake in the desert. Called the “oasis of America,” it serves as a resort for local families from the nearby city of Ica, and increasingly as an attraction for tourists drawn by the sports of sandboarding and taking dune buggy rides on sand dunes that stretch several hundred feet high. We tried out all of that; more on that in a moment.
The desert oasis Huacachina.
We arrived in Huacachina via bus from Paracas. Although we (mostly Bex) have put together and coordinated almost all of our itinerary so far over the last six months, we are in Peru relying heavily on a tour company called Peru Hop. We discovered soon after our arrival that this company offers “hop on / hop off” bus transportation along almost the exact route that we had planned to travel through Peru. So, we bought a couple of tickets and had them get us first from Lima to Paracas. As we prepared to leave Paracas, we contacted Peru Hop again and had them get us on their next bus out to Huacachina.
Our tour guide and cruise director was a very energetic Peruvian fellow named Nilo. He is full of suggestions and recommendations. I don’t think I’ve ever met a tour guide who is more enthusiastic about his job. Perhaps not any person in any job. I sorta wish he could stay with us throughout the entire Peru trip.
Nilo recommended that we make a couple of stops in the Paracas National Preserve, and the entire bus accepted that recommendation. I’m not sure that we had a choice. These stops provided some spectacular desert and beach views. From a high cliff we got to look out over a bay to the spot where two continental shelves meet undersea. We could literally see where the water changes color dramatically from seafoam green to a dark forest green. Nilo explained that at this location, where the two shelves meet, the sea depth drops suddenly, dramatically to 800 meters.
A view of a small bay in Paracas National Preserve. That’s most of our bus tour group climbing all over those rocks.
Unfortunately, this specific geography leads to an unnatural choppiness in the small bay that is adjacent to the location where the shelves meet. Sea lions often get trapped in this choppy water, become confused, and beach themselves. They become stuck in the sand and they die on the beach. We saw several dead sea lions in this small area of beach, and we also encountered one baby sea lion that was still alive. Some members of our group actually put him back in the water, and we watched him struggle against the chop for half an hour. Sadly, he did not make material progress against the rough water. I hope that the little fellow made it, but fear that he did not. So it goes.
Back on the bus, we headed for Huacachina. A party vibe developed, and I suddenly became aware that I was years older than anyone else on the bus, and a generation older than most. I like to party as much as the next guy, but I do it quieter now than I did twenty years ago. Beers were cracking open. It was 1030. Nilo began to offer detailed suggestions about our next destination. Most of his recommendations involved drinking, dancing, food, and extreme sports.
Huacachina is alas known for its extreme sports. It’s a party town that specializes in sandboarding, wild and crazy dune buggy rides, and the pouring and consumption of Pisco-based cocktails and shots. Pisco, incidentally, is the local liquor of choice…an 84-proof clear intoxicant distilled from local grapes. It’s a big deal in Peru. Hey, we played along! A few Pisco shots…and many, many Pisco Sours were consumed over the last few days.
On our first night in Huacachina, we ate dinner and then hiked up a huge sand dune, where we sat and watched the stars for hours. Becci managed to get her camera into a super-long exposure mode that allowed her to take a few shots of the stars. The sky was as clear as any sky that I have seen since the Grand Canyon. It was beautiful.
The hike up that hill was brutal. Slogging uphill in sand is tough. I woke up the next day sore, in time to contemplate the prospect of sandboarding and dune buggy rides. We were a little apprehensive about the dune buggies, as a number of online reviews described them as (at best) third world, unregulated rollercoaster rides and (at worst) death traps. We knew the day was going to be an adventure.
Being the pros that we are, we both wore long sleeves, long pants, sunglasses, and bandanas to cover the many holes through which sand might get into our heads. These outfits came in handy, the long sleeves especially so, as sand burns are just no fun at all.
In terms of sandboarding, we, like 95% of the group, opted to try this sport out for the first (and probably last) time using the no-additional-charge sandboards that our drivers had brought along. One or two guys in the group opted to rent “pro”-style sandboards that were longer, and came with clip-in boots instead of the crappy velcro straps that the rest of us used. We had one guy who showed up in a Nike technical shirt, tracksuit trousers, a wind scarf that would have been the prize possession of a nomadic Bedouin prince, sandboarding boots, and a GoPro camera stuck affixed to his empty noggin. I sure hope that GoPro captured some of the group’s eye-rolling. He was pretty good at the snowboarding, I’ll give him that, but was totally a “look at me” guy. I had first noticed this guy the day before, when he boarded the bus shirtless and flexing. He is now known, and has been referred to many times, as Captain Sandbar.
Sandboarding was a blast. Most of the runs were preposterously steep, with all of the group (except Cap’n Sandboard) taking the runs lying down on our boards. Top speeds were in excess of 50 km per hour.
The dune buggy ride through the desert was as promised. Dismemberment loomed around each corner; death over every crest. We screamed and cursed involuntarily, much the same way that you might on a rollercoaster. Although this ride hadn’t been scrutinized by dozens of highly-trained safety engineers. This ride hadn’t been regularly checked and maintained by a professionally-trained crew. That thought gave it all an extra edge of danger. Adrenaline pumped. Pisco sours were earned. Despite all of our precautions, there is now sand in everything.
The town is absolutely full of these dune buggies. I think there may be one dune buggy per full-time inhabitant. The dune-buggies themselves look somewhat home made, and are rather utilitarian. Each features a fairly-serious rolled-steel rollcage, sitting atop a truck frame. Six to fourteen racing-style seats are arranged in two to four rows of theater seating. Each rider is secured with a three-point buckled strap. The drive train includes some sort of big truck motor and a sturdy manual transmission. The suspension is rugged and intended for serious offroading. Our particular buggy had big, knobby Pirelli tires. Body plating is minimal; there are no doors and no engine cover. The fenders are flat and exist mainly to give riders a way to climb into the vehicle.
In terms of accommodation in Huacachina, we had opted to stay on the “quiet” side of town. There are two streets in Huacachina…the one with the disco and the one without. In turns out that the one without, where we were, is adjacent to the main dune buggy depot, where all the vehicles are serviced, and where they are stored overnight. By “adjacent”, I mean I could throw a rock out of our bedroom window and hit any of the parked dune buggies. We got to listen to them start in the mornings before the first buggy runs. Did I mention that they have no mufflers?
Bringing the story of our lil tour group ’round full circle, I would be remiss if I did not point out that many of our new Peru Hop friends had availed themselves of the local disco on the night of our arrival. Rumor has it that some of them helped to close down the establishment at around 0700. I’m sure that seemed like a good idea at the time, but a bunch of those kids looked green around the gills when we headed out to the desert for our dune buggy ride the next day.
Tomorrow we will leave Huacachina via a 20-hour, overnight bus ride to Arequipa. But that’s a story for a different day.