The dune buggy driver pushed a dusty sandboard into my hands and mumbled vague instructions on how to use it. I gripped the board with white knuckles and placed it on the golden sand. The dune was steep, at least 100 feet down to the bottom. Shades of golden stretched as far as the eye could see. I felt the tickle of wind picking up particles of sand at my ankles. I’d made it to Huacachina, the only desert oasis in South America, and I was about to test my skills at sandboarding for the first (and maybe last) time.
More on that later. But first off, welcome to the most interesting town you’ve never heard of. At first glance, this village in Peru looks like its straight out of the set of a Hollywood movie. Its center is a small oasis, nestled in a valley of mountainous sand dunes. Street vendors, Peruvian restaurants and hostels hug the shore.
The oasis feels isolated from the world – beautiful and intriguing in equal measures. Surrounding dunes rise up 300 feet, however a road to the west leads to the city of Ica. It is only a 10-minute drive away and is also where all the restaurants in Huacachina get their food.
Interestingly enough, the town is also just a few hours from Nazca – a village that’s world-famous thanks to the mysterious Nazca Lines it’s home to (a series of figures, lines, and geometric shapes that were etched into the ground of the desert over 1000 years ago by the ancient Nazca culture).
Surrounding Huacachina’s lagoon, local women offer snacks made from corn, fruit and sugar. The local men offer dune buggy tours and sandboarding. Both of these are the main activities to do in the area and upon visiting, you’ll see why they’re so enticing.
A town of adventures
Dune buggying is an experience that’s much, more more fun to experience than write about. After weaving your way through taxis, car and locals in town, you get driven onto the dunes themselves. The smooth road becomes a bumpy trek as you find yourself in sand dune territory – a land of few trails, fewer rules, and definitely no speed limit. As you ride in the dune buggy, up and down at super fast speeds, you’ll find yourself in the mercy of the (thankfully experienced) driver. You leap, turn and fly over the hills of golden sand…the epitome of an adrenaline-filled experience.
You stand on a board (or lie on it like a sled when you fail to remain upright) and simply make your way down the hill. In doing so, you might find yourself on sand dunes up to 300 feet high – quite the achievement. A slightly scary one, but crazy cool – and certainly not something you can try everyday.
Bonus: if you travel to Huacachina with Intrepid, you can go on a dune buggy ride and sandboarding trip, before camping out under the stars in the beautiful desert. Check it out on this 22-day Lima to La Paz adventure.
The legend of Huacachina
Time for more info about the town itself. Huacachina’s origin is almost as fascinating as its vista. It is said that the lake was created from a princess whose voice was so beautiful that it made people cry. They called her the “Huacca China” or “the girl who cries”. One day as she was bathing herself and singing, she noticed through her mirror that a hunter was watching her. He startled her and she tried to run away. As she ran, the cloth that covered her fell off and created the sand dunes. She stumbled and broke the mirror, which transformed into the lake. She was turned into a mermaid and it is said that to this day she comes out in the moonlight and sings her ancient song.
At the main entrance of the lake, lies a stone-carved statue of the “Huacca China” in mermaid form. She looks over the lake, town and its people.
Palm trees line the lagoon’s shore as children play in the water, known to have therapeutic properties. Parents lounge on the grass surrounding the lake, watching their kids splash in the lagoon, wrestle in the reeds and blow up rafts. The village has a breezy, beach town feel.
A place for everyone
There are many ways in which to experience this one-of-a-kind city, and something for every type of traveler. There’s hostel dorms and luxe hotels, authentic Peruvian restaurants and American cuisine, calm sightseeing and active adventures. It’s a place for those seeking excitement, intrigue, and some intensely awe-inspiring desert views.
Bars, clubs and restaurants surround the palm tree-lined lagoon; they offer good-value prices for visitors. Dine at one of the local watering holes and you’ll be sipping on fresh watermelon juice while gazing at the massive dunes that surround the oasis. Bliss.
Ensure you have lunch or dinner at Desert Nights Restaurant, where tables are covered in woven Peruvian cloth. Three-course meals of authentic cuisine such as lomo saltado, causa and passion fruit mousse can be had for less than you would spend on one entree in the U.S.
What else to know
Getting to Huacachina is easy; it’s a five-hour bus ride from the capital, Lima.
And in terms of what to bring, it’s nothing unexpected: sunscreen, a bathing suit, clothing that would be comfortable in hot desert days and cold desert nights, and comfortable shoes.
That being said, you’ll want to spend at least a night in this picture-perfect Peruvian oasis. Make a journey before or after visiting Machu Picchu (let’s be honest, you’re not going to visit Peru without seeing the ruins) and you won’t regret the detour.
Fancy visiting this magical town for yourself? Stay the night at Huacachina on this 22-day trip through Peru and Bolivia.
Image Credits: All c/o Sarah Funk