Journey to Peru and discover a real-life blue lagoon at Huacachina
Story by David Jenison
The sight before you is half-exhilarating, half-terrifying. Standing atop a giant desert dune in south Peru, your toes dangle over a steep sandy slope that stretches 800 feet to the bottom. The people below already look like ants as the tour guide hands you a sandboard. Whether you strap it to your feet or ride it face-first like a sled, you’re about to have the ride of your life. Welcome to Huacachina.
This picturesque town is built around an oasis and surrounded by towering dunes, and even though Ica is just minutes away, mountains of sand block the big city lights. It makes Huacachina feel like a secluded desert village blessed with its own blue lagoon. While an image of the Convent of Santo Domingo landed on the largest Peruvian banknote (200 soles), Huacachina’s image scored the more widely used 50-sol bill ($18), which testifies to the town’s iconic status.
Sandboarding is the marquee activity here, and while it’s possible to ride sand at the town’s edge, the thrice-daily tour is recommend. The excursion begins with buggies attacking the dunes with wild abandon. After rows of big drops and hairpin turns, the buggies arrive at a series of hills for boarding. The initial dunes are about 20 to 30 feet, so they’re perfect for attempting a standing ride. The dunes get progressively larger, however, and finish with two hills that run about 750 to 900 feet each. This long, fast, frightening ride spikes the adrenaline for a rush you won’t believe. More buggy thrills await on the trip back, and for those who snap pictures like a paparazzi pariah, the late-afternoon tours offer stunning sunsets falling across the sandy expanse.
In the town’s oasis, people can rent paddleboats and swim, though legend says a mermaid in the water takes one life each year. The better bet is joining excursions to the many other sights in the region. Ica features several bodegas and wineries for the obligatory pisco sampling, which, for those who don’t know, is a grape brandy named after nearby Pisco. If you come during the grape harvest in late February, some bodegas invite guests to kick off their sandals and crush grapes under their feet. The rocky Ballestas Islands are just a bus and boat ride away for those who enjoy penguins, sea lions, seagulls and Peruvian boobies (they’re birds, people). The most interesting tour, however, is to the Nazca Lines two hours south. Created 1,500 years ago yet discovered last century, these lines in the desert form the shapes of giant geometrical and animal figures (monkey, phoenix, spider, etc.) that are only visible from above. That means boarding a small plane for a harrowing 30-minute flyover to see the lines in all their glory. These extraordinary images leave experts with endless semi-plausible theories for their existence, though the most interesting belongs to Chariots of the Gods? Author Erich von Däniken. This Swiss author suggests the desert was an extraterrestrial airfield for aliens the Nazca mistook for gods. Before you call this guy Spooky Erich, check out the line construct known as “The Astronaut.”
For those who’d like to medicate on the dunes or over the airfield/lines, Peru is fortunately one of the more smoke-tolerant countries. In theory, carrying a few grams for personal use is legal, though there are reports of cops shaking down tourists for bribes. In other words, don’t worry about medicating, but don’t be obvious either. You can likely find cannabis in Huacachina, but if traveling around the country, buy beforehand in Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood or in cannabis-crazed Cuzco near Machu Picchu.