Remember those cartoon animations that had the explorers crawling through the desert dunes, under the scorching heat of the unforgiving sun? Then, suddenly they see an oasis and start running towards it until poof!… it vanishes into thin air. It was all a mirage.
That’s how I saw oasis until I visited Huacachina, Peru.
When you think about Peru the last thing that comes to mind is a desert oasis. Overshadowed by the popularity of Machu Picchu, the Huacachina Oasis has stayed under the radar for most tourists in Peru – except for adrenaline-seeking adventurers.
Huacachina, also known as the “Oasis of America”, is located in the Ica Region in the southwestern area of Peru. To get there, it takes about 5-6 hours bus ride from Lima to Ica (30 soles with Soyuz, a local bus), and then a 5 minutes taxi ride from Ica to Huacachina (5 soles) – just 4 km away.
Now, What can you do there? Here are some of the ways you can experience this impressive small natural lake.
What to do in Huacachina
With roughly 150 residents, this small oasis is more a “resort” for local families and travelers looking to experience a laid back environment. But, the main attractions here are the sports of sandboarding and dune buggying.
To get the best thrills out of your sandboarding experience, it is best to combine it with the dune buggy tour. Prices range in the 40-60 soles for a 2-hours combined tour. Many operators offer the tour in the morning and the afternoon, though the afternoon tour is recommended the most for two reasons – the sand has a colder temperature and… sunsets!!! Score!
You will first cruise high and low with fast speeds across the towering dunes. Speeding through those dune cliffs gives you a rush of adrenaline that will get you all pumped to start taking those dunes on your own with your sandboard.
When sandboarding you will start with small dunes (30 feet in height approximately) and slowly increase the height with subsequent dunes (up to a couple hundreds feet of slope).
A few tips: Take it slow when climbing up the dunes – it is physically demanding and exhausting (especially if your legs are already sore from hiking the Inca trail).
If you want speed, wax your sandboard after every couple slides down the dunes (they provide the wax). It reduces the friction. The sand is coarse, so achieving speeds normally obtained while snowboarding is harder to accomplish.
Learn from my mistakes… Take a FULL bottle of water; you’ll want to drink a lot of water after going up and down those dunes. And store your camera inside a sand-proof bag or zipped bag… sand gets EVERYWHERE!
Here is a short video that I took while sandboarding, er, falling down a dune. (You can laugh. The fall wasn’t that bad…)
Other adrenaline-filled activities include renting 4 x 4’s and driving through the dunes by yourself. Can you believe some of the dunes soar up to half a mile in height?
If you’re not into adrenaline but still want to see the desert dunes, there are “slow-buggy” tours that take you up and down the dunes in a slow pace.
For relaxing activities, you can lay in the sand under one of the palm trees and enjoy the beauty of this peaceful oasis. You can also rent a small rowboat to spend a chilled afternoon in the heart of the oasis. Swimming? Sure, locals do it. Just beware of the mermaid. Huh?
Legend holds that the lagoon was created when a young hunter apprehended a beautiful native princess while bathing. She fled; leaving the pool of water she had been bathing in to become the lagoon. The folds of her mantle, streaming behind her as she ran, became the surrounding sand dunes. And the woman herself is rumored to still live in the oasis as a mermaid.
What to do around Huacachina
Huacachina is small, but it doesn’t lack activities to do in and around it. If you’re spending more than a couple days there, you can camp in the dunes or at the Virgin beaches – between Huacachina and the Pacific Ocean.
Ica shouldn’t just be your transfer town to Huacachina. You can roam around exploring its churches, squares, bodegas and wineries (lots of Pisco!!), chocolate factory, and archeological museum.
Where to stay
Even when Huacachina is geared towards tourism, most of its hostels and hotels are not listed online. But don’t worry; getting a bed or a room here is an easy task since everything is condensed around the natural lagoon.
Desert Nights, the most popular hostel here, is the only one listed by HostelBookers and Hostel World. It is also the only Hostelling International hostel. The laid-back environment feels very Red Hot Chilly Pepperish with a spice of Bob Marley. They only have dorm rooms and their restaurant serves great food. Did I mention it costs only $6 a night?
Other popular choices are:
Sand and Lake– Cheap backpacker rooms in a one-story house, informal, overlooking the lagoon.
Salvatierra – Cheap and popular hotel for backpackers. It has a nice pool and offers internet access for 3 soles/hour.
Casa de Arena – A very popular “party” hostel. It is loud and busy; and has pool, restaurant, bar, and dance floor.
Hotel Curasi – Middle-range hostel/hotel with nice rooms and a decent pool.
El Huacachinero – Overall it is more upscale and more expensive than backpacker places. The environment is quieter and more serious than a youth hostel.
Where to eat
Due to its touristic attraction, the cost of food in Huacachina is somewhat above the average. But still, you can find delicious food at modest prices. Among those are:
Bamboo House – Serves international food, until 6 pm. Thai curry and Israeli falafel are popular dishes here. Also for sale are sandwiches, crepes, deserts, and coffee.
The House of Avinoam – Located inside the Carolas del Sur hostel, this restaurant is famous for its hippie vibe, interesting interior decoration, and its tasty thin-crust pizza.
Desert Nights – Tasty meals until late at night, cheap breakfasts. Free WIFI for customers!
Mayo – An excellent option for typical Peruvian food, such as Ceviche and Lomo Saltado.
How’s the nightlife?
Most bars and dance clubs in Huacachina are associated with a specific hostel or hotel. Here are some of the popular ones:
Casa de Arena Bar – This is a pool-side bar located in the Casa de Arena hostel, This bar is usually open in the afternoon, until 8 or 9 pm, when Casa de Arena’s small dance club/bar opens. This is where you can hang until the early morning hours.
Da Silva’s House – This is a small bar is located next to the Casa de Arena hostel. With names like Fucking Huacachina and Sex on the Dunes, the drinks are clearly designed to attract the backpacker crowd. An average drink costs about 14 soles (aprox. $5), but many nights have “happy hour” which feature 2 drinks for 15 soles.
Bolepo – This restaurant located in El Hospedaje del Barco hostel seems to be a pretty popular place to get a cocktail or a beer. There isn’t dancing or music here, just eating and drinking.
The Pub – A new bar located right next to Da Silva’s House. This is another place to hang till late at night.