We arrived in the unattractive town of Ica after a long, hot bus ride along the Pan American highway from Nazca. We planned to completely bypass the town of Ica and take a taxi five kilometers southwest to Huacachina, a picturesque oasis dotted with palm trees and surrounded by huge sand dunes, some of which get to 700 feet in height. As we drove to Huacachina, the hot, dusty commercial landscape of Ica gradually gave way to the sand dunes that lie outside the city. Our plan was to enjoy the oasis, then take a dune buggy tour of the sand dunes and do some sandboarding the next day.
The next morning we organized a tour and got started before the weather became unbearably hot. After cresting a tall dune, we stood above the village of Huacachina and saw nothing but white sand for miles and miles. Peru’s biodiverse terrain never ceased to amaze us: Amazon jungle, Andes mountains, Pacific Ocean coastline and arid desert. We were about 200 miles south of Lima and 30 miles from the ocean but felt like we were in the middle of the Sahara desert. About a hundred miles to the south stood Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world, some 6,561 feet above sea level.
Huacachina was interesting for its physical geography and contrast to the nearby commercial and agricultural center of Ica, but it was also a little strange. The lagoon in the center of the village was a murky dark green color and smelled a little putrid. I’d heard that many residents had installed wells and the resulting low water level of the lagoon had to be offset by bringing in water from elsewhere. The two days we were there many of the businesses were closed and the entire town was geared towards tourism. It was an odd mix of Peruvian weekenders sitting around a smelly lagoon and backpackers wielding sand boards.
Riding the dune buggy was a blast. Ours was a brand new buggy with a red chassis and bright yellow bars encircling the riders. We sat in protective seats that resembled portable infant car seats with multiple straps that attach in front of the chest. The yellow bars surrounding much of the vehicle made the dune buggy look like a big yellow, egg-shaped cage on wheels. We zipped up and down the dunes and our kids squealed with delight. Our driver climbed up one of the taller dunes, rested for a moment to admire the view then plunged straight down the other side, causing us to tighten our stomachs and hold our collective breath.
The sandboarding was not as fun as riding the dune buggy. Our driver gave us a quick introduction by telling us to lie face down on the board and slide down a dune. After a couple times doing this we tried it standing up with mixed results. Although our driver repeatedly waxed our boards, we just couldn’t get enough speed to make it interesting. In response, we tried shorter, steeper dunes but that ended with us falling over into the sand. After a pound or two of sand in my clothes, I retreated to the dune buggy and watched my son and daughter battle the dunes. They gamely tried more boarding but after about a half hour we were all done. We scooted back to Huacachina and after getting all the sand out of our clothes, took a taxi back to Ica and caught our bus to Lima.