A day at Machu Picchu is often the highlight of any trip to Peru, but there’s a hidden gem that gives the site a run for its money when it comes to memorable experiences: Huacachina.
Huacachina is literally an oasis in the middle of a desert, surrounded by towering sand dunes and home to mesmerizing sun sets. Oh, and the weather is blazing hot, making this place basically the next best thing to being in Egypt. The village is about a 10 minute drive down a dusty, windy road from the city of Ica in southwestern Peru, and a popular stopover en route to the Nazca lines. A favourite spot for weekenders from Lima and backpackers, Huacachina is made up of dozens of small hostels, guest houses and hotels, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and travel agencies.
The green lagoon in the middle is circled by a boardwalk lined with palm trees, which makes for some great pictures. As for the water itself…well, let’s just say I wouldn’t try swimming in it. You can, however, rent little paddleboats. Many of the hotels have swimming pools surrounded by lounge chairs, which are perfect for catching some rays before heading out into the sand dunes.
Speaking of the sand dunes, the best part of any stay is an afternoon spent navigating the desert via dune buggy—an experience similar to hopping on a roller coaster! Frankly, I can’t imagine trying to do it while sick or hungover, as it’s quite the ride. A two hour tour costs about 50 soles (around $20) plus an entrance fee of 3.70 soles per person, and can be booked at any lodging or travel agency in Huacachina or Ica.
Make sure you wear sunglasses to keep as much of the sand out of your eyes as possible (a tough task) as well as long clothing. I’d also recommend against wearing sandals as it’s very easy for them to slip off and get lost.
Dune buggies usually hold groups of anywhere from four to 12 people, and after everyone’s settled in (with seatbelts FIRMLY FASTENED) it’s time to head to the hills! The drivers don’t hold back, speeding straight up the dunes which are several hundred feet high at thrillingly high speeds. You’ll fly up and down the dunes, screaming with every turn, especially when you are about to crest a ridge and fly straight down the other side.
WATCH: Speeding through the sand dunes on a dune buggy
Luckily you’ll get time to catch your breath, stopping a few times for photos and what’s called sand boarding: picture snowboarding but on, well, sand. Tour companies supply the boards, and after a quick tutorial from your driver you can either lie on the board face-first and head down, or attempt to do it standing up. Either way, prepare to get a face full of sand if you have a rough landing! If you can’t get enough of it, you can also rent a board later and sand board to your heart’s desire on your own—of course, you will have to hike back up each time!
WATCH: Sand boarding in Huacachina
It’s highly recommended to book a tour that starts around 4 p.m., so you can cap off the tour by watching the beautiful sunset.
Currency: Peruvian soles (S)
Getting there: Most tourists get to Ica by bus from Lima. Companies like Cruz del Sur offer tickets as low as about $7 each way for the five hour journey. Some also continue on to Cusco, an overnight bus ride that takes about 17 hours and will set you back around $50. Once you get to Ica, it’s easy to catch a cab to Huacachina, and should only cost about 10 soles. Buckle up if you can, as the drivers are downright crazy!
Where to stay: If you’re looking for peace and quiet, Villa Jazmin is a good pick as it boasts large rooms and a beautiful pool tucked away into a residential area of Ica. Of course it is away from the action, so if you’d prefer to be right in Huacachina you might want to head over to El Huacachinero. It also has private rooms and a pool as well as a good restaurant. Rooms at either place cost around $60 per night.
Must do: Make sure you wear sunscreen! It can get extremely hot in Ica, and if you don’t slop some on before hitting the pool or sand dunes you’re sure to pay for it later.
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