The dune buggy revved and growled loudly as it sped up to the crest of the gigantic sand dune, got airborne as it tipped over the ridge and flew back down the other side - all to the screams of fear and delight from its passengers. It looked like something straight out of a Mad Max movie and was a ridiculously fun roller coaster ride on sand!
Huacachina is a desert oasis situated close to the town of Ica, approximately 5 hours drive south of Lima. The oasis consists of a small lagoon surrounded by lush palm trees with just a few streets on either side. It was once a popular spa for wealthy Peruvians, as its waters were thought to have healing powers, but these days the lagoon is little more than a slightly smelly, toxic green coloured water hole filled with artificially pumped water.
But don’t let that deter you from visiting Huacachina, because it’s a truly magical and unique location, surrounded by a vast desert of huge sand dunes. It’s also home to some of the biggest thrills to be found in Peru, with the main attractions being dune buggy rides and sandboarding.
Sunset over the Dunes
On the day we arrived into Huacachina we couldn’t resist climbing the huge sand dune looming behind our hotel. It was a hard slog straight up, with each step your feet sinking deep into the soft hot sand and sliding halfway back down.
We arrived at the top just in time to watch the sunset over the dunes that rolled out as far as the eye could see. The fading light and deep shadows only further accentuated the beauty of the wind sculpted dunes and their sensuous curves.
We booked our 2½ hour dune buggy experience through Desert Adventures Hostel, which included a tour through the surrounding desert, three sandboarding runs and a stop to watch the sunset. There are many other operators offering the same tour for a similar price with several departures throughout the day, but we would recommend choosing the 4pm time slot as the sun is brutal any earlier.
The steel frame dune buggies seat 12 passengers and are equipped with a metal roll bar and 3-point harness system, which offered us some small reassurance that we might survive in the event of an accident. The buggies have been souped up with massive engines and you can hear the beasts bellowing from miles away as they hoon around the desert!
Once we were safely strapped into the dune buggy, our driver gunned the engine, shifted into gear and firmly planted his foot on the gas. Our heads were thrown back by the sudden G-force of his speedy take off and we knew we were in for a wild ride!
As the dune buggy reached the top of one of the gigantic dunes, we shot up over the edge and took flight. The dune fell away beneath us as the engine cut out and the dune buggy’s nose tipped down to reveal a huge drop on the other side. The sudden silence was shattered by 12 murderous screams as we hurtled down the other side. Upon landing, the driver slammed the engine back into gear and we sped across the desert plain towards the next big dipper. As a sly smile crept across the driver's face, we could tell he loved his job!
The following couple of hours were a white knuckled adrenalin rush as we tore through the desert in this gravity defying monster ... wind whistling through our hair, sand whipping our faces and screams filling our ears.
Check out the short clip of our dune buggy ride here …
Carving It up
The tour also included three stops to try our luck at sandboarding at various locations in the desert. The sandboards included were little more than waxed up pieces of wood shaped liked a snowboard with a couple of velcro straps to hang onto for dear life.
For novices like us, it’s not recommended to stand up on these boards but rather lie belly down. However for seasoned snowboarders there is an option to upgrade to a specially adapted snowboard which you can stand up on. The basic sandboards were fine for us and offered the same speed and thrills with less chance of an injury.
On our first dune run we were shown the ropes, as our guide waxed up our boards and helped us into position. Justin was first cab off the rank and turned out to be a natural, flying fast and furious down the slope. Check out his form in the clip below ...
I wasn’t quite as successful and got a bit sideways when one of my feet touched the sand, wiping out in spectacular fashion. I got a face full of sand as I rolled down the hill and wounded my pride, but thankfully I didn’t hurt myself.
Learning from my mistake, on the second run I made a concerted effort to hold my legs out evenly and went screaming like a wild banshee down the steep slope. Now this was seriously fun!
On the third attempt my enthusiasm and confidence were high, until I saw the height of the desert cliff I was about to willingly launch myself off on a homemade piece of wood. I squinted to see people at the bottom of the run appear as small figures in the sand … the drop must have been at least 100m high!
I got into position on the crest of the dune, took a deep breath and as gravity gripped my board I began my daring descent. The sandboard quickly picked up speed and I was soon hurtling down the hill going faster than I ever had before. The dune and time seemed to stretch on forever ... the hot sand barely an inch from my face, kicked up off the board, prickling my skin; my mouth dry from both the wind and screaming my lungs out.
The fear and excitement was an addictive rush and as I held steady on the board, I resisted the urge to use my feet as brakes - one false move could see me eat sand and potentially dislocate a shoulder. I flew fast and far, past the people that seemed so far away, off into the distance and halfway towards the next dune. I promptly set the record for furthest down the dune and won bragging rights for the rest of the day! Check out my moves in the clip below ...
Our driver also made several stops at particularly scenic locations for us to momentarily regain our senses and take photos of the stunning desert landscape.
When the sun grew low in the sky we stopped to watch it sink behind the endless dunes.
In hindsight, although it was risky, our dune buggy and sandboarding adventure was ridiculously fun and we would highly recommend it to any self-respecting thrill seeker.
What to take
It goes without saying that water, sunblock, and sunglasses are essential anytime in the desert. We recommend wearing closed in shoes to prevent burning your feet on the hot sand and you may want to consider a long sleeve tee to avoid sand rash if you take a spill on the sandboard. If you take a camera or Go-Pro, be sure to take it in a protective casing or wrap it in a securely fitted plastic bag. You don’t want sand to get anywhere near your lens or sensor and believe me it gets everywhere!
Where we stayed
Huacachina has earned itself a party-hard reputation amongst backpackers, with pool parties often raging throughout the night. In order to get some sleep and preserve our sanity we opted to spend a bit more and stayed at Hotel El Huacachinero.
Our hotel was positioned on an outside street of the oasis with the dunes at our back gate, although any hotel is centrally positioned in the small oasis. The hotel featured an in-house restaurant and a great pool, which we chilled out in to escape the daytime desert heat.
The rooms were simple but comfortable and fan cooled - at night temperatures can drop off sharply in the desert, so air-conditioning isn’t essential if you have a pool to cool off in during the day.