Imagine you could drive your car without the everyday constraints of traffic laws.
What if there were no other cars? What roads weren’t even necessary? What if you could put the pedal to the floor and just go – with no fear of smashing into any sort of obstacle.
That’s simply the best way I can describe the experience of the dune buggy tours in Huacachina, Peru.
Huacachina is a tiny oasis town about an hour away from Peru’s Pacific coast. The picturesque retreat is home to less than 100 permanent residents, but don’t be fooled, Huacachina isn’t really that quiet, nor serene.
In the daytime, the air is filled with the roars of dune buggy motors. At night, the bustling sounds of hundreds of tourists – mostly young backpackers – echo through the sand canyon. That’s because the surrounding dunes make for the perfect playground for thrill seekers and extreme sport junkies.
Prior to visiting Huacachina, I did a small bit of research to get an idea of what to expect. Many threads and photo galleries online would probably try to convince you that the oasis is smack dab in the middle of the desert. And while the towering sand dunes that envelop the town give the illusion of an endless Tatooine-esque desert, the city of Ica (population 220,000) is only a couple of kilometers away.
Still, despite its large volume of tourists and proximity to modern civilization, Huacachina isn’t without its mystique.
The naturally formed lagoon is shrouded in ancient legend. There’s a tale that describes a native princess bathing and leaving behind the enchanted pool of water. And in the 1940’s, many wealthy Peruvians traveled to the oasis, believing its water had healing powers.
Nowadays, I doubt you’d see many people willing to take a dip in the somewhat murky desert pool. But it’s perfectly suited for a relaxing paddleboat ride.
The real attraction of the Huacachina is its dune buggy tours and sand boarding. Several companies offer tours, which are usually booked through a hostel or tour company (PeruHop). Most tours last approximately three hours.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, the buggy tour is a must. With an experienced driver behind the wheel and up to nine passengers on board, you’ll zip up and down massive mountains of sand all the while taking in the surreal landscapes of the Peruvian desert.
Most buggies make stops at certain viewpoints to allow passengers to take photos and catch their breath.
Seeing the deep orange rays from the sunset casting a glow across the golden sands was truly one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes I’ve ever seen. After you’ve filled your memory card full of selfies and landscape photography, you’ll get right back on the buggy for another round of thrills.
My party’s driver was a bit of a show off. He whipped the backend around through the sand, doing his best impression of a Tokyo drifter. He drove us up nearly vertical peaks before idling at the precipice of a given dune. Our stomachs were lifted into our chests as we plummeted down the steepest slopes while screams – some of joy, some of fear – drowned out the sound of the rumbling motor.
Finally, our driver parked near the peak of one of the highest visible dunes and began to distribute sand boards.
Before booking the tour, I was very much looking forward to trying my luck at sand boarding. After all, I’ve had plenty of experience on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains and expected the skill set to translate. But I learned quickly enough that sand isn’t snow.
The physics are more or less the same – shifting balance between toe and heel to “carve” through the slope. However, the restraints and boots on a snowboard give you near complete control, while the flimsy sand board straps didn’t allow for much range in motion.
Most people opt to ride down the slopes either lying or sitting on their boards. I, however, chose to test my luck standing up. I paid for it. After wiping out and tumbling down the first two slopes, I successfully made it down the final run without busting my ass once.
I’d call it a victory.
For those who wish to try sand boarding but aren’t inclined for the buggy thrill ride, companies give tourists the option of renting a board and walking up the dunes.
After spending enough time navigating the desert sands, a shower and a meal are a must. You can try to get all the sand out of your clothes and your body, but chances are, you’ll be finding it in your backpack (and your ears and nose) for days.
Huacachina isn’t exactly known for its fine dining. Most visitors are probably best off grabbing a hot meal at their hostel/hotel, or grabbing some snacks or fast food from a vendor.
My party and I got roped into a deal at a local barbeque joint that offered an “all you can drink for an hour” deal, which was a pretty good setup. I would recommend the restaurant if I could remember its name. But for obvious reasons, my memory of this particular night is a bit hazy.
We realized our hour was almost up after trying to stuff down a massive plate of grilled meat and potatoes for 45 minutes. At that point, we tried to down as much cheap rum, vodka or pisco – Peru’s (disgusting) national liquor as possible. We were even treated to a round of shots and drinking games by the local chef.
Huacachina is a must-visit if for young backpackers, or thrill seekers of any age. If you were hoping for a relaxing getaway and an upscale affair at America’s last oasis, you’re more likely to find a mirage. But if you tremble with energy, excitement and a thirst for adventure, you’ll find it in the warm sands of the Peruvian desert.
Also published on Medium.