Huacachina, the second stop on the journey from Lima to Cusco with Peru Hop (don’t miss my review), turned out to be such a cool town that we decided to stay for four days – and would have stayed longer if we hadn’t had to reach Cusco in time for our pre-booked Inca Jungle Trek.
It’s a tiny town of a few hostels, hotels and restaurants clustered around a large oasis in the centre of the desert, and surrounded by staggeringly high sand dunes.
Although only a few minute’s drive from the nearby desert town of Ica, Huacachina feels totally isolated thanks to the endless, monotone landscape of yellow sand, and this isolation, plus all the awesome activities available in the dunes, gives the town a really cool, chilled out vibe.
Vibe and surreal beauty aside, tourists and Peruvians alike come to Huacachina for one main thing: sandboarding.
An irresistibly cool, amazingly fun extreme sport that mimics snowboarding, sandboarding is something that you just have to try. Even if, like me, you have a fear of heights, are super clumsy, and have terrible balance, you have to strap your feet to that board just once and give it a try!
Which is exactly what I did! At about half four on our second day in Huacachina, the street outside our hostel was filled with the noise of roaring and rumbling, as dozens of open-sided, jeep-style vehicles known as dune buggies revved their engines and collected passengers for a desert trip.
Seven of us bundled into a scratched, scuffed dune buggy, strapped ourselves in, and with an enormous roar we raced to the edge of town and straight into the dunes.
Luckily – or unluckily, depending how you look at it – we had picked a buggy with one of the crazier drivers. All of them like to throw the buggies around the dunes, roller-coaster style, but our driver took speeding to the next level.
My bum was on the seat for only about half of the journey, and my heart was in my mouth for all of it; we leapt off the top of dunes – flying for a few feet before crashing back into the sand – spun around corners, raced along at 60-degree angles, and basically bounced, swung and flew across the steep sand dunes. It was amazing!
After about ten minutes of the super-fast, bumpy and insanely fun buggy ride, we stopped at the top of an alarmingly high dune for our first spot of sandboarding.
Our driver handed out the boards, exactly like plastic snowboards with Velcro straps for our feet, and we waxed them down and strapped them on. Which, at the skinny peak of a high, steep sand dune, is incredibly difficult; it’s very hard to get both feet on the board before you start sliding down.
Heights are one of the things I struggle with most – especially annoying because until a few years ago, I was never afraid of them – and as soon as I peeped over the edge of the dune from my poorly balanced position on the slippery board, I baulked.
My knees were shaking, my stomach was in knots, and I knew I couldn’t face it. Watching the people go before me didn’t make it any easier, as one by one they all ended up spinning in the sand or falling on their bums.
Instead, I opted for the slightly less cool, but possibly more fun, way down; on my front. Lying down on the board, gripping the straps for dear life, I hurtled down the dune face-first at an incredible speed.
It was horrifyingly scary, but also a huge adrenaline rush and, almost surprisingly, fun! In fact, after an initial blood-curdling scream and a few choice words I’m not proud of, I actually loved it!
After the first dune, we stopped four more times. The second and third dunes were smaller and not quite as steep as the first, so I attempted these standing up, with results that were, for onlookers at least, incredibly funny.
Just once I managed to make it all the way down the smallest slope (about six foot high) without falling over, and of course, that was the only time absolutely no one was watching.
Sandboarding standing up is a talent that is beyond my unbalanced body’s poor athletic capabilities, and besides, lying down is faster, less risky and therefore much more fun – so I took on the last two dunes face-first.
The experience is amazing, hurtling towards the earth so quickly you barely have time to think, and we all finished the evening on an absolute high – especially after the return journey by dune buggy.
In fact, we loved the experience so much that the next day we rented boards again and headed out into the dunes alone.
Initially, Sam and I attempted this at about 10:30am, but the desert sun was so intense we could hardly move, and the sand was burning my feet through my shoes and socks, so we retreated to our hostel pool and returned with a group of friends that evening.
After another embarrassingly bad attempt at standing up, I embraced my true calling and lay down on the board – although I spent more time watching the sunset, which was absolutely gorgeous, than boarding.
Every evening, the yellow dunes turn gold under a brilliant pink and peach sky, beautifully lit by the sun’s rays. The spectacle is incredible, and best viewed from the peak of one of the taller dunes above Huacachina.
Those two adrenaline-filled days in Huacachina were among my favourite from our six weeks in Peru.
Although I can’t expect to be a national sandboarding champion any time soon, the feeling of elation from facing what is, for me, a very big and very debilitating fear, was amazing, not to mention that the whole experience was enormous fun and a total rush!